By ANN MONTAGUE
The British Labour Party has emerged with more than 200,000 new members and 30 additional seats in Parliament. This has surprised the Tories as well as some of the Labour Party Members of Parliament (MPs), who were shocked to hear union members shouting, “We killed Blairism.”
The party’s resurgence gathered steam with the 2015 Labour Party leadership election after the resignation of Ed Milliband and the party’s defeat in the 2015 elections. Jeremy Corbyn was considered a dark horse candidate in a field of four candidates but won in a landslide with 59.5% of the vote. Less than a year later, Corbyn won another leadership election, this time with even more votes.
Corbyn won the elections with such high numbers because of the decision of major unions, such as Unite and UNISON to endorse him as the only candidate who will oppose austerity and the Tories’ planned anti-union legislation. Unite is a merger of the Transport and General Workers unions and is the largest union in Britain and Ireland, with 1.4 million members. UNISON is a public-sector union, with 1.3 million members.
While there were bureaucratic attempts to keep Corbyn off the ballot, none were successful. The combination of major unions’ energizing their membership, young workers and students volunteering to walk the neighborhoods, and the fact that in June 2015—for the first time in several years—an anti-austerity protest drew tens of thousands of people in to the streets, all worked together to see an emerging left Labour leadership victory.
All the cries of warning from former Prime Minister and “New Labour” leader Tony Blair and others that Corbyn would be the death of the Labour Party fell on deaf ears.
The Labour Party is a membership-based party. Before the leadership election, 100,000 people signed up as registered supporters but twice that many signed up as full members. Unlike in the Democratic Party in the U.S., all members of the Labour Party vote for the leader of the party—one member, one vote. Membership numbers increased again before the June 9 British general election and continue pouring in after the election.
“Change is the word,” said Kate Taylor, a feminist and Labour councilor who was elected at 18, three years ago. “I am about sick of having to constantly put aside my own opinions and beliefs for the Labour Party. I would like to get the Labour Party back to what it was made to be, for working people.”
The Labour Manifesto includes demands that would benefit the working class, such as massive public investments, taxing the rich, and ending privatization of the Royal Mail, British Rail, regional water systems, and the creeping privatization that is eroding the National Health Service. It also calls for nationalizing power companies under local control, with increased emphasis on renewable energy.
Jeremy Corbyn has a background as a trade-union official, an activist with the Stop the War coalition, and as a Labour Member of Parliament. He calls himself a “democratic socialist.”
Corbyn started receiving additional union endorsements, which meant that he had a well funded electoral machine. This also indicated that the leaderships of trade unions were backing Jeremy Corbyn. They were moving from a stance of bargaining for minor concessions within the existing structure of the Labour Party to trying to fundamentally alter it.
Nicolas Watt, told the Guardian that the rationale for the Communication Workers Union (CWU) endorsement was clear: “A Corbyn victory will help break the grip of the Blairites … once and for all.” There are 14 unions affiliated with the Labour Party, representing 3.5 million members. In addition, they were joined by non-affiliated unions like the PCS civil servants’ union and RMT transport union who were actively urging their members, friends, and families to vote Labour.
Tories slide in general election
Conservative Party Prime Minister Theresa May might have kept her position and her clear Conservative majority in the House of Commons for another three years. However, she decided to call a snap election to get a larger majority and strengthen her hand as she negotiates Britain’s exit from the European Union. At the time, polls were predicting a landslide victory over the Labour Party of 35%. Undoubtedly, May made the decision based on the public attacks on Jeremy Corbyn led by Tony Blair and the remnants of his “New Labour” MPs in Parliament.
The Tory plurality plummeted to just 2% over Labour before the June election, and they lost 13 seats in the vote, which left them seven short of a majority. Labour gained 30 seats. After the election, the BBC, which rarely mentioned Jeremy Corbyn’s name during the election, did say that the diversity of the House of Commons had greatly changed in the election. There are now 208 women Labour MPs (45 percent); 52 MPs are ethnic minorities, and 45 are LGBT. In addition, the past president of UNISOM won election in a major upset of the Conservative Party.
While the Labour Party had its 35-page Manifesto displaying an anti-austerity program for British workers, Theresa May’s campaign basically sold her administration as “strong and stable leadership” and “Brexit means Brexit.” While there were calls for her to step down from within her own party, she decided to stay and form a minority government with the Democratic Unionist Party in Ireland.
The DUP is an extreme right-wing party that doesn’t believe in evolution or climate change, and opposes marriage equality, a woman’s right to abortion, and birth control. Its candidates were endorsed by the Ulster Defence Association, a violent gang involved in racketeering and drug dealing. The new government is seen by everyone as a weak coalition that threatens the peace process in Ireland.
The Grenfell Tower disaster
Five days after the election came reports of the fire at Grenfell Tower. Angry protest rallies and marches immediate took place that included friends, neighbors, and relatives of the victims. They demanded accountability; they did not want an inquiry, they wanted an inquest. Since then, the government has deemed 120 more public-housing buildings in Britain unsafe, and people have been evacuated from some of them.
Jeremy Corbyn called for immediate housing for those who cannot return to their homes. He told the fire victims to occupy the empty homes in the area: “People with a lot of money buy a house, buy a flat, keep it empty. There are properties like that all over London.”
The prime minister, in contrast, has once again managed to enrage people dealing with tragedy. May went to the site of the disaster but because of “security concerns” did not meet with the bereaved and homeless.
Many have blamed the disaster on budget cuts enacted by the Tory government, as well as by the local council, which ignored the needs of working people and the poor. May has replied by pointing out that Tony Blair’s New Labour government made a number of deregulatory decisions adversely affecting public safety. For example, a 2005 law ended the requirement for regular checks by fire inspectors and changed it to a system of self-policing by local councils.
As investigations into the Grenfell tragedy continued, it came out that residents had complained for years that the 24-story public-housing block was just waiting for catastrophe to hit. It lacked fire alarms and sprinklers. There was only a single staircase to be used as a fire escape.
There were also concerns about the aluminum façade, which whisked the flames upward. One observer said, “It burned like a fire that you pour petrol on.” The flames consumed the tower so quickly, and smoke was so thick, that firefighters had difficulty getting to the upper floors to rescue people.
Formal inquiry has begun into the panels, consisting of two sheets of aluminum that sandwich a combustable core. The panels were produced by the American manufacturing giant Alcoa, now renamed Arconic, which has marketed them in Britain for years. Arconic’s website says that their use “depends on local building codes.”
The panels were first used for public housing blocks when Tony Blair was in office. For years, members of Parliament have tried to get restrictions on the cladding, which is banned in many countries. Manufacturers argued against more tests or regulations. Using fire-resistant materials was more expensive, so it was opposed by the industry.
National demonstration called for July 1
Soon after the Grenfell Tower disaster the call went out from the People’s Assembly Against Austerity for a national demonstration to oppose the new Tory-DUP government. It is called: Not one more day: #TORIESOUT/NO MORE AUSTERITY.
Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is known for his core belief: “A movement will eventually beat a party.” On June 14, McDonnell addressed the annual conference of the food workers union BFAWU. He told the workers, “What we need now is the TUC [Trades Union Congress] mobilized, every union mobilized, get out in the streets. Just think if the TUC put out the call—that we want a million in the streets of London in two weeks.”
Photo: Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Neil Hall / Reuters