What does winning mean?

Simon Hannah poses some longer term questions for Labour

This isn’t going to be an article about how Labour can win the next election. If I knew the answer to that I would be paid £80k a year and I would be working in the Leader’s office. I think we need to dig a little deeper, beyond the immediate chaos of the current electoral cycle to think about longer term questions.

When we talk about winning, what does it mean? To get 350 MPs in parliament? Perhaps a longue durée of several governments? Of course winning elections matters, Attlee and Thatcher proved that. But how do we build a society that escapes from the swings and roundabouts of parliamentary democracy? We had 18 years of Conservatives, 13 years of Labour, then back to nine years of the Conservatives. Now we are in a crisis where neither party can establish its hegemony, where hung parliaments and minority parliaments and unprincipled coalitions look like they might become the norm.

If we are about changing society, for a fundamental and irreversible shift in power and resources from the rich to working people (not just in Britain but internationally), Labour needs to win by looking beyond the narrow question of the Westminster timetable.

There are questions being posed now that outstrip the confines of parliament. Brexit alone shows how inadequate our current political systems are for dealing with deep schisms that cut through society, politics and economics.

The last months of 2019 will be crucial. It probably isn’t a stretch to say that the future of the country depends on it. Brexit is Britain’s version of Trumpism – a right populist backlash against the ‘establishment’ which paves the way for a sharp turn towards authoritarianism on the back of decades of anti-immigrant politics. Now, thanks to Brexit, we have our own version of Trump. Sure, he is a British version, a bumbling foppish elitist megalomaniac instead of a swaggering American real estate agent megalomaniac, but he is on the same political spectrum. Behind Johnson lies figures like Steve Bannon and through him looms Bolsonaro and Salvini. The grotesque growing pantheon of the far right.

With climate change looming we now face a tangled Gordion knot of far right climate change deniers taking power whilst each month between now and 2030 is a precious time that cannot be wasted. If we are serious about the extent to which capitalism as a socio-economic system is destroying the planet then Labour needs to get serious about the extent to which it wants to get rid of capitalism – not ameliorate it, not regulate it, but end it.

This is going to take a political struggle beyond the cycles of the parliamentary calendar. Whether in power or not Labour activists need to be front and centre in campaigns. We need to base ourselves on the socialist maxim that ‘the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class’. Power does not just exist in parliament. Indeed, the power that comes from parliament is always a dangerous force, corrupting as much as it strengthens. It isn’t for nothing that Fenner Brockway declared that he had been in prison for three years and parliament for the same amount of time and he had seen parliament rot men’s souls more quickly than being behind bars (and I am not referring to The Churchill Room drinking den in parliament).

When we think about extra-parliamentary politics we can already see the contours of the battlefield ahead. Climate change, and with it a huge surge in refugees, food prices and global instability. This means the fight over immigration and refugee rights, over open or closed borders, is going to increasingly dominate the next decade or more. The growth of the far right is something that isn’t going away. It would be naive to think that the people turning out for Brexit protests or the Tommy Robinson demonstrations are people solely motivated by disillusionment with mainstream politics. They are also people who feel the workers’ movement can do nothing for them and are susceptible to the demagogy of the racists and nationalists.

If Labour wants to win then the social and political crises need to be seen as opportunities for a radical new vision. Not warmed up Keynesian social democracy but an entirely new vision of socialist democracy and economic planning that cannot be undone by a bad election. One that creates a socialist hegemony, not just in Britain but globally.

Simon Hannah

Simon Hannah is author of A Party With Socialists In It: A History of the Labour Left.