In the 2019 Australian elections, Bill Shorten promised some modest tax reforms and was rewarded with a narrow defeat at the polls. In the 2019 UK election, Jeremy Corbyn promised radical taxation reforms, the end of austerity, the end of privatisation and the rest of the neoliberal agenda. He suffered a massive defeat at the polls.
What lessons should we draw from this?
Next time, had the ALP better not challenge any of the privileges of the rich and powerful if it wants to gain office? Or had we better pick a fight we know we can win? What fight is that? Or do we just need to campaign better? Or maybe next time, as someone was supposed to have said when asked directions to a destination, we had better not start off from here?
Unfortunately, the place we are starting from is very difficult. It is a place where a tiny, obscenely wealthy, transnational elite has over decades entrenched its power over many aspects of our lives. Not least of these is the mass media, including, in the UK but not yet Australia, the national broadcaster; and now starting to include much of the social media which briefly provided a platform for anyone to get dissenting views to a mass audience.
Starting from here, do we even need to ask why a party and a leader that seriously challenged the power of this elite has just gone down to a stonking defeat in the UK? And yet, in the UK Labour Party we thought that, with our mass base, we could win. And we might have.
Let us be clear. I do not believe that Labour under Corbyn lost because we had the wrong programme for the UK or because the British people did not overwhelmingly support what was in that programme. All the survey evidence shows that isn’t so. In fact, in this election and in the years leading up to it, the Tories spent very little time attacking our programme. They even pretended to borrow many elements from it, notably the ending of austerity.
To put this in context, social democratic parties have been in steep decline throughout Western Europe in recent years, a trend bucked by the Portuguese Socialist Party, with its anti-austerity programme, and by Corbyn Labour and its 2017 election result.
What opponents did attack us on, successfully, were two things. The decisive one was Brexit. The other was a relentless smear campaign against the party and its leadership, including false allegations that we were anti-Semites and terrorist supporters.
In all this they were supported by anti-Corbyn Labour, by the Liberal Democrats, by almost all the mass media, including supposedly left journals such as The Guardian, and by the BBC. Its infamous Panorama investigation into Labour antisemitism plumbed new depths for dishonesty and gutter journalism. Even the supposedly left New Statesman declined to support us, citing antisemitism as a reason.
The empirical evidence on Labour antisemitism is absolutely clear. Yes, there are anti-Semites in the UK Labour Party, as in any other part of society. And some have allowed their antipathy towards Israeli policy and towards bankers, stereotyped as Jews, to flow over into antipathy to Jews as a whole - antisemitism. But the number is absolutely tiny, far less than in the Tory party and right-wing generally. And it has declined under Corbyn. The Labour party has done more to deal with this than any other party.
There is plenty of evidence that this issue was orchestrated by those opposed to Corbyn’s stance on Israel/Palestine, with support and funding from the Israeli state, and was exploited by all anti-Corbyn forces. Many of us think we should have stood up more robustly to false allegations. But MP Chris Williamson who suggested this in a conversation he thought was private was run out of the party – for antisemitism.
On Brexit, Labour was dealt a very difficult hand. The antisemitism issue resonated with the liberal middle class, but the Brexit issue pitted them against much of the working class, just as Adani and other environmental issues do in Australia.
Following the referendum, Labour under Corbyn adopted the principled position that, despite our supporters being mostly Remain, we were democratically bound to deliver Brexit, but we would do it in a way that protected jobs and living standards. That was the platform on which we went into the 2017 election, and came close to winning from 20 points behind.
Subsequently, demands that Labour adopt a second referendum policy mounted. Many of us saw behind this campaign a quite deliberate attempt to make Labour unelectable and we fought against it. Eventually though it became irresistible and it carried the day at the 2019 conference. Much of the front bench also vowed they would campaign for Remain in such a referendum and demanded, unsuccessfully, that Corbyn do the same. That sealed our fate.
Virtually every Labour seat lost in the election was in a Leave constituency. Leave voters felt, with justification, that they had been betrayed by politicians. And they voted for the person who stuck by what he said on the issue they cared about most.
Labour members had been spooked by the success of the Remain-supporting Liberal Democrats. But had we in 2019 stayed with Corbyn’s principled stand and given Remain voters the options of a soft Labour Brexit or the risk of a hard Tory Brexit, by wasting votes on the Lib Dems, we might have won. If we had lost it would have been with our honour and our reputation amongst our working class base intact, though no doubt with a blizzard of attacks from anti-Corbyn Labour and their supporting media pack.
In a way this was all about democracy. A rare UK excursion into direct democracy gave us the Brexit referendum. An innovation in UK Labour Party democracy gave us the Corbyn leadership, which turned the party into a mass movement for transformational change. And it was the Labour Party’s internal democracy which enabled members to countermand the sound political judgment and commitment to principle of the leader who enabled all this to happen.
How does this resonate in Australia?
In Australia, there is little democracy in the ALP and referenda are a well-managed and familiar part of our democracy. If the Brexit referendum had been run on Australian lines it would have been lost. And the UK experience shows that party democracy can be a two edged sword.
Are there equivalents of the antisemitism and Brexit issues in Australia? One might think not. UK Brexiteers look with envy at Australia’s points-based immigration system. But I have already pointed to environmental issues which divide metropolitan liberals from parts of the working class. And if the ALP should ever relax Australia’s policies towards refugees or ever fall out of love with the State of Israel, expect a similar barrage of attacks over here, as the Sanders movement has found in the USA.
Should we in Australia look on with horror at what happened in the UK and thank goodness that we have stuck with centrism? Or is Australia actually in need of the sort of democratic socialist programme that was proposed by the Corbyn Labour Party? What might be the specifics of that programme in Australia? Is it in fact the only effective way of tackling the climate emergency? Would it be popular? Could such a programme succeed here?
These are questions that the Victorian Fabians will be asking in our Autumn series of events. We hope to see many of you there.
The Fabian society was founded in 1884 by Edward Pease, Frank Podmore, and Hubert Bland, joined later by Bernard Shaw and Sydney Webb. In Australia, the first Fabian group was formed in 1891; the now Australian Fabian society is a national organisation.
The Fabian tradition is one of achieving social progress through research, education and debate. The Society has no policy beyond that implied in a general commitment to social democracy, and issues its publications as the opinions of their authors not of the organisation. The publishing program is designed to promote informed discussion on issues to further the goals of social democracy.