The politics of denial
Class and the politics of narrow nationalism are now entwined, writes Eddie Ford. Instead of denying its own role in helping to bring about this sorry situation, the left needs to do some serious thinking
Everyone is now trying to come to terms with the fallout from last week’s elections on ‘super Thursday’, especially the Hartlepool disaster-cum-debacle. Firstly, insofar as it is a valid exercise at all, how would the results have panned out in a general election? The polls tell us 36% for the Tories, Labour on 29%, the Liberal Democrats with 17% and others on 18% (Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, Greens, etc).
This actually represents a relatively low polling for the Tories - well ahead, but certainly not sweeping away everything that stands before them. As for the Labour Party, it is significantly behind - yet not massively. The Lib Dems did not have a good day, whatever the media might say. This means that the projected Conservative lead of seven points is similar to the average of six points in the most recent Britain-wide polls. Overall, the results appear to confirm the much talked about ‘vaccine boost’ for the Tories.
But that hardly explains the result in Hartlepool, which saw a 16% swing from Labour to the Tories. The explanation cannot be Corbyn and the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ big lie: now, after all, we have Keir Starmer and the purging of ‘anti-Semites’ such as Corbyn. No, the straightforward, obvious, inescapable explanation has to be Brexit. Labour’s candidate, Paul Williams, was a dyed-in-the-wool ‘remainer’ (the same goes for Sir Keir himself, of course). In the 2019 election the Brexit candidate, Richard Tice, came third with over ten thousand votes (some 25% of the total poll). Understandably, on May 6 these voters switched to Boris Johnson’s Tories and gave Jill Mortimer a stunning victory and an absolute majority (more on Brexit below).
Of course, when you look at the overall picture, with this or that exception, what we have in both England and Scotland - though not so much in Wales - is a situation where class politics, however attenuated, are cleaved, undercut, by the politics of narrow nationalism. This is not something that we on the left want, let alone welcome. But it is something that the left has to adjust to and seriously address politically.
Sad to say, there are those who thought they could ride the nationalist tiger. Look at Scotland - a tragic situation. In the late 1960s, in terms of the central belt, with its shipbuilding, mines, engineering etc, Scotland was solidly red. Historically the CPGB was a real force. The National Union of Mineworkers had a communist leader in the burly shape of Mick McGahey, whilst West Fife previously had a CPGB MP, Willie Gallagher. If we look at the industrial struggles of this period, a name that comes instantly to mind is Jimmy Reid - who came to prominence in the early 1970s, when he led the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in. Reid was a long-standing member of the CPGB - along with comrades such as Jimmy Airlie, Sammy Gilmore and Sammy Barr.
Now, in terms of the recent elections, what do we have? Not that long ago, the Scottish Socialist Party was boasting about how superior it was to the “English left” - which apparently keeps splitting over trivial issues. But this time the SSP did not stand a single candidate. Truly pathetically, its leader, Colin Fox - formerly of the Militant Tendency - justified the party’s absence from the battlefield on the grounds that it does not have sufficient resources. That tells you that the SSP is for all intents and purposes an ex-party. Basically, the organisation fell in behind the SNP, which was always going to happen.
Looking back again, there was also the anti-Poll Tax campaign in the early 90s, with Margaret Thatcher trying to impose the tax on Scotland a year before the rest of the country as a sort of laboratory test-cum-provocation. The resistance saw the public emergence of Militant and its great hero, Tommy Sheridan, who famously swore ‘loyalty’ to the monarch with his fist raised - a wonderful display of republican defiance. Four years later Sheridan was joined by five other SSP MSPs in Holyrood. However, in last week’s elections, he advocated a vote for the SNP and Alex Salmond’s Alba Party (which got exactly nowhere, getting 1.7% of the vote). Sheridan was the former leader of Solidarity, which split from the SSP essentially because of his sex life - which he straightforwardly lied about in court, getting convicted of perjury in December 2010. Nothing trivial about that, is there? You could hardly make it up.
What did the Socialist Workers Party advise? Vote Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, which stood a few candidates in Scotland. This is all that remains of the left in Scotland at less than 1% of the vote. Not that the SWP, unlike Lenin and the Bolsheviks, considers parliamentary elections to be of any particular importance. No, ‘All under one banner’ street demonstrations and workplace disputes are the ‘be all and end all’. In other words, left-nationalism combined with crass economism. Naturally, the SWP cannot give electoral support for either the SNP or Alba because of their pro-capitalist and bigoted politics. Well, no-one would dispute their pro-capitalism. But the “bigoted” politics turned out to be that some in Alba dare question the current narrative around trans rights - which is obviously a complex question. Either way, the left barely exists in Scotland - and, of course, it is the same south of the border.
But in England we are definitely seeing the playing out of the Brexit question, or ‘long Brexit’ - which is not just about 2016 or 2017, or even 2019. It is an issue the left needs to fully understand, as it will continue to run and run, because the Tories can keep using it from different angles, artificially injecting the question of Europe into any issue, as we saw with sending in the Royal Navy over the Jersey fishing dispute with France.
So what is going on? There is an argument that Labour is now the party of what is contemptuously referred to as ‘Gradland’ - graduate land. But the working class is constantly made and remade. True, there are very few miners left in Britain - and there is no expectation of a revival of deep coal mining on any scale. And, though it sounds slightly incredible now, nursing was once regarded as a middle class profession - along with doctors, lawyers, teachers, local government white collar employees, etc. But today a nurse is a skilled worker, not a middle-class professional. Similarly teachers, computer programmers and local government white-collar employees have likewise been thoroughly proletarianised.
Yes, we have a working class that is being made and remade. But we also have a section of the class that has been won over to the Tories - because they are offering an explanation for the decay of their areas and the lack of opportunities: it is all the fault of Brussels and the EU-loving metropolitan elite. Okay, completely bogus politics - but it provides answers and therefore possible solutions. Brexit has certainly been done by the Tories and regrettably the left played a part in the construction of this narrative.
While there was a passionately pro-EU left, there was also an equally passionate anti-EU left. Just as the left in Scotland trailed the SNP and adapted to narrow nationalism, the left in England trailed behind one wing of the political establishment or the other on this question. Though the Brexiteers talked about ‘Lexit’ (a left Brexit), the left did not play the role Tony Benn did in the early 1970s - when he disgracefully sat alongside the far-right Tory, Enoch Powell. They played a totally backseat role. The SWP, Socialist Appeal, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, and so on, effectively constituted themselves as camp followers of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.
And, on the other side, the pro-‘remain’ left followed the now almost forgotten Chuka Umunna, Vince Cable and Anna Soubry. They even took money from George Soros and the Rountree Foundation. Then there is Starmer himself and his relentless agitation for Labour to suicidally commit to a second Brexit referendum. Independent working class politics were almost entirely absent.
In the view of the CPGB, the left should have fought to delegitimise the 2016 referendum and said we were never going to respect the result, as referendums are crude, simplistic, anti-democratic and cut through the politics of party and class. Admittedly, there would have been a short-term price to be paid for taking such a principled stance - but we would be in a far stronger position now.
The response of the left to super-Thursday is, to say the least, disappointing. Leaving aside the SWP and its fetish of street demonstrations and workplace disputes, the rush to defend Angela Rayner says it all. Two examples will suffice.
Firstly, Gaya Sriskanthan, joint chair of Momentum - the Corbynite fan club that got subsumed into the Jon Lansman machine and is now not much more than a training ground for bureaucrats and aspiring career politicians. She said that the ‘sacking’ of Rayner was “blatant scapegoating”. Note that parts of the Labour left have been saying Starmer should be sacked - would that not be “blatant scapegoating” as well?
Then there is the cherubic Owen Jones, Guardian columnist and leftwinger - or what passes for leftwing, as far as the British establishment is concerned. He too said the Starmer leadership was trying to “scapegoat” Rayner for Labour’s “disaster” - going on to say that “trying to pin the blame on a working class woman for their lack of vision of strategy” was “the absolute pits”.1
Frankly, we were expecting the soft left to launch one of those daft petitions demanding the reinstatement of Angela Rayner - like they did with Rebecca Long-Bailey when she was sacked from the front bench over the fake anti-Semitism campaign. But then Rayner got her three new, well paid jobs, including shadowing Michael Gove.
No, our task lies not in defending or promoting bourgeois politicians, even if they seek popularity on the left by calling themselves a ‘socialist’. Socialists stand for socialism: that is the rule of the working class and the superseding of capitalism. Socialists do not sit in capitalist cabinets or shadow cabinets. Socialists do not take the bloated salaries of official politicians. No, they live on the average skilled worker’s wage and hand the balance to the movement. Socialists are not careerist place seekers, individual dilettantes: instead they subordinate themselves to the democracy and centralism of their co-thinkers.