In early September a couple of opinion polls showed Labour level with the Tories or slightly ahead.
That is better than in June, when the Tories had a poll lead of 10% of more, but poor when the Tories are setting records for U-turns, scandals, fumbles, and looming cuts. Keir Starmer’s “personal approval” ratings, good until late 2020, are still wretched.
Back in early 2020 Starmer made ten pledges. They included taxing the rich, ending the Tory sanctions regime on benefits, abolishing tuition fees, “common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water; end outsourcing in our NHS, local government and justice system”; “defend free movement as we leave the EU”; and “unite our party, promote pluralism”.
He has campaigned clearly for none of those, and explicitly trashed his pledge on free movement. He has appeared more intent on fighting the Labour Party membership, via successive waves of prohibitions, than fighting the Tories.
His regime has discouraged and suppressed education and discussion on antisemitism, and “dealt with” the issue by scattershot suspensions and expulsions.
To many voters Labour must look more ashamed of itself and anxious to get back into favour with “business” than combative against the Tories.
The Tories’ poll buoyancy cannot be put down to people rallying round the government in the Covid emergency, or to the “vaccine bounce”. In Norway, the right-wing coalition has been voted out despite maybe the best Covid-curb record of any country not closing its borders rigidly. (The credit should probably go to “inherited” high social provision and relatively low inequality).
In Germany, the long-ruling CDU is doing poorly for the 26 September election despite a Covid record better than its neighbours’.
Tory poll buoyancy cannot be attributed to the appeal of Boris Johnson’s blather about “levelling up”, either. Inequality has risen during the pandemic and is set to rise further. NHS waiting lists have ballooned. The Tories concede social care is in impasse, but offer little for it. The Tories have spent a lot on the pandemic, but mostly through handouts to private contractors like Serco and G4S for test-and-trace operations of low efficacy. They have increased taxes for the low and middle-paid, though not for the rich, while enforcing cuts in local government. Now they are cutting Universal Credit.
The theory of an irresistible swing to right-wing nationalist sentiment does not hold up, either. The Brexit vote of 2016 opened the way for sub-Trump types like Johnson and Patel to gain power, but since early 2015 the percentage saying immigration should be reduced has gone down from 69% to 50%, and of those saying it should be increased, up from 10% to 18%.
In Norway, the right-wing Progress Party lost ground in the election; in Germany, the AfD has lost ground since early 2020 and looks like doing worse than in 2017; in France, Marine Le Pen has lost ground, although partly to another far-right candidate, Eric Zemmour.
The problem is about more than beating the Tories in the polls. To deal with the climate emergency, the damaged NHS, and more, we need government better than just “not Tory”. We need a workers’ government, as responsive and accountable to the working-class majority as governments since Thatcher have been to the belligerent bourgeoisie, and we need it urgently.
On that score, too, we need leadership much better than Starmer, and, as a precondition and basis, a revitalisation of the labour movement at ground level.
Lockdowns and mass work-from-home have pushed back the unions. Some workplace union groups boosted activity early in the first 2020 lockdown, and unions have improved organisation among school support workers and among care workers.
Overall, though, the small increase in union membership in 2020-1 was more a product of increased employment in relatively-unionised public sector areas than an improvement in density and organisation.
Wages have been pushed up recently in fast food, but by atomistic “market forces” rather than collective struggle: bosses have trouble recruiting for some jobs, despite total employment shrinking since February 2020,.
Yet there is potential. The big Black Lives Matter and Police Bill protests brought tens of thousands of young people into political action for the first time.
The Unite general secretary result was, broadly, an advance for the left. Despite new Unite general secretary Sharon Graham advocating less attention to politics (“Westminster”), Unite will vote against confirming old-Blairite David Evans as Labour general secretary.
In Unison, the left has won the National Executive for the first time ever. In the GMB, new general secretary Gary Smith is at least no more right-wing than his forerunner Tim Roache, more oriented to organising, and sometimes stroppy with the Labour leadership.
According to The Times Labour membership has dropped from 550,000 in early 2020 to 430,000. Anecdotal evidence confirms that many left-wingers have dropped out, or become less active.
However, there was a very similar drop in membership between July 2017 and November 2019. Motions to the 25-29 September conference show that the right-wing caucus Labour To Win have done badly with their recommendations, and the tone is still broadly leftish. A survey in July 2021 found 70% of members who had voted in the 2016 Labour leadership poll saying they backed Jeremy Corbyn, though in fact Corbyn got 62% of the vote then.
The Labour left needs, most of all, a political axis around which to rebuild, or it probably will indeed dissipate. There is widespread half-recognition that “old Corbynism” will not serve, with its discreditable flounderings on Brexit and antisemitism, its habits of having policy handed down from “posh Stalinists” in the Leader’s Office, and its neglect of street and workplace activity.
We need an internationalist and class-struggle axis.
All factions of the left should unite to fight for and practise democracy. The “Corbyn surge” was never going to take us to socialism with one election-winning leap. It could have built durable democratic structures in the Labour Party. It could have built lively Young Labour and Labour Students movements rather than leaving Young Labour even weaker than it was under Miliband and Labour Students officially disbanded.
Some democratic gains were won in the Corbyn era. The leadership still shelves and fudges on conference policy, as ever, but this year’s Labour conference will have debates on 20 policy areas. In high Blairism, from 1997 to 2003, conference could debate only four motions, all selected by the unions, and Blair would then demonstratively declare that he paid no heed anyway.
From 2003 that was increased to four selected by the unions, four by the CLPs (though, until 2012, the total was often fewer than eight, since CLPs were duped into choosing areas which the unions had already chosen). In 2007-9 motions were for a while abolished altogether. In high Blairism the stitched-up National Policy Forum report went to conference only on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, and was almost impossible to overturn. Now sections of the NPF report can be, and even are, referred back section-by-section.
Stitched-up Local Campaign Forums still inhibit local-government-level democracy. The National Executive Committee remains deprived of the political authority it had before Blair, subordinate to the unelected “Leader’s Office” and Shadow Cabinet: its change of structure from 1997 remains in force and makes it tamer.
On one dimension Labour democracy got worse in the Corbyn era. From 2015 there were successive big waves of “auto-exclusions” (without due process) and suspensions. The foundation for those was laid by the centralised membership registration introduced in the 1990s, but Blair relied more on members dropping out, or being ignored if they stayed in, than on excluding large numbers.
The first waves in 2015 and 2016 were executed by Labour HQ staff to try to undermine Corbyn. Those eased off after Corbyn won his second leadership poll. But the regime under Jennie Formby as general secretary continued to suspend members by the dozens and hundreds, to instruct them that all complaint would be considered a disciplinary offence, and to hold them suspended for years.
Starmer’s new general secretary David Evans has turbo-charged the purging. Labour needs a democracy of pluralism, debate, and due process.