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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

France’s anti-system election

21 Apr

This article was originally published in Juncture, the journal published by the Institute for Public Policy Research. This article was published in the spring issue of 2017 (Volume 23, Issue 4).

 

On the 22nd January 2012, the then Socialist Party candidate for the presidential elections in France, François Hollande, delivered what many believe was his election-winning speech. Speaking from a venue in Seine St Denis, a poor urban conurbation north of Paris given an edgy chic in the late 1990s by the French rap group, Nique Ta Mère (F*#* Your Mother), Hollande lurched to the left. “My real enemy is finance” declared a politician considered generally to be on the right of the Socialist Party.

Hollande’s speech that evening cemented his journey towards the French presidency. However, in a curious book published last year under the title of A President Should Not Say That, Hollande recounts how the speech was so nearly derailed by a shoe thrown at him by one of the thousands of people crowded into the hall.[1] The shoe landed in front of him and slid towards his lectern. The television cameras missed it and the incident was not picked up by the press. Had it hit me, remarks Hollande, I would probably have lost the presidential election.

This story captures in a dramatic fashion the fragility that has come to characterize mainstream political figures in France. With their popularity always in the balance, politicians feel as if they are stepping on egg shells. This is why they hide behind empty slogans and stock phrases, derision and opprobrium never very far away. Hollande’s presidency always had a quality of the improbable about it. His victory owed more to the strength of anti-Sarkozy feeling than support for his own program. The more leftwing elements of this program – such as the proposal to tax at 75% earnings over a million Euros – were gimmicks, conjured up on the hoof by his closest advisers and quietly shelved after Hollande’s victory. Though Nicolas Sarkozy’s win in 2007 had much greater momentum than Hollande’s in 2012, a similar dynamic was at work. Sarkozy chose to celebrate at a notoriously swanky Parisian restaurant on the Champs Elysée, Le Fouquet’s, and then to holiday off the coast of Malta on a yacht owned by Vincent Bolloré, one of France’s wealthiest industrialists and close friend of the newly-elected president. Throughout his presidency, Sarkozy was never able to shake-off the impression that he was obsessed with money. The soubriquet, ‘le Président bling-bling’, stuck with him throughout his five years in office.

The weak authority of France’s political class did not develop overnight and the causes are many. One is the drifting away of parties from their traditional social base. The French Socialists, for example, pretend to stand for the country’s blue collar workers but they have long been an urban, bourgeois and middle class party. The very idea of an identifiable social base has been challenged by deindustrialization and the emergence of chronic unemployment amongst French youth. Whereas in Britain supporters of the UK Independence Party have typically been retired ex-Conservative voters, in France a core part of the National Front’s vote today comes from the young. The political divide between rural and urban voters, softened greatly by the ‘Golden Age’ of French capitalism in the 1950s and 1960s, has opened up once again with National Front supporters concentrated in rural and semi-rural areas.[2] Even for the National Front, however, there is no real core vote: since 2002 its support has undergone multiple changes including feminization, proletarianisation and secularization.

There has also been a waning of the ideologies that once underpinned the left and the right in France. Mitterrand’s embrace of the European Single Act in the mid-1980s put an end to the left’s hostility to the market but without proposing any new ideology or vision for the left. The French right has conventionally been viewed through the lens of the French Revolution and associated with three different traditions – counter-revolutionary, liberal and Bonapartist.[3] However useful that may have been to understand the likes of de Gaulle or Giscard d’Estaing, it does little to explain the appeal of Marine Le Pen whose recent electoral gains have been concentrated in communities that traditionally voted on the left. And as commentators have remarked, François Fillon’s campaign is an odd collection of all of these right-wing traditions, without capturing any in particular.[4]

The weakness of the political mainstream has become a structuring element of French political life. Without an identifiable social base or any coherent set of ideas, mainstream parties are adrift from society and fail to command much authority, At this point in a presidential election, a duel should emerge between the candidates of the left and the right: Mitterrand/Chirac, Chirac/Jospin[5], Sarkozy/Royal, Hollande/Sarkozy. In 2002, the failure of the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, to get into the second round run-off was an electoral earthquake and experienced as such. No such duel is looking likely in this election. The two candidates leading in the polls are campaigning on a platform of ‘neither left nor right’ (Marine Le Pen) and ‘both left and right’ (Emmanuel Macron).

Of these two candidates, the most enigmatic is Macron. A relative newcomer to French politics, and someone who has never held elected office, Macron has become a darling of the French media. He represents the acceptable face of anti-system politics: young, progressive and pro-European. He has even been cited by those despairing about Brexit and Donald Trump as the savior of the global liberal order.

This desire for something new has been present for some time in France. In the 2007 campaign, Ségolène Royal – the Socialist Party candidate who was snubbed and maligned by the party’s chauvinist elite – established her own movement, Desirs d’Avenir. This went nowhere after Royal’s defeat but Macron is picking up where she left off. Macron’s movement – En Marche – is mainly an electoral platform but is part of the splintering and fragmentation of political organization in France seen also in its more radial cousin, the Nuit Debout movement that filled the Place de la République in Paris for a few months last year.  Macron’s main weakness is his program: after weeks of grandiose speeches but no real policies, En Marche has gone into policy overdrive, churning out endless proposals that seem disjointed and ad hoc.

If Macron is a revolutionary in search of an idea, Marine Le Pen is quite the opposite. The ideas are there and some of them have not changed much since the party was first founded by her father, Jean-Marie, in 1972. The National Front’s program is an arduous read made up of 144 propositions that cover most aspects of public life. Whilst Le Pen has been a vocal defender of ‘Frexit’ – France’s exit from the European Union – her program states that France will seek to renegotiate its place in the EU and then put the results of this renegotiation to a popular vote, much the same approach taken by former British Prime Minister David Cameron. In contrast to Macron, Le Pen is in many ways the quintessential political ‘insider’; she is, after all, running a party set up by her father. Her challenge to the system is in part ideological: she vituperates the political establishment for having given up on ‘the people’ and opposes her nationalist solutions to the ‘globalist’ policies which she believes have failed France.  Le Pen is also threatening to disrupt one of the only unifying forces of French politics that remain: the desire to keep the National Front out of power. This goal has contained the powerful disintegrative tendencies at the heart of French political life, at least until today.

Anti-system candidates are currently leading in France’s presidential campaign. There will be some who welcome Macron as a centrist and a unifier, as many did with Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory in Austria’s presidential election late last year. This misses how much of an outsider Macron is, and how unconventional and unexpected his victory would be for the politics of the Fifth Republic. Macron may yet fall into third or fourth place as his competitors pile on the pressure but at present he is neck-and-neck with François Fillon for the coveted second place in the first round ballot.

A Macron victory, just like a Le Pen victory, would represent the collapse of the political mainstream in France and its traditional system of parties. It is unlikely that French politics would revert back to its traditional patterns and rituals. François Hollande was saved in 2012 by the few meters that separated his lectern from the shoe that was thrown at him. Mainstream candidates may not be as lucky in 2017.

Chris Bickerton

[1] Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme (2016) Un Président ne devrait pas dire ca… (Paris: Stock) p18.

[2] Pascal Perrineau (2014) La France Au Front (Paris: Fayard) p38.

[3] Rene Remond (1982) Les Droites en France (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne)

[4] ‘Le discours de François Fillon à la loupe’, Le Monde, 16 December 2016.

[5] For the Chirac/Jospin run off in 1995, Chirac’s place in the second round was a surprise as the candidate on the right expected to get through was Edouard Balladur. However, what was not in doubt was that there would be a left/right run off in the second round.

Give them British citizenship!

4 Mar

The British government is not treating EU citizens resident in the UK as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with the EU. On the contrary, it is the EU that is treating those citizens, and British citizens resident in Europe, in this way. Theresa May has already sought a deal allowing EU citizens resident in the UK to remain here following Brexit, if EU governments will do the same for British citizens in their countries. EU leaders have refused to make any agreement until Article 50 has been invoked and its secretive negotiation process has begun.

The UK government should respond to this with a very public message that it is committed to the rights of those who live here. It should unilaterally declare that EU citizens have a right to remain in the UK after Brexit, and urge European governments to reciprocate. Indeed the British government should go further. It should make a point of inviting those EU citizens to become British citizens, and reduce the significant barriers to them doing so that exist at the moment.

The Prime Minister is not wrong to insist that she must put the interests of British citizens first. And EU governments may refuse to reciprocate. In Greece those governments have demonstrated that their attitude to European citizens can be almost as vicious as their treatment of African and Asian migrants. But the significant costs that might be caused by EU intransigence on the rights of British citizens abroad will be far outweighed by the long-term benefits to all British citizens.  We would be citizens of a state that has the confidence both to insist on its accountability to its own people (its democratic political sovereignty) and its openness to others (its internationalism). Such a state would earn worldwide respect from many millions of ambitious, talented and public-spirited individuals who are crying out for a break with the stale politics of the past. That would be an asset beyond price.

Opinion poll evidence suggests that there is overwhelming popular support in Britain for allowing EU citizens to remain in the UK after Brexit. A huge opportunity exists here for Theresa May really to lead the world. There is, of course, no evidence that she has either the political imagination or courage to take the opportunity – her long tenure as Home Secretary suggests the opposite. Only those committed to an internationalist politics of sovereignty are likely to be willing.

Peter Ramsay

 

 

 

 

 

PostRefRacism: How Big a Problem is it Really?

3 Aug

PostRefRacism, a Twitter account set up to document post-referendum racist incidents, has just released a report on post-referendum racism in Britain. Compiled with input from similar groups, Worrying Signs and iStreetWatch, and endorsed by the Institute for Race Relations (IRR), the report garnered widespread media attention in the past week, as did police data revealing a 20% spike in reported ‘hate crime’ after the referendum, with a total 6,000 incidents.

PostRefRacism’s report is potentially useful in breaking down this alarming headline figure, given its exclusive focus on racism. It identifies 636 individual reports of ‘racist and xenophobic hate crime’ – less than 11% of the total ‘hate crime’ figure released by police – of which 88% involved verbal abuse or ‘propaganda’. Of course, Twitter usage is hardly universal. But PostRefRacism worked very hard to reach this figure. With its 10,000 followers, it received nearly 99,000 tweets from 25 June to 4 July. However, 80% of these were generic expressions of concern, with only 20% reporting actual incidents, boiling down to only 636 separate cases – 25% of which were hearsay, and none of which have been verified.

The report’s most troubling claim is that 51% of these incidents ‘referred specifically to the referendum’, while 14% affected children, 12% were Islamophobic, and 4% were ‘other’. However, 51% of the 636 incidents fit into none of these categories. That is, at most 159 cases (51% of 51%) ‘referred specifically to the referendum’. Assuming they were all perpetrated by individual ‘leave’ voters, that leaves 17,410,583 Leavers who did not abuse anyone, despite a third saying they were primarily motivated to restore immigration controls – not to mention the other 29,095,259 eligible voters. Put differently, there are about 853,000 Poles living in Britain, but PostRefRacism recorded only 54 incidents where Poles were the reported victims (0.00006%).

Clearly, there is the possibility of under-reporting, and even one incident is one too many. Verbal abuse can be desperately upsetting for victims, and we should stand in full solidarity with them. But in a country as populous and diverse as Britain, do these figures really demonstrate widespread racist intolerance?

We must also ask what the phrase ‘referred specifically to the referendum’ actually means. Sometimes there is a clear (albeit obtuse) link: someone saying ‘shouldn’t you be on a plane back to Pakistan? We voted you out’. But more often, reports seem to involve generic phrases like ‘go home’ (74 stories), ‘leave’ (80 stories) and ‘fuck off’ (45 stories). Reprehensible as such comments are, it’s unclear why we should attribute them ‘specifically to the referendum’. Racist bigots have been telling non-white people to ‘go home’ for decades – it is a standard, despicable trope. The IRR’s own digest, which provides substantive detail of each case, involves many such outbursts – most of which cannot plausibly be linked to the referendum. The ethnic breakdown of reported victims – only 21% of whom are identified as Europeans – also suggests continuity with long-established patterns of racism against non-whites. The geographic pattern of incidents also fails to correlate with the ‘leave’ vote, with 44% originating in London.

The data thus boil down to a statistical uptick in an underlying current of low-level racist activity. As James Aber has argued here on TCM, a tiny, hard-core minority of racist individuals, who existed prior to the referendum, apparently felt emboldened to be more abusive following the result. Alarmist reports that made it appear that their attitudes were widely shared may even have emboldened them further. But such upticks are not new; far larger surges invariably follow terrorist atrocities. Anti-Muslim crimes in the US jumped 1,600% after 9/11; hate crimes in London increased 600% after 7/7; and anti-Muslim incidents in France jumped 281% after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The smaller uptick in Britain does not necessarily indicate any longer-term realignment. Polls on voting intentions do not suggest any shift towards right-wing parties. There is no surge for UKIP, still less for the British National Party – who, let us not forget, garnered just 1,667 votes in the 2015 general election. Conversely, there is overwhelming public support – 84% – for the residency rights of EU nationals already living in Britain. No doubt, racism must continue to be challenged – but, as Philip Cunliffe argues on TCM, we do not need the EU to do this.

This analysis is necessary not to dismiss the experience of racism but to understand it and shape appropriate responses. As Stathis Kouvelakis warns British leftists, embracing this discourse of widespread working-class racism is seriously detrimental to any progressive agenda, particularly if one believes it is historically embedded into the English character, as some now argue. It destroys the notion that the vast majority of the population are capable of acting as agents of progressive social, political and economic change. It fuels instead either liberal insistence on containing and suppressing mass sentiment, Labour-rightists’ pandering to anti-immigration attitudes, or right-wing populist efforts to exacerbate and exploit ethnic divisions.

Rather than aiding the enemy, leftists ought to be challenging these slanders against the white working classes and asking why, as Kouvelakis puts it, class struggle is being distorted into anti-immigration sentiment that, in its nastiest form, shades into racism. As we have argued, simply decrying racism merely evades this fundamental question. The answer is obvious enough. Following the crushing defeat of organised labour in the 1980s, the political class has practised 30 years of neoliberalism, resulting in flat-lining wages and living standards, followed by eight years of austerity in which real wages have fallen at the same rate as those in crisis-struck Greece. Social security, housing and decent work are all dwindling. Politicians of all stripes absolutely insist ‘there is no alternative’ to this shrinking pie – yet then admit millions of new mouths to share it. In this context, it can surprise no-one that a defence of living standards takes the form of resistance to immigration. Indeed, the hegemony of TINA makes anti-immigration sentiment a structural feature of political life. It is this hegemony that the left must challenge.

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.

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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

Further Thoughts on the Left Case for Brexit

22 Jun

On the 6th June, Richard Tuck, professor of political theory at Harvard University, published an article in Dissent Magazine entitled ‘The Left Case for Brexit‘. It was a source of some controversy and here is his reply to his critics.

So far, most responses to my ‘Left Case for Brexit’ have fallen into three groups.  The first is the simple and understandable fear that Brexit will hand power in Britain to the people who have been most vocal in its support, and they do not include many figures on the Left: Brexit would therefore represent an historic defeat for the Left in Britain.

The point of my article, however, was that there has always been a Left case for Brexit, and that abandoning the field to the Right was the historic mistake which there should be some attempt, even at this late stage, to reverse.  Continuing to oppose Brexit simply means doubling down on this mistake. Moreover, the defeat of the Left after Brexit is inevitable only if the default Left position continues to be support for the EU. If there is the possibility of accepting or even welcoming the UK’s departure from the EU and turning it to the advantage of Left politics, the defeat is not inevitable.  In the article I asked the question, Why is there no British Bernie Sanders? Brexit might allow one to appear, since it would transform the political landscape in many ways.  Without it, it is hard to see any such revival of the Left at a popular level.

More substantial are the other two responses.  One concentrates on the possible economic damage of Brexit, damage that (it is argued) will necessarily affect the poor more than the rich.  This is of course the central argument of the official Remain campaign, but it is a frustrating one.  Much of the debate has simply consisted in citing authorities, and in the process the Left has found itself in the odd position of treating as sages economists and think-tanks it would normally disregard in (say) a General Election. How often have socialist policies been criticised by those same authorities?  The tone of the economic debate is indeed exactly like that of a General Election, in which each side seizes upon suggestions by economists that support their case and disregard the rest.

That is understandable when there are reasonable arguments of a non-economic kind to incline people towards their particular party, and when the economic arguments are rhetoric; but in this instance, allegedly, it is only the economic considerations upon which people are basing their decision.  This is highly dangerous: there are perfectly good economists, particularly in the US where they can take a more neutral view, who argue that Brexit would make little economic difference to the UK.  For example, Ashoka Mody, formerly the assistant director of the IMF’s European Department and now the Charles and Marie Robertson Professor at Princeton, published a formidable article in the Independent on 31 May refuting point by point the claims of the British Treasury, and accusing the community of economists of “groupthink” on the subject.  Mody is easily as well qualified as everyone else in the debate, and has been closer to the economics of the EU than most; we could add to him Mervyn King, the former Governor of the Bank of England, who knows what he is talking about and has described the Remain campaign’s economic arguments as “wildly exaggerated”.  Relying on authority, in this area as in most others, is a risky intellectual and political strategy.

There are in fact a number of features of the economic relationship between the UK and the EU that are rarely mentioned in the debate.  For example, as of 2014 the UK ran a balance of trade deficit with 18 of the 27 member countries of the EU, and a surplus of less than £1 billion with each of another eight.  But it had a trade surplus of almost £10 billion with the remaining country: Ireland.[1]  What this illustrates is that almost all statistics that treat the EU as a single economic unit, from the point of view of the UK, are grossly misleading; strip out Ireland and the EU looks very different.  Given the high degree of integration of the Irish and British economies (indeed, I have heard it said that the Irish economy is more integrated into the English economy than the Scottish one is), it is inconceivable that post-Brexit the close economic relationship will not continue, even if there are some minor tariffs: after all, having separate currencies potentially adds more costs to import/export trade than the kinds of tariffs which might be imposed post-Brexit.

And it is not clear whether there would be tariffs of any significance.  “Project Fear” has insinuated that in the event of Brexit the UK would be punished by the imposition of trading barriers: but some calm reflection would show that that is highly implausible.  Most of the debate in Britain has concentrated on the self-interest of EU countries in continuing to trade easily with Britain, but that is really the least of it.  Under WTO rules to which all the relevant countries have signed up, it is simply illegal to raise tariffs once they have been agreed at a particular level; moreover, punitive tariffs unjustified by domestic economic considerations are exactly the things which the WTO came into existence to prevent.  And for the second or third largest economy in the world (the EU minus Britain) to impose punitive tariffs on the fifth or sixth largest (Britain) would be to move decisively into an era of global protectionism and trade warfare with implications going far beyond Europe.  Both “Remainers” and “Brexiters” are fixated on ways of remaining legally in the single market, but it is not at all clear that in the modern trading world single regional markets matter very much, except (as I said in my original article) as devices to enforce a certain kind of neo-liberal economic policy.

The third set of objections to my argument amount to the claim that I am guilty of baby-boomer utopian nostalgia, and that a realistic view of the modern world, and of current British politics, shows that a revival of classic Labour policies in the UK is simply impossible.  On the charge that I am a baby-boomer, I plead guilty, of course.  I would say, however, that there is a romance of realism as well as a romance of utopianism – indeed, realism is often a form of utopianism.  The self-image of the realist is as someone who has seen truths which their idealistic contemporaries disregard, and who has thereby gained a special insight into the future: but a genuinely realistic sense of politics shows us that idealists often triumph.  More to the point, no one to my knowledge has given a convincing account of why policies and attitudes that were possible in the 1940s and again in the 1960s should not be possible again.

My central claim in the article was that we should not overlook the self-imposed character of the constraints under which the Left now labours.  Just as the US Constitution almost made the New Deal impossible, and it was FDR’s threat to flood the Supreme Court that permitted the social transformation of the US in the 1930s, so the new constitutional order of the EU makes radical policies in Britain impossible, and no British government can flood the European courts.  It is easy to think of these kinds of structures as facts of nature, just as the US Constitution now seems to be. But they are not facts of nature.

The “realists” say that the global situation has changed, and we can no longer have (as they often say to me) “socialism in one country”.  But was what the Attlee government put in place “socialism in one country”?  Were the Scandinavian welfare states in their heyday “socialism in one country”?  Is a world of interdependent but independent states, much like the world for most of the modern era, now impossible?  If socialism has to wait for a global state, or even a European state, then most people who currently call themselves socialists may as well abandon the label, since there is no foreseeable route to what they want: that is the inevitable consequence of their “realism”.  I have a more limited ambition, but (I would say) in practice a more genuinely realistic one, that the scope for Left politics can be broadened in Britain beyond its current narrow confines; but that is only possible if the political structures in Britain once again permit it.

[1]  House of Commons Library Briefing Paper No 06091, 13 April 2016, p.14.

 

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