For all the attempts to make this election seem like a foregone conclusion, it is clear that Theresa May has called it out of both weakness and strength. Charlie Hore argues understanding both is important for socialists trying to make sense of what we are likely to face after 8 June.
The Tories have several major weaknesses. With a small majority, the government was vulnerable to back-bench revolts, as the sudden U-turn over National Insurance rates showed. More importantly, they faced the exceptionally difficult task of negotiating a Brexit deal with the EU, with next to no bargaining power, with the EU not minded to do the UK any favours, within a very tight time-table, with no agreed agenda… Donald Rumsfeld’s famous ‘unknown unknowns – what we don’t know we don’t know’ comes forcibly to mind.
Economically, many of their supporters have enjoyed a relatively benign climate in recent years, with low inflation, low fuel prices and low mortgage rates. But this now seems to be ending – the world economy as a whole is slowing down, but Brexit will make the impact considerably worse.
Most immediately, over 20 Tories were facing possible prosecution for expenses offences in 2015. This last probably explains the otherwise odd timing – a general election a month after council elections doesn’t really make sense, unless there is a pressing need. And it worked – to no-one’s great surprise, the Crown Prosecution Service have now decided that while there was evidence of inaccurate spending returns it did not “meet the test” for further action.
The strengths are obvious, unfortunately. The Tories are massively ahead in the opinion polls, a standing first confirmed by the Copeland and Stoke by-elections (Labour held Stoke because the Tory vote held up and didn’t go to UKIP), and then by the May council and mayoral elections.
There were exceptions to the trend, but overall the Tories won more seats than expected. In England and Wales they seem to have hoovered up much of the UKIP base, with Labour unexpectedly losing key contests. (See here for more analysis of the local elections).
Those losses have further highlighted one of the Tories’ greatest assets – the huge divisions in Labour over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. It’s clear that numbers of former MPs would prefer to lose this election, to allow them to finally ditch him. One has already said he would not vote for Corbyn as Prime Minister, while others are leaving him out of campaign literature.
That attitude also explains the particularly harsh attacks in the media. It’s not so much that the Tory press has got much worse, more that the rest of the media have amplified the attacks on Corbyn and his team emanating from the Labour right.
Yes, we can?
As the cliché goes, there is a mountain to climb. In 2015, the Tories got a narrow majority with 38% of the vote to Labour’s 31%. The latest polls consistently show the Tories higher than that and Labour lower. To win an outright majority, Labour would have to win over 100 seats, a 50% increase. It means overturning Tory (and the occasional SNP) majorities of 6,500. That’s the size of the mountain.
But mountains can be climbed. I grew up in an area that was seen as eternally, irredeemably Tory. Labour won the seat in the 1997 landslide, and held it until 2010 – and earlier this month some 700 people turned out for an open-air meeting with Corbyn at a day’s notice! So it’s not impossible. The question is rather whether the Labour Party can climb that mountain, or whether there can be a movement of members from below that can force them to climb it.
Theresa May has gone for a populist and very personalised approach – nationalist, anti-immigration, pro-Brexit and pro-defence – presenting herself as the ‘strong and stable’ leader defending ‘us’ against foreigners, while playing to every backward-looking prejudice going.
Nigel Farage had a point when he complained:
I led [UKIP] four years ago in those county council elections in England, on a manifesto of bringing back grammar schools, getting Britain outside the European Union, controlling immigration and helping small businesses…four years on, the British prime minister was running on exactly the same ticket and swept the board.
It is weird to see a sitting government trying to tap into populist discontent with the system.
Will it work?
It’s weirder still to see it working. There’s no question that May’s populism plays well with the core Tory electorate, and with former UKIP voters. Her personal popularity seems to stem from the fact that Tory voters see her as ‘one of them’, unlike Cameron, who clearly wasn’t. As one recent profile put it: ‘May gives a strong impression of liking her wider electorate, or at least having no desire to judge them by any standards other than their own.’
But the core Tory electorate is a minority – disproportionately old, white, rural, small town and suburban. Unfortunately, they are also the ones most likely to vote – in part because 40 years of neoliberalism have corroded belief in collective solutions, but also because it is the young that have been most deprived of a voice by the shift to the right in social democracy.
Changing the outcome on 8 June depends above all on getting people who have previously not voted to first register and then vote – but that in turn depends on there being something worth voting for. The old anarchist slogan ‘Whoever you vote for, the government gets in’ has never seemed truer than in recent years.
Corbyn’s policy pledges offer a real difference to the austerity of the last seven years, and if Labour can mount an activist campaign in the same spirit as his leadership campaigns, then it could be possible to turn the Tory tide. We have to be alive for local initiatives that will allow activists to tap into that spirit, whether it’s direct campaigning for Corbyn or voter registration.
But we cannot simply be uncritical supporters, and we need to avoid falling into Labour tribalism or pretending that everything is rosy. If despair is our enemy, so too is mindless optimism.
Scotland is the clearest example of why this approach is necessary. The independence campaign did more than anything since Stop the War to build mass grass-roots political organisation which could appeal to those most alienated from official politics. With a few honourable exceptions, Labour in Scotland turned its back on this and has stressed its support for the union – and Corbyn and his supporters have consistently echoed that. When you get the only Labour MP in Scotland calling for tactical voting against the SNP , it becomes very difficult to make a case for voting Labour in Scotland.
More widely, we have to be honest about the ways in which Corbyn and those around him have conceded to the right both on policy and organisation. If Labour loses the election, it will be because the right failed to deliver a campaign that could enthuse, and Labour councils have time and again turned on the people who elected them. But it will also be because the left did not take the best opportunity in decades to stand up to them.
We also have to look to the more fundamental revolutionary arguments about how change really happens, and how even the most determined reformist governments cannot sustain a decisive challenge to capital, because real power is not found in parliament.
But we have to make all of those arguments as part of campaigns against the Tories that draw in Corbyn supporters and other activists, whether over housing, education, health or the immediate fight to get rid of the Tories. Corbyn expresses a fundamental truth about class society when he says that:
If I were Southern Rail or Philip Green, I’d be worried about a Labour government. If I were Mike Ashley or the CEO of a tax avoiding multinational corporation, I’d want to see a Tory victory.
Whether we will get to test his assertion that ‘a Labour government elected on 8 June won’t play by their rules’ is another matter, but it’s a useful reminder that the rules are there to keep us down – and that we only win when we break them.