Davy Jones offers his personal take on Labour’s meltdown in an election dominated by nationalism.
14 December 2019.
Corbyn is a terrorist-loving traitor. We’ve heard this on a loop from the media for years, and from the people that get their news and views from it, barking it in our faces across pub tables, or as we stood there all hopeful and shiny with our Labour Party election boards on their doorsteps.
The story stuck, and it cost us. Bound up in a toxic knot with ‘get Brexit done’, it cost us the election, and will cost us more before we hit bottom.
We should have known. We've been here before. Margaret Thatcher’s most notable PR victory against striking miners in 1984-5 was to brand them as ‘the enemy within’ – following on from the Argentinian enemy without in the previous year’s war. That, too, stuck.
A people that identifies with its rulers through an imagined bond against the ‘other’ will always dance to the latter’s tune. And Corbyn has been ‘othered’ like no-one before him in British politics.
What are the implications of this? You can’t defeat nationalism by adopting, pandering to, or ignoring it. Advocating a ‘left’ Brexit was always going to leave us playing by the Tories’ rules. They are the masters of nationalism. But trying to set an agenda that didn’t confront this – anti-austerity, NHS, nationalisation – while worthy and good (and, in isolation, popular) didn’t cut through. You can ignore gravity, but gravity doesn’t ignore you.
But we internationalists got it wrong, too. When people are in the grip of nationalism, it’s inadequate (as I’m doing here) to point out the common interests of the many against the few, the common bonds of workers internationally. It’s true, but too abstract.
Marx wrote that the French peasants formed a class like potatoes in a sack – in other words, not at all. Class has an organisational essence – people working collectively for commonly recognised goals. It’s not a sociological ABC categorisation or how much you earn. It’s how you organise. Class is as much what you do as what you are. And in a world where most workers are unorganised, they are like potatoes in a sack. Unsurprisingly, they behave accordingly. If you don’t have a tangible class interest, the national one prevails.
I remember striking miners, many ex-soldiers who’d served in Ireland, bonding with Irish republicans – people they’d fought in the recent past – because they recognised a common enemy in the British state. But the majority of the British people didn’t share this experience or perspective, and saw them as the enemy within. Ultimately, that saw them defeated.
Framing Corbyn as the enemy within today did the same. Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history…
If Labour had adopted a clear internationalist stance two, three years ago, would we have won? Who knows? I think even then it’s unlikely, as nationalism has deep social and historical roots. Nationalism isn’t just a bad idea. From a working-class perspective, it’s a truly fucking awful idea. But saying that isn't the same as creating the class-based organisations that would have made internationalism a lived reality north and south.
The question now is how workers gel into a class, and in doing so recognise their common interests against their rulers. We’ve seen almost half a decade of Labour being a mass radical party, while strike actions are at historic lows and community organisations are non-existent. This lopsided state of affairs was always unstable, and unsustainable in the long term.
There are few silver linings after this election. But the fault lines in the system remain. Ash Sarkar – who’s been brilliant throughout – said this demonstrates that Corbynism is not the same as socialism, and the end of one isn’t the end of the other. Or something like that. She’s right.
Ash also said that building socialism will take 30 years. But there she’s wrong – the climate crisis means we don’t have 30 years, unless your vision of socialism is less luxurious than Cambodia in the late 70s. Plus, I’m so old I remember this being said after the defeat of the miners’ strike and the collapse of the Soviet bloc. That 30-year time horizon just keeps rolling forward: socialism is the society of the future – and always will be. Unless…
One difference between the post-miners’ strike world and now is that, back then, capitalism was in a period of relative stability. More than a decade on from the global financial crisis, we’re teetering towards the next one. At some point in the not-very-far future, it will blow.
My guess is that it will be bigger than last time, as the way the GFC was resolved was to kick the can down the road and keep increasing the mass of debt. I’ll write something on this in due course, but meantime check out Michael Robert’s blog (here), who’s way smarter than me and who I will liberally steal from.
The last crisis created Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, and Johnson. It also created Corbyn, Podemos, Saunders, and Syriza – for all their failures and limitations, they represented the reinvigoration of a radical politics that hadn’t existed for decades. Whatever the next crisis brings, it will not be a return to the centre ground. How could it? (Any ideas, please mail ‘em in – we’d love to know.)
Organising around the climate is a necessity, unless you regard human existence as optional. Working with XR may be the best way to do it, for all the organisation’s limitations. After all, who are we to talk about limitations, given what’s just happened?
Alongside this, a refocus on workplace rights will be needed, and the successful struggles of marginalised workers show what is possible, even if from small beginnings.
And, in a country whose prime minister doesn’t want ‘foreigners’ treating it as their home, anti-racist organisation is both a moral imperative and a way to challenge the narrative of national interest.
Taken together, that’s insufficient, and doesn’t even begin to tackle the issue of the disintegration of communities in the former ‘red wall’. But it starts to rebuild a base. This time it needs to be one that has learned the lessons of past defeats, including the one that is still red-raw, and rejects appeals to national interest. We play that game, we lose.
Davy Jones is a Labour activist in London.