By Robin Jackson
Labour achieved a huge success at the election because it stuck firmly to focusing on how to improve people’s living standards – as was analysed here before the election in Why the Corbyn campaign is so effective. This follows the fundamental rule of elections that the party which sets the agenda advances. By focusing the campaign on opposition to austerity, by an explicit pledge on the triple lock for pensioners, on re-nationalisation of the railways, on abolition of tuition fees and numerous other progressive measures Labour focused the agenda clearly on defence of living standards. It was this which produced the sharp increase in turnout at this election – the cornerstone of Labour’s success.
As a result of this agenda setting by Labour, the Tories in reality went down to a crushing defeat. It is entirely in line with this that the first poll taken since the election showed Labour support rising to 45 per cent and the Tories falling further to 39 per cent. As a result the Tories are desperate to avoid another election. That is why they are prepared to enter into an agreement with the ultra-reactionary Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) even although it is clear it will further ‘toxify’ the Tory brand. Therefore Jeremy Corbyn is totally right to call for another election as soon as possible – not merely from the point of view of the interests of the Labour Party but to head off such a reactionary government.
What would have happened had the alternative to Corbyn advocated by the Labour right been running the campaign was shown almost simultaneously in the crushing defeat of the French Socialist Party – which was ruthlessly punished by the French electorate at both Presidential and parliamentary elections for its implementation of austerity in government.
Difficult issues were also handled correctly in the Manifesto. Trident is a colossal waste of money, and is not ‘independent’ to the slightest degree, while spending two percent of GDP on military spending is also a huge waste of resources. But the population is unclear on these issues and the majority believe they are necessary to Britain’s ‘defence’. Moreover, although these both constitute a waste of money, the most crucial issue is to oppose British involvement in real wars such as Syria, or Iraq. On this Jeremy Corbyn has been totally clear and firm, and he has the support of the majority of the population, which have drawn a lesson from these wars that they do not bring international stability and do make Britain less safe. Confronted with real wars, the issues are posed far more clearly than abstract rhetoric and hysteria the mass media whips up on Trident and arms spending. Therefore, the compromise in the Manifesto to accept Trident and military spending while opposing real wars was a necessary and correct one.
Other aspects of Labour’s campaign were also brilliant – the use made of social media, the day to day choices on the issues to raise. But it was the political agenda setting that gave the coherence to and was the key to everything else.
It is therefore crucial that Labour follows the same principle in what will increasingly dominate the next period in politics – the negotiations with the EU.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour remains the most central divide in British politics
The most central question in British politics, and in defending living standards, was and remains to maintain Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Corbyn’s is the only leadership opposed to austerity and attacks on living standards in all forms. All the Lib Dems and Labour right want to do is to have a ‘Euro-austerity’, that is a reduction in living standards while remaining within the EU, rather than a ‘Brexit austerity’. That is why maintaining Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party was, and remains, the most important issue.
And there should be no illusion that the ruling class or the Labour right will give up their attacks on Corbyn. In fact, if Labour continues to campaign against austerity and to defend living standards, it is very probable that it would now win the next election, precisely because living standards will continue to fall due to the impact of the moves towards Brexit and austerity. This makes it even more important for the ruling class to find ways to undermine Corbyn.
In addition to continuing direct slanderous attacks on Corbyn, attempts will also be made to build up the Lib-Dems to prevent Labour winning an overall majority.
Of course, temporarily the Labour right will not dare to act openly against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, after the demonstration of the success of his strategy and politics. But the right will try to operate behind the scenes, in Labour internal elections, demanding places and changed policies in the Shadow Cabinet, in attempted rule changes, and by every covert means. To use the framework of Gramsci, having been defeated in a frontal assault on Corbyn the right will now turn to a war of position to chip away at his position.
The fight to defend living standards
Turning to the key economic issue which will dominate British politics in the next period – the ‘Brexit’ negotiations – if Britain leaves the European Single Market and its European trade faces tariff barriers the result will be a further major fall in living standards. People will get poorer. This is already happening. The consumer prices index has been steadily increasing since the Brexit vote a year ago and the sharp fall in the exchange rate of the pound it inevitably precipitated; inflation was 0.3 per cent in May 2016, a month before the EU referendum. In May 2017 by contrast UK inflation jumped to a four-year high of 2.9 per cent. This means a continued fall in living standards, as wages are not keeping up; wages rose only 2.1 per cent year on year in the three months to March. Inflation is predicted to rise further in the coming months. This pressure on living standards will become far worse with the job losses, particularly in manufacturing and finance, which will result from the tariffs created by exit from the Single Market.
The only reason anyone gives for wanting to exit the Single Market in present circumstances is to stop immigration – that is freedom of movement. This is entirely due to racism, because the arguments that freedom of movement undermines wages or is economically damaging are quite false. No evidence can be presented for such positions; indeed reducing immigration will do economic harm. Opposing freedom of movement is the only real content of the misleading slogan of ‘taking back control’, which really only means taking back control of our borders against EU migration. Thus it is the issue of immigration that poses the choice point blank. Britain can either be poor and racist, by exiting the Single Market, or it can be better off, both in terms of living standards and jobs, by remaining in the Single Market – which will mean accepting freedom of movement.
Some, including in the Labour Party, still imagine that tariff free access to the European Single Market can be gained while ending freedom of movement. But that won’t happen. The whole point about the Single Market is that it is a unified market and employment, that is labour, is the biggest single market within it. That is why the EU countries, led by Germany, entirely logically and correctly state that to have access to the Single Market freedom of movement must be maintained – as it is with Switzerland and Norway, who are not members of the EU but do have tariff free access to the Single Market, or even only limited access in Switzerland’s case.
Those who want tariff free access to the Single Market but restrictions on freedom of movement won’t get it. It would throw sand in the machine of the Single Market itself. The narrative that the EU will seek to ‘punish’ Britain by insisting on free movement as the price for staying in the Single Market is quite false, because the EU cannot possibly agree to it.
Therefore anyone arguing that the bottom line is stopping immigration, that is ending freedom of movement, will have to accept being out of the Single Market, and would therefore condemn the British people to be poorer to meet a purely racist objective. That is why the choice will not be avoided: Britain can be poor and racist or better off and non-racist.
Nor should there be the illusion that, in present circumstances, if Britain exits from the Single Market living standards can be protected by other measures, for example by an ‘industrial policy’ or simply ‘opposing cuts’. The fall in living standards caused by inflation resulting from the decline in the exchange rate of the pound, coupled with the loss of jobs that would come from having to pay tariffs, would overwhelm the impact of these other policies.
That is why that hard and simple choice on access to the Single Market or abandoning freedom of movement and leaving the Single Market cannot be avoided. Thus concretely, opposition to racism is not only correct in principle it is also the way to defend living standards.
Agenda setting is key
This is also crucial as it will affect the ability of Labour to continue to set the agenda. If Labour rightly sticks to the issue that there must be tariff free access to the European Single Market it will maintain an agenda that the key issue is to defend living standards – both real wages and jobs. If Labour instead moved to an agenda that ending freedom of movement was the important issue, and therefore the European Single Market must be abandoned, this would mean conceding to racism even though it will undermine living standards and make people poorer. By thus making immigration controls and racism the key point of Labour’s agenda, the effect would be to begin to break the dynamic that led to the success at this general election.
Even at the level of holding together its existing vote, such a policy would have a negative impact. Labour had a huge success at this election due to the massive turn out of young people. But also in London and many other crucial areas there was a very high turnout of black and ethnic community voters. This was because at this election, in contrast to 2015, Labour did not make concessions to racism on immigration. If Labour were to make any concessions to racism on immigration it will break up that mobilisation of the black and ethnic voters. Opposition to racism is not only principled politics it is practical politics.
The choice will become clear
At present the realities of this choice on the Single Market and freedom of movement are not fully understood in population or in the Labour Party. The majority view is still that somehow tariff free access to the Single Market can be combined with opposition to freedom of movement. It won’t happen. The choice will have to be made.
This will be a particularly crucial choice for the trade unions – as it will be their members who will be struck by falling real wages due to the inflation caused by the Brexit devaluation and who will lose their jobs due to lack of access to the European Single Market.
It will take some time for this choice to become clearer. Therefore there must be a calm and clear discussion among supporters of the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party to clarify it, and certainly no rush to tie the Party to a policy on the Single Market that cannot be achieved.
A calm comradely discussion on the left
While the great majority of Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party, and beyond, opposed leaving the EU – and also almost certainly oppose leaving the Single Market – a significant current among his supporters voted to leave the EU at the referendum. This was a mistake, as, in present circumstances, to leave the EU will simply lead to a reduction in living standards, as the rise in inflation is already showing. Illusions that a British economy set loose from the behests of European big capital will create better conditions for implementing a pro-working class economic policy have no current basis in reality; on the contrary it makes an effective left reformist economic policy less effective and therefore harder.
To now go on to argue for Britain to leave the European Single Market would be to aid an attack on living standards and jobs. Sloganising that the EU is an ‘imperialist club’ will not obscure that reality. Leaving the political structures of the EU does not matter much (in fact Britain has always played a reactionary role within them). But it does matter to living standards and jobs if Britain leaves the European Single Market. These issues have to be calmly and clearly discussed in the Labour Party, among Corbyn’s supporters and in the trade unions in particular. This will take a little time, as the fact that the idea Britain can have tariff free access to the Single Market and not have freedom of movement is a mirage will become evident in the course of the negotiations with the EU. As it does, then the choice on maintaining free movement or leaving the Single Market, between jobs and living standards or racism, will become clear.
Meanwhile differences on this matter, insofar as they exist, should be discussed in an open and comradely fashion among Corbyn supporters. The difference on this matter is a ‘contradiction among the people’, to be settled by discussion and debate, as opposed to a ‘contradiction between the people and the enemy, which can only be resolved by fierce struggle and the aim of total defeat of the enemy.
In Britain today the main contradiction is for or against the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, the only leadership that will fight to defend living standards. The contradiction between the people and the enemy is between those who support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and those who attempt to overturn, undermine or divert it. A big battle has been won to defeat the enemy in this but there should be no illusion the war is over. Total unity in action is needed to maintain Corbyn’s leadership against all the attacks that will still come.
The contradiction among the people is the discussion that must take place among all those who support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party on what policy to pursue on the Single Market.