I wrote this for Democratic Left’s newsletter in May 2017, on the prospects for the general election:
The UK General Election on June 8th confirms folk understandings of Freud’s concept of projection. Theresa May’s constant refrain that she will create a ‘strong and stable’ government reflect her underlying inability to do so. We will find out on June 8th just how much of this weakness has been understood by the electorate, but at the time of writing, it appears that she has lost some of the lustre granted to her by the British media’s infatuation with ‘New Thatcher’.
Background to the Crisis
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Antonio Gramsci
It is clear that the old world is dying. It is also clear that the new world cannot be born. The very rapid technological developments in fields like automation, energy and data go barely understood in the public debate. Meanwhile, old arguments around immigration, welfare and the replacement of mid-20th century industrial jobs persist. It cannot be a coincidence that the debate around immigration in the UK has ramped up just at the time at which job destruction and automation begins to accelerate. Indeed, the fact that concern about immigration is highest in areas with lowest immigration suggests to us that, for all the over-analysis of the issue, this is obviously a placeholder for other concerns.
We cannot understand the Brexit vote and the election of Trump without understanding the broader socio-political and socio-technological contexts. We see in the Trump and Brexit victories a deep longing for a return to the social-democratic consensus of the mid-20th century, but in conditions that can never allow that.
The contours of Brexit
It is clear that the Brexit vote had no single cause, but there are a couple of important dynamics within this debate. The places that voted for Brexit tend to fall into one of two categories: ‘left behind’ areas of post-industrial England and Wales; and the wealthy home counties. It seems obvious that there are two processes at work here – both are nostalgic: in the home counties, for the days of Empire; in ‘left behind’ areas, for the social democratic consensus when jobs in heavy industry were available to all, were well paid, and carried with them a sense of dignity.
This coalition was vital to delivering the Brexit vote, but the outcomes these groups seek from Brexit are radically different and often diametrically opposed. In this context, it is interesting to note just how the Conservatives under Theresa May have attempted to provide attractive policies for both constituencies: lots of talk about Britain becoming an offshore tax haven to pacify the Empire chauvinists, with a nod towards industrial democracy through measures such as workers on boards for the ‘left behinds’.
There are problems with each of these positions that I will come on to later. One unifying factor amongst those who voted for Brexit was age, with leaving the EU being an enthusiasm largely of the old.
The forward march of Labour reversed
Quite by accident and in circumstances very much not of their own making, the Conservatives have stumbled across a fatal flaw in the composition of the coalition of voters that the Labour Party relied upon to govern. In the run up to the Scottish Referendum in 2014, it became clear that constitutional politics was an enormous stumbling block for the Labour Party in Scotland. A party used to what we might describe as elective Bolshevism (you get a plurality in the election and use that to exercise a monopoly on power was simply incapable of discussing issues of power with the electorate.
For the Yes campaign, the more they asked questions and suggested solutions based on distributing economic and political power, the more successful they became, in no small part because the answer from Labour to proposals as diverse as reinvigorating local democracy and creating a Universal Basic Income was a one-dimensional refrain of “If you want that, vote Labour”. When combined with a public imagination that could still very much remember Labour under Blair, this simply did not wash. A government that allowed inequality to run away while prioritising an unpopular and illegal war in Iraq damaged the popular credibility of the Labour movement in Scotland. The more Labour found themselves in discussions about the constitution, and, more importantly, about giving power away, the less popular Labour became.
When the Conservatives won an accidental majority in the 2015 General Election, and were obliged to deliver on a manifesto pledge to have a referendum on membership of the European Union, another opportunity to put Labour in a very awkward position around constitutional politics arose, this time, affecting not just Scotland, but the whole of Labour’s British electorate.
Labour chose to sit out the EU Referendum, recognising that their voters were profoundly split on the issue. Had the vote been for Remain, this would have been a tactically wise decision. But, the distance between Labour representatives and their constituents on this issue meant they failed to understand just how likely a leave vote was. With the Leave vote, Labour was again asked to talk about constitutional politics when it is emotionally incapable of doing so.
When added to internal dissent caused by the election of a left-wing leader in a centrist parliamentary group, Labour MPs seized an opportunity to try and overthrow their party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The cynical opportunism of pro-European MPs trying to oust a leader who was ambivalent about the EU on the grounds that he was unable to understand the concerns of the electorate became clear: he was much more in tune with the electorate than his critics in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Tony Blair said he would rather that Labour lost than that they win with Jeremy Corbyn as Leader. The actions of the Parliamentary Labour Party indicated that they agreed. They looked as if they had fatally holed Corbyn’s leadership even though he had won his second leadership election.
Strong and stable?
The Tory Party had chaos of its own, with David Cameron stepping down to be replaced as leader by Theresa May in a leadership election where the significant figures of the Leave campaign failed to make it through to the final round of the ballot, which Andrea Leadsom then failed to contest, having made some crass remarks around motherhood and Theresa May.
A rapid infatuation by the right wing media with May followed. Her Daily Mail politics and the folk memory of the last woman to be a Conservative Prime Minister, aided by the adoption wholesale of UKIP policies, translated itself into a collapse in the UKIP vote, and a corresponding substantial increase in the Tory poll lead.
May strategically blundered by promising no early general election, triggering Article 50, then calling a General Election. This may become seen as the moment she punctured her reputation for playing straight. Further, an election was always likely to expose some of May’s fundamental weaknesses: while claiming to be strong and stable, she is clearly brittle, hiding not just from Leaders’ Debates, but the media and even the public. An election campaign in which the Prime Minister hides is always going to be a difficult one for her Party.
As the campaign has gone on, these weaknesses have become more obvious, but another weakness has emerged: while the decision to call the election was based on flimsy reasoning (that there was parliamentary opposition to her proposals for a Hard Brexit) the manifesto and platform are substantially less cynical than those put together by George Osborne for the 2015 election. Gone are the commitments to the Conservative’s core constituency, like the triple-lock on pensions and the commitment to protect the ability to pass on wealth by state payment for social care. The surprise Tory victory in 2015 was built on a series of well-segmented promises to different groups of the electorate. The 2017 manifesto looks like it cannot achieve this segmentation. The logic, of course, is that the Conservatives have a poll lead sufficient to allow them to alienate these segments of the electorate.
The terrain of the election
In previous general elections, Labour has ‘played the game’ with a media-friendly leader and focus group policies intended to triangulate their way to victory. The outcome has been that after Blair, these leaders have been pummelled by the media, attacked for the way in which they eat bacon sandwiches, and portrayed by Conservatives as being in the pockets of unpatriotic interests, with Miliband being, quite literally, portrayed inside Alec Salmond’s pocket ahead of the 2015 General Election. Whoever had been chosen as Labour leader after the 2015 election would have been subjected to withering attacks across the media and it is hard to see how Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, or any of the other possible candidates (David Miliband?) could have withstood this attack. Labour have needed, for some time, to abandon this tactic, and build an alternative approach.
It is hard to see how Labour could be more effective in 2015 at bringing Tory voters across to them, but it is clear to see that many of the non-voters from 2005 onwards can be encouraged to vote Labour. The Labour manifesto has some of the elements that will begin to rebuild a winning coalition for Labour. At the time of writing, it does not look like that will be enough, but it points the way to a different approach.
It remains likely that the Conservatives will win the election, though much less likely than many commentators predicted at the start of the campaign. But the complexity of delivering Brexit may well be beyond this next Tory government. Theresa May’s communications indicate that she believes successful negotiation is negotiation conducted from a position of strength, and very often that is the case. But it is entirely unclear how she intends to turn her negotiating position with the European Commission from one of weakness into one of strength. It seems much more likely that she will attempt to negotiate from strength, even though her position is weak. This is likely to result in a range of dire consequences.
It remains possible that Boris Johnson’s flounce out of the Tory leadership race was tactically astute, allowing Theresa May to be ‘the fall guy’ for a bad Brexit deal or a failure to complete Brexit, allowing Johnson to take over and attempt to bluster his way out of this failure.
What is to be done?
The tensions ignited by the Conservatives playing a game of chicken around constitutional politics may be hard to contain. Sinn Fein’s masterful strategy to accelerate a united Ireland may bring the Republic of Ireland’s veto into play in the European Council over any Brexit deal. It seems that Brexit has put the wind back in the sails of the Scottish Independence movement. For those who voted for Brexit as a way to reclaim Britain’s Imperial honour, the loss of Britain’s last holdings in Ireland and of Scotland may be traumatic.
Now, more than ever, a coherent political alternative is needed: one that can address the issues of disempowerment and lack of dignity that drove the Brexit vote for ‘left behinds’, one that brings together the need to create a fair economy for all in the face of automation and job destruction with the need to save the planet from climate change, and one that recognises the real social inequalities across race, gender, sexuality, ability and so on. The Green Parties of these islands have advocated this approach and have been successful in influencing other political parties to take this agenda more seriously.
The right wing media used UKIP to introduce racism and Empire nostalgia that drove us to Brexit. We need to get our radical ideas into the public debate by supporting and growing social movements, and then ensure our politics takes up these ideas: electoral reform is the best way to achieve that. Only then can we begin to create the next economy that will work for people and planet.