The UK parliamentary system and its elections seem bizarre to us sometimes. But the comeback of Labour fueled by voters' totally having had it with austerity and with the rule of the banker-backed privileged class rings true to us. As PM blogger Dylan Shelton shows, it echoes the Sanders campaign and lets us know that working peoples' demands cannot be safely ignored by even the most secure-feeling politicians.
/By Dylan Shelton/ The UK Labour party, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, won a resounding victory in last week’s UK General Election. Of course, this is hyperbole; Tories still hold the most number of seats and will do everything in their power to generate and propose policies detrimental to the UK working class. Currently, there is talk of a coalition between Conservatives and the arch-reactionary Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. And of course City of London remains a major hub of international finance capital.
But before the election, and ever since the rise of Corbyn to a leadership position, the media, Tories, fanatically out of touch celebrities and political consultants, and other critics, including President Obama, all counted on Labour to fall into obscurity. Their surge is a victory that provides a guiding light for others to follow, especially for an America under the darkness of Trump. By cataloguing Labour’s successes under Corbyn, we can come to terms with where our movement for social justice and social democracy falls short and how to form an unapologetically left opposition to fear and low-expectations proffered by the Republicans.
Corbyn is by far one of the most progressive leaders of Labour in decades, coming out of a tradition of activism and protest on issues of war, apartheid, and labor rights. This puts him in direct opposition to the Blair-Browne tradition of New Labour which entailed international policies of Middle Eastern conflict and domestic policies that sided with the business class and austerity over the working class and living conditions (Gordon Brown even notoriously became the perhaps first Labour leader to invent not a working class background, but a business class one).
Corbyn’s departure from the neoliberal norm made him a target of the liberal establishment on both sides of the Atlantic. He was subjected to vicious smear campaigns by the media, faced coup attempts and warrantless criticisms from within his own party. Nevertheless, he persisted. When Theresa May first called the snap elections in April of this year, Labour was down between 20-25%. Rather than take the suggestion of their critics and move to the center, Labour went further left and closed the gap to 8% in fifty days, winning 31 seats while the Conservatives lost 12 in an election originally intended to bolster the Tory mandate for Brexit.
The election saw one of the highest turnouts in 25 years and a sharp increase of youth turnout. Almost 70% of young voters between 18-24 years old turned out for Labour, and the party got the largest increase in its share of the vote since 1945. It was also the first time they gained seats since Blair’s first election in 1997. If that weren’t enough, they even ousted Conservatives from places they’d held for over 100 years.
What prompted this unexpected surge? One possibility is the pollsters and media, not entering 2017 with the greatest of track records when it comes to predicting election outcomes, once again took the numbers as inevitable and unquestionable. The people didn’t think the numbers condemned them, and if they did, they chose not to care. Plagued by neoliberal austerity, suffering decades of class war perpetrated by the rich onto everyone else, voters sought retaliation through Labour’s policies and Corbyn’s class-antagonistic rhetoric.
In speeches, Corbyn challenged the notion that the people must suffer for the sake of the rich and that the rules of political commenters or horse-race pollsters decide who should win and not the people organized together. Labour’s entire slogan, “For the Many, Not the Few”, echoes Occupy Wall Street’s “99%” rhetoric.
But it wasn’t just Corbyn’s words that developed Labour. The manifesto of the party is a return to a socialist tendency that was absent during the Blair-Brown years. The manifesto outlined a number of goals; some notable ones are detailed below:
- Ban fracking in the United Kingdom, create public or cooperative energy suppliers, make sure 60% of the UK’s energy comes from zero-carbon or renewable sources by 2030, and insulate 4 million homes from the cold
- Raise taxes for the top 5% of earners, raise the corporate income tax on large corporations, create public banks aimed at community growth, put barriers between investment and retail banking (ie: a UK Glass-Steagall Act)
- Reverse Tory cuts to schools, free school meals for all primary school children (paid for by removing VAT exemption on private school fees), free college, increase teacher pay, introduce free Further Education colleges for workforce re-training
- Raise the Minimum Wage to a Living Wage by 2020, ban unpaid internships, enforce workers’ rights to unionize, double paid parental leave, protections against workplace harassment and discrimination,
- £30 billion in funding for the National Health Service taken out of tax revenue on the top 5% of earners, reverse healthcare privatization, lay foundations for National Care Service for the elderly and disabled, reverse cuts to mental health services
This manifesto goes on to include changes to foreign policy, includes protections and new programs for women, LGBTQ, and disabled peoples, revitalize communities and re-nationalize the railroads. It puts forward a radical proposal to allow workers to buy and own the company they work for with state assistance, essentially state-supported worker cooperatives. In short, it is a resounding refusal of austerity, bigotry, xenophobia, liberal meritocracy, and acceptance of the public good, housing, the environment and material improvements to people’s lives.
And finally there were the people themselves. People who gathered for perhaps the largest rallies in recent UK history, broadcasted simultaneously across multiple cities. Kids took to the Internet and Corbyn memes proliferated. Veteran campaigners for Labour saw an enormous growth in people willing to volunteer. And in the places like Canterbury, where no Labour MP had ever won, greenhorn campaigners like Hana Joy brought a message of hope:
“I spoke with veterans who had always voted Tory and yet were left uncared for after serving their country. I spoke with the disabled and elderly, who were seeing their hard earned livelihoods stripped away and the threat of more cuts and the loss of their homes, terrifying them. I spoke with young families struggling to make ends meet whilst working really hard to keep their heads above water. Women sidelined at pension time, left struggling to find work and reinvent themselves in a job market harsh to the more experienced…With the media assumption at the beginning of the election run up that a Tory landslide was a foregone conclusion, for people to see these boards [of borough voting intentions] countered the lie that Labour were unelectable here.”
The Labour Party that surged in the general election is not the social-democratic party of post-war Europe, a party that seeks to mitigate the worst of capitalist exploitation by triangulating between labor, business and the state. This new Labour party is a social democratic party that believes in something beyond the dreary inevitability of fear and despair proposed by Tories. They see people mobilized from the bottom as the beginning of a left vision. While there is a coalition being cobbled together by the Conservatives and DUP, their position of power has never been more precarious and Labour has never been more prepared to be the opposition.
In the country where neoliberalism found its most outspoken proponent, where Margaret Thatcher once proclaimed that, “there is no alternative”, Jeremy Corbyn has shown another world is possible, a world for the many, not the few.
With the examples of the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns plainly demonstrating the value of a pro-people, pro-worker model of governance, we shouldn’t hold back from demanding that world they pictured for us.
Dylan Shelton is a Montgomery County activist and member of the Progressive Maryland Economic Security Team.