December 22, 2019

Britain: Ambivalent Labour lost the elections

Harsev Bains

IN the General Elections held on December 12 in Britain, ruling Tory party has increased its vote share and secured a huge majority. Out of 650, the Tories under Boris Johnson have won 364 seats providing them with a 78 majority, compared to the Labour Party reduced to 203 MP’s in the House of Commons (Lower House).

How or why it happened, after the opposition itself agreed to an early election? This is a question that will continue to be debated.

Surely, it was more than just Brexit (UK decision to leave the European Union) as decision by a 51 per cent to 49 per cent in a referendum during 2016. The referendum was called by David Cameron as PM to appease the Euro sceptics in his Party.

The timing, the first British General Elections in December since 1923, resulted in the same outcome, a defeat for the Labour Party.

The day and date, traditionally elections in Britain are held on a Thursday to cause minimum disruption to civil servants, overseeing the electoral process. Labour Party which had won a large number of seats in University towns with students support was opposed to the idea and wanted the elections three days earlier on Monday, December 9th. This would have allowed large sections of students to vote for Labour before they left for their semester breaks.

The leadership of the Labour Party had delayed the decision to call for an earlier election to remove the options of a ‘no deal’ (openly recommended by Donald Trump, President of USA) or the UK crashing out of the European Union under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and in an attempt to frustrate the previous Prime Minister, Theresa May and her deal to leave the EU. 

The conflict of opinion within Labour’s own leadership and membership to remain or leave the EU became deeply embedded. The Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, who opposed the EU project and the supporter of ‘Leave’ was diametrically opposed to those that wished to remain. As the election drew nearer Corbyn’s position of projecting neutrality as a statesman on the single question that had divided communities and families became untenable.

The media, seized upon this weakness. Sky News, even branded it as ‘The Brexit Election’; this was legally challenged by Labour with no success. Jeremy Corbyn was invited in head to head debates with the incumbent Manhattan USA born Boris Johnson on prime time TV. 

Jeremy made himself available for interviews with ferociously biased journalists, critical of his progressive policies, his support to struggles for freedom and democracy. And most bizarrely the Jewish Board of deputies led by the Chief Rabbi, a close friend of the Tory Party intervened during the elections and accused Jeremy Corbyn of anti- Semitism. They conveniently ignored the consistent defence of the Jewish people in Britain by the Labour Party from the racists and fascists.

Not to be outdone, the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) and its hard-core ideological organisation Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, UK (RSS equivalent) also weighed in behind the Tories. What was their gripe? Jeremy Corbyn’ non-attendance at the Modi visit to Wembley in London, not selecting enough Hindu’s as prospective candidates, allowing an emergency resolution to be passed on Kashmir at the Labour Party Conference. The resolution was not accepted as policy or included in the election manifesto. 

This was the first time, that there were direct interventions by religious or external political organisations in British politics. One wonders how people in India would have reacted to such acts.

Given the divisive communalisation of the election campaign, the Indian Workers’ Association GB established over 80 years ago as a secular democratic organisation, entered the fray.

IWA welcomed the inclusion of three demands in the manifesto; a formal unequivocal apology for the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, teaching of British Colonial history and the investigation into Britain’s role in Amritsar in 1984.

IWA challenged the promoters of divisive hindutva and their class ideology. For years these opportunists have benefited as members of the Labour Party, got elected as councillors of municipalities, drawing salaries of 15-30 lakh rupees per annum, with political influence and recognition.

The IWA which stands for the unity and integrity of India provided the true narrative on Kashmir based on the reports in People’s Democracy of factual accounts of the ground reality and not just the Modi- Shah propaganda.

During the election campaign, it became obvious, that the Tory electoral machine was employing similar tactics to Trump in USA and Modi in India. The serial liar, Boris Johnson used the simple slogan of reciting three words over and over again “Get Brexit Done”. It was reminiscent of “Make America Great Again” “Is baar Modhi Sarkar” or “Ache Din”. In this age of twitter, limited to 160 characters, people are being cultured and tuned into decreasing shorter sound bites.

Labour Party leadership tried time and time again to bring the discussion back to policies effecting people’s lives without any resonance. Even the detailed documents highlighting the sale of NHS services and products to US companies were denied as fake news. A documentary made by the legendary John Pilger which would have further exposed the secret negotiations was banned from being aired before the elections.

Labour Party’s manifesto the star of the previous General Elections was check mated by the Tories. This time the Tories were prepared. Both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were subjected to media attacks as “Marxists”, who in their view wanted to take Britain backwards. The social democratic policies placed in the manifesto were considered too radical and revolutionary by the ruling elite. A number of key policies on public spending were ripped from the manifesto and paraded as Tory commitments.

History teaches us many things, to learn from the past to understand the present and influence the future. The project by the labour movement stalled as it failed in its trust of the people. The Labour Party allowed itself to be influenced by the neo-liberal Tony Blair, former Labour PM, who constantly ill advised the Parliamentary Labour Party and the rank and file to seek a second referendum on Brexit.  Blair totally ignored the fact that the British people had been asked to make a choice in 2016 and had provided their verdict.

This was how the Morning Star the daily newspaper of the Left described the Brexit impact:

“Labour was warned that this approach would be disastrous in the two-thirds of British constituencies that voted to leave the EU in 2016; tragically, some of those who sounded that warning are among MPs who lost their seats in Thursday’s terrible rout, and include some of the most impressive socialists in the country.

Journalists determined to pin the blame on Corbyn (backed up by long-term enemies of the leader like Alastair Campbell, who was heavily involved in campaigns to drive Labour towards a ‘Remain’ position) ignore the fact that Labour’s leader was the first to call for Article 50 to be triggered after the referendum result in 2016, and long resisted the efforts to trap his party in a Remain box. Had Labour paid more attention to its leader, it might not have suffered such devastating losses this week. Labour’s collapse was overwhelmingly in Leave-voting areas.

The Brexit vote was above all a vote against the Establishment, against the status quo, and it was a simple, two-option question with a very clear answer.

The refusal of the political class to accept that answer was clearly the final straw, and engendered the bizarre illusion that an Eton-educated Tory offering more of the same policies we have seen for a decade was the “anti-Establishment” candidate.

There is a strong risk, with swathes of traditionally Labour constituencies going blue that England and Wales could move towards a “culture war” politics akin to that of the United States.

The eclipse of class politics by the identities of nationalism and unionism in Scotland is a step along that road, though the support for genuine social and economic change among many independence-backing Scots should not be underestimated even if it is not reflected in SNP policy.

Labour’s vote share was higher than in 2010. This cannot mask how comprehensively it has been beaten, but it is important because it can inform strategies to resist the savage attacks on working-class people we know will be in the pipeline now Boris Johnson has a large parliamentary majority.

We head into the winter with soaring homelessness, rising child poverty, under funded public services threatened with further fragmentation and privatisation.

Britain is a country of hungry children and cold, isolated pensioners. It has a government which marginalises and abuses disabled people, scapegoats and mistreats refugees.

These people need solidarity and practical help. Community organising is our first responsibility, and may lay the groundwork for building a more resilient and stronger Left.”

In the constituencies where the IWA had a good presence, Labour attained a measure of success.  But it was not enough. However, it has restored people’s faith and belief in the idea and the proposition that is the Indian Workers’ Association, GB.  For our struggles ahead the unity of the Indian diaspora in its many component parts and manifestations is indispensable.