As we go to press the election campaign has just two weeks to run, but predicting the outcome would be a fool’s game. What is beyond doubt, however, is the dramatic contrast between the campaigns of Labour, fighting for a whole range of progressive polices, and the Tories, who are sticking to the single slogan of “getting Brexit done”.
The publication of the Labour manifesto gave the campaign a real boost. It was described by Polly Toynbee of the Guardian, by no means on the left of the party, as “electrifying”. She argued that if Corbyn was criticised for his attacks on the bankers, billionaires and out-of-control multinationals he was not out of step with the voters — 63 percent of whom, according to a Hansard survey, think the system “is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful”.
She argued that the manifesto’s “dazzling array of policies” could jolt the election into life. It has certainly put a spring in the step of all those campaigning for a Labour victory. One aspect of this is the scale of voter registration since the election was called — an astonishing 3,850,859 applications up to the deadline on 26 November, a third higher than the increase in the run up to the 2017 election. Significantly, two-thirds of the total were people 34 and under — a demographic much more likely to vote Labour.
Labour was given another boost with the publication of unredacted documents showing the scale of the involvement of British civil servants in discussions with US pharmaceutical companies. This was the clearest proof yet that the NHS is not safe in Tory hands and a vindication of Labour’s determination to put the defence and expansion of the health service at the centre of its campaign.
Contrast the enthusiasm and hope of the Labour campaign with the response of the rich and powerful. The merest suggestion of a Corbyn victory has revealed the true face of the ruling class. This is epitomised by the contortions of its most authoritative organ, the Financial Times.
After the launch of Labour’s manifesto, its editorial denounced it as a “blueprint for socialism in one country. The combination of punitive tax increases, sweeping nationalisation and an end to the Thatcher-era union reforms turn the clock back 40 years.” It decried the increase in taxes needed to fund £83 billion spending commitments.
Robert Shrimsley argued that while the Tories under Johnson “should be there for the taking” what Labour presented was “instead, a self-indulgent ideologically obsessed clique is holding open the door of Number 10 for Mr Johnson”. He concludes that the Corbyn programme is a “shameful betrayal” of the voters who need change most.
Ironically, both the editorial and the article concede that Labour has identified areas of social injustice that need fixing — decline of real wages, homelessness, dire public services, increasing inequality and failing privatisation. So why the vitriol? They may neither like nor trust Johnson, particularly because of Brexit, but they don’t want a socialist campaigner in Downing Street.
But if we look at the manifesto more closely and compare it to the needs of the struggling millions in the country, its proposals are indeed very modest. An Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) report published in November highlights the regional divides in Britain and reveals that mortality rates are worse in Blackpool, Manchester and Hull than in many parts of Turkey, Romania and Poland. The divide in terms of disposable income has grown in recent years, with an average gap of £48,000 per person between those living in wealthier areas and those in the most deprived.
If we compare the £83 billion spending commitment from Labour’s manifesto to the scale of wealth of the richest in society it pales into insignificance. The Sunday Times Rich list for 2019 has the combined wealth of the richest 1,000 as £771 billion, having increased by a staggering £253 billion in the past five years. This increase alone would pay for Labour’s policy commitments three times over.
The manifesto has dropped or watered down some of the policies on climate change, private education, and free movement of labour agreed at the Labour Party conference to make it more palatable to business — and some unions. But it is indeed more combative in tone than other recent manifestos and attacks the big polluters, financial speculators and corporate tax dodgers.
The hostility to Corbyn personally and the impact of his relentless demonisation in the media has undoubtedly created tension in the election. Since he became leader Corbyn has been subjected to a persistent and continuing campaign of vilification (emanating originally from within the Parliamentary Labour Party), currently focusing on the false charges of antisemitism. He is portrayed simultaneously as a “threat” and “useless’’, as “a ditherer” and “not prime ministerial”.
There is no doubt that these attacks will intensify in the coming days. And they are having an effect. Campaigners on the streets and doorstep report the contrast between support for Labour’s policies and hostility to Corbyn — despite the fact that without him as leader the policies would not have seen light of day. To counter these attacks it’s vital that the campaigns, rallies, demonstrations and above all strikes are put at the centre of the campaign.
Mass canvassing alone, no matter how numerically impressive, will not cut it. Corbyn has a mountain to climb to win this election, and he can only do that with the help of an atmosphere of resistance, anti-Tory rage, a collective desire to fight austerity and the climate crisis. This spirit of hope is what enabled Corbyn to buck expectations in 2017 and it’s what is required in the last days of the campaign this time round.
Whatever the outcome of the election, the political focus has to shift in the direction of extra-parliamentary action. If Corbyn wins he can only be defended effectively from the inevitable attacks his government would face through mass mobilisations on the streets and in the workplaces. The more these networks and workers’ confidence are built up before the election, the better placed we will be to take on the battles ahead.