The Labour Party is going through a process of rapid realignment, in which many of the key policies and ideological hallmarks of the Corbyn project are being swept aside. But, as Laura Smith explains, those on the left of the Party are busy with the difficult and necessary task of reorganising in working-class communities.
Back in June 2017 I found myself in a situation that I never thought was possible when I was elected to be the Member of Parliament for my hometowns of Crewe and Nantwich. I was always the outsider to win, and frankly never really believed that someone from my background, with no experience of mainstream politics, could find themselves sitting on the green benches in Parliament. At first, I must admit, I let the whole place, the whole moment overwhelmed me. During my first speech my knees knocked together with nerves and the weight of imposter syndrome sat heavy on my shoulders. My father quickly made me buck up my ideas, stating quite matter of factly that I was there to represent my class and my home and in the nicest possible way, get a grip.
One of the thoughts that played on my mind was the question of delivering change for those that I represented. Always a more difficult thing to do in opposition of course, but I had made election pledges that I intended to keep. All too often politicians fail to keep to their promises, which has fed into the apathy and mantra repeated frequently that “You are all the same.” For me this included, critically, ensuring that Labour honoured the party pledge to respect the result of the 2016 EU referendum. Imposter syndrome aside, it was exciting to be part of the first real opportunity for an actual socialist with principles and consistent politics to become Prime Minister.
An unlikely route
The parliamentary road to socialism has always been an unlikely route, because of course once elected, MPs immediately fall out of the control to a degree of those who elect them. The party whips dictate the route forward-and as we all know the Labour Party has had a rocky relationship with socialism to say the least. But surely this time under Jeremy Corbyn there would be a greater chance than ever before of real substantial change. The popular policies of the 2017 manifesto, especially with regards to how the economy would be run gave me hope. Little did we know back then the degree of internal sabotage that is evident in the leaked Labour report, which may have even caused us to lose the 2017 election.
Fairly quickly after joining the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the blockers began to fall into place. The right-wing media, teamed with the Tories and the right of the Labour Party started to put the wheels in motion to stop any chance of that near win of 2017 turning into a majority win for Corbyn in 2022. I also soon began to realise what I had feared before being elected was in fact largely true. The real decisions that matter in our lives have very little to do with our elected representatives, and instead are often made outside the formal political processes and institutions. They happen in the boardrooms of capitalist corporations, where MPs really have little influence – except of course where being an elected politician is just a second job to their real positions as directors and shareholders.
The MPs in the theatre of Parliament were sent to goad, to undermine and to ridicule by those angered at the thought that their extraordinary power and wealth might be disrupted. A pesky socialist in a scruffy suit with his mob of activists was not going to get in the way of the life that they were accustomed to. Brexit was our opportunity on the left to really change the set up in the way that this country is controlled, with a focus on democratic control, taking away the power of unelected bureaucrats. We knew the vote to leave was for change to the status quo. But we blew it.
Socialist advance outside of the EU
The two and a half years that I was there were dominated by Brexit. The failure of the Labour Party to explain what leaving the European Union could mean for socialism resulted in a party at war, the public losing trust and ultimately the downfall of the only real chance we had to have a truly left-wing Prime Minister. It was hugely frustrating – heartbreaking in fact – to see the Labour Party become such an obstacle in the democratic vote of the referendum, falling into every trap that would destroy what trust we had left with our traditional core vote. To witness it first-hand under a left-wing leadership was puzzling to say the least, but the reality of a PLP who did not support the left meant an opportunity was seized. Some, like myself, tried to make the space for a debate around the opportunities for socialist advance outside of the EU, but it was never taken. Labour’s position became ever more ridiculous.
Back in December 2018 I led a debate in Parliament raising issues of public ownership bringing to attention the dispute at the Royal Bolton Hospital. The Labour Party should have been all over the fact that in the legal case of Alemo-Herron, the ECJ ruled that private employers that take on the provision of public services are not required to pay transferred staff the pay rises they would have had if they had remained in the employment of the public sector. By prioritising the rights of private companies to business freedom over the rights of workers who find themselves in that situation, EU law creates a financial incentive to privatise our public services. For those on the left, there was also the haunting impact of the Viking and Laval cases, which placed the rights of business above the rights of workers making the right to strike even more difficult.
The official Labour position was that privatisation had to be reversed and stopped and anti-trade union laws repealed. At the same time many of the shadow cabinet actively clung on to a project that would never allow them to fulfil many of the policies that had made the manifesto so popular in 2017, instead favouring to remain in the EU. For me respecting the referendum was not to retreat into isolationism, protectionism and nationalism; on the contrary, it could herald the beginning of a new internationalism. An opportunity to actually implement the manifesto pledges ‘For the Many’. However, rather than shaking up the system, challenging the establishment and implementing our policies, we were going to be left only able to tinker around the edges.
The final straw
Even if the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party did not particularly want to achieve real radical change, I could not understand the electoral strategy that they were taking. Many of those who were actively pushing to overturn the referendum result were representing strong Leave seats like mine. One thing I had concluded almost immediately after the referendum, was that to ignore the result in 2016 would be a profound and unforgiveable mistake. Research conducted by Lord Ashcroft at the time had concluded that the three lowest social groups voted Leave by a majority of two thirds.
In that same poll, the single reason most frequently given for voting to leave was the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK. This reflected the sense within many communities that they had increasingly lost control over their lives to the remote chambers of Westminster and Brussels, and that this was at least partly to blame for their diminished material conditions. Just one year later, more than 80% of voters cast their vote for parliamentary candidates representing parties promising to respect the result of the referendum. It was no surprise to me that after extensive Parliamentary shenanigans, and manoeuvres to pincer Labour politicians into following a disastrous second referendum campaign that the defeat in December was so predictable and particularly brutal for those of us who had tried to do something about it. It is also worth noting that the recent Labour Together report confirms that support for a second referendum was a major factor in the loss of traditional Labour communities, and that this formed part of a longer term ‘realignment’ of the Labour Party’s politics that began with the Blair era.
The fact remains that the result in 2016 was a demand for change by those who benefitted the least from our economic status quo. What is more, it was an expression by a majority of the electorate—however small and for whatever reason—that change was best achieved with the UK outside the EU. The Tories incredibly became the anti-establishment party whilst the Labour Party turned its back on the very communities it was once created to represent. Trust that had worn down over decades now eroded. In 2019 many broke the habit of a lifetime and put a cross in the Tories’ box. This is something that will not be won back without a massive amount of effort, and in my opinion can only be built up over time and by demonstrating results.
No quick fix
The question the Labour left is now asking itself as it splinters into a million pieces is ‘What do we do?’ ‘How do we save this?’ Disorganised, disorientated, and disillusioned. There is no easy answer or quick fix and accepting that is the first hurdle. This must be a major time for reflection for all of us on the left: to move forward there must be an understanding of what went wrong and acceptance of the limitations of Parliamentary politics in its current form. It is becoming more unlikely by the day that the Labour Party will anytime soon be a vehicle for socialism in Britain. But it is also clear that it can and must play an important part, in the same way the wider movement must.
The Covid-19 crisis has shown us both the miserable inefficiency of a hollow state dependent on dodgy outsourcing companies, and the huge difference that communities can make acting in the common good and looking out for each other. Climate change and the other challenges we face will make this clearer still. The need for a change to the way this country operates is not going away-it is becoming greater. Almost daily people are being faced with the ugly reality of a world controlled by capitalists and the brutal injustices the system creates.
Building the working-class movement
This is why one area that I am happy to plough my energy into is the No Holding Back initiative that was born out of the Northern Discomfort pamphlet created by Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery, two of the MPs who pushed against the disastrous change in the Brexit policy whilst in the Shadow Cabinet. Together we are focusing on the question of how to regain trust and start to deliver for our communities again. We cannot allow policies and socialist ideas to just be dismissed and smeared by a powerful right-wing machine. Our mission is to build a diverse working-class movement that unashamedly puts the concerns of our communities and people at the heart of what we do – yes as Labour Party members, but also as trade unionists, socialists and as a wider movement. We need to give a voice to working-class socialists and ensure they can access the training and opportunities that will build the confidence to deliver a new generation of activists and candidates at all levels. Our focus is on empowering these people to embark on creating political education groups, and developing a community organising model, something that was maligned by elements of the Party’s right wing. We are focusing on bringing socialist politics to change our communities and our country for the better, whilst campaigning around policies that would benefit the many, winning the argument and making sure that they are believable.
The threats posed by the rising far right and the ongoing crises of capital mean that strategic mass mobilisation against the government and strengthened rank and file organisation in the workplaces is essential. The growth and speed of the Black Lives Matter movement mobilising across the world demonstrates how even in a global pandemic there is a clear desire to join together and fight against injustices and for change. We have of course already seen this happen with the climate justice movement that has become more active over the last few years. This movement will without doubt continue to grow as climate change is once again pushed to the sidelines in Parliament when it is arguably the biggest and most critical challenge our globe faces.
Over the last few months, we have also seen trade union membership across the country swell, with workers recognising the likely struggles they are facing into. It is now essential that the unions educate their membership on the need to organise collectively and campaign rather than just see it as a monthly subscription to an insurance policy. The trade unions must also now work with one another to campaign and organise on key issues, supporting one another in what will undoubtedly become a more hostile period of time as businesses restructure and do everything that they can to protect their shareholders’ interests over their workers. The left desperately needs to return to the movement we were before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader, with better political education and understanding of what it is we are trying to achieve. We must stop looking to the Parliamentary Labour Party and politicians in general to shape the future. As I have said many times politics is everything and everything is politics, and if only the people realised the power they have the policies that would benefit us all would materialise far quicker.
by Laura Smith
Originally published on 17 July 2020 at brexitblog-rosalux.eu as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.
Laura Smith is a Labour Party Councillor for Crewe South on the Cheshire East Council. Between 2017 and 2019 she served as an MP for Crewe and Nantwich. She is also an active member of Unison and Unite trade unions.