Lying about the elections
The Tories suffered a historic drubbing in the local elections, writes Paul Demarty. So how come Labour’s performance was portrayed as equally bad?
There are two remarkable features of the May 2 local elections.
The first is the sheer scale of the drubbing suffered by the Conservative Party. It made a net loss of 1,330 seats - more than a third of the total it gained the last time these councils were contested - and also lost control of 44 councils. Even given the dire state of the Tories at the national level, where they are tearing each other to pieces over Brexit, this is a quite staggering result. And staggering, also, is a good description of the party itself, as a particularly unappetising ballot to select members of the European parliament looms. Though it is early days in that campaign, the Tories surely could not have had a worse start; and its activists could be forgiven for thinking there was little else to do than brace themselves prior to impact.
The second feature is the way that the mainstream media has presented the overall result - the overwhelmingly predominant narrative is of an electoral rebuke to the main parties, such that you could almost believe that Labour had suffered an equivalent disaster. Yet nothing of the sort transpired. Defending about half the number of seats the Tories were, Labour lost 84, plus control of six councils. The disappointment is that the Tories’ losses were not Labour’s gain - the Liberal Democrats being the main beneficiaries, along with Greens and ‘independents’; but Labour has never had a sniff in most of the councils lost by the Tories, so the result for Labour is best described as tepid. Only by extreme violence to the truth can an equivalence be drawn between Labour’s bruises and the Tories’ maiming.
Yet this is what we observe: a representative headline in The Guardian reads: “May and Corbyn boxed in after ballot battering”.1 “Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn face backlash over dire local election results,” said The Times on May 3, going on to offer its readers one of the most laughable bits of false equivalence in the whole history of journalistic mendacity:
The prime minister was told to stand down by former cabinet colleagues and council leaders after losing ground in the Tories’ southern heartlands, while Labour lost one of its celebrity supporters, when Sir Tony Robinson, the Blackadder star, quit the party.2
Somehow we feel that Corbyn will find Baldrick’s departure easier to cope with than May will the ever-increasing number of Tory grandees urging her, for the love of god, to go. If the results of the European parliament elections are as they look to be for the Tories so far, even the psychotically stubborn May will find it hard to resist demands for her to fall on her sword. Nothing like the same is true for Corbyn. Far from reeling, his position is secure, and we all know it.
The question posed by an omnipresent lie is, after a fashion, always the same: who profits if it is widely believed? There are two main categories here. The first is the British establishment, trying to pick its way through Scylla and Charybdis: on the one hand, the disaster of Brexit; and, on the other, the far worse prospect of an electoral victory for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. The second category, in a peculiar coincidence of opposed interests, is the Labour leadership itself, which is, of course, trying to bring about such an outcome.
So far as the establishment is concerned, things are looking pretty grim at the moment. Its natural party of government - the Tories - is in a state of utter disarray. Having fed its voters and activists a steady diet of idiotic lies about the European Union over decades, it has rendered itself uniquely unable to act ‘responsibly’ when it comes to the EU at all. The still greater disaster of Corbyn’s capture of the Labour leadership, however, is that it has wounded the apparent impregnability of neoliberal capitalism: though Corbyn has yet to commit himself to anything more than the most anaemic sub-reformist gloop, the impact he has had on the Labour Party by standing for and then winning the leadership - not in spite of, but because of, his ‘loony left’ past - is a far more serious threat to the bourgeoisie.
So one obvious way out of the Brexit mess - responsible Tories ‘taking one for the team’ and delivering either a Brexit in name only or no Brexit at all - is unavailable, since it lays the way open for Labour to win a majority in an election. It is still possible under those circumstances to circumvent Corbyn’s entry into number 10; but that is a much more costly action than preventing him from winning at all. So, instead, the bourgeois establishment has adopted the strategy of trying to bounce Labour into taking a clear ‘remain’ position: that way, Labour can be made to carry the can for overriding the ‘people’s will’. The ‘sensible’ Tories and their friends in the press will then flip violently into a narrative of ‘national betrayal’, which will wreck Labour’s electoral chances.
Thus the widespread talking up of the significance of the Lib Dem revival in relation to Labour’s prospects, and also the Greens, who picked up a couple of hundred councillors. Indeed, we have been forced again to listen to that most nauseating, pompous cliché of modern bourgeois society, that people are tired of the “old politics” of the main parties and so on - this time coming from Green Party spokespersons. (Is there anything older than this guff?) All are designed to scare Labour into tacking in that direction.
Corbyn is not biting, however. He is happy to agree that the electorate has given his party a rebuke - bizarre as that is; but for him the meaning is the exact opposite:
I think it means there’s a huge impetus on every MP, and they’ve all got that message, whether they themselves are ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ - or the people across the country - that an arrangement has to be made, a deal has to be done, parliament has to resolve this issue. I think that is very, very clear.
What game is he playing here? In the end, the clue is in the phrase, “every MP”: Corbyn is currently involved in talks with the Tories about getting a Brexit deal through parliament. Given the precariousness of May’s position and her total lack of control over her party, Corbyn is at a distinct advantage. He loses little from walking away from the talks, while May loses a lot. If they strike a deal to Labour’s liking - perhaps with a customs union or some other ‘Brexit in name only’ shibboleth - he condemns May to sell it to her own party. Either she does - in which case he can still blame the government for everything that goes wrong with it - or, far more likely, she does not, and he can avoid all responsibility for it, washing his hands of the failure to - in John McDonnell’s terse phrase - “sort it”.
So, with his statement, he fires a warning shot against remainers in his own ranks, but also dares the Tory right to sabotage the deal. It is not a cost-free exercise, however - after all, one of the many people to have used our aforementioned ‘new politics/old politics’ cliché is Corbyn himself. Conducting political combat on what is a scandalously unprincipled basis will surely disillusion some of his more simple-hearted acolytes, but, if the most important thing is to get his party into government, Corbyn is dependent on the common ground he has with his own parliamentary colleagues. Realistically this adds up to no more than the need to manoeuvre Theresa May into a position where a knife can be slipped between her ribs. This is a complicated game of cynical political tactics, and the last thing Corbyn needs is an ambush from establishment remainer types.
However, if Labour’s remainers can be divided into the credulous and well-meaning, on the one hand, and establishment cuckoos in the nest, on the other, the same is true of the Lexiteers. We turn to Charlie Kimber, Socialist Workers Party national secretary, in the latest Socialist Worker. He correctly notes that “it is ridiculous for the media to claim that [Labour’s losses are] a setback on anything like the scale of the Tories’ disaster”3. Nonetheless, the result really was not good enough:
Labour would have hoped to make gains, not losses, facing a government in shambles. On the eve of the poll shadow chancellor John McDonnell had said he hoped for 400 wins. Labour’s position on Brexit has satisfied neither its right wing, who want a second referendum to overturn Brexit, or those who want to push ahead with leaving the EU … Detailed analysis shows Labour lost most votes in ‘leave’-voting areas.
John Burn-Murdoch writes in the Financial Times newspaper: “The vote for the party held up well in majority-‘remain’ areas, but in areas where 60% or more had voted to leave Labour lost 6% of its councillors. In areas that were 70% or more ‘leave’, Labour losses more than doubled to 19%.”
So the solution is obvious for comrade Kimber - the Labour Party must adopt a clearer pro-Brexit line, as well as hitting some traditional SWP high notes like organising lots of mass demonstrations, etc.
The trouble with that line - and also the line of its Lexiteer comrades in the Socialist Party in England and Wales and (to a lesser extent) the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain - is precisely the absence of any reckoning of how their perspectives stack up in relation to the balance of forces in the Labour Party. None of these groups - in spite of their own confusion on the matter of work in the Labour Party - demur from the objective of a Corbyn-led Labour government in the short term. If that is to come about, however, he must win more or less with the parliamentary party he has. It cannot be done on the basis of a fantasy socialist Brexit - along with satisfying the SWP’s demand for radical action on the streets, plus satisfying SPEW’s demands that he oblige local councils to set illegal no-cuts budgets.
He could do all these latter things - or some other set of talismanic commitments to far-left politics. But to do so would be to declare open war on the Labour right, and thus radically reduce the chance of a Corbyn government. Thus - quite apart from the defects of Lexitism on its own account - the SWP and SPEW take lines that are radically unrealistic in relation to Labour Party high politics. Either Corbyn declares war on the right, or basically he continues with what he is doing. Needless to say, it would be far better for the British working class that he did the former.