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2021: A View from the Left

2021 saw setbacks for the Left across much of the West, but victories in Latin America are a reminder that socialist policies continue to offer an alternative to a system in crisis.

Another pandemic-dominated year has ended, and a demoralised and fragmented British socialist left remains embattled, to say the least. A bipartisan establishment backlash has seen a relentless drive to return socialists to the margins of political discussion; one all the more determined because, in 2017, we came far closer to a socialist-led Labour government than Britain’s ruling class had expected. The left’s efforts to regroup after the defeat of Corbynism, meanwhile, continue to be hampered by the coronavirus.

Though governments around the world were forced to take unprecedented action in response to the pandemic, the initial hopes that it might herald a new political paradigm appear to have been misplaced. The UK government has been careful to ensure that the economic support it provided could be withdrawn relatively easily; the furlough scheme ended in September, while the £20 weekly ‘uplift’ to Universal Credit was spitefully cut in October. The government also continues to refuse to hike Britain’s miserly rate of statutory sick pay, even though most employers would appear to support such a move.

Moreover, the UK government has continued to shield profiteering pharmaceutical firms clinging on to their Covid vaccine patents, once more riding roughshod over the needs of the Global South in what has been dubbed vaccine apartheid by critics. The emergence of the Omicron variant in late November again emphasised the rich countries’ selfish short-sightedness in hoarding vaccines and their patents, and though Omicron has been reported to cause less severe illness than earlier coronavirus variants—at least in people with some previous immunity—this is much more down to luck than judgment.

Labour, under Keir Starmer, is doing its fair share to stamp out the possibility of social change. With UK households facing eye-watering increases to their energy bills this winter—and again in the spring—and raw sewage being pumped into rivers despite a public outcry, Starmer’s Labour Party has made a point of renouncing the Corbyn-era policy of returning utilities to public ownership. This has nothing to do with public opinion—which strongly favours renationalisation—but is all about proving Starmer’s ‘pro-business’ bona fides.

The Labour left, which has been subjected to a calculated and continual public humiliation by Starmer, is still struggling to find its feet. Starmer failed in his attempts to bring back the electoral college for party leadership elections, but did narrowly succeed in raising the parliamentary nominations threshold to a level which is almost certain to prove unattainable for anyone from the Socialist Campaign Group. Starmer also continues to withhold the party whip from Jeremy Corbyn, allegedly backtracking on an agreement with former Unite general secretary Len McCluskey to readmit him to the Parliamentary Labour Party.

To make matters worse, the Labour left has been hesitant about how to respond to Starmer’s Thermidorian reaction against it. While some members of the Socialist Campaign Group have been commendably combative, the group as a whole appears divided and uncertain of how to respond, perhaps for fear of being purged itself. Post-Corbyn, Momentum has also struggled to make its presence felt either within the Labour Party or outside it; its refoundation process is still ongoing and will continue into 2022.

A vacuum has thus emerged on the Labour left, with little in the way of leadership or any real rallying point for disaffected grassroots members and activists. Perhaps inevitably, tens of thousands have streamed out of the party altogether, angered by the treatment they’ve received. Some may have found alternative outlets in tenants’ unions and other campaigns; others, more worryingly, will have lapsed into inactivity and perhaps away from socialist politics altogether. This mass exodus has left Labour’s finances in a more precarious position, but its leadership is hoping that rich individual donors will help to fill the void.

There were some important successes, however, particularly in the trade unions. Sharon Graham comfortably won Unite’s general secretary election, seeing off right-winger Gerard Coyne, who was backed enthusiastically by the Murdoch press. In Unison, the left—despite losing the election for general secretary due to a split left-wing vote—won control of the union’s national executive committee and also claimed a slim majority on its Labour Link committee.

Graham, who famously pioneered Unite’s use of leverage tactics to ramp up the pressure on employers, won her election on a platform of rebuilding power and militancy in the workplace. After four decades of trade union decline, few would deny that this is badly needed. But the full implications for Unite’s political strategy are as yet unclear. In Britain, even the most militant trade unions are still constricted by some of the most draconian anti-union laws in Europe. The question of building political power and overturning anti-union legislation once and for all therefore remains a central one for the trade union movement.

Socialists could also take heart from some major breakthroughs overseas, particularly in Latin America. Left-winger Xiomara Castro won the Honduran presidential election in November, deposing the right-wing narco-dictatorship installed by a US-backed coup against her husband, Manuel Zelaya, in 2009. Before that, in April, Pedro Castillo narrowly won the Peruvian presidential election. But its results were subject to prolonged, groundless dispute by his far-right rival, Keiko Fujimori, and Castillo—lacking a majority in the legislature—has been hemmed in by right-wing forces, which have seemingly succeeded in isolating him.

The Chilean left has also scored some inspirational victories this year. In 2020—after months of large-scale protests and the emergence of a mass social movement firmly rooted in Chile’s working-class communities—78 percent of Chileans voted to replace the country’s Pinochet-era constitution. Elections were held in May 2021 to determine the composition of the constitutional assembly which will draw up the new document, and resulted in a left-of-centre majority—marking something of a humiliation for the right.

However, the Chilean right rallied somewhat in the presidential election in November, with far-right candidate Jose Antonio Kast—an open admirer of the Pinochet junta, and son of a Nazi—winning in the first round with an alarming 28 percent of the vote. Fortunately, left-winger Gabriel Boric, a former student leader, won comfortably in the second round. Potentially Chile’s most left-wing president since the country’s great martyr, Salvador Allende, Boric faces a difficult task in implementing his programme, with a legislature delicately balanced between left and right, and the spectre of right-wing reaction again stalking the country.

As 2020 closed on a sombre note with the passing of Leo Panitch, so 2021 ended with the loss of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, titan of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Despite the inevitable attempts to obscure his radicalism, Tutu was also an outspoken opponent of Israeli apartheid—for which he was predictably smeared in death as he was in life—and a socialist. As he put it himself: ‘Maybe it’s the awful face of capitalism, but I haven’t seen the other face.’ Those who still delude themselves that it’s possible to give capitalism a human face, if only they were at its helm, would do well to take heed.