Nearly 600 homeless human beings died on Britain’s streets in last year. In April last year, a struggling young mother in Preston took her own life fearing the hardship of being moved on to Universal Credit. Study after study predicts that the suicide rate will rise as this system is rolled out. The precariousness and stress of Zero-Hours jobs continues to take its toll and permit super-exploitation. More than 1.3 million people used foodbanks in Britain last year, many of them with regular work but on starvation wages. The callous and heartless treatment of the Windrush generation has been revealed but their struggle for their rights and for redress continues. More stories emerge of individuals who worked and paid their taxes and national insurance in Britain for decades before being wrongly deported to destitution and some to early death in the Caribbean. Nineteen months ago, the neglect of the poor and the marginalised in London’s richest borough resulted in the disaster at Grenfell Tower. At several of the monthly silent marches since the disaster the names of the victims are read out – the vast majority of them, impoverished migrants. Dozens of families who survived have still not been adequately re-housed.
But if there is one shameful and particularly distressing image to conjure up, beyond this catalogue of misery, as we enter 2019, it is surely reports of desperate schoolchildren rummaging through bins for food.
Yet, all of these stark realities of Tory Britain have been consistently relegated and obscured on practically every news programme by the endless discussion and speculation of what might happen around Brexit. Every time I’ve watched BBC Question Time in this last six months I have found it intensely irritating as three-quarters of the show is taken up with Brexit, and other issues which predated the Referendum and continue to worsen, barely get a look-in.
What drove 17 million+ people to deliver an unexpected Referendum result that shook the complacent elite, was, above all, a desire for change. But with a mass media constantly demonising the left, and especially the Labour leadership, right wing populists gained a hearing to give coherence to at least a significant segment of that anti-establishment vote.
Hard-core racists and nationalists fantasised that they could stop immigration, and this would somehow make their lives better. Farage and Johnson fanned their fears, feeding the lie that people would somehow”take back control”.
But the vote was much more than a narrow nationalist outburst. it was a cry from communities left behind in a society where from the 1980s onwards, their industries have been destroyed and the gap between rich and poor has widened and widened.
The referendum that caused so much havoc was dreamed up by UKIP, and implemented by a Tory Party happy to use it solve its internal political disputes. The Labour Party, with its much expanded base since 2015, but a leadership forced by the defeated right wing to spend so much energy on internal battles, were merely collateral damage to those pushing the right wing Hard-Brexit agenda.
Labour began to undo the damage and division within all classes with a radical manifesto that could appeal to people on both sides of the Brexit divide. That desire for change throughout the nation denied the Tories a majority in an election which they thought they had in the bag. The relentless war by the media to destroy Jeremy Corbyn, including a manufactured and exploitative “crisis” around antisemitism, had them believing their own hype. They predicted a landslide Tory victory in 2017. But similar impulses to strike a blow against the establishment, as were displayed in the Referendum, aided Labour’s powerful challenge just when people were writing them off.
Undeterred, and aided and abetted by the Labour right wing, the media have repeatedly tried to turn the Conservative’s crisis into Labour’s crisis. The Labour leadership has had to do the most careful balancing act not to fall victim, so soon after it had achieved its remarkable feat in the 2017 General Election of denying the Tories a majority. Labour stepped up its campaigning on many fronts against austerity and foodbank Britain. But the momentum from the Referendum hurtled on through 2018 towards the March 2019 deadline.
Minor opposition parties, such as the Lib Dems and the Greens, still polling very low, called on Labour to be a “real” opposition. Yes, that was the Lib-Dems who for five years worked hand in hand with the Tories imposing austerity. They urged Labour to adopt a strong Remain position (even if that meant ignoring the way that millions of working class people had voted), and campaign for a “People’s Vote” – one that sounds very nice but is actually likely to produce another close result and merely entrench divisions among the bulk of society suffering under the Tories.
Despite the commentariat deriding Labour for not making Brexit its key focus, and claiming that the Labour Party was avoiding the issue, Labour Conference in 2018 (the biggest in the party’s history) won almost unanimous support for a position after a long compositing session in which hundreds of members from all strands of the party were involved. It reaffirmed the six tests against which any Tory proposed deal would be judged, and set out the basis for the kind of deal Labour would seek to negotiate, (with a Customs Union and a close arrangement with the Single Market). It resolved to try to force a General Election as the divisions within the Tories widened, and, if that failed, promised to keep all options on the table – including seeking a “People’s Vote”.
The pressure that Labour was able to mount looked like it might force the Tories to crack in December. May was heading for a catastrophic defeat on her deal. But at the time of most division, the Greens, Lib Dems and Labour Right tried to push Corbyn to table a No-Confidence vote in the government, an absolutely futile gesture which would have suddenly united the Tories. But May temporarily out-maneuvered her opponents by pulling the vote on the deal for a month. She hoped she could scare many of her internal opponents, worried about simply crashing out, into backing her deal. Corbyn wisely kept the No-Confidence option in reserve.
Corbyn refuses to swap his glasses for rose-tinted spectacles when he looks at the EU. He knows how abysmally it has treated Greece and Italy, and how Fortress Europe treats migrants and refugees seeking sanctuary. As a longstanding anti-fascist and internationalist, he has witnessed and warned against the menacing growth of the Far Right in several EU countries that will manifest itself even more significantly and influentially after the next EU elections. And, he and other members of Labour’s leadership team, actually understand the arithmetic of Britain’s political landscape. The majority of Labour’s members voted Remain, though the Remain votes stack up most heavily in more economically comfortable but safe Labour seats. Four-fifths of the key Tory/Labour marginals that Labour needs to win to have a hope of forming a government, are in relatively more distressed areas where people voted heavily for Leave.
This week May will not be able to avoid the vote on her deal, and in advance of that Corbyn gave an important speech last Thursday in Wakefield, at the heart of a region where many communities voted overwhelmingly to leave. Despite an almost total media blackout on the detail of his speech, its themes are gradually emerging. He sought to change the conversation back to the stark realities of Tory Britain, after years of austerity. He emphasised the class divide, stating that whether you lived in Mansfield, a Leave area, or Tottenham, a Remain area, working class people were struggling, were up against it, but were not and should not be against each other.
After the Wakefield speech Corbyn did two other meetings that day. One, recorded live, in Pudsey, was to a large and enthusiastic hall of working class Labour members and supporters who gave rapturous applause to his key policies for transforming Britain. It has been making its way across social media in the absence of any mainstream media reporting it.
Channel 4, which until roughly a year ago had been the least hostile of the mainstream media, has since joined the anti-Corbyn bandwagon. Their attempted spoiler that day was a live discussion, also in Yorkshire, with 18-20 year olds at Leeds University, to show what they thought on the Brexit issue. With the media again believing its own hype, John Snow anticipated being able to demonstrate that the vast majority of young people were fervently pro-Remain and totally disillusioned with Corbyn. He got a lot more than he bargained for as young people there showed a very nuanced set of approaches much more diverse than Snow anticipated, and with very few keen to dismiss Corbyn’s strategy.
On the Marr Show yesterday, Corbyn would not let his bullying host restrict him to talking only of deals with Europe. He insisted on talking about Labour’s socialist, anti-austerity programme that it would seek to implement from Day One, in housing, investment, social security, and education, alongside its adjustment to the new situation vis a vis Europe.
Tomorrow, May’s deal will be voted down. If it had been held in December, it was predicted that May would have lost catastrophically, by more than 200 votes. Bribery and project fear will have reduced that considerably, but I am hoping it gets to three figures. Corbyn will push his attempt at a No-Confidence vote, to try to force an election. That will be close. I hope it succeeds. Many groups in Parliament are working to ensure that crashing with No-Deal is impossible. A small but spirited march and rally two days ago, by the People’s Assembly, amplified the themes that Corbyn has been pushing, and John McDonnell emphasised from the platform at Trafalgar Square, the importance of extra-parliamentary pressure. The genuinely anti-Tory forces need to be ready for whatever the next days and weeks brings. Hold on tight.