The British general election scheduled for 12 December should result in prime minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party being reduced to a rump. It is taking place against a backdrop of internal division, strife, the departure of many leading Tories from high office and a level of bickering and back-stabbing reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s final weeks in the early 1990s. Even Johnson’s own brother, Tory MP Jo Johnson, couldn’t stomach being in a government led by his opportunist sibling and resigned in September.
It is a crisis that has resulted in three Tory leaders in as many years. This may not seem like a big deal to Australians, but it created shock waves in one of the oldest and most stable political institutions in the modern world. The Tories received a mere 1.5 million votes in the 2019 European parliament elections – equivalent to the party’s membership in 1968!
US president Donald Trump’s ringing endorsement of Johnson on a recent radio programme and his threat to visit during the campaign should alone be sufficient to ensure the result is a disaster for the Conservatives, given that around 300,000 people took part in a weekday protest against his visit to London in 2018.
However, the failure of Jeremy Corbyn’s 650,000-strong Labour Party to build on the wave of anti-Tory feeling that swept him into the leadership in 2015 means that a Labour victory is far from guaranteed. This is not because Corbyn is too left wing to get elected or because “quiet British” people will turn out in their droves to defeat socialism. It is because the terrain of the fight is how best to strengthen British capitalism: by leaving the European Union or staying in it.
Both the rabid Tory nationalists and the neoliberals in Labour hope that this will be a “Brexit election”. That has been made more likely as a consequence of Labour and the union leaders’ approach, which has prioritised electoral success over building campaigns, mass protests and strikes during the biggest crisis of the Tory party since the 1840s.
The left reformists around Corbyn want to unite the Labour Party under his leadership. That in part means making peace with the centre and right wing. Without that party unity, their project of a reformist Labour government is all but impossible. But that has strengthened the hand of the right. The right wing Labour parliamentarians, who are first and foremost committed to running British capitalism, have increasingly set Corbyn’s agenda. Their obsession with stopping Brexit in the interests of big business has infected the Labour Party and drained momentum from Corbyn's project.
Even for capitalists who support the EU, it is very advantageous to have a Brexit election: it would make the contest's central debate about whether the national interest of British capitalism is best served by leaving or remaining in the EU. The raging obsession of the political class with this question has pushed matters of pressing concern to ordinary people – the continuing privatisation of the National Health Service, Grenfell, zero-hours contracts and poverty pay – to the margins.
Corbyn himself has tried to drag the election back to class questions. A little goes a long way: the British working class have strong grievances that want redress. At the opening of the campaign, Corbyn launched attacks on prominent British capitalists and focussed on the NHS. But an effective struggle to defend social welfare programmes, confront the bourgeoisie and advance the cause of the working class can’t be waged by any parliamentarist party, let alone one still dominated by Labour politicians trained under Kinnock and Blair.
According to the shibboleths of the liberal media, no left wing person could support Brexit. The dominant narrative is that it is battle of multiculturalists versus racists, cosmopolitans versus Little Englanders, urban versus rural and, most perniciously, the educated, sophisticated southern middle class versus the brutish, backward northern working class. As with most explanations for the election of Trump, this “Remain vs. Brexit” narrative is a simplified and distorted view of history, designed to resurrect the sensible centre of British politics represented by the rejuvenated Blairites of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the “wet” Tories.
The Brexit vote in 2016 meant different things to different people. For one wing of the Tories and the far right, it was certainly about ramping up vicious anti-immigrant, pro-deregulation policies. They played on the sense of crisis in British society resulting from the 2008 global financial crisis to portray themselves as political outsiders, a voice for those unheard and disaffected by the failings of the political mainstream. Much research since the Brexit vote suggests that it certainly galvanised a racist constituency. But for many people, a vote for Brexit was not primarily motivated by racism or a desire to return to the imagined glory days of the British empire. Rather, their disaffection with neoliberalism and austerity meant they were voting against the status quo.
The Remain campaign unified many of those responsible for the decades-long destruction of working class communities: most of the Tory party, the overwhelming majority of the British ruling class, the City of London and the Liberal Democrats (who notoriously betrayed their key 2010 election promise to scrap university tuition fees in order to join David Cameron’s Conservative government). For many, a vote for Brexit was a vote against the political establishment and its self-serving insistence that Brexit would be a “disaster” for the economy. For many working people, especially in towns and cities ravaged by the wilful destruction of manufacturing and heavy industry, disaster was already a daily reality.
The utter disbelief that greeted the referendum result attested to just how out of touch politicians and the liberal media were, as does the Remainers’ dogged insistence that anyone who voted for Brexit was just racist, ignorant or probably both. Yet the Tories under Cameron and Labour under Tony Blair – both Remainers – were responsible for the development of anti-immigrant feeling. Both whipped up Islamophobia, both tightened immigration controls and both responded with borders and barriers to refugee crises their governments created. Corbyn’s once principled defence of freedom of movement crumbled under the pressure of the Remainers inside the Labour Party – hardly an advert for their anti-racist credentials!
The earthquake that was Brexit was not the only expression of the fracturing of stability in the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy. The 2011 riots sparked by the shooting of an unarmed young Black man, Mark Duggan, quickly spread to involve thousands of young people and others suffering from deteriorating living conditions while surrounded by the gleaming skyscrapers that now dominate even the poorest of Britain’s cities. Corbyn’s shock election to Labour’s leadership was a different expression of alienation from establishment politics and a reflection of the widespread desire to reverse decades of attacks on social welfare, living standards and pay.
Yet this sentiment has been funnelled away from mass struggle and into Corbyn’s reformist project. The heady euphoria that moved hundreds of thousands to join Labour to back his leadership has been repeatedly dissipated by Corbyn prioritising party unity over fighting against the right wing’s attacks and rebuilding mass struggle on the streets. This has only strengthened the position of those determined to see the party fulfil its role as capitalism’s plan B. And while early signs are Labour will run a more left wing campaign than might have been expected, it may not be sufficient to reinvigorate those demoralised in the meantime.
This is particularly tragic because the recent Tory and Coalition governments have provoked enormous anger across Britain, creating the potential for resistance. Since the global financial crisis of 2008, working class people have suffered enormously – nearly 20 percent of pensioners and 30 percent of children (that’s 4.1 million) are living below the poverty line. Real wages have fallen by 23 percent in the last 10 years, and around one million people in regular employment have joined millions of unemployed regularly depending on food banks to feed their families.
The systematic underfunding of the National Health Service provoked large mobilisations in January 2018. But the possibility of more radical action fizzled as the focus shifted to the elections later that year. The narrow focus on parliament as the key arena of struggle against the Tories has helped establish Brexit as the major issue in British politics and has enabled Johnson to regain some of the momentum lost by the Tories under Cameron and Theresa May. Opposition to Johnson’s proroguing of parliament should have provoked mass demonstrations around the question of democracy. Though some of the left both inside and outside Labour have tried to make this a focus, the dominant mobilising force against Johnson has been the Remainers.
Working people have nothing to gain from throwing their lot in with the Remainers. Instinctively, many young and left wing people are horrified by the blatant racism of Johnson, Nigel Farage and the recently formed Brexit Party. Like millions around the world, they think that refugees should be welcomed, and they stand against deregulation and the privatisation of the welfare state.
But the EU is not the answer, and no amount of wishing will make it so. The EU is and always has been a bosses’ club – a means for one section of global capital to organise itself against rival blocs of capital. It regulates the trading within that bloc and disciplines member states that don’t comply with its rules, as has happened in Spain, Portugal and Greece. Even the minor reforms promised by Corbyn would likely be met by strong EU resistance. At the same time, the EU consciously allows thousands seeking refuge in Europe to drown in the Mediterranean each year. It also bankrolls military regimes and dictators – such as funding the training of the Sudanese troops that massacred people in the Sudanese revolution earlier this year.
Support for one section of our rulers against another leads only to passivity on our side – such as the sight of Corbyn refusing to allow a general election three times and giving Johnson, the man who shut down parliament, space to present himself as the defender of the people’s right to vote. And what a message to send to the millions who are angry about austerity – Brexit is more important than getting rid of Johnson and the Tories. It also emboldens those who respond to the paralysis in politics with right wing audacity – Brexit gives Johnson, Farage and other far right politicians the opening to be much more proactive in fighting for their ideas, pushing British politics further to the right.
Despite the mass membership that flooded into the Labour Party in response to austerity and the collapse of neoliberal centrist politics, Corbyn and Labour have so far demonstrated the inability of reformist politics to take advantage of this crisis. They may yet succeed in pushing issues of class inequality to the forefront of the election campaign and, if successful, could perform better in the election than most commentators and polls are currently predicting. But they have not so far delivered a decisive blow against the Tories. Nor have they helped to rebuild union and social movement strength on the ground. And they demobilised many of those who might have been part of such a movement.
The mass sentiment against austerity, the overwhelming support for the school student strikes and the thousands involved in the Extinction Rebellion protests in the past year point to the possibilities of mobilising the millions who will vote for Corbyn because they hate the Tories. Their actions could deliver the radical change so desperately needed.