The British elections and the defeat of the Labour Party

By Larry Holmes
December 23, 2019

This is a slightly edited talk from a Dec. 19 political forum in New York City.

I thought we should take this opportunity to talk about the Dec.12 British elections. I’m not going to give a comprehensive analysis of it. What I’m going to do is reflect on it.

First thing, you know this is important, especially because we’re on this side of the Atlantic. The British Labour Party is not the same as the Democratic Party. There are similarities, but there are also important historic differences. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons why the Democratic Party has existed, especially over the last 75 to 80 years, is actually to thwart any movement to form such a party — either a revolutionary workers’ party or a moderate labor party — that says it’s going to represent the interests of the working class.

The Labour Party in Britain is like the social democratic parties all over Europe and all over the world. It is a product of the development of social democracy, of the political development and struggles inside the labor movement between revolutionary Marxists and reformist social democrats.

So it has a different history than the Democratic Party. It is sort of an alliance, representing the workers and the interests of the British ruling class. Obviously, that’s a contradictory thing. It’s an uneasy alliance. For most of the last century, the ruling class has dominated the alliance.

Four years ago, Jeremy Corbyn, an important leftist leader, got into the Labour Party and became its leader, I believe, on the basis of the vote of thousands upon thousands of young workers — who, like a lot of young people in this country, were adversely affected not only by the global financial crash, but it certainly made things worse. It was a significant development.

Corbyn pushed the party to the left in a distinctive way, not in a revolutionary way, but nonetheless important. Their election manifesto for 2019 compares favorably to anything Bernie Sanders is raising. Corbyn is to the left of Sanders, not only on some domestic issues, but also in terms of the anti-war movement. He has mostly broken with Israel.

Ruling class, media demonized Corbyn

Why did the elections turn out the way they did with Labour losing badly and the Tories, the Conservative Party, gaining ground? Number one: There were the vicious attacks on Corbyn. Since we aren’t there, we didn’t feel it. We didn’t feel the heat and the seriousness and the constant effort of the bourgeois media and bourgeois politicians to demonize Corbyn.

They whipped up this whole thing about Corbyn being anti-Semitic, primarily because he criticizes Israel. The military came out and almost held a press conference with generals in uniform, saying that if he was elected it would represent a threat to the national security of “our empire.” Some of the bankers came out and said if he’s elected, the British Parliament will go down. There will be a financial collapse. The country will fall. This was constant every day.

There are some who say that Corbyn made too many concessions to the bourgeois elements in his party, represented by Tony Blair, and that Corbyn should have had a hard line and pushed all the bourgeois elements out. Something to think about. That’s compared to other countries — let’s say France right now.

But compared to other countries in Europe and around the world; there are not many workers’ strikes going on in Britain, particularly in England. Actually there is a local strike of transportation workers. Just to give you an idea of how a strike and a workers’ struggle can compare to an election — and the danger in that. The striking workers actually called off the strike for one day so they could come back and vote — like that makes sense.

Elections: bourgeoisie’s game

This is important to me and I think it’s important to all revolutionaries because if you rely on elections, and not pushing or helping the working class get into motion through mass struggles, through strikes, through occupations, it’s very dangerous. Those strikers did carry out occupations.  Nine times out of 10, bourgeois elections are the most important thing to the bourgeoisie. That is their game.

It’s rare that the bourgeoisie doesn’t somehow win in bourgeois elections. When the workers are fighting with strikes, they have had the opportunity to realize more of their strength and their power. So that’s something I hope will be reviewed over there when they’re going over how it happened. I think a lot of leftists feel very down and bad all over the world. But this will pass, and the crisis for the British workers is going to deepen with more austerity, more attacks. So this is just one phase, and we’re trying to discern some lessons.

Of course, the major problem in this election was Brexit — the vote in the summer of 2016 to leave the European Union and just be under the thumb of the British ruling class. If everybody was truthful, it should have been made as clear as possible that this was a dead end for the working class. Sure, the bourgeoisie of the European Union is horrible. We are against them, but to trade the European bourgeoisie as your master for the British bourgeoisie is a dead end for the working class.

A massive workers’ strike is needed

Some say that Corbyn’s position on Brexit was too equivocal. It tried to please everybody. This was probably true. It seems like he didn’t feel secure enough and strong enough just to say: Brexit is a trick to divide the working class, especially against immigrant workers. And it’s racist. So that should be what we’re talking about.

We should be talking about how to rally a massive strike of the workers and their allies around the world — which means the entire working class.  Perhaps the chances of Corbyn and the Labour Party winning were very, very slim because of Brexit and other things.

It’s not just about the workers.  It also represents a division in the British ruling class. But as far as we’re concerned its principal target — in terms of division and using racism — was definitely the working class.

I don’t think the British ruling class was going to allow Corbyn to win. They weren’t going to do that. He was feared. He was considered too atypical for the interests of the British bourgeoisie — unless there was some kind of revolutionary situation where the masses were in the streets by the hundreds of thousands demanding revolution and socialism. Maybe then.

But that wasn’t the case last week. Also, the ruling class inside the Tory Party and the ruling class inside the Labour Party were united against Corbyn. That’s where their class unity transcended their party loyalty.

If you’re going to lose an election from a tactical and political perspective, maybe some in the Labour Party were optimistic.  I’m sure they fought to the last minute before the elections. However, if you thought it was going to go your way — and a lot of them had a lot of questions about that because they were aware of the war being waged against the Labour Party — sometimes it’s better if you’re going to lose an election to be politically strong. And not equivocate on principled issues, so that at the very least you’ve laid the basis for future struggle.

We can’t put ourselves in Corbyn’s place. Generally our party shies away from having some up-and-down analysis of the situation that the working class and the left faces in another country — although we do maintain our right to comment on it. It would have been better if Corbyn had come out more strongly as an internationalist. No one was defending the migrant workers who are under attack.

Solidarity with migrant workers is key

Even if it lost Corbyn some votes, he should have said very strongly: “I am with the migrant workers. They are part of our class.” One of the reasons why the Labour Party’s going to have to strengthen themselves on this question of proletarian internationalism is because today there’s so much confusion about it. Without qualifying internationalism, it is viewed as something that serves the bourgeoisie.

In other words, with imperialist globalization it’s the rich who are internationalists, and they’re saying that’s in the interests of the working class. That’s just like the lie that the cities are for the bourgeoisie and the countryside is for the working class. Trump has tried to play that card, too.

No. The workers in the city, regardless of their jobs, that’s the working class. Workers in the cities belong to the working class just as much as the workers in the countryside. It’s not a generational divide. Some say a lot of young people were for Corbyn, but he lost the older white workers in the center of the country.

No to racism!  Forge working-class unity!

Our message is: No. We don’t choose. All of them are the working class and that’s the point. You have to talk more and more about class. For any revolutionary who’s going to be viable and for any revolutionary party, you have to. The next phase of the global class struggle is to take a really strong position against racism and for working-class internationalism.

Now it may seem a bit abstract, and not as important as addressing the local struggles that people are in. Whether it’s Medicare for All or free college or fighting racist police brutality in the subways or on the streets, people relate to local struggles.

But sooner or later as the worldwide crisis deepens along with class struggles, internationalism is going to become more and more decisive. I wonder whether it would have been a good idea for Corbyn to call a conference in London of European socialists and revolutionaries who want to discuss how we can strengthen the class struggle against the European Union, the bankers in Germany — and bring them all in.

That would say so much. That would be a signal to anyone who is worried about chauvinism and bourgeois nationalism having an effect. No, this is a leader who has an internationalist view.

I’m not sure whether this issue became part of the program of the commentary of the Third International. (We had a discussion about that a few months back, as this is the hundredth anniversary of the Third International formed in Moscow in 1919.) But if the International didn’t take that position, at least they were discussing it and calling for the workers to declare a United States of Europe, where it would be united European workers fighting the imperialist unity of bourgeois forces. That’s an important point. Sooner or later we’ve got to go back to that.

Build internationalism! 

I wonder what would have helped Corbyn — what would have made the difference.  What would have sent a message that would have been interpreted as: “We’re not going to turn against migrant workers or workers anywhere outside of our geographical boundaries.”

Maybe Corbyn should go to Paris because there is a tremendous general strike in France with thousands upon thousands of workers out in the street in every city. You know the strike is primarily against attempts by Macron and the bourgeoisie to take away retirement benefits. Some people will have to work longer to get them. But there are other issues involved.

Imagine if leaders of the Labour Party would have gone to Paris to say we  are all with the French workers. And imagine if delegations were sent from Italy, Spain, Germany, Norway and Poland to show solidarity with the French workers and their general strike. And, moreover, we’re going to have a continent-wide general strike so that bourgeois unity will no longer ring in the European Union, but it will mean working-class unity.

As I said earlier, this issue of internationalism may not seem as urgent and as important at the moment, but that is going to change, especially if a war breaks out anywhere. It would do our party very well — when our efforts in history are judged — if we were the primary party at the center of world imperialism and had the strongest record not only on paper and in speeches, but in actions, that we were ready to show the direction to a new kind of proletarian internationalism.

Ultimately, the way to fight racist bourgeois chauvinism and nationalism — and we’re talking about Trump as much as we’re talking about Boris Johnson or any of the neofascists in Europe — is to fight it with internationalism. You fight reactionary bourgeois nationalism with internationalism.

(Photo: PVN)

(Photo: PVN)