It seems that a relentlessly pessimistic view of the past five years has settled among much of the left in the UK after the failure of the Corbyn project. Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci writing from his prison cell in 1929 famously coined the phrase “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. Gramsci enjoined us to be realistic, to fear the worst but hope for the best.
In order for the left to advance, and with it the hopes of humanity, we have to understand our defeats, both in Britain and internationally, but also envision a brighter future. What we have seen in the past five years in Britain and elsewhere has been a crisis of neoliberalism and its Siamese twin, neo-conservatism. This explains the rise of Donald Trump and his British clone, Boris Johnson. Neoliberalism is not so much the protection of markets against democracy as it is the extension of the market to every corner of Earth and into every pore of society. Neoliberalism demands the scrapping of workers’ rights and all social safeguards.
In Britain, neoliberal and austerity policies have led to growing impoverishment among the working class, a housing crisis for the young and an education system where astronomical university fee rises have destroyed the ambitions of working-class people that they could better themselves. The response to the neoliberal crisis in the United States was Donald Trump. In Britain it came in the form of economic nationalism, which led to the Brexit campaign, calling for abandoning the single market and free movement of labour under the European Union. It is in this context that Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership of the Labour Party following Ed Miliband’s resignation from the post in the aftermath of the party’s defeat in the May 2015 elections. The electoral victory of the Conservative Party by a slim margin, unleashed the pent-up fury of the have nots. Corbyn’s election was an insurgency of the dispossessed, those who had been left behind.
Two issues dominated the Corbyn years – Brexit and anti-Semitism. It was the failure to deal with both that led to the 2019 election defeat and his downfall. Support for Brexit among the northern working class was a consequence of defeat in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. Whole industries such as shipping, steel and the docks disappeared. It was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the policy of monetarism, not the European Union, that led to deindustrialisation, unemployment and poverty in the north.
The genius of the Brexit campaign led by Nigel Farage of UKIP (later the Brexit Party), was in persuading voters that their problems were caused not by the neoliberal policies of privatisation and austerity, but by free movement of labour and migrant workers taking their jobs and lowering wages. The Labour Party’s failure was in its inability to even understand the nature of the Brexit campaign, let alone challenge the toxic racism that underlay it. Corbyn could neither support Brexit when most of his base were opposed to it, nor was he able to oppose it because that was seen as electorally suicidal. Corbyn was left facing both ways and when Boris Johnson forced Theresa May out and obtained a deal with the EU, Corbyn was left high and dry.
What Labour should have done was to campaign to stay in the EU on a platform of opposing the imposition of neoliberalism in the form of EU competition laws but also rejecting the cheap scapegoatism of Farage and the Tory Brexiteers. Corbyn was also not prepared for the hostility he faced within the upper echelons of the Labour Party. His election as Labour leader was foreseen by no one, including himself. Here was someone who, for his whole political life, had been an opponent of US foreign policy, its wars in the Middle East and beyond, nuclear weapons, NATO and a supporter of the Palestinians.
It was naïve not to expect that there would not be pushback from the power brokers in Washington, Tel Aviv and London. When it came, it was in the form of the anti-Semitism crisis. The chosen weapon of Corbyn’s opponents came in the form of the definition of anti-Semitism put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Those who, like Cameron, described migrants from the Middle East and Africa as a “swarm”, suddenly became concerned with anti-Semitism and the sensibilities of Britain’s Jewish community. The cynicism was breathtaking, yet instead of calling it out for what it was, the Corbyn leadership spent its time trying to placate those whose sole desire was to see an end to his leadership.
I was the first Jewish person to be expelled from the Labour Party. Today dozens of Jewish people are under investigation on “anti-Semitism charges” and at least 11 have been suspended or expelled from the Labour Party, including the Secretary of Jewish Voice for Labour, Naomi Wimborne Idrissi. The hostility within the permanent staff, combined with the organised campaign against Corbyn, slowly undermined morale. By the time of the 2017 general election, some Labour staff were effectively working for a Tory victory in order to oust Corbyn, as the leaked 2020 internal report proved.
In the end, it was the failure of the left to confront the determination of the British state and its press to be rid of Corbyn coupled with its failure over Brexit that led to defeat. Above all, it was the lack of any coherent plan to fight back against Corbyn’s opponents that led the leadership of the Labour Party to wage war on its own membership. Despite the left’s catastrophic defeat in Britain and elsewhere, there is still hope. In 2020, it came in the form of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Between 15 million and 26 million people took part in demonstrations in the US alone.
It would not be going too far to say that in United States, it was BLM that won the election for Joe Biden, who obtained 61 percent of the 18-29 vote – the very people who turned out in such large numbers for the BLM marches. There was also large turnout in demonstrations against racism and police violence across four continents, including Europe. In Brighton, a small city on England’s south coast where I live, there was a BLM march of over 10,000 in June, with COVID-19 still raging. There had never been such a large demonstration in the city before.
The future of the left in the West will depend on its ability to harness anger over state racism, police violence and growing poverty as well as making the links between racism at home and imperialism. Just as with the US bloated “defence” budget, Boris Johnson has increased Britain’s war expenditure by over £16bn ($22bn) at the same time as pleading that he cannot afford to provide poor children with free school meals. He is presiding over the highest death toll in Europe from COVID-19 yet he is ahead in the polls.
The task of the Labour Left is to learn the lessons of the Corbyn years and move the party forward by focusing its efforts on growing racism and impoverishment in the UK and not on appeasing those who will not be appeased.