Better off with Labour – Labour’s need for a strategic approach

By Jude Woodward

The political situation

It is now a relatively short time before the May elections, which will be widely taken as the next key test of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party that can be foreseen in advance. It will not be possible to ‘cheat’ this. Therefore, in order to prepare, it is crucial to have a strictly objective assessment of what are the achievements since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, problems that must be faced, and the conclusions which follow.

A key positive feature is that very effective Labour negative campaigning attacking the Tories has been carried out. A significant real victory was won on tax credits. Very effective discrediting of the Tories on the Google tax deal was achieved. These damaged Tory standing. This contrasts sharply with the damaging capitulation on tax credits and austerity that was being promoted before Jeremy Corbyn’s election. By this a real start has also been made on shifting the terms of economic debate from unquestioned acceptance of austerity – a framework which was not only wrong economically but was politically one in which the Tories inevitably won as they set the terms of the discussion. As the rule of elections is that the party which sets the agenda wins the election these are vital political starts for Labour.

The problem is that negative campaigning by itself is not enough to build support for Labour. It should never be forgotten that the capitalist class exercises its hegemony not only by dominating the government but by dominating the opposition was well. As long as the Blairites or Ed Miliband ran Labour the job of controlling the opposition was satisfactorily achieved for capital. But a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Party is not in the control of capital.

In these circumstances the preferable step for capital would be a ‘coup’ to remove Corbyn and restore control of Labour’s leadership by capital. But in case that is not possible in the short run suitable fake alternatives to the Tories outside Labour must be created which can be built up by capital. There is no contradiction in this tactic to the key strategic one of restoring capital’s control of Labour as success for such fake anti-Tory alternatives can be used to help prepare an anti-Corbyn coup within the Labour Party – this is the campaign mounted every day in the Tory media declaring that to ‘save Labour’ (actually to ‘save capital’) the Labour party’s membership choice of leader must be overruled by any means which will achieve this.

Building up fake alternatives to the Tories

The first of such fake alternatives to Tory policy was UKIP. Some sections of capital, reflected in media such as the Daily Telegraph, deluded by their own racist prejudices, believed that ‘authentic working class voters’ would desert Labour to flock to a racist banner. Previous capitulations to racism by Labour leaders, by attempting to portray itself as ‘tougher on immigration’ than the Tories, encouraged the view that Labour acceptance of a racist policy agenda would open the door to UKIP. This strategy, however, suffered a significant blow at the Oldham by-election. During this the Labour leadership, and to give him his due the Blairite Labour candidate Jim McMahon, refused to concede an inch on racism, concentrated on Labour’s economic and social issues, and trounced UKIP. While UKIP will be kept in reserve by capital there is no confidence at present it can crack open Labour’s electoral support.

In Scotland the situation is under control for capital as although the SNP on many social and international issues is to the left of Labour its economic policy remains staunchly pro-capitalist. Furthermore, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has not yet had time to determine Labour’s policy in Scotland and prise apart the contradictions between the SNP’s left oriented base and its pro-capitalist economic policy. The first major initiative the Labour right led Labour Party in Scotland has taken, to propose to raise the standard rate of income tax by 1p, goes in exactly the wrong direction – making ordinary voters worse off. This is why John McDonnell has, correctly, rejected any rise in the standard rate of income tax for Britain – while simultaneously correctly promising to reinstate the 50p top rate of income tax on the very high paid.

Given the ineffectualness of Labour in Scotland no rapid Labour breakthrough will be achieved – a satisfactory situation for capital. But, by its nature, while the SNP can operate effectively in Scotland it cannot take votes in England where the majority of the electorate lies. Therefore, capital has to work out a policy to have a suitable fake opposition in England and Wales.

The clear candidate being groomed for use in this, particularly in the South of England, is the Lib-Dems. No Labour politician should be fooled by the fact that for tactical reasons at the last General Election capitalist and Tory tactics were primarily focussed on electorally crushing the Lib-Dems – in which they were extremely effective. If a pro-Tory Lib-Dem faker such as Nick Clegg was useful in one situation for capital an anti-Tory Lib-Dem faker can be useful in another.

In the same way that the articles praising the ‘historic speech’ of Hilary Benn on Syria could be written for the Tory media well before he gave it so potential articles praising the ‘unexpected ability of Tim Farron to speak for ordinary people’ are already being prepared. After all, if the banalities of H Benn could be presented as significant, then if Farron can present some vacuous phrase along such lines as ‘Lib-Dems are definitely for good and definitely against evil’ this can be presented as a ‘decisive strategic thinking’ and ‘plain talking for ordinary people.’ People will be surprised how quickly with the support of the Tory media the Lib-Dems in parts of the country can ‘rise from the dead.’

In short at present capital is working out how to control not only the government but to create a fake opposition. Work on this has to be speeded up as the slowing global and British economies threatens to weaken Tory support. This situation is why even Labour real successes in negative campaigning against the Tories by themselves will not necessarily succeed in very sharply raising Labour’s support – a decline in Tory support could go to other parties. Labour can only decisively build its own support by positive campaigning for its own solutions.

Labour’s central strategy

It is here that weakness as yet continues for Labour. A central positive strategy/project for Labour has not yet been clearly defined and publicised. Individual negative policy successes are not enough for Labour unless a coherent central strategy, a ‘consistent narrative’ to use ‘campaign speak,’ is projected – or ‘hegemony’ and ‘setting the terms of the debate’ to use a Marxist framework. There are of course detailed individual policies required, and it is useful to test precise slogans by professional means (polling companies, advertising agencies etc.), but it is also necessary to understand the fundamental historic trajectory of the situation – and what a Corbyn led government can achieve. Professional advisers can be genuinely useful on techniques – but the fundamental political strategy and framework has to come from Labour itself.

Desirable as it would be to have a 100% socialist Corbyn government, that is one that replaced capitalism with socialism, it is neither objectively possible in the present situation nor therefore subjectively desired by the electorate. What is objectively required are left reforms – therefore the central orienting strategy and slogans must correspond to this. Consequently, it is necessary to understand what can be achieved – which also means understanding why Jeremy Corbyn came to lead the Labour Party and what are the real strengths and limitations of his position in relation to the electorate.

Jeremy Corbyn was elected by several hundred thousand people who are motivated by numerous general progressive issues in society – the economy, opposition to war, opposition to racism, opposition to the oppression of women, concern for the environment. They are an enormous number of people compared to existing socialist currents – one of the key reasons Jeremy Corbyn’s election was a truly historic breakthrough in British politics. But it is small number compared to the mass of the population or the numbers required to win an election. The dynamics of the mass of the population are determined not by such general concerns but by their direct interests and the overall historic trajectory of British society.

The trajectory of British society

Until the middle of the 19th century, that is until the defeat of Chartism, the British working class movement was the most progressive mass one in the world. But from the middle of the 19th century it was derailed by the growth of British imperialism – by means of a political policy consciously created by key capitalist strategists such as Disraeli and those following him. The ‘deal’ these proposed to the working class was simple – ‘your living standard will rise, Britain will attack foreigners sometimes in alliance with others, and there will be domestic racism (against Irish, Jews, West Indians. Muslims etc.).’ For essentially 150 years this deal was accepted by the mass of the working class – the reforming government of 1945 greatly improved domestic living standards but was a craven tool of US and British imperialisms’ projects such as NATO internationally.

The problem, particularly exacerbated since the 2008 financial crisis, is that British imperialism cannot afford this deal anymore. Its proposed ‘new deal’ to the working class, embodied in the Tory Party, is ‘Britain will attack foreign states, there will be domestic racism, and you will be worse off due to austerity’. A large part of the working class does not accept this change in the framework of capital’s deal. Instead it sees a potential new deal is proposed by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party which is that: ‘Britain will not attack foreign states, there will not be racism, and you will be better off because austerity will be rejected.’

But given the historical trajectory of British society it is vital to be clear that as yet the many million mass of the population (unlike the few hundred thousand who voted for Jeremy Corbyn) does not support Corbyn because of its opposition to racism, or its opposition to attacks on foreign countries, but in a substantial number of cases despite these policies. But millions will go along with opposition to racism, opposition to imperialist wars etc. because of Corbyn’s most central promise that you will be better off with our anti-austerity policies, whereas the Tories austerity will make you worse off. In other words, they want the promise and reality that ‘you will be better off with Labour’.

This strategically also means that Labour’s economic policy is not simply one policy among many but the key to its whole system of potential social alliances. The mass of the working class will accept, and increasingly adopt, opposition to imperialist war, opposition to imperialism, if it believes and accepts the central economic pledge that ‘you will be better off with Labour’. If it does not believe it will be ‘better off with Labour’ it will not accept the anti-racism, anti-imperialist and other progressive pledges.

The central strategy

It is therefore this which also determines what must tie together Labour’s overall positive strategy – around which all its other component policies must be arranged. Such policies must include creation of a National Investment Bank as a key to promoting investment and economic growth; a budget not borrowing for current consumption over the course of the business cycle but being prepared to borrow for capital investment; a reversal of damaging privatisation in the NHS; a mass house-building programme; creation of extra resources for the budget by reintroducing the 50p top rate of income tax but no increase in the standard rate; a large scale investment programme in transport and communications infrastructure and green energy; continued firm opposition to racism, and many other precise policies.

But these must be tied together with a central strategy and slogan expressing this. This must be the central pledge ‘you will be better off with Labour’. Once this approach is taken the other individual policies will fall into place. Without such a central strategic approach Labour will not gain sufficiently decisively from individual excellent campaigning.

The Labour Party has the professional resources to test the exact best forms of words and slogans – although ‘Better off with Labour’ is not bad itself. But this central strategy of ‘better off with Labour’ is what is required to build the strategy for positive support for Labour. It is this which will tie together all the individual policies.