THE UK snap elections held on 8 June ended dramatically in a hung parliament. The ruling Conservative Party lost its majority and the far-right UK Independence Party was effectively wiped out as the Labour Party led by veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn surged ahead with a vote share of 40% (an increase of nearly 10%) increasing its seats by 30 to 262. The election saw a massive increase in participation and a surge in voting among young people aged 18-24, inspired by Corbyn’s strongly anti-austerity, redistributive manifesto, and its slogan ‘For the Many, Not the Few’. While the ruling Conservative Party emerged as the biggest party in Parliament, they were left without an absolute majority and are currently struggling to form a workable government by negotiating an arrangement for support from the far-right sectarian Democratic Unionist Party, a Northern Ireland-based party known for its misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Catholic, and religious fundamentalist positions, even as the crucial negotiations with the European Union over Brexit have already begun. Fresh elections are predicted within months.
While PM Theresa May fought a disastrous campaign, avoiding meeting the public, refusing to debate publicly with Corbyn, and repeatedly performing U-turns (notably on the ‘dementia tax’ forcing elderly people to pay for social care) the real story of the elections has been not so much the failure of the Tories, but the rallying of voters around the vision of an alternative to austerity. Despite presiding over an economy in which more than a million people are now reliant on food banks (charities which provide free food parcels) in order to survive and 30% of children live in poverty, Theresa May called the elections confident of massively increasing her majority. The relentless demonization and mockery of Corbyn by the entire British establishment and media, as well as continual backstabbing by the powerful right-wing in his own party, with several prominent Blairites admitting that they would prefer a Labour defeat to a Corbyn-led victory, appeared to have effectively sidelined him. But as soon as the campaign began and the media was legally required to give at least some exposure to Corbyn’s actual manifesto, the mood began to shift and the distance between the two parties in opinion polls began rapidly shrinking. Policies geared to preserving and extending state social protection through taxing the super rich and corporates, saving the National Health Service, scrapping tuition fees for students, mass building of social housing, increasing the minimum wage, and renationalizing the railways and other public utilities and services proved highly popular. While accepting the outcome of the Brexit referendum as a fait accompli, the manifesto rejected the ‘hard Brexit’ advocated by May, arguing for prioritizing jobs and protecting rights and promising that EU citizens resident in Britain would keep the right to remain. The two terror attacks which took place during the campaign in Manchester and at London Bridge did not, as expected, shore up jingoistic support for the Conservatives. Corbyn’s response, where he both highlighted the impacts of Tory spending cuts on policing and security as well as, more boldly, reiterating his conviction that British foreign policy has exposed it to such attacks and must change, received widespread public approval, as the murky dealings of the secret services and Britain’s not-so-covert use of Islamist militants (for example to overthrow Gaddafi in Libya) were put under the spotlight. By election day, unprecedented mass rallies all along Corbyn’s campaign trail, evidence of overwhelming youth support for Corbyn, and vibrant social media campaigning had made it clear that the contest would be very closely fought. Eight Tory Ministers, including the architect of their manifesto lost their seats to Labour, and erstwhile Conservative strongholds like Canterbury, and Kensington in London also fell to Labour as working class ethnic minority voters as well as students and youth turned out to vote in large numbers.
The rise of Corbyn is seen by many as spelling the end of Blairism and the neoliberal consensus which has dominated British parliamentary politics for the last two decades. But Corbyn’s anti-imperialist, anti-war politics and steadfast commitment to anti-racist, pro-refugee and anti-fascist struggles also distinguish him clearly from the much longer history of the Labour Party, which from the First World War onwards, was complicit in Britain’s genocidal imperial project, and later also consistently betrayed the interests of the Asian and African Caribbean working class established in Britain from the 1950s onwards. Emblematic of these differences has been Corbyn’s longstanding support for Palestine, for which he has been constantly pilloried by pro-Israeli groupings and media. Those who support Corbyn’s agenda are flocking to join the party, yet much of the parliamentary party remains unchanged. The manifesto, while progressive, also reflected the struggle between opposing wings of the party, for example in its failure to reject many oppressive aspects of immigration laws and practices, and its retention of Trident nuclear warheads. Further, while some of the many Labour MPs who continuously tried to undermine Corbyn’s leadership (some even attacking him during their own campaigns for re-election) are now seeking to eat their words in the hope of benefitting from his obvious popularity, there is clearly a core section of neoliberal Blairites who still hope to regain control of the party.
Meanwhile, the government is clearly in crisis, with the terrible human costs of British neoliberalism and racism starkly exposed by the devastating Grenfell tower block fire less than five days after the elections (see Box) and Theresa May’s callous and cowardly response underlining her party’s contempt for working class black and minority ethnic communities. While the Tories would clearly like to replace her, they appear to have no alternative leader who is not equally discredited. At the time of writing, the agreement with the DUP which could prop up a new Conservative government has still not been agreed. This has become even more urgent with the impending Queen’s Speech, a key moment when laws the government will seek to pass in the coming parliamentary session are announced, and when failure to win the backing of a majority of MPs is seen as a vote of no confidence.
Large protests are currently taking place almost daily. Whether it is in the protests against the Grenfell fire, or against the white supremacist Islamophobic terror attack on Finsbury Park Mosque, or against the Conservative agreement with the DUP, the cry of ‘May Must Go’ reverberates everywhere. The challenge now in Britain is to build a coherent and wide-ranging movement on the ground which will sustain the momentum of the election campaign and consolidate the forces of the radical, anti-racist, anti-imperialist left. The challenge now in Britain is to build a coherent and wide-ranging movement on the ground which will sustain the momentum of the election campaign, consolidate the forces of the radical, anti-racist, anti-imperialist left, and be able to hold any future Labour government to account on its progressive promises.
IN the early hours of 14th June, a fire started in Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey public housing block in West London. The fire spread with terrifying speed to the higher floors, trapping the people living in the flats there. Local residents watched helplessly from below as the trapped families, many with small children, screamed for help with firefighters unable to reach them. At the time of writing the death toll released by the police is 79 but it is expected to continue to rise, many believe into 3 figures. From the beginning it was clear that this was a completely avoidable tragedy, fuelled by corporate greed, austerity, outsourcing and deregulation, a crime which could be perpetrated only because of the lack of value placed on the lives of those who died and the many more who lost everything in the flames, working class, poor and overwhelmingly black and brown and Muslim. For years, the tenants in the building had been raising concerns about safety - smoke coming from electrical appliances and outlets, the lack of sprinklers, the poor state of fire escapes, and the elimination of a car park - which slowed emergency response vehicles getting to the tower. The private company to which Kensington and Chelsea Council (the local government body) had delegated management of the tower not only ignored these but threatened those tenants who were vocal with legal action and spread malicious rumours about them. Two young women who spoke out and faced this are now among the dead. But this was not all – instead of addressing safety concerns the company carried out a £10million regeneration project which was geared to improving the external appearance of the block, to satisfy wealthy residents and property buyers in nearby affluent streets of luxury flats and houses whose view it was spoiling! It emerged that this refurbishment included using a cladding material to the exterior of the building which is banned because of the hazardous filling it contains, in order to make a paltry saving of £2 per square metre – it is this which is believed to have allowed the blaze to spread so quickly throughout the tower instead of being contained to the flat in which it originated, as was supposed to happen.
Kensington and Chelsea, where this happened, is the richest and most unequal part of London – home to bankers and other top earners. These are the voters whom the Conservative led council, like the party itself, answers to. Earlier this year Conservative MPs voted down a Labour amendment to force landlords to make sure their properties are "fit for human habitation". At least 71 of the Tory MPs who voted against are private landlords themselves. Yet in the recent national elections, for the first time, as poor people of colour in the area came out to vote in large numbers, a Labour MP was elected in the area by a wafer thin margin of only 20 votes.
The callousness of the (still Conservative controlled) local and national governments towards poor people of colour was further starkly illustrated in the aftermath of the tragedy. While the local multicultural community has mobilized with tremendous energy to help the survivors and donations have flowed in from across the country, the official response has been shockingly inadequate and inhumane, with the leader of the local council even claiming that the Grenfell tenants had ‘refused’ the installation of sprinklers. Some survivors are having to resort to sleeping in parks and in cars. And whereas Corbyn called for the many luxury homes kept empty in the borough by property speculators and tax-avoiding companies to be taken over for housing those who have lost everything, and visited the area promptly to meet and listen to survivors, PM Theresa May refused to meet survivors citing ‘security concerns’ and was booed by crowds shouting ‘coward’ and ‘May must go’ as she left an official meeting in the area by a side entrance. Now some of those rendered homeless are being told that they will only be rehoused if they agree to be relocated away from their communities to distant parts of the country away where there are very few jobs. The fear now is that as in the case of Hurricane Katrina in the US, the tragedy will be used to carry out ‘social cleansing’ of the area for the benefit of property speculators, corporates and wealthy residents.