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General Election 2017: Corbynmania in Perspective

28 Jun

A year ago, following the EU referendum, many commentators were convinced that the Brexit vote had ushered in a generation of Tory hegemony, and the left would be permanently confined to the margins. Earlier this month, the Labour Party sharply improved its electoral performance with its most left-wing leader ever, and its most radical manifesto since 1983. Hailed by adoring Glastonbury crowds, Jeremy Corbyn himself has gone from zero to hero in a matter of weeks. Most of those commentators seem to have forgotten their earlier predictions in their haste to celebrate a Corbyn “victory”. But their gushing enthusiasm is no more measured than their earlier gloom.

A proper reckoning with the election result needs to start from the position that the EU referendum was never a hard-right victory in the first place. It then needs to be remembered that Corbyn still lost the election. Labour won only 262 seats, on 40% of the vote, to the Tories’ 317 seats, on 42.3%. Despite her manifest weaknesses, Theresa May won more votes than any prime minister since 1992. Corbyn’s “victory” amounts to averting catastrophe and making the Labour Party look like a serious contender for power again. A sober analysis of how this was achieved tells a less heroic story than the myth now developing around Corbyn.

A combination of different factors, with strong regional variation, helped the Labour Party electorally. Moreover, underlying Corbyn’s electoral success are elements of a political approach from Labour that is depressingly familiar and unattractive.

How Corbyn survived

Crucially, the Conservatives ran a totally dismal campaign. Theresa May was exposed as a robotic technocrat, shrill and inconsistent. She failed to persuade anyone but Tory and former UKIP voters that the election was solely about Brexit and her leadership, allowing Corbyn to reframe the election as being about socio-economic issues, where the Tories are weak.

Conversely, Corbyn had an excellent campaign from the outset – partly, it seems, by accident. In retrospect he appears to have ridden a tidal wave of support, but this is rather misleading. Whereas the Tories took the fight into apparently vulnerable Labour seats, Corbyn waged a defensive campaign in the Labour heartlands. Many rightly speculated that his remarkably large rallies in such areas were largely intended to shore up his position in the face of an apparently inevitably post-election leadership challenge. Instead, these events, widely covered on TV and social media, seemed to inspire people that something different was in the air. The “ground war” had a similar defensive quality, with Labour HQ instructing activists to shore up incumbents, rather than going on the attack. It was only as the polls shifted that grassroots campaigners, on their own initiative, shifted to proactive campaigning in neighbouring marginals.

Corbyn’s team was able to quickly assemble a remarkably popular manifesto. Despite two years of relentless infighting and plots, party wonks had somehow managed to find time to work up and cost specific policies. This was a real game-changer. Many had previously been frustrated with Corbyn’s apparent inability to translate fine-sounding words into concrete proposals; the sudden production of a costed manifesto gave him a serious edge over the visionless, warmed-over One Nation Toryism offered by Theresa May, in an uncosted manifesto that contained an electorally-deadly “dementia tax”. The Corbyn team’s leak of the draft manifesto was also a masterstroke. It confirmed the policies as widely popular, bouncing the party’s general executive into approving it.

The popularity of Labour’s policies was expressed in the remarkable cross-class support the party attained. This also reflects in part Corbyn’s appeal to the populist mood, where he had the advantage of being a lifelong outsider – a position burnished by attacks over his previous positions and associations. By comparison, Theresa May looked every inch the elite technocrat that she is.

Labour won a plurality of votes among all workers, with only retirees backing the Tories. Much has been written since the election suggesting that Labour under Corbyn has essentially become a middle-class party. Although Labour’s support has certainly become more middle-class over recent decades, there is no sign of any big shift under Corbyn specifically. If we look at how people in particular social grades voted, compared with 2015, Labour and the Tories both gained more support across all categories, but Labour still did a little better with less well-off voters. (NB this data measures occupational grade, not social class.)

AB C1 C2 DE
Labour 35 (+9) 41 (+12) 39 (+11) 46 (+12)
Conservative 44 (+4) 41 (+7) 44 (+12) 34 (+9)

Table 1: Proportion of voters within each social grade won by Labour and the Conservatives respectively

Nonetheless, what’s striking is obviously the rather weak association between class and voting behaviour – especially when compared to age. Corbyn managed to boost substantially the Labour vote among under-45s – not merely among the very young (see Fig. 1). Early boasts from the NUS president of a record 72% turnout among 18-24s turned out to be self-congratulatory and baseless nonsense, but turnout did return to early-1990s levels (see Fig. 2). This is crucial insofar as there is now a yawning generational gap in voting patterns (see Fig. 3). After a decade of disengagement under New Labour, the EU referendum seems to have kick-started politics again for the youngest generation.

Fig. 1: Turnout by age group

Fig. 2: Conservative-Labour gap by age

Also crucial was Labour’s stance on Brexit, where a triangulating fudge actually became an electoral asset. In pro-Leave constituencies, Corbyn’s insistence on respecting the EU referendum result was decisive. As Paul Mason, who campaigned in several pro-Leave areas, reports, this was needed merely to gain a hearing for Labour on the doorstep. This helped to pull back 20-30% of UKIP’s vote for Labour and held off the Tory advance in the North and Wales. Had Labour run on an anti-Brexit ticket, the Tory capture of Mansfield would have been replicated far more widely.

In some pro-Remain constituencies, however, particularly in the metropolitan areas, Labour candidates expressly pledged to oppose Brexit. This arguably helped attract votes from hardline Remainers and, coupled with substantial tactical voting, explains the significant swing from the Greens and LibDems to Labour. This is why Labour was able to hold constituencies like Bermondsey.

Finally, the terrorist attacks during the election campaign probably had some effect. The Manchester bombing had surprisingly little impact at first. As the person who facilitated the movement of Libyan radicals back and forth to the UK, Theresa May has escaped with staggeringly little accountability. However, nor were the Tories able to smear Corbyn as “weak on security”. Instead, Labour adroitly made an issue of police cuts, while the Tories had little to offer but irrelevant and draconian measures like internet regulation. There was virtually no real discussion of the causes of Islamist terrorism (reversing police cuts won’t solve the problem either), but Labour came out of these horrific events with a reinforced case against austerity.

The left has not yet closed the void

The electoral advance for the Labour Party is significant, but at this stage it would be unwise to put too much hope in it for a revival of mass politics.

In the first place, despite its vastly increased membership thanks to Corbyn, the Labour Party itself is still poorly suited as a vehicle for a new popular movement. Surprisingly little has been written on the Labour “ground war” but it does not seem that the party sought to harness its expanded membership as foot soldiers, and even the pro-Corbyn Momentum faction seemed to play a surprisingly weak role. This reflects the Labour party’s attenuated internal democracy, which has made it resistant to, reluctant to engage with, and even suspicious of, the groundswell generated by Corbyn.

The party machinery, and its parliamentary wing, stayed remarkably disciplined during the campaign, particularly given the previous two years of backbiting. Thanks to the result, Corbyn’s enemies are now forced to smile to his face. But they are still in position. Most party hacks, unelected and elected alike, remain opposed to even the mild social democratic programme that Corbyn stands for. Many campaigned by distancing themselves from him, to save their own skins. Their loyalty is paper thin; they are not true believers but rank opportunists who still believe, in their heart of hearts, in centrist, Blairite policies. It remains to be seen whether Corbyn has the political authority and will to restructure and democratize the party, as he often declares he wants to. His previous treatment of Momentum – cutting them off at the knees after an onslaught from his treacherous deputy, Tom Watson – suggests a reluctance to take the tough decisions needed.

More important, the party and its base remain deeply divided, socially and politically, most importantly over Brexit. The long-term decline of the trade union movement has resulted in Labour’s support being more evenly split between its traditional, deprived, working-class heartlands and the relatively prosperous, liberal, metropolitan middle classes. Its disarray over Brexit expresses this divide. The election did not bridge the divide with a coherent new compromise; it did not even paper over the cracks, because different parliamentary candidates were campaigning on completely different platforms. If Labour was suddenly thrust into power it would struggle to offer anything more coherent than the Tories on the major task facing the country, and rifts would rapidly re-emerge.

A leading force in this division would be the leftists currently celebrating Corbynmania but who spent the last year sneering at Brexit voters as knuckle-dragging racists. They have not suddenly changed their minds about this. They prefer a fairytale version of the general election as some kind of heroic, progressive fight-back against dark forces that never actually existed. Their support for the EU, and their derision for voters, expresses the long-term retreat of the political class away from the people and into the state, and this is yet to be reversed. Corbyn’s ability to engage with the public is admirable, but it is not widely shared. Comparing the reaction to the Grenfell Tower disaster with that towards the Brexit vote, indicates that leftist elites prefer the poor when they appear as vulnerable clients of the welfare state, rather than bolshie political actors in their own right.

Finally, despite Corbyn’s dumping of Blairite fiscal policy, both Corbyn’s manifesto and his campaign drew on New Labour techniques and themes. The party’s balancing act on Brexit and immigration was a careful piece of political triangulation, characteristic of the Blair era. During the campaign, Corbyn was quick to respond to the massacres in Manchester and London by calling for more police on the streets, a classic Blairite move to exploit fear and institutionalise insecurity. Blair may have gone, but the Labour Party both in its approach to police security and its wider approach to social security remains very much a party focused on the politics of safety rather than the politics of self-government.

Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay

General Election 2017: Brexit’s Democratic Dividend

27 Jun

One irony of Britain’s general election result is that the Labour Party’s electoral advance demonstrates just how wrong the left has been about British politics since last year’s EU referendum.

Most of the British left was horrified by the Leave vote, seeing it as a permanent victory for UKIP, the Tory right and racism. Left-wing commentators claimed no longer to recognize their own country and openly compared the atmosphere to the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s. We pointed out at the time that this reaction was absurd and an excuse for the left’s failure to represent working class interests. The Eurosceptic right had not suggested anything on a par with the Nazis, and in any case it had nothing to offer politically. Sure enough the Tory right and UKIP promptly imploded after the referendum. A year later the general election has produced a weakened Conservative government, stripped of its majority, and a resurgent Labour Party under a left-wing leader. UKIP has all but disappeared electorally while a record 52 MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds have been elected, including an increase in the number of Muslim MPs from eight to 13. The new parliament also contains a new record of 45 out LGBT MPs. Not only is post-referendum Britain not anything remotely like Weimar Germany, but as we hoped the referendum vote has had some positive effects for democracy in Britain.

As we argued last summer, the referendum saw a significant protest vote against the political void that had opened up between the governing class and the population. This void stands where the political process of representing ordinary people’s interests used to be. It is a void that is embodied above all in the distant and unaccountable form of government that is the European Union.  The shock of the referendum result was that this political void could no longer be ignored, but instead had to be addressed.

When the two major parties returned to the ballot box this year, they had significantly realigned their priorities. With both formally backing Brexit, debate focused on other issues. And both parties looked to the past for inspiration. The Conservative manifesto stuck to their sound finances mantra but otherwise shifted their tone markedly by trying (ineffectually) to evoke the postwar one-nation Toryism. Corbyn’s Labour Party finally buried Blairite fiscal policy and returned to Old Labour’s higher taxes to finance higher spending on public services.

In this contest between antiquated political platforms, it turned out that the Labour Party was in the stronger position. The electorate once again showed that it could not be taken for granted politically. While Brexit remains popular and May got the most support, the electorate denied the prime minister her anticipated overall majority and instead strengthened Labour’s position.

Meanwhile in Scotland the electorate delivered a bloody nose to the dominant Scottish National Party (SNP) by significantly boosting the unionist parties. It transpires that many Scots voted to Remain not out of such fanatical attachment to the EU that they now crave a second independence referendum just to stay in it – but rather because they feared the UK’s breakup. The remarkable revival of Tory fortunes in Scotland reflects their solid unionist credentials and staunch anti-SNP position. Again contrary to predictions, the fallout of the referendum has therefore strengthened the Union with Scotland.

A proper accounting for the effects of last year’s Leave vote would, therefore, find no place for the triumph of the far right. Rather it would include the killing off of austerity as government policy, the strengthening of the Union and a strengthening of parliament’s influence.  In all these ways democracy has been boosted by last year’s Leave vote. The sharp increase in turnout in the recent general election, especially among a generation turned off politics by New Labour, speaks to the return of politics after a long winter of depoliticized technocracy. The electorate has shown it can no longer be taken for granted and the shaken political elite has been forced to try to reconnect with the voters.

Peter Ramsay

General Election 2017: The Politics of Nostalgia

8 Jun

The Labour Party – especially its leader, Jeremy Corbyn – has had a surprisingly good election campaign. Labour started 23 points down from the Conservatives; the latest polls put the Tory lead at anything from 12 to just 1 point – a historically unprecedented surge. Corbyn’s hunch that the more people saw of him and his policies, the more they would warm to Labour, was proven correct. Despite two years in which he had faced internal plots and sabotage, massive media hostility, a second leadership election, the EU referendum, and a snap election, Corbyn’s team had somehow managed to develop concrete, costed policies, that appear to have resonated strongly with some of the public. Because of the electoral system and other factors, the surge is may still not translate into Labour gains in parliament. Nonetheless, the Labour turnaround – coupled with UKIP’s ongoing collapse – clearly gives the lie to every defeatist Remainer who argued that Brexit would mean the immediate death of leftist politics in Britain.

The Labour surge partly reflects the dreadful campaign waged by Theresa May’s Conservative Party. May’s political strength before calling the election was exclusively based on the Conservatives’ unambiguous commitment to respect the result of the EU referendum. Conversely, Labour was in profound disarray, torn between a pro-EU metropolitan base and parliamentary party on the one hand, and northern and Welsh working-class Leave voters on the other, and led by a north London leadership with little apparent appeal in the traditional Labour heartlands. Because most British people are democrats, May’s position won support, with the so-called “48%” rapidly melting away. However, the Tories apparently mistook this as support for May and her agenda. In truth, May is a hollow, incompetent, technocrat with little vision for Britain’s post-Brexit future – and the election left her disastrously exposed. Despite calling a “Brexit election”, she had virtually nothing to say about it beyond slogans and platitudes, and the ground quickly shifted to matters of public spending and security, where she was far weaker. May’s comical avoidance of the public, awkward flailing under the slightest scrutiny, and frequent U-turns, made a mockery of her “strong and stable” mantra. She was not even able to hold her own base, threatening Tory-voting pensioners with a “dementia tax”, followed by a shrill retreat. Even if she is returned to office, as most commentators expect, she will be enduringly weakened and this cannot fail to influence the Brexit talks.

Corbyn, meanwhile, has drawn the largest crowds to political rallies seen in Britain since the 1950s, reflecting his desire to rebuild Labour into a social movement, not the zombified electoral machine it has become. While this ambition is very far from being realised, his campaign has been an important challenge to politics-as-usual in two respects.

First, he has made Labour the first major European political party to openly challenge austerity since the 2008 financial crisis, thereby tackling directly the paralysing mantra, promoted since the 1980s, that “There Is No Alternative” (TINA). His pledges to open a £500bn investment bank, abolish tuition fees, revitalise public services and renationalise railways and the Royal Mail are premised on the slogan “it doesn’t have to be like this”. However backwards-looking his agenda may be – on which, more below – this is a welcome challenge to TINA. The idea that our social, economic and political system is set in stone, susceptible to only minor tweaks, has crippled progressive politics since the 1980s, and any revival must tackle it head on. For the Labour Party, it is a dramatic – albeit not deeply shared – abandonment of the “Third Way” centrism practised since 1988. Of course, the groundwork for thinking that voting can induce dramatic change was laid by the EU referendum. And, while Corbyn perhaps dare not say it openly, reflecting the party’s internal divisions, his proposals include policies that would be ruled out under EU state aid rules. In this sense, he is connecting – however faintly – with the democratic ideal of “taking back control”.

Secondly, Corbyn has openly challenged Britain’s approach to foreign and security policy, garnering public support for doing so. This is striking given that his main weakness was always assumed to be security, given his previous antiwar postures and engagement with groups like the IRA and Hamas. However, increasingly desperate attempts to use these associations to smear Corbyn, while perhaps resonating with elements of the Tory base, have largely fallen flat. Again, the experience of two decades of adventurist foreign policy seems to have persuaded many to conclude that Corbyn has perhaps got a point. His response to the terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London – highlighting the “blowback” from Britain’s foreign interventions and craven relationship with states like Saudi Arabia, as well as austerity-driven cuts to the police – resonated strongly with the public. It spoke to their common sense after 16 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tory bluster that Corbyn was “blaming the victims” failed to cut through. Corbyn’s position is, again, unique among major party leaders in Europe and among Labour leaders since 1983.

In short, the British public is being offered a starker and more meaningful choice today than at any point in the last 30 years. This speaks to the wider revival of democracy, and political contestation, flowing from the EU referendum, which has – again contrary to Remainer defeatists’ expectations – actually shifted the centre-ground leftwards. Immediately after the referendum, the Tories scaled back their austerity targets and began appealing to the “just-about-managing”, and now they are running on a washed-up version of One Nation Toryism, plagiarised in part from Ed Milliband’s “Blue Labour”. However weakly, May has emphasised the “good the state can do”, talked up an “industrial strategy”, and pledged to promote equality. This may yet win round some working-class voters – especially those who had previously defected from Labour to UKIP – but on this terrain, Corbyn has the more convincing record.

Nonetheless, there are many unanswered questions and weaknesses surrounding Corbyn’s campaign. The most striking aspect of Corbyn’s platform is its backward-looking, defensive character, premised heavily on the defence of the crumbling national-welfare state. Even the £500bn investment bank is premised on Keynesian pump-priming, not a vision of a future economy. There are serious structural challenges in contemporary capitalism that Corbynism does nothing to address, like the productivity crisis, the growing de facto labour surplus, and looming automation. Radical solutions, like universal basic income, shorter working weeks, and full automation, mooted in academia, are actually being trialled, in part, elsewhere in Europe. Corbyn’s vision for Brexit involves clinging onto EU regulations that stifle scientific experimentation, like genetic engineering. He and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, look at Uber and see only the problem of zero-hours contracts and poor pay – not the promise of a fully automated transport system, potentially under public, not private, control. In this sense, Corbyn’s platform is far more conservative than Labour manifestoes in the 1960s and 1970s, when leaders like Harold Wilson talked about embracing the “white heat of technology” to transform the economy and society. Corbyn is channelling the Spirit of ’45, in the words of Ken Loach’s nostalgic documentary, not 2017, let alone some future year.

This same conservatism applies to Labour’s attitude to Brexit, which is all about dampening its economic effects, rather than charting a clear path for political and economic renewal. Despite May’s evident weaknesses, she earns cheers when talking tough on Brexit, just as she is booed when discussing public spending. Corbyn’s position is the opposite. Asked about Brexit and immigration, his responses on “managed migration” are stilted concessions to concerns about the “white working class” and its “legitimate concerns” about migration. It is a reminder that the Labour party remains caught between contradictory social bases. Corbyn has been unable to articulate a vision that squares this circle in a truly progressive manner. He has capitulated to the idea of migration as a “problem” by opposing “gangs” of migrant workers being “brought in” to “undercut” British wages (largely discredited as a myth) and proposing structural funds to relieve “pressures” on public services caused by immigration. He has not challenged the basic notion of the economy as a zero-sum game that causes people to see immigrants as competitors, because national-welfarism is ultimately premised on this notion of creating benefits from which “outsiders” are excluded. He has not even explicitly tried to link anti-immigration sentiment to neoliberalism, to encourage people to see the economic system, and not their fellow workers, as the problem. Instead he has made vague appeals to British traditions of “decency” and “care”.

A final problem is Corbyn’s politics of security. He treats this issue like all the rest: pump in more resources. But arguably there is only a tenuous connection between police numbers and security from terrorism. Moreover, Corbyn has rightly made his name opposing the bloated security state. Lacking here, as on the right, is any credible analysis of, and systematic solution to, the root causes of – especially home-grown – terrorism. Corbyn’s blaming of foreign interventions leaving “ungoverned spaces” merely rehashes tired clichés and does not explain why people within governed spaces – our own societies – end up terrorising their fellow citizens. Moreover, the historical response to “ungoverned spaces” has been to seek to govern them, through interventions to build “state capacity”, which have more often than not gone very badly wrong. What looks like an anti-interventionist agenda could very easily turn into an interventionist foreign policy.

Thus, Corbyn does not resolve the problems of Labourism, even if his campaign represents an important challenge to the status quo and potentially creates important space for progressive alternatives. Although a Corbyn government would be more decent and humane than another Tory administration, it would lack a clear, forward-looking vision for a post-Brexit Britain capable of addressing our many social and political problems. However, so would any Tory administration. The campaign has exposed Theresa May’s inability to fill Brexit with political content, beyond macho rhetoric and even more backward-looking and delusional proposals, like an “Empire 2.0” trading system with the ex-colonies and the recreation of the seventeenth-century Board of Trade. In that sense, Labour and Conservatives are both trading on a politics of nostalgia; the poetry of the future remains to be written.

Lee Jones

Labour’s Brexit crisis is May’s opportunity

18 Apr

Cynics will read Theresa May’s U-turn in deciding to call an early general election merely as an opportunist move to exploit opposition weaknesses. The Labour Party is deeply divided and at its lowest ebb in the polls since 1983. UKIP has imploded, with four leaders in the past year and the defection of its only MP. The LibDems remain decimated after their 2015 rout. May sees an opportunity to inflict on Labour its worst defeat since the 1930s, and mop up UKIP voters, cementing Tory domination at Westminster. The government’s slim majority will be expanded, giving the executive far greater room for manoeuvre; it will be better able to face down calls for another Scottish independence referendum; and it will be empowered to push through its EU negotiations without risk of eventual defeat in the Commons, and strengthened against the Lords.

None of this is wrong – May’s own speech makes some of the motivation explicit – but is one-sided. It doesn’t account for why the opportunity she is seizing exists: why is the Labour Party in such dire straits? Why are the LibDems again so marginal? Why is UKIP imploding? A simple answer is: Brexit.

UKIP’s situation is obvious. Its entire raison d’être has been to force a referendum on EU membership. Having succeeded, it is now defunct. Last year’s foolish predictions of a Farragist take over in the event of a Leave vote are exposed as nonsense. With its agenda snatched by the government and its big beasts, major donor and even councillors abandoning it, UKIP is rudderless and its vote share is flat-lining.

The misnamed Liberal Democrats have explicitly sided with “the 48 percent” – the defeated minority in the EU referendum. They have no intention of respecting the outcome of that vote and have done nothing but conspire – wholly ineffectually – to thwart it. As reality moves forward, the LibDems have less and less to say about it.

But the real disarray is Labour’s. At least the LibDems have a clear position on Brexit, one that is likely to gain them some Remainer votes. Labour’s position is demented. Put simply, it is because Labour has nothing coherent or meaningful to say on Brexit that May can win so big in June. However, Labour’s incoherence on Brexit represents something much deeper than Corbynite-Blairite divisions within the parliamentary party, on which many media and academic pundits focus. Labour’s Brexit problem is an expression of its fundamental and inexorable political and structural decline.

In its heyday, the Labour Party sought to further the interests of working people through state intervention in capitalist markets. The party was forced to abandon this distinctive Labourist political tradition by Thatcher’s decisive defeat of the wider labour movement in the 1980s. Labourism was replaced with the “Third Way” of New Labour, which accepted the market’s primacy but sought to combine it with social inclusion and social justice through a less ambitious yet more repressive deployment of state resources. New Labour abandoned the explicitly working-class component of the old Labour programme, triangulating rightward to seek votes among middle-class middle-Englanders, but it retained the party’s more fundamental orientation to the institutions of the British state as the agent of social change.

As the British state was transformed into a member state of the EU, over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the Labour Party’s ideological attachments transformed with it.  The EU’s thin cosmopolitanism and its very limited protections of workers rights – so-called “social Europe” – provided one component of the party’s progressive-sounding, Third-Way cover story for its steady abandonment of the interests of its traditional, working-class voters. This story also appealed to the public-sector middle classes that had long supported the party’s high state spending and social programmes, upon which their own livelihoods depended. As their social base shifted and narrowed, then, Labour leaders and active supporters gradually joined a politico-bureaucratic elite that was increasingly cosmopolitan and transnationally networked. A party with strong Eurosceptic traditions was thereby converted into a pillar of the pro-EU consensus.

The party’s internal contradictions were initially moderated by modest, Third-Way social spending and privatised Keynesianism under Blair and Brown, but were dramatically unmasked by the global financial crisis and, especially, the EU referendum. Labour is now caught between two, increasingly incompatible social constituencies: a disaffected, mostly Northern working class, increasingly withdrawing from politics or shifting to UKIP in protest, battered by economic decline, concerned about immigration and increasingly Eurosceptic; and a metropolitan, mostly Southern middle-class, largely benefiting from economic liberalisation and more committed to the EU.

Faced with the EU referendum, a defining political moment, Labour sided with the existing institutions of the British state against the party’s traditional supporters, and with the EU against popular sovereignty. Whatever his own Eurosceptic, Bennite proclivities, Jeremy Corbyn could not align Labour with the Leave campaign without risking its metropolitan support base, and with them many urban seats. Sacrificing his own principles for party unity, he waged a weak and pragmatic Remain campaign.

Corbyn’s true colours showed after the referendum, when he insisted on respecting the result and invoking Article 50. But the party’s profound political crisis remains. Labour cannot mimic the LibDems without losing its residual working-class base, yet it cannot truly embrace Brexit for fear of alienating middle-class, urban voters. It therefore remains stuck in limbo. Its MPs voted to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and only then, having wasted any leverage it had, did the party it issue any conditions for its support in leaving the EU. At best, this makes Labour a bystander for the two years of Brexit negotiations and then a potential spoiler when the final deal is put before parliament. The can has merely been kicked down the road, presumably in the vain hope that – as Tony Blair and others wish – opinion will shift, making an eventual “no” vote more electorally viable.

Labour’s crisis is May’s opportunity. After all, Theresa May is hardly a political colossus. In many respects, she is incompetent, flailing around on core issues and reduced to pilfering policies from Corbyn’s own disastrous predecessor. What allows her to bestride the political stage is not any great political mind, nor any deep popular affection for her party, government, or policies. It is that, alone among the main UK-wide party leaders, and against her own personal sympathies as a cautious Remainer, she is willing to represent the will of the majority of voters as expressed in the EU referendum. This allows her to posture – entirely credibly – against the unelected Lords and the opposition parties as the only person who will act on the referendum’s verdict.

The election campaign will bear this out because, as we have previously argued, the last nine months have been wasted in pointless wrangling over whether to respect the vote, and who gets to pull the Article 50 lever, rather than on the terms of Brexit. UKIP has absolutely nothing to say. The LibDems will merely re-run a referendum campaign that they lost, appealing only to the most embittered Remainers. Labour faces a stark choice. If it cannot now develop a meaningful manifesto for Brexit, an articulated vision for post-EU Britain, rather than a laundry list of things they oppose plus Corbyn’s high-minded rhetoric, it is doomed. All the signs suggest that it cannot rise to the challenge. Labour MPs and mainstream pundits will blame Corbyn for the defeat; left-wingers will defend Corbyn and blame Blairite disloyalty. Both sides will deflect attention from the real rot at the party’s heart. Brexit has exposed the fact that Labour’s entire political tradition is bankrupt.

Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay

Off with Henry VIII’s Head! The Need to Reclaim Brexit from the Executive

3 Apr

Nine months after the UK voted to leave the EU, the government has now invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, signalling Britain’s intention to depart and beginning two years of complex negotiations. TCM has supported Brexit as a necessary step for reviving Britain’s degraded representative democracy, and thereby popular control over politics, against the twin perils of technocracy and populism. We have never been under the illusion that Brexit would instantly achieve this goal, still less create some leftist paradise. Whether representative democracy is revived depends on how political forces act now. The Brexit process involves two major challenges to popular control: the Article 50 negotiation process itself, and the “Great Repeal Bill”, both of which risk centralising power in the hands of a narrow, technocratic elite.

First, the Article 50 process re-submits the UK to anti-democratic EU processes. Against those Brexiters who argued, in a populist manner, for the immediate triggering of Article 50 after the referendum, TCM warned that this was a technocratic trap. Article 50 was deliberately designed to make it difficult for member-states to leave. The cacophony of voices now warning that a deal cannot be done in two years merely illustrates the point: by imposing an unrealistically tight deadline, Article 50 clearly seeks to deter anyone from even daring to leave. More importantly, the negotiating process will convert the democratic moment of the EU referendum into a technocratic process. In keeping with an institution that has transformed public policymaking into nineteenth-century-style secret diplomacy, the negotiations must be conducted in private, with representatives of the Council and the Commission. We wanted as much democratic contestation over the terms of Brexit before UK officials entered this technocratic process to decide our future.

Remainers have squandered this collective opportunity to shape the process by indulging in pointless fantasies of parliamentary revolt against the electorate. The last nine months have not seen substantive debates over what form Brexit should take, but rather an anti-climactic struggle over who – the executive or parliament – has the right to pull the Article 50 lever. This legal battle was only waged in the hope that parliament would refuse to pull it; but parliament could not deliver. Parliament’s “victory” was empty because it was a gift of the courts. It was the government that retained the democratic mandate of the referendum, and parliament had nothing of substance to add. The government was forced to produce a White Paper, but this provided scant detail. The main commitments made were on leaving the single market and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, but little else of substance has been discussed, and the bill was not seriously opposed in the Commons despite widespread disquiet about these terms. MPs finally seemed to realise that they could not oppose Brexit, but they completely failed to offer any vision for it.

Parliament therefore passed a pro-forma act, authorising the triggering of Article 50 but not imposing any significant conditions on the negotiations. The government merely pledged to report regularly to parliament – necessary, but hardly sufficient for popular control over the process – and to permit a final vote on the outcome – which, as we have argued, does not create real democratic choice. Most bizarrely, it was only after the bill was passed that the sclerotic Labour Party issued a list of “conditions” that the final deal must meet to gain their support in 2019. Remainers taunt Theresa May for having no plan for Brexit, but in reality it was they who had nothing substantive to offer, and therefore – feebly and irresponsibly – released the executive into Article 50 talks with the freedom to negotiate whatever it likes.

Parliament’s inability or unwillingness to take any real ownership of the process bodes very badly for the so-called “Great Repeal Bill”. The government plans to leave the EU by first domesticating the entire body of EU laws (the acquis communitaire), which parliament can then amend or repeal. This would be an appropriate restoration of parliamentary sovereignty. However, the executive is seeking a so-called “Henry VIII clause”, which would allow ministers to issue “secondary legislation” (edicts) that would amend this primary legislation. This is justified partly in technical terms: there is a lot of law to enact (over 170,000 pages), and much of it needs tweaking for the UK context.

The threat to representative democracy is obvious enough from the sinister “Henry VIII” label. Allowing ministers to dictate primary legislation is incredibly dangerous and amounts to a massive “Whitehall power grab”. Parliamentary sovereignty would be restored with one hand, then stolen away with the other.

This is clearly unacceptable, but it also underscores a key reason for leaving the EU. It is precisely because law-making has been transferred from parliament to internationally-networked executive agencies that this problem exists. For decades, laws and regulations have been initiated by the unaccountable European Commission, then adapted and finalized via secret negotiations between national ministers and European Parliament representatives in so-called “trilogues”, far removed from either public scrutiny or political debate (see here, pp.37-41, for more details). The vast acquis that now governs our lives – and must now be either retained or discarded – has been made primarily through the secretive exercise of executive power, not through our elected representatives. The proposed “Henry VIII” clause seeks to perpetuate this misallocation of authority by allowing UK ministers to decide which laws will stand or fall, or how they should be adapted to the UK. Nonsensically, it posits excessive executive power as the solution to a problem caused, in large part, by excessive executive power facilitated by EU structures.

The failure of parliament to influence the Brexit process so far, and the risk that it will be further sidelined, speaks to the degradation of representative democracy that was both expressed in, and accelerated by, the EU’s formation. As TCM’s Chris Bickerton has argued, as part of a general crisis of political representation, European governments retreated from their citizens into secret negotiations with one another behind closed doors, creating structures that further undermined democracy. European states thereby became “member-states”. As Britain leaves the EU, it casts off the legal form of member statehood, but the rotten content still remains: a political class disconnected from the masses, a parliament unused to exercising popular sovereignty, and an executive and bureaucracy accustomed to unaccountable rule.

The rot is most obvious in the party that ostensibly “leads” the official opposition. Jeremy Corbyn, betraying his own Eurosceptic principles, lost the opportunity to lead a progressive Brexit campaign. Labour, fatally alienated from the working classes it claims to represent, could not lead Remain to victory. Corbyn’s residual democratic principles, plus straightforward electoral calculus, meant Labour lacked the spine to oppose the referendum result; yet it now has absolutely nothing meaningful to offer on Brexit. Its total disarray, its inability to lead – borne of its decades-long alienation from ordinary citizens – is what allows a political pygmy like Theresa May to dominate the political scene, and the polls. She at least seems to grasp that there is a solid block of opinion requiring representation and leadership, and is seeking – however objectionably – to provide it.

The next few months will be decisive in determining whether there is anyone in the UK willing to recognize and then tackle this rot directly. Parliament needs to recover its function in representing social constituencies, take charge of the Great Repeal Bill, and exercise meaningful oversight over the executive’s conduct of the Article 50 talks. If the Remainer opposition merely persists in sneering from the sidelines, hoping to thwart Brexit two years hence, it will squander any chance of influence and, more importantly, the enormous opportunity for democratic renewal that Brexit has created.

Lee Jones

The Kip of Reason Produces Monsters

14 Jul

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.

 

James Aber

Peter Ramsay

The racism excuse

28 Jun

Last Wednesday, just before the UK referendum on membership of the EU, TCM pointed out that the true nature of the European Union had not been discussed in the UK referendum campaign because that would have required an honest confrontation with the political void between the rulers and the ruled in Europe. Neither the Remain campaign nor the Leave campaign was willing to address the breakdown in representation that left the interests of millions of voters effectively unrepresented and at the same time led national governments to seek refuge from political accountability in the EU.

In the days following the referendum, that void has been impossible to ignore. Realising that the in-out vote would give them a one-off chance to have a real political impact, millions of traditional Labour voters in the relatively impoverished provincial towns and cities of England and Wales seized the chance that the referendum offered to give the finger to the political class in London and voted to Leave. Divisions between the constituent nations of the ‘United’ Kingdom were also sharpened by the result. A majority of voters in Scotland backed the separatist SNP’s call for a Remain vote, and a majority of voters in Northern Ireland also voted to Remain, leading Sinn Fein to demand unity with the Irish Republic.

The practical exposure of the lack of authority commanded by the British political elite has generated an unprecedented political crisis. In the first of a series on what the referendum tells us, Lee Jones looks critically at the idea promoted by many on the left: that the result is a consequence of rampant working-class racism.

***

The EU referendum has exposed a deep class and cultural divide in Britain. Overwhelmingly, the data show that the lower social classes, particularly those who have lost out from the neoliberal socio-economic revolution of the past thirty years, voted Brexit. Immigration was undoubtedly a huge issue, too. 80% of those seeing immigration as a force for ill voted to Leave, while 79% of those seeing it as a force for good voted to Remain. Although the top reason Leave voters gave to explain their choice was the issue of democracy (49%), the second was immigration and border control (33%).

Accordingly, the dominant reaction of many Remain commentators and voters has been to call Leave voters are stupid, uneducated, and racist. The same attitudes were expressed during the campaign, particularly after the murder of Jo Cox MP, by someone who appears to be a white supremacist, and the release of UKIP’s notorious ‘breaking point’ poster. After the vote, Twitter and Facebook have been flooded with warnings about a ‘race shitstorm’ and ‘Brexit England… expecting the trucks to turn up next week deporting Poles from their council houses’. Leftist commentators openly prognosticate about ‘neofascist nightmares’. This has led many to demand that the referendum be re-run (3.9 million signatures and counting) and propose various other ways to overturn the result.

This response is as revealing as it is absurd. Even at its nastiest, the Leave campaign never proposed removing migrants already in the UK – just restraints on future immigration. There is no reason for any Leave voter to expect any deportations, and there are probably more Remain voters suggesting this, irresponsibly whipping up a frenzy of anxiety among non-citizens. It is, of course, undeniable that a minority of Britons harbour racist attitudes. Likewise these attitudes are – as with the EU vote – correlated with social class, and have risen recently with large-scale immigration. But the proportion describing themselves as ‘very’ racially prejudiced is just 3%. No doubt this small minority feel emboldened – reflected in a reported outburst of verbal abuse. But the idea that we inhabit ‘Weimar Britain’, with racist hordes slavering to take advantage of a Leave vote just doesn’t ring true. Far-right groups like Britain First can barely muster a few hundred protestors. The far-right British National Party received just 1,667 votes in the 2015 General Election. By contrast, 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU. To treat them all as racist xenophobes is itself an exercise in prejudice and stereotyping worthy of any racist. It is a sign of the ugly elitism that too many on the left seem willing to promote.

Much of the concern around immigration is obviously driven less by racism than by deindustrialisation, rising job insecurity, flat-lining or declining real pay and pensions, and deep cuts in social services. If voters blame those problems on immigration this is not solely a result of the influence of the right. The Labour Party and the wider left is also responsible for failing either to win people over to a pro-immigration position or to mitigate their relative economic decline.

Postwar British politics has always had a strong anti-immigration streak, and Labour and the trade unions have made major contributions to hostility to immigrants. The postwar Keynesian-welfarist settlement was always partly secured through constricting the labour supply by excluding foreigners. From the 1960s onwards, the Labour Party both supported Tory restrictions on immigration, and enacted its own. Left-wing elites only began to move in a more cosmopolitan direction from the 1970s, eventually coming to support large-scale immigration as they embraced wider market deregulation. Following the labour movement’s crushing defeat in the 1980s, left wing parties across Europe were reconfigured from a channel for working-class interests into ‘third way’ electoral machines, ruthlessly triangulating their way towards ‘neoliberalism with a human face’. Increasingly staffed by cosmopolitan lawyers and professional politicos, their links to working-class communities were severed.  They pushed state policy in a formally anti-racist direction at exactly the moment that that their embrace of the market forced them to take their wider working class constituency for granted as mere electoral fodder. The Labour Party’s abandonment of the working class has now come back to bite it.

As argued by James Heartfield, Chris Bickerton and TCM, the EU expresses and entrenches this elite estrangement from the masses. Political elites have retreated into the structures of the state and then networked their states across borders, creating a transnational system of regulatory governance. Decisions that were once exposed to political contestation have thereby been transformed into matters for inter-bureaucratic bargaining and secret diplomacy. This has allowed elites to pursue policies that would not command democratic majorities at home. The free movement of people is just one of these, and part of a broader, neoliberal ‘economic constitutionalism’. Elites present these policies as beyond their control, as immutable outcomes of EU membership – when in reality they reflect and entrench their minority preferences, and those of big business.

The gulf between elites and the masses on immigration was obvious by the early 2000s. After coming to power in 1997, New Labour did nothing substantial to reverse two decades of deindustrialisation, under-employment and widening inequality. Social dissatisfaction rose noticeably as immigration surged – it was not created or ‘unleashed’ by the EU referendum – but politicians either sneered at it, or politely ignored it. Gordon Brown’s infamous description of a Labour voter concerned about immigration as a ‘bigoted woman’ spoke volumes.

New Labour did nothing to win people over to a more positive view of immigration, abandoning the electorate to the right, which was happy to blame foreigners for people’s troubles. Indeed, Labour’s response to rising support for the British National Party was to promise a curb on immigration – a pledge reiterated in the 2015 general election, after years of inaction as austerity fuelled anti-immigration sentiment.

Importantly, both sides in the EU referendum campaigned on an anti-immigration platform, not just the Brexiters. The Remain campaign stressed that Britain is outside of Schengen and that David Cameron had negotiated a curb on benefits that ‘draw’ EU migrants to the UK.

immigration labour photo

The present anti-immigration mood – not just in Britain but across Europe – is not, therefore, a result of a sudden profusion of racist xenophobia; rather, it reflects a structural disconnect between elites and the working classes. The left in particular has abandoned the working class to the economic and political margins, not bothering either to persuade them of the benefits of migration or to do very much about their relative material decline. Instead, Europe’s political parties have clubbed together through the EU to impose their policies without popular consent. They have relied on EU treaties to justify free movement rather than winning the argument for open borders. The referendum outcome reminds us that one cannot rely indefinitely on undemocratic institutions to maintain policies that do not command popular support. This is equally true for those policies, like workers rights and environmental protection, that left Remainers wished to defend by staying in the EU, even while recognising its fundamentally undemocratic nature.

It is crucial for Remainers to recognise that staying in the EU would not have contained this dynamic forever. It is a structural product of the void between rulers and ruled. The idea that the EU is a bulkwark against right-wing populism is nonsense. It is the EU that causes populism to thrive by entrenching the elite-mass disconnect. Right-wing populism is rampant across the EU; indeed, it is stronger on the continent, and inside the Eurozone, than in Britain. There is no prospect of the EU closing the void. On the contrary it intends to rely on increasingly undemocratic methods to block right-wing populists from power.

If Remain had won, the void would still be there, with the opportunities for populist predation only increasing. The view that politicians are ‘all the same’, and ‘only in it for themselves’, is widespread, with many analysts warning of a crisis of democracy. Half of Leave supporters believed the referendum would be rigged, possibly by MI5. Having been systematically ignored for so long, many people do not believe that voting changes anything. Some Brexit voters openly expressed shock that their ballots – apparently cast only in protest – might actually compel political change.

If the rise of Donald Trump tells us anything, it is that these conditions are ripe for exploitation by the most opportunistic, unprincipled and dangerous forms of populism. Remainers who thought they could avoid this outcome by redoubling the conditions that produce it must now come to their senses. In the long run, it is far healthier for democracy that this situation be confronted now, that politicians be forced to engage with the masses, to actually listen to and have to argue with their views, and win genuine mass support for an open society.

The accusations of racism are an excuse for the failure to represent the interests of poorer workers. The left needs to stop branding people idiots and racists, and think about where it has gone wrong. If the left fails to do this, it will only help to create the very outcome it fears.

Lee Jones

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