To call 2020 an annus horribilis would be a dramatic understatement. With 70,000 dead in Britain and nearly 1.8 million worldwide, Covid-19 has already wrought a huge human toll and—although vaccines are now being rolled out, at least in the richer countries—economic crisis and soaring unemployment mean we’re still a long way from being out of the woods.
For the socialist Left, the near-term political outlook is scarcely any more encouraging. This year appeared to mark a decisive end to the recent wave of left populism in the US and Europe. Labour’s heavy loss last December all but ensured the Left would lose control of the party in the subsequent leadership election, while in the US, Bernie Sanders was forced to admit defeat for a second time as the Democratic machine closed ranks around Joe Biden.
In the Labour Party, meanwhile, Keir Starmer’s restorationist leadership is making a public example of the Left, pour décourager les autres. Starmer continues to withhold the party whip from Jeremy Corbyn – partly out of spite, and no doubt partly to avoid incurring the wrath of the most vindictive elements of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Constituency parties across the country have defied orders not to discuss the matter; many of them have had office-holders suspended as a result.
As we look ahead to what 2021 might hold, it’s clear that the light at the end of the tunnel is still a fairly distant one. The stabilisation for which the centrist-conservative political establishment yearns seems likely to elude them for some time to come, as the social and economic consequences of Covid continue to play out around the world. The Left, for its part, is still licking its wounds after a succession of defeats snuffed out its recent hopes.
The Return of the Centre?
With Biden now on the threshold of office and the socialist Left at a low ebb on both sides of the Atlantic, the political centre appears to be enjoying something of a revival. Its institutional strength, solidly grounded in influential media outlets and party bureaucracies, was evidently sufficient to see off the challenge of Corbyn and Sanders. When you look at what both were up against, the biggest surprise is that it took so long to crush their respective insurgencies.
The failures of the Right in handling the pandemic have likewise boosted its centrist rivals. Of course, the centre has presided over no shortage of disasters of its own making: catastrophic wars of aggression, economic crises, collapsing living standards. It has made little effort to account for them. But after such an horrendous Covid response, the much vaunted Trump train has disintegrated to reveal a clown car at its core, honking and parping away while its exhaust explodes and its doors drop off.
It is likely that many voters thought, whatever reservations they had about the centrists’ own track record in office, they would at least provide a certain basic level of competence which has proven to be beyond the likes of Trump. Boris Johnson’s response has been similarly abysmal but, shielded as he is by much more supine media and with his opposition preoccupied with waging war on its own left wing, he has yet to pay a political price for it. The centre has nevertheless benefited immensely by being given such a low bar to clear.
Even so, the frailties of this tentative centrist revival are important to note. Biden’s win over Donald Trump was a closer-run thing than most had anticipated, with some slender margins in key battleground states. The Democrats now face a pair of run-off elections in Georgia; if they lose them, the incoming Biden administration will be confronted with a Republican-controlled Senate, hamstringing its recovery efforts and surely rendering it all but a lame-duck presidency.
Worryingly, the resilience of Trump’s popular support remains remarkable, seemingly impervious to his broken promises, disregard for human life, petty corruption and general idiocy. In fact, Trump added more than 11 million votes to his tally in November compared to his showing four years earlier. Democrats have long been complacent about demographics inevitably working in their favour, but Trump made substantial inroads among Latino voters while there were even gains (albeit from a very low baseline) among Black voters.
Nor is it clear that economic conditions will allow for a relatively stable period of centrist governance. The relatively benign growth of the Clinton-Blair years has been notable by its absence since 2008. Attempts to revive capitalist profitability through fiscal austerity, fully backed by centrists in the immediate post-crisis years, failed to restore economic dynamism while simultaneously producing a prolonged slump in working-class living standards.
For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth we’ve seen over the last few years, there’s no indication that the political centre has spent its time doing any hard thinking about how it intends to address key social problems. Quite the opposite: it seems to have emerged from its recent woes even more cocksure and certain of its own brilliance. As Dylan Riley has suggested, the centre’s comeback may end up simply reminding many people why they originally hated it.
In Britain, Labour’s criticisms of the Tories’ dire Covid response have been blunted by the fact that Keir Starmer has offered no real alternative. Starmer became Labour leader solemnly promising to ‘work constructively’ with Johnson in the ‘national interest’, swiftly distancing his party from the teaching unions to prove the point. The Tories have lavished fulsome rewards on their friends in the form of generous public contracts using the pandemic as cover, but Labour’s ‘constructive’ opposition hesitates to call it what it is – corruption.
Despite this, Labour has more or less closed the polling gap, with the occasional poll suggesting a narrow lead over the Tories. Starmer will take this as vindication of his approach rather than straightforward revulsion at the disgraceful performance of the government. He will be hoping that this proves to be Johnson’s ‘Black Wednesday’, which devastated the Major government by wrecking its reputation for economic competence.
Johnson will be relieved, though, to have sealed a post-Brexit trade agreement with the European Union, avoiding a crash-out on World Trade Organisation terms. With most pantomime out of action due to Covid, it was only fitting that we had a will-they-won’t-they no-deal saga to fill the festive void. But a no-deal Brexit was always improbable, and with Starmer anxious to avoid reminding voters that he was a loud and proud People’s Vote supporter until a year or so ago, he apparently feels honour bound to vote for the Tory deal.
The Tories will likewise hope that the ongoing vaccine roll-out will enable them to restore some sort of normality by the spring. Before that, however, they have a dangerous winter to get through, and the situation is deteriorating markedly; the NHS has been put under severe strain and public patience, which was already frayed, is wearing even thinner. A wave of evictions is also looming, with 840,000 tenants in England and Wales behind on their rent, and the pandemic is expected to leave two million more UK families in destitution.
We shouldn’t assume that Labour will automatically end up as the political beneficiary. The demagogues of the right, among them Nigel Farage, are waiting in the wings and hoping to make hay from the impending desperation and disorientation. Not only are we likely to see unemployment on a scale not witnessed since the Thatcher years, but mounting small business failures and the relentless expansion of online monopolies like Amazon threaten what Mike Davis has called ‘an almost Weimarian auto-da-fé of the petty bourgeoisie’.
However, the idea that the Labour Party and the wider labour movement might play an active, on-the-ground role in helping struggling people through the crisis appears to be alien to Keir Starmer’s Westminster-centric conception of leadership. Tenants’ unions and local mutual aid groups, supported by some constituency Labour parties, union branches and individual party members, are doing their best to provide support, but they would doubtless be able to do so more effectively if they had the full heft of organised labour behind them.
Starmer’s distaste for grassroots agitation leaves the door ajar to right-populist forces, as the opportunity to reinvent Labour as a ‘party of the movements’ went out with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. In truth, however, relatively little progress was made in this direction even during Corbyn’s tenure, and after 2017—when it appeared that a left Labour government was merely a matter of time—it was in practice abandoned altogether. This failure to reform the party ensured that whatever gains Corbynism did make were prone to being wiped away.
It would be remiss not to mention the real political bright spots of 2020, though we had to look overseas to find them. The inspirational popular resistance to the coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia forced the coup regime to concede elections (after repeated stalling), which saw MAS candidate Luis Arce elected president. In Chile, voters overwhelmingly demanded the replacement of the country’s Pinochet-era constitution, with its entrenched neoliberalism, by a new document to be determined by a constitutional convention.
There were other heartening popular victories elsewhere, too. Argentina, after decades of feminist struggle and huge demonstrations over the last few years, has become the latest Latin American country to legalise abortion. An attempt to tighten Poland’s already draconian anti-abortion laws, effectively banning it in almost all cases, was met with fierce resistance, forcing the country’s far-right government to delay the new law’s implementation.
Closer to home, the socialist critique of austerity and its pernicious long-term consequences—including the havoc it wrought on public services and the damage it did to the social fabric as a whole—has again been vindicated by the pandemic. Consistently, those least able to bear the burden of Covid have been left to do so. Statutory sick pay in Britain remains a pittance, among the most miserly in Europe, and the £20 emergency increase to Universal Credit is currently set to expire in April.
But with socialists once more confined to the sidelines, there is a danger that for the second time in just over a decade, Labour lets an epoch-defining crisis pass it by while the Right imposes its own political definition on it. Centrists in Britain were spooked by the fact that Corbyn came so close to succeeding in 2017, having largely dispensed with their own received wisdom. For this, he and his supporters cannot be forgiven, hence the frantic, revanchist determination to salt the earth on which Corbynism once stood.
This campaign of vilification cannot be allowed to succeed. In the coming period, many more lives will be plunged into turmoil as a result of the crisis: loved ones, jobs and homes lost, plans for the future suddenly upended. These people will be looking for answers, and for a political rallying point. The socialist Left in Britain faces a painstaking rebuilding effort, but it must do what it can to provide them, lest right-wing opportunists beat it to the punch.
The recent death of Leo Panitch, such a vital intellectual influence on the Labour Left, was an especially disheartening note on which to end the year. Though he leaves behind a rich body of work, we have lost his wisdom and insight at what feels like the worst possible time. But Panitch himself would have insisted that we spurn the temptations of left melancholy. As he concluded in what transpired to be his sole Tribune interview: ‘We have to be sober about this; it’s a long fight.’