How can Labour rebuild its base?
With Labour’s serious loss to Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, much of the British left is in a period of mourning and reflection. The politically active have seen over the past nine years the brutal consequences of Conservative rule, from poverty to child hunger, homelessness and deaths. Much of this is similar to how people felt when Thatcher was reelected, after her brutal destruction of working class communities.
But for environmentalists this election was different, for it was not simply about Britain, or about the next five years, but about mitigating the global catastrophe of climate change, and protecting our democracy and internationalist values in the face of the impending crisis.
Much of the debate within Labour is now focused on the ‘triangulation’ of the last few years, and the future of the party. Should the party have offered more to nationalists? More to the poorest? A stronger lexit position? A stronger remain position? A more right-wing economics? A bolder defence of socialism?
Both the rural nationalists and the metropolitan elite have come out quickly to claim the election result as evidence that they were right, and Labour should have moved closer to their position. These groups both disagree fundamentally on questions of Immigration and on Brexit, but they agree that Corbyn couldn’t be trusted with the security and defense of the UK.
Early polling data from Opinium suggests this was a significant part of Labour’s defeat. 37% of people who defected away from Labour since 2017 said that their disapproval of Corbyn was their primary reason. In his long history as a campaigner on foreign policy issues, Corbyn has met and spoken with a lot of anti-NATO campaigners across the world. On the doorstep Labour members had a lot of difficulty explaining some of the more controversial of his encounters, and it fed into the narratives that Corbyn was an anti-semite and supported the IRA and Islamic terrorism.
In the Opinium poll, Brexit was the second reason given for abandoning Labour, identified by 25% of those who switched parties. Early polling suggests that around 800,000 Labour leave voters defected to the conservatives, and 1.1 million Labour remain voters defected to the Lib Dems. Though there were more Labour remainers who defected, the leavers seem to have been more concentrated, and cost Labour more seats, particularly in the ‘rural heartlands’. It’s not clear from this data whether a stronger remain stance or a stronger leave stance could have given Labour a better chance.
Only 6% of voters identified Labour’s economic policies as their reason for abandoning the party. Nationalisation of industries remain very popular policy. 83% want publicly owned water. 77% want publicly owned energy. 76% want publicly owned rail. 81% want publicly owned schools. 84% want a publicly owned NHS.
This is not however going to quell the right-wing tide now attacking Labour and demanding a return to ‘moderation’ and ‘pragmatism’. ‘Pragmatism’ by itself is not necessarily bad. We don’t want to be stuck at the other extreme; promoting policies that are theoretically sound, but completely unpalatable to the populace. But the politics of ‘moderation’ and ‘triangulation’ have been the politics of Labour for fifty years and they haven’t succeeded in moving British culture in a progressive direction. The left has been continuously losing ground to the right.
For environmentalists, this continued loss of ground is particularly worrying. Humanity has overshot the sustainable limits of our natural environment. Our planet is being destroyed by our over-consumption of resources, but we are stuck in a consumerist economy with no means to slow down our economic growth.
In our economy today we depend on investment to create jobs and alleviate poverty, but most investment comes from profit-seeking investors who expect economic growth and steady returns on investment. Without growth our economic system will collapse and will need to be replaced.
If we can not convince the public to change our economic system then we will see massive unemployment, ecological devastation, or both. Across the world we already see the start of the ‘Eco-fascist’ tide. As the global economy breaks down the darker nature of humanity will come out. Social Darwinism, white nationalism. As the world becomes less liveable, the powerful will be urged to close their borders, protect themselves, and let the disabled and ethnic minorities die off.
Like many western countries the greatest victories for the British left came in the 1940s when the trade unions were powerful. This social base is what let us build the NHS and the Welfare State.
It is this social base that environmentalists and leftists must rebuild if we are to save our planet, and the civil rights and values we all now take for granted. Labour must reforge itself as a serious grassroots campaigning body, and a pioneer of community wealth building.
When Corbyn became leader of Labour, the party membership surged up to half a million, making us the largest party in Europe. But a large membership is not a substitute for a large social base. The trade unions that Thatcher destroyed in the 1980s have never returned to their strength or ambition. We once had a great variety of local socialist newspapers, mutual aid societies, social clubs and active campaigning Labour councils, but those have largely died off.
There is hope to be found in Extinction Rebellion, in the Transition Towns network, in the Cooperative Development Network of Preston, but these are not nearly big enough, or common enough.
It is time for Labour to rediscover grassroots activism, really connect with our populace, and build living socialism in every community.