- Interview by
- Suzi Weissman
The British general election kicked off on November 6, which means Britons will cast their votes on December 12 — a mercifully concentrated, if intense, political timetable, especially compared to the seemingly endless American campaigns. The Conservatives, the Brexit Party, and the Liberal Democrats are all attempting to focus the campaign on Brexit, while Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has made their campaign about reversing the decades-long night of austerity.
Boris Johnson launched his campaign in the conservative Daily Telegraph, likening Jeremy Corbyn to Joseph Stalin: “the tragedy of the modern Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn is that they detest the profit motive so viscerally . . . they point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks.” Meanwhile, Corbyn began his campaign speaking passionately about the need to commit £400 billion worth of investment to the twin crises of the climate emergency and social deprivation.
To discuss the first days of the election campaign, and the dynamics of the Left’s riposte to Britain’s extreme-center politics, Jacobin Radio’s Suzi Weissman spoke to Tariq Ali.
Can you give us an idea of Corbyn’s program? What are the issues that his campaign has focused on, what does he aim to accomplish, and who is he trying to win over?
The Corbyn program is straightforwardly a break with neoliberal capitalism, and a reversion to social democracy — fairly traditional social democracy. Given the world we live in, what he’s proposing sounds ultraradical, though it used to be the norm thirty or forty years ago.
The program proposes huge spending on infrastructure and public housing, and the cancellation of tuition fees for higher education. What’s been happening in the universities is appalling: many cannot go to university because they can’t afford the tuition fees, which, incidentally, was not the Conservative Party’s innovation. Tuition fees were introduced by Tony Blair and his chancellor, Gordon Brown, both right-wing Labour politicians. Corbyn has said that these fees will be canceled and higher education will be free again.
A lot more money would be directed into the education system in general. There is talk now of making the private schools pay taxes — they’re currently regarded as charities and so don’t pay any taxes at all. So there are going to be upheavals.
Labour also aims to pour funds into the National Health Service (NHS), where it was Blair again who began the process of privatization, then extended by the Conservatives. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is now saying that he has done an economic deal with Trump and the United States. On his last visit to the UK, Trump publicly said that Britain needs to remove all regulation from the health service — otherwise no deal.
So Labour is placing a big emphasis on simply returning the public sector and the health service to what it used to be. Linked to this is Corbyn’s latest announcement, not just to revert to normal, but to set up a state pharmaceutical company that would reduce the cost of medicines, help the health service, and could bring an end to all prescription charges.
So this would be a nationalized generic company?
Yes, it would be created by the state to produce cheap medicines. The aim of creating a state pharmaceutical company is to produce generic medicines and to destroy the hold that Big Pharma currently has on the health service, where certain medicines are so expensive that the health service simply cannot afford them. I think it’s a very radical innovation, one that those who set up the health service — [Clement] Attlee and Nye Bevan — mistakenly missed. It will be an extremely popular move.
All of this is extremely important. But the thing that really frightens the rulers of this country is that Corbyn has made it very clear that he will never push the nuclear trigger on his own. He has said that he will not do it, and for this, he’s been attacked.
He should have gone on to say that, in fact, no British government can press the nuclear trigger in any case — this is a decision made by the United States, and anyway, Britain does not have any independent nuclear weapons to speak of. Submarines carrying the missiles cannot use them without prior permission from the United States: that’s just a fact. So this notion of Britain being independent is a load of rubbish and that will not change — and it will probably get worse if there is a Brexit.
In your 2015 book, aptly named The Extreme Centre, you described then-hegemonic neoliberal forces. But now, that seemingly stable and strong center is under attack almost everywhere. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, recently wrote an article saying that the mantra of neoliberalism — that privatization will lead to higher living standards everywhere — is proven false. The evidence is that over forty years, neoliberalism hasn’t done what it promised to do. It’s only created upward redistribution of wealth and soaring inequality.
In light of these problems, the chief beneficiaries politically have, for the most part, been the populist authoritarian right. But today there are also popular left counterforces, like Sanders in the United States and Corbyn in the UK. How do you see these dynamics playing out in the UK?
Two points need to be made here. The attack on the extreme center has come from both the Left and the Right. Behind Corbyn, for example, is the political insurrection of the youth who have taken over the Labour Party and made it what it is. To give you one example of the change they have brought: there is a constituency on the outskirts of London called Chingford, which used to be a very right-wing seat. Margaret Thatcher’s close colleague Norman Tebbit was elected there, and the seat is now occupied by Iain Duncan Smith, the far-right Conservative member who comes up with appalling ideas on social welfare and so on.
With the groundswell of support at the last election, Labour came close to winning Chingford, though it narrowly missed. Now, with a new candidate, a young Bengali woman named Faiza Shaheen, Labour are really targeting it. Last weekend — the first weekend of the election campaign — five hundred Labour members were out in that constituency campaigning, knocking on doors.
Labour now has a well-organized, well-trained team of — largely young — campaigners who are targeting marginal seats. In contrast, the Tories, whose average membership age is now above sixty, have hardly any young people in their ranks and have had to hire a firm to run their campaign. They’ve privatized the election. Some PR company will be trained like robots to go and slander Corbyn and attack the Labour Party. A single intelligent challenge to these outsourced idiots going around the country and they won’t be able to give any answers. It’s largely because of this key contrast between the two parties that Corbyn is going up and up in the polls, even in the first week of the campaign.
But to return to your point, beyond Corbyn and Sanders, it has largely been the Right who have been leveling attacks on the center: Salvini in Italy, Le Pen in France, the AfD [Alternative für Deutschland] in Germany. This is disturbing, and no one can suggest that this development has been provoked by the Left — it has been provoked by the policies of the extreme center.
So it’s not all good news, but it does prove Stiglitz’s point that neoliberalism has failed, and that the last forty years have been in many ways a disaster. Many of us were saying this since the system’s inception.
[There was] the complete failure of [Michelle] Bachelet, the former president of Chile from the socialist party and extreme-center politician par excellence. She had two terms in office, and she completely failed to alter the social and political infrastructure left in place by Pinochet, who, apart from being a fascist, was also a firm supporter of neoliberalism, and Chile was the first country they decided to use as a guinea-pig country.
And if you look at some of the incredible banners from the demonstrations in Chile, one of them said neoliberalism began here and it ends here.
It’s great, yeah. And in Beirut, the single most popular slogan in the streets — chanted by Muslims, Christians, people of all different sects and factions — is directed to the politicians: “You’re all the same, you’re all the same” — meaning you’re all thieves, you create your own oligarchies, you do nothing for us. The class element in this secular movement has been extremely strong.
Argentina is an interesting case, too. They thought they’d defeated the Left in there — agreed, it’s a problematic left — but the neoliberal god praised by the Economist, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal is out on his backside yet again. The Peronists have won the election, and there have been celebrations in the streets.
So it’s a very volatile system. Global capitalism — its rulers, directors, and managers — utterly failed to understand that the 2008 Wall Street crash was a decisive event in recent political economy. They were told they could ignore it and carry on as before. What we are now seeing around the globe is that, politically, it is very difficult to do that. So you have the Guardian, a middle-of-the-road newspaper, whose columnists have been attacking Corbyn viciously, now backing Corbyn’s Labour at the election, because they’ve realized, as they say, that Britain does need radical change.
This is pretty incredible, and it also seems that the Financial Times is basically backing the Labour Party.
The Financial Times sees it as a choice between a Johnson Brexit and Corbyn — and they say Corbyn is the lesser evil. That is effectively their line. But it’s the shift at the Guardian that I think is more important, because this is a paper that many people on the Left read.
Is there a danger that Corbyn is failing to speak to the needs of the old-fashioned, industrial working class, who’ve been left behind in global politics — and all too often lined up with the populist far right? This is part of the problem here. Trump went to Kentucky and said, “We’re going to bring back coal” — though that’s a joke: coal is not coming back.
No, that’s not the case in Britain. In fact, Corbyn’s problem is that he leads a party divided on Brexit. Corbyn himself has taken a position that he has to defend the interests of all Labour Party voters, which is not easy to do.
The campaign speeches he’s made in the northern part of the country, where there was a strong Leave vote, have very carefully been directed at the needs of the working class. And Corbyn has said publicly, many times, in both the southeast of the country as well as the north, that the key point is not necessarily Leave or Remain, but creating a Britain that ditches neoliberalism and gives people a better standard of life and creates a community spirit.
So the campaign message on that front is very clear, saying we want a different Britain, and we believe the only political party that can deliver it is Labour — a point that I don’t think is challenged by anyone. Even Tom Watson — the extreme-center deputy Labour leader, who’s been trying to sabotage Corbyn for years — just left the party, and on his way, to be fair, he didn’t attack Corbyn. He said that he’s leaving for personal, not political, reasons, and that he wants the Labour Party to win — unlike some other ex-MPs and their supporters, who are calling on people to vote Conservative.
This is what’s been going on during the campaign so far. The meetings have been large, the mood is good among Labour rank and filers who are doing all the hard work, and Labour’s first campaign video just went online and was seen by over 3 million people. I’m quite confident, actually — though of course it’s difficult to predict — that Labour will be the largest party in Parliament — or close to it. And the leaders of the Scottish National Party (SNP) have now publicly confirmed their support to form a government, should Labour need it. That’s to say, they will not join the government, but they will support it from the outside to allow it to form, which is fine, actually.
It seems that Britain is suffering from “Brexhaustion” in a similar way that the United States is suffering from Trump trauma: with these issues dominating the news cycle, all the air is sucked out of politics. And it seems that Corbyn has struck the right note, first by explaining that what they’re in favor of is a better standard of living for everyone, but also by talking about the programs that he has rather than only talking about the deal that Johnson will or will not make. And I wondered how that plays there. Are the people in the north of England still only focused on Brexit, or do they want to move on?
The general mood is that people want to move on. If Boris Johnson would had done a soft Brexit deal and moved on, we could have had a campaign completely fought on the issues. Instead, quite cleverly, he is saying that you will only get a Brexit if you stay with me.
On the other hand, just yesterday in Telford, Corbyn was asked whether the New Deal would continue free movement on the same terms, and he made a very clear reply, which I want to read out to you: “I want our young people to be brought up in a world where they can travel, where they can experience other societies, they can make their contribution there. And do you know what? That enriches their lives and it enriches the lives of all of us, so I want to make sure that all of those European Union nationals do remain here, can come here, will stay here, and we will be happy to work with them, as indeed many British people have made their homes in other parts of Europe making equally valuable contributions to those societies where they’ve gone to live.”
It seems likely that neither Labour nor the Tories will win an outright majority at the election, and so will have to find allies to form a government. If the SNP is willing work with Labour, what about for the Tories working with the Lib Dems? And what impact do you think Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party will have on this election?
The SNP has made it clear they will back Labour in Parliament to form a government. Under their very right-wing leader, Jo Swinson, the Lib Dems have ruled out any support for Labour. She’s completely hostile to Corbyn because she says he’s a security risk — he doesn’t like war. She actually said that. It’s quite possible that the Lib Dems would support a new Tory government if Boris has the largest number of votes in Parliament, because they’ve done it before. And Swinson was a member of the last Liberal-Tory coalition. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, because if Labour is the largest party in Parliament, I think they’ll be able to form a government with the SNP’s support. At least, that’s what we’re banking on and hoping for.
It sounds like Corbyn has managed to better articulate a position that bridges the divide somewhat between Labour Leavers and Remainers. Do you think it will work?
I’m moderately optimistic that Labour will be the largest party. Tom Watson’s departure may be the first of many: I’m told they’re planning to have a different right-wing Labour MP leave every week, or every month. But you know, my question to these guys is the following: there’s a long tradition of rats leaving the sinking ship, but what if the ship doesn’t sink but actually floats better after they’ve left?”