- Interview by
- Ashley Smith
The unending impasse over Brexit has thrown Britain’s Conservative Party as well as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party into turmoil. Both have suffered declines in the polls, and the far right led by Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party is taking full advantage, leading it to victory in the European elections and to the top of opinion polls.
Corbyn’s program of redistribution, reversing privatization, boosting public education, and improving public services remains wildly popular. And for a while, promoting this class-based platform against the backdrop of Theresa May’s disastrous handling of Brexit negotiations was a boon for Labour. But the European elections, and the impending possibility of a no-deal Brexit, has put the European Union at the center of British politics. This throws up challenges for a Labour Party whose base is still divided between Leave and Remain. Here, Jacobin contributor Ashley Smith speaks to Salvage editor Richard Seymour about this volatile situation, how the far right stands to benefit from the breakdown of the Tories, and what the Left can do about it.
Brexit has thrown British politics into a crisis. The most dramatic expression of that was the European election, in which the main parties lost support and lesser parties gained. What happened in this election and what is its significance?
First of all, just to put it in perspective, the European elections have typically low turnouts. In this case, it was 37 percent, which was slightly higher than usual. It was a single-issue election; there was only one issue being addressed and that was the failure of Theresa May’s government to push through her Brexit deal.
That foundered on the divisions between the two wings of the Conservative Party. One wing is the traditional pro-capitalist business wing, which is straightforwardly pro-European. The other wing is the Tory right based in the petty bourgeoisie and a middling section of finance capital in London who want out of the whole European project.
The small business owners do not like the EU and some its regulations on workers’ rights and the environment. The middling section of capital regard the EU as restraining Britain’s imperial reach throughout the world. The Tory right, which represents these interests, are also very right wing on a host of social questions from immigration to Islam, women’s rights, and gay rights.
Theresa May tried to overcome this division by promising a “red, white, and blue” Brexit. That promise of a hard Brexit rallied the Tory rank and file, the scum roots as we call them in Salvage, driving up the Tories’ approval ratings to over 45 percent, its highest since the 1970s.
But May never intended to deliver a hard Brexit. That was clear from the moment she concretized her proposal, which aimed to preserve the status quo as much as possible without losing the support of the Tory right.
She might have been able to whip the Right in line if she’d won the 2017 general election, but she didn’t. She didn’t lose it, but she didn’t win it; she lost her majority and had to negotiate with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to stay in office. That made her problem far worse.
The DUP campaigned for Brexit. Their éminence grise, the late Ian Paisley, used to call the EU the “whore of Babylon” and a seat of “popery.” They’d even be happy if Brexit resulted in a “hard border” between North and South, even if it violates the Good Friday peace deal — which the DUP never supported.
However, May was hardly going to sacrifice the last foreign policy success of the British state. She wanted out of the customs union, but she also negotiated a “backstop” where Northern Ireland would remain in its jurisdiction. Hence the DUP’s vehement opposition.
At that point, the only strategy that would have worked would have been to negotiate with Corbyn’s Labour Party. But she refused to even contemplate that until almost two years later, after her proposed deal had been serially defeated in the House of Commons. When she did finally accede to negotiations, her backbenchers denounced her for negotiating with a “Marxist.” Brexit activists called her a “traitor.”
May had gone into the Brexit negotiations with a catastrophically naive strategy. She had appointed ideologues who grossly overstated British power, claimed it could set the agenda, refuse to pay any divorce bill. They were wrong.
The UK is a dwindling power and, as we saw in Greece, the EU bosses are thugs. May ended up with a deal that, as Yanis Varoufakis would put it, would be signed only by a country defeated in war. Naturally, she was thrashed in parliamentary votes, repeatedly. And yet, bizarrely, refused to resign.
The Labour Party was the initial beneficiary of May’s meltdown back in March. But the very fact that May had failed so badly destroyed confidence in any possibility of a compromise. And Corbyn’s approach, faced with a party divided on Brexit, necessitated compromise. Since 2016, he had agreed to honor the referendum result, but keep Labour’s options open on how to limit the damage. This had worked thus far. In the 2017 general election, Labour was able to bypass the Brexit divide by focusing on class issues.
But with May’s disaster, that position looked less plausible. With Leavers bellowing about treason and Remainers increasingly terrified of what Brexit would mean, the polls shifted quickly. In the local council elections, for example, the Tories were mauled, but Labour also lost seats.
In the European elections, just a few weeks later, both Labour and the Tories were savaged. The top two parties, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and the Liberals, on 31 percent and 20 percent respectively, both campaigned exclusively on Europe. It was a culture war election. Labour was driven into fourth place with 14 percent, the Tories into sixth place with 9 percent.
Brexit has created a crisis not just for the Conservative Party, which might be finished as a natural party of government, but also for Labour. It is the generalized crisis of politics that has created an opening for the Brexit Party. However, one should be wary of asserting a parity of crisis in the two major parties.
Just after the European elections, Labour successfully defended a tiny majority in a swing constituency known as Peterborough. This was a contest that pundits unanimously thought the Brexit Party would win, as they had been the clear winner in that city in the European elections. They were wrong, and this shows that Labour can still turn out its vote.
In the wake of this disaster for the Tories, May resigned, and thrown the party into a sharp leadership fight. Who will likely win and what strategy will the Tory Party adopt on Brexit? Will this crisis provoke a general election?
The Tories are in the biggest crisis in their history. Precisely because of this they will run a mile from a general election. Unless they lose their voting majority, the Conservative Party will remain in office until 2022. But their rule will be even more unstable.
Who are the contenders for the Tories’ Iron Throne? The Tory base would like to vote for Jacob Rees-Mogg, a hard Brexit, right-wing Catholic aristocrat. But he won’t stand because his parliamentary colleagues would never back him.
Boris Johnson is also popular with the base and, more dangerously, has a record of success. An old Thatcherite, he got elected as London mayor twice — in a left-leaning, multicultural city. He has a gift for camouflaging his ruthless drive and rightist politics with entertaining “gaffes.” And he has no scruple about jumping on bandwagons.
This is the guy who pitched himself as an eco-conscious social liberal to Londoners, then mounted the soapbox for Brexit once he was in the cabinet, despite knowing it was lunacy. His colleagues don’t trust him, but they might end up supporting him because they need a hard Brexit candidate who could realistically take on Jeremy Corbyn.
Jeremy Hunt, disastrous former health secretary, is getting a lot of parliamentary support. But he’s a charisma vacuum with little support in the grassroots. Sajid Javid is a dark horse, who has built support by hammering immigration, but he isn’t being talked about much.
It’s a genuinely dangerous situation. If Johnson wins, he’s possibly just ruthless enough to try to push through a “no deal” Brexit, however disastrous for capital, and call a general election. By rallying Leave voters and going all out on the immigrant-bashing and Islamophobia, he could just win. Alternatively, a future leader could simply sell out the base again and bargain for more time, but that would goad the Brexit enragés and poison the political well even more.
The one thread of hope is that any leader faces the same dilemma as May. No better deal is coming from the EU, at least on Tory terms, while “no deal” would probably split the Tories and bring down the government. That will present some opportunities.
Perhaps the most disturbing development is the rise seemingly out of nowhere of Farage’s Brexit Party. What is its program? How much of a threat is this new party of the right?
Nigel Farage is an incredibly sharp and dangerous man. He was born to a stockbroker and went to private school at Dulwich College, where he was known as a fascist. A former schoolmate remembers him singing “gas ‘em all” about Jewish people. He was inordinately proud that his initials “NF” were the same as the fascist party, the National Front.
He went into the City as a commodity trader, made a lot of money, drank a lot, and thoroughly enjoyed himself. In the early 1990s, he became worried that the Thatcherite revolution, which had worked so well for him, was threatened by the European Union. By 1997, he was a candidate and stump speaker for a relatively new, tiny organization, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) Farage was their best speaker, an effective faction fighter, and a skilled popularizer of rightist ideology.
He was quite ruthless. In order to oust the old leadership, for example, he collaborated with activists in the fascist British National Party (BNP) — though he later claimed not to know they were in the BNP.
He was easily UKIP’s most successful leader, gaining it inordinate media coverage. He was able to fluently shift focus between different moral panics, different race-baiting issues: immigration, pedophile rings, the supposed scandal of halal food being served at Pizza Express. Above all, he is good at exploiting an opening.
Wherever the dominant parties are in crisis, or complacent, he steps into the spaces provided. That’s how he won the 2014 European elections, gained four million votes in the next year’s general election, played a pivotal role in ensuring the Tories held a referendum on Europe, and then ensured that Brexit won.
Yet, because UKIP didn’t gain any seats in the 2015 general election, it descended into factional warfare. Farage was driven out of the leadership. He grew a moustache, became a hired pundit, and waited. It seems he felt UKIP had reached its ceiling, and he wanted a new type of organization. Something like the Five Star Movement, where the authority of the leader is far less compromised by elaborate membership structures and accountability.
In fact, he eventually set up a private corporation in which he, as CEO, could only be removed by a board of directors which he appointed. This corporation solicited crowdfunding donations from “registered supporters” and modeled itself on a digital platform. It elicited free labor from online activists, in the form of content-sharing and other forms of “clicktivism.” It held big, angry public events in which Farage spoke and supporters spectated. It called itself the Brexit Party.
Unlike UKIP, which was a party of middle-class civic activists, the Brexit Party has absolutely no base. Its support is driven by surges of online sentiment and attention, and Farage’s personal connection with a fan base. It doesn’t have any political program. It stood only on one issue: deliver Brexit, deal or no deal. It even pretends to transcend the left-right divide by adding to its squad of millionaire reactionaries and small-town Poujadists a handful of useful idiots from Spiked, a right-wing organization descended from the Revolutionary Communist Party and which occasionally pretends to be on the Left.
This is all good strategy: Farage’s real politics of NHS privatization, repealing workers’ rights, ending equal pay laws, opposing the minimum wage, and so on would have a far more limited appeal. That’s why he didn’t talk about any of that in his campaign speeches, instead addressing the audience’s feeling of outrage and sense of being mistreated by the political establishment.
At some point, the Brexit Party will have to articulate an agenda, and work out a more elaborate decision-making structure, and then it will face some problems. But Farage has proven a canny and underestimated opponent and is, currently, the most dangerous reactionary in Britain.
The Labour Party has not been spared from the crisis provoked by Brexit. Corbyn seems to be balancing between those supporting Leave and Remain both within the parliamentary party and in his base. What are the prospects for Corbyn and Labour?
Brexit poses deep problems for Corbyn and Labour. On issues like public services, taxing the rich, nationalizing utilities, and free education, Corbyn has a popular offer. But to deliver that, he wants to neutralize Brexit as an issue, because it divides his party and his base. Part of the way he’s done that is to promise a Brexit deal that would limit the damage to British capitalism by keeping a customs union, while also retaining workers’ rights, environmental regulations, and so on.
But also, to appease party right-wingers and Leave voters, he has also tried to accommodate them on immigration. Without scapegoating migrants per se, he said Labour was no longer committed to the system of free movement. He claimed it had to end because the UK was leaving the EU, a disingenuous formulation. And he talked about cheap labor being “imported” to undercut wages, language which is uncomfortably close to things that Farage has said.
The problem is, Labour and the wider left haven’t really had a proper discussion about Europe since the 1980s, when Labour abandoned its critique and became a pro-European party. The idea was that the EU’s mild regulations would protect workers from the worst of Thatcher and, later, New Labour. Corbyn retained his Euroscepticism, and so did some parts of the labor movement, like the RMT union. But this had little influence.
So, when the Brexit referendum came up, it wasn’t a debate that arose on the Left or in the working class. It was a fight between two factions of the Right. Because of that, and because he needed the cooperation of the parliamentary Labour Party, Corbyn agreed to campaign to Remain in Europe in 2016.
But he also refused to campaign alongside David Cameron and ran a separate left-wing campaign — though it was utterly ignored in the media. And when the result came out, he pledged to implement it — to the discomfort of a faction of his supporters. The basic orientation has been damage-limitation, rather than any particular positive agenda. But, of course, that idea is exactly what is now looking more difficult because of May’s failure.
Corbyn now faces pressure to campaign for a second referendum. It’s pretty clear he doesn’t want that, but party policy is to keep it “on the table” as an option. It’s also clear why he doesn’t want it. It’s hugely risky, not just for Labour but for the wider left. It would split his coalition, alienating members of the shadow cabinet, and his major union backer, Unite.
And even if Labour ran a very different, much better, and far more widely covered campaign than last time, it’s not clear that it would win. Labour would have to militantly challenge the racist myths that fueled Brexit, and it’s spent the last few years trying to evade that issue. Meanwhile, the Brexit right would be campaigning to mobilize an already angry population, and whipping up the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim racism to fever pitch.
There are no good options here. And the dilemma illustrates one of the limitations faced by the Left. It has captured the Labour Party, but Labour hasn’t become a fundamentally different type of organization. To lead such a party, it isn’t enough to have a mandate: one has to negotiate between a lot of powers, from parliament to the union bureaucracy, not to mention managing the media, all of whom want different things.
One also has to focus overridingly on electoral contests, Labour still being a preeminently electoralist party despite Corbyn’s stated objective of making it more of a movement. So even the most left-wing leader Labour has ever had must be responsive to forces well to his right. He can’t just lead as he wishes.
Hence Brexit policymaking is a delicate compromise, which strives as far as possible to make sure it is the Conservatives’ problem. And no matter how historically conscious Corbyn and John McDonnell are, their ability to operate strategically is inevitably hamstrung by the short-termist demands of electoral contests, media management, handling social media shitstorms, and so on.
Even so, in a volatile situation, Labour is still the most likely bet in a general election. And one can see how they could deliver reforms which, though historically moderate, would give people hope and empower activists: rolling back anti-union laws, redistributing wealth, reversing the commodification of public services, rolling back some of the worst of the security state and the racial state.
That would be a huge shot in the arm for the Left, an organizing opportunity. It would also have profound transformative effects on political culture. But the terrifying reality is, there are many unknowns in this situation, and it’s certainly not beyond the Tories to recover their base, or the Brexit Party to start getting their act together and maybe win over some MPs. We could be looking at a Boris Johnson government or, in the future, one led by Nigel Farage.
The whole situation is precariously balanced, volatile, and unpredictable.
Finally, are there signs of resistance in social movements and the trade unions that could provide a basis for the Left to revive outside the electoral arena?
There are some but very little. We have to be honest about the situation of the trade unions in this country; they have basically given up on any idea of striking. The level of strikes is at a historic low. Those that happen are not militant. They are short, symbolic actions in the public sector that demonstrate political clout, but don’t affect the flow of profit.
Most trade unionists apart from the small militant left are waiting for a Labour government to come to power as their only hope: the traditional position in the union officialdom. The most radical thing that the union leaders have done is to back Corbyn to lead the Labour Party. That came after the failure of anti-austerity strikes, and failure of compromise with Ed Miliband.
But they’re relying on “their” government to achieve things for them. They aren’t rebuilding. And Labour doesn’t have any faction that is openly committed to organizing the working class. Momentum might have been that, but it has chosen to focus on digital campaigning, internal lobbying, and door knocking, which it’s good at.
We need a Momentum-like organization to go out and organize class and social struggle.
The one ray of hope is climate activism. Extinction Rebellion, despite their weird apolitical stance, did mobilize tens of thousands of people to shut down main streets. It didn’t inconvenience capitalism or stop the flow of carbon, but it was symbolically important and did change the conversation.
The school strikes were also incredible. Children are doing more in this country than anybody else is. These actions have changed the debate in the Labour Party and given birth to the Labour for a Green New Deal. For all its limitations, the Green New Deal is a tool to organize people. So, there are some positive developments, but we need a period of stability in which the Left can find space and time to organize and rebuild.