It was long rumoured to be a possibility despite the continuous stream of denials. Yet when the announcement came on the morning of Tuesday 18 April, it was still something of a shock – especially when the date was to be so soon as 8 June. Correctly most have seen May’s calling of a snap election as a ‘power grab’ with the opposition clearly in her gun sights – even though there is some truth in her assertion that she wants a stronger hand in parliament to deal with Brexit (or stopping parliamentary proper scrutiny of the Brexit negotiations and outcome). Sensing opposition weakness, she has decided to go in for the kill, firing the equivalent of volley from heavy field guns against Corbyn and Labour in particular.
That morning dealt another blow to the flagging fortunes of local democracy, further subsuming what are important issues into an arena of decreasing public interest. So the local elections of 4 May will struggle to command the required interest and scrutiny, being overshadowed by the general election. No doubt, though, the SNP and Tories will then claim that the expected and projected weakening of Labour (especially in Scotland) further strengthens the case of why voters should not cast their ballot papers for Labour on 8 June.
So what are the prospects for Corbyn and Labour? Compared to Miliband and the party in early 2015, Labour now has a raft of genuinely progressive policies that would make a significant and positive material difference to the lives and living standards of many millions of citizens. A quick glance at Labour’s twenty point plan to transform the workplaces makes that clear: equal rights from day one of employment; end zero hours contracts; end wage undercutting using overseas workers, repeal the Trade Union Act, roll out sectoral collective bargaining; raise the minimum wage to the level of the living wage; end the public sector pay cap, introduce a maximum pay ratio in the public sector and public sector contracts; abolish employment tribunal fees; and hold a public inquiry into blacklisting amongst other pledges.
Those citizens to benefit are not the wealthy nor are they the members of the middle classes. One cannot accuse Labour of having insufficiently radical, left wing policies to attract voters as could persuasively be said of its policies for the 2015 general election. The other advantages Labour has compared to 2015 are its sound financial position and enhanced activist base. Financially, and not merely in terms of its donations from union affiliates but also from its enhanced size of individual membership, Labour is more than capable of fighting the Tories. And, now being the biggest social democratic party in western Europe, it has around 500,000 individual members – much higher than the peak of Blairism – and these provide a base of activists to carry out the necessary door knocking, leafleting, social media work and making phonecalls.
Yet while these improvements are necessary for Labour win on 8 June, there are not sufficient. The other essential components are i) being able to translate these various policies into an attractive and easily digestible shorthand – recall Labour’s 1997 ‘five pledges’ on the back of a business card; ii) the policies being part of a widely known worldview – often called nowadays a ‘narrative’ (i.e., ‘story’); and iii) the personal credibility of the party leader to espouse these policies and worldview in a convincing manner.
It’s possible that the first two could be achieved in the run up to polling day as there are numerous ways to achieve them. However, achieving them is still heavily dependent upon the third component and here there are huge problems. Jeremy Corbyn is a genuinely decent and honest man. But that does not take us very far – or far enough – when party politics is ever more concentrated upon the figures of party leaders. He has no killer instinct at the dispatch box; he seems to have dropped his practice of the ‘new way’ of doing politics (despite say he won’t play by the establishment’s rules) to the extent that he now increasingly comes across like most other politicians as frequently being evasive; and he lacks sufficient charisma and passion to win minds by winning hearts first. He is often stilted and pedestrian in his presentation. It’s not that you don’t think he doesn’t believe what he is saying – more that he lacks enough oomph to prosecute with and do so with flair and élan.
Labour supporters may protest that neither May nor Sturgeon as individuals are particularly inspiring either (with some casting May as the austere and patronising old school headmistress and Sturgeon as a combination of a nippy sweetie and wee Janet Krankie). They may also protest that Corbyn is given such a hard time by the media that he has become somewhat punch drunk or that it is a miracle that he is still standing. And rightly, they would add that Corbyn is not just having to fight the media but also the Blairites and saboteurs within his own party. Fighting on two fronts – or at least two fronts – saps the ability to take on the main enemy. All this is very true but it is also very immaterial. This is because Corbyn needs right now to be at least ten times better than May and Sturgeon because Labour is so far behind, and because the Blairites will not lie down. Special pleading will not change the result or give us any succor on the morning of 9 June.
Recalling the likes of Tommy Sheridan, George Galloway and Jim Sillars to Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair in their insurgent heydays, Corbyn needs to deploy the skills of a street fighter, on the one hand, and those of the messiah on the other hand. Spending thirty-odd years on the backbenches, working on your own or in small groups and the like does not readily generate the kind of personality and personal traits of the street fighter or the messiah that are needed right now.
To return the military metaphor, if you as a leader are facing an army that is twice or more the size of your own army and is better equipped with more secure supply lines, you need to be able to work out where, when and how you can generate tactical and strategic advantage. Thinking of Operation Barbarossa in the Second World War, the Nazi advance was eventually stopped and repelled by tactics that were based upon using pincer movements to encircle and isolate enemy troops, disrupt and cut off supply lines, harry and harass etcetera – all of which reduced the physical and psychological ability of the Nazis to take Moscow in the north and Stalingrad in the south. But as was obviously evident in this mother of all battles, this took a considerable amount of time and sacrifice on the part of the Red Army before the tide was turned and the march on Berlin begun. Time is neither on Corbyn’s nor Labour’s side to do this by or before 8 June. Coming out as the anti-establishment candidate that supports the underdog, and who can genuflect on his way of leadership looks like being too little and way to late. If victory is then not possible, keeping the Tory majority as small as possible is then maybe the best possible prize. Here, we may find the idea of the progressive alliance between Labour, SNP and Greens comes into play.
Turning to the Tories, May’s snap election not only seeks to benefit from Labour’s disarray but also that of UKIP. Not only has much of the wind been taken out of its sails by the Brexit victory and May’s intention to negotiate a hard Brexit, but their leadership continues to be unstable, shambolic and in disarray. The Liberals should be able to undergo a modest revival in Scotland and England. For the SNP, retaining 56 out of the 59 seats is highly unlikely. 2015 represented the coming together of a particular constellation of stars which is no longer visible in the proverbial night sky. It will be the scale of the retreat that is critical, because the ability of other parties to call time on ‘peak SNP’ will depend upon it. For the SNP itself, not sliding too far back is especially important because it does not appear to have been the case that Brexit and a hard Brexit has done the cause of independence any great favours (judging by recent polls). The SNP’s defence of access to the single European market and free movement of labour is not quite a rousing rallying call for the masses. This suggests a political miscalculation by Sturgeon and the SNP. For them, it was with Scotland voting to remain – whilst elsewhere did not – that constituted a significant material change to allow the calling of indyref2 to come into play. The prospect of an enhanced Tory government in Westminster is maybe the ‘get out of jail’ card that the SNP has been searching for. Under it, and with the situation of Labour, the cry of ‘only the SNP and independence can save Scotland’ will gain more traction, sustaining the nationalist case until a possible post-Brexit independence referendum comes to fruition in the late 2010s/early 2020s. But, of course, Labour will be further blamed for being incapable of providing the official opposition in Westminster.
‘Saving Scotland’ from nasty Westminster will further be used to divert attention away from the SNP’s record in government in Holyrood, especially after ten years in office and with very little to show for in the way of progressive outcomes like wealth redistribution and reducing class inequalities. But just as importantly, being so vehemently against something – using ‘a big boy did it and ran way’ type argument – will detract from the weakness of the SNP’s case of what it is for. In other words, the SNP’s poverty of ambition and radicalism as a party proclaiming to be social democratic in name but not in deed will be camouflaged. There is no place for class in the SNP narrative; no recognition of the internal social divisions within Scotland; nor of the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ as a set of conflicting groups that exist in a pretty much zero-sum game situation. The implicit message form the SNP is that ‘we are all in it together’ and ‘we are in it to win it (i.e. its tame version of independence)’.
Another danger posed by the general election being a Brexit dominated-general election is that the focus on Brexit will be vastly reinforced, thereby taking away attention and resources from the fight against austerity and neo-liberalism. This is in spite of the sought after hard Brexit giving the Tories the license to further implement austerity and neo-liberalism. One such example is the privatization of the Green Investment Bank by the Tories just before the election was called.
As readers may have detected already, the vast majority of the content of this edition of Scottish Left Review was commissioned and written before the general election was called. Hence as result of such logistical difficulties, we have had to keep to our decision to have the theme of this edition on energy and climate change. The prospects for green energy investment do not look good under another Tory government despite Britain recently achieving a first ever full day of non-fossil fuel generation and May’s wavering over Hinckley C. The next edition will provide full analysis of the implications and ramification of the outcome of 8 June (as well as 4 May) and whether we need an ‘emergency-cum-disaster strategy’ for 9 June onwards. Of course, the hope is that May will end in June but a sober dose of realism currently suggests otherwise.
Readers will also notice we have a clutch of articles on Brexit and independence (and this time their links with the general election). This is something we intend to continue to have over the next year or so in order that we can further understand what seem like, at first sight, to be quite differing phenomena. Finally, we continue our analysis of Trumpism with an article and book review, the former using the ideas of Antonio Gramsci which Ray Burnett explores in an article oh Gramsci’s influence on Scotland.
• The results of the local elections came out just before we went to press. They make for dire reading for the left, with a Tory revival in both Scotland and south of the border. Labour bombed and the SNP stayed level. UKIP collapsed with the Greens only making small advances. With a usually low turnout, 4 May does not make for a perfect prediction for 8 June because the turnout will be much higher and the focus of issues different. But the omens are not good, and will now make Labour’s job even harder. Corbyn is right – Labour does, indeed, face a ‘challenge on an historic scale’ to win the general election.