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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

Will the UK Actually Leave the EU?

30 Jul

A conspiratorial view is circulating among some Leavers, whereby UK prime minister Theresa May is deliberately delaying invoking Article 50 – perhaps indefinitely – in order to achieve her secret goal of never actually leaving the EU, or achieve some sort of ‘fudge’.

This cynicism is understandable. There was a huge anti-democratic backlash after the referendum. The EU and its member-governments have a habit of re-running referenda whose results they don’t like. The SNP wants to veto Brexit. Much of the Labour party would like a second referendum. There is legal action pending in the high court seeking to put the decision on invoking Article 50 into the hands of our predominantly pro-EU parliamentarians. And May herself, of course, was a Remainer.

But the idea that the government will never invoke Article 50 ignores a range of facts.

Theresa May says “Brexit means Brexit” because 60% of Tory voters opted for Brexit, against the will of their own party leader. The referendum was called partly to staunch the haemorrhaging of Tory voters to UKIP. Failing to invoke Article 50 would be electoral suicide. It was also called to manage Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers who, if betrayed now, could bring down May’s government, given its slim parliamentary majority. The idea that there is no pressure on May, that she can do as she pleases, is absurd.

The referendum outcome is also the only democratic mandate that May claims for her administration. The last time a prime minister took office without a general election – when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair in 2007 – the Tories denounced it as undemocratic and demanded a general election. The only way the Tories can fend off these demands now is to appeal to the will of the people as expressed in the referendum.

The Scottish question is also unlikely to delay departure indefinitely. It is absurd to suggest that 1.66m Scottish Remainers should be able to override the UK’s 17.4m Leave voters. The SNP’s ultimate trump card is a second independence referendum. However, Scotland’s economic prospects outside of Britain – particularly one outside the EU – are even worse now than in 2014, and this question proved decisive then. The SNP has no interest in calling a vote they would probably lose. May is not bowing to SNP sabre-rattling – she is trying to find a way to appease Scottish voters and contain the UK’s constitutional crisis.

Nor is it likely that the eventual deal on Brexit would be put to a second referendum, enabling Brexit to be overturned. Once Article 50 is invoked, the UK will be on an irreversible two-year countdown to departure; to get back into the EU, the UK would have to reapply from scratch. Voting down the deal would not salvage Britain’s EU membership, it would only plunge the country into deeper uncertainty.

Finally, what lends this whole notion a truly conspiratorial air is the implication that all of May’s speeches, foreign trips, domestic appointments and institutional reordering are part of an expensive and elaborate charade to mask her true intentions.

The greater risk now is not that the government will not invoke Article 50 at some point. It is that it will define the objectives of the subsequent negotiations in a way that essentially maintains the status quo. The British establishment is overwhelmingly pro-EU and favours stability above all else. Powerful business interests are already lobbying the government to maintain as much of the existing framework as possible. If these groups are permitted to define the terms of the negotiations, the real risk is not never leaving the EU, but rather “Brexit in name only”, an EU-lite where vast areas of policymaking remain insulated from democratic control. If this happens, the opportunity of the current democratic moment will be squandered, with Leave voters becoming even more cynical about and disillusioned with democracy.

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

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