Theresa May’s appointment as prime minister finally gives the lie to a key claim made by many on the left. For months left-wingers have been warning that a vote to Leave the EU would be a vote for a hardline right-wing government of Eurosceptic neoliberals led by Boris Johnson. The fear of a resurgent right was used to justify refusing to join in the challenge to the anti-democratic EU that was, as a result led by the political right. It turns out, however, that the left has been conjuring up a spectre that had no substantial political existence.
Right-wing Eurosceptics were able to take advantage of the unpopularity of the political class during the referendum campaign, but their victory only exposed the incoherence and unpopularity of their own ideas. UKIP leader Nigel Farage quickly resigned. The opportunist Johnson was caught out by an unexpected victory largely delivered by voters opposed to the open labour market policies that he supports. Having knifed Johnson, Michael Gove, the bête noir of the teaching unions, was abandoned by Tory Brexiteers and eliminated from the ballot. Right-wing Christian Stephen Crabb fell to a classic Tory sex scandal. Andrea Leadsom’s blustering social conservativism – emphasising her opposition to gay marriage and her status as a mother – was roundly condemned by many Tories, forcing her to drop out.
Less than three weeks after the referendum, the Eurosceptic right has imploded, handing the prime ministership to May, an arch Tory modernizer, pragmatist and Remainer. May’s political stance is less neoliberal ideologue, more New Labour authoritarian. She combines a solid record of repressive law-making as Home Secretary (expanding the drugs laws and the Prevent strategy, cracking down on immigration) with strongly centrist One Nation posturing.
As we have pointed out before, the left wrongly predicted this outcome, and is unable to exploit the right’s political incoherence, because leftists have been the most passionate believers in the right’s political strength. By the same token, the left fails to recognise its own victory in the culture wars. Ideologically, all of the pro-business mainstream parties have taken up the ideas of what was once derided as the ‘loony left’ – equal opportunities, anti-racism, gay rights – and adapted them to the needs of business. Faced with the triumph of its own cultural preferences, the left has been forced to invent an influential, hard-line Conservative right that has little real existence in Britain.
What of UKIP? Certainly it seems to have channeled growing popular resentment about immigration, fuelling claims of widespread xenophobia or racism. Doubtless, its anti-immigration populism has been central to its growing support among the working classes, broadening its based beyond the Home Counties Tories disgruntled by the Conservatives’ Blairite revolution. There is now a significant risk that UKIP may displace Labour in some northern, working-class constituencies.
But this does not reflect UKIP’s own inner strength as a party. Organisationally, UKIP is a mess, dominated by a leader who keeps resigning and leading lights who are often exposed as embarrassingly unprofessional and eccentric. Having won the referendum, Farage resigned this time using language that strongly suggested that he thought UKIP’s work was done. UKIP is also in bad financial shape, having received more money from the state than from any private donor.
UKIP’s potential, such as it is, comes from the many working-class voters who feel the country, the government and their own lives are out of their control. The right’s advantage here is one bequeathed to it by the left. Research shows that UKIP’s working-class supporters are the ‘left behind’: skilled or semi-skilled workers sidelined by neoliberal policies and abandoned by New Labour as it triangulated towards the swing voters of ‘middle England’. UKIP has simply stepped into this vacuum, politicising immigration as a cheap way to gain support.
The left is deeply confused over how to respond to this. Pragmatists insist on the need to address voters’ ‘valid concerns’. This ‘strategy’ simply extends the left’s pandering to anti-immigration sentiment, which – if anything – has only fuelled UKIP’s rise. Ideologically, it concedes that the problems voters face really are caused by immigration – not by the hollowing out of the economy, collapsing provision of social goods like housing, and declining living standards. Accordingly, it entirely evades these real problems, failing to devise any solutions to them. Jeremy Corbyn is practically alone in insisting there can be no upper limit to immigration and that the problems of working people result from decades of neoliberal policy. However Corbyn has up to this point yoked his pro-immigration stance to support for the European Union that voters have rejected, the same European Union whose immigration controls are leading to the deaths of thousands of Africans and Asians in the Mediterranean.
Part of this disarray surely reflects confusion over the sources of anti-immigration sentiment. Many can see it as nothing more than racism or xenophobia. However, in an opinion poll following the referendum, just 16% thought that EU citizens currently resident in the UK should be told to leave, indicating that deep hostility to immigrants as such has limited appeal. Doubtless a hard-core of this minority is motivated by racism. However, there are plainly other causes of hostility to immigration. One is the experience of having little capacity to defend your wages and working conditions in circumstances where foreign workers may be willing to undercut you. Another is the mainstream green idea that Britain is a small, overcrowded island with limited resources. This creates the groundless impression of a limited economic ‘pie’ being shared with growing numbers of people – groundless because that pie has never been bigger, yet it is increasingly gobbled up by a dominant oligarchy. The left’s failure effectively to politicise these issues in an anti-capitalist direction is what has allowed UKIP to exploit them.
Divisions and prejudices remain among the population, but they are not what they used to be. One idea that is very much a minority taste is the old racist nationalism: that the white British are superior to other ethnic groups by virtue of our racial makeup and imperial greatness. This is an idea initially created but long since abandoned by our rulers. Despite the claims of many leftists, it is an idea as remote to most white British people today as the proposition that a woman’s place is in the home. It is so archaic that even UKIP has the good sense not to espouse it. UKIP certainly has its share of racist cranks. But its migration spokesman is of mixed Irish, Jewish and black American heritage. Its foreign policy is opposed to Britain’s warmongering overseas. This is another unacknowledged cultural victory of the left.
The political grip of the old patriotic patriarchal conservative traditions died out a generation ago when Margaret Thatcher’s return to ‘Victorian values’ came to nothing. The neoliberal worship of markets lost what limited appeal it had with the crash of 2008. The exaggeration of the influence of these clapped-out ideas indicates that much of the left is every bit as nostalgic as the Eurosceptic right, still fighting battles that ended long ago. In its reverie, the left dreams up monsters while Theresa May gets on with repairing the damage done by the Eurosceptics to the political class’s already limited authority.