Crisis and Polarisation: analysing Labour’s meltdown

Phil Hearse and Neil Faulkner

It is cold comfort that the Tories were smashed in the Euro elections.  Because the Labour Party suffered a grim defeat, showing that it is – contrary to claims in the Momentum post-election mailing – far from being in a position to win a general election, and that that much of the impetus behind the Corbyn leadership between 2015 and 2017 has collapsed, and is in danger of being permanently lost.

Sadly, this was utterly predictable. We take no satisfaction in being among the small minority on the Left who argued that Labour’s position on Brexit was not only wrong but leading the party towards a cliff.

Now there can be no argument: Labour has self-destructed by refusing to take a clear and unequivocal stand against the nationalism and xenophobia – and ultimately racism – of the Tory and far right Brexit forces. Instead, by fudging on Brexit and backing opposition to free movement (abstaining, for example, in the vote on the recent Tory immigration bill), it has alienated millions of progressive voters, who have defected to the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the Nationalists.

There was only one issue in the Euro election: Brexit. Labour tried to pretend the election was about something else, and when it did talk about Brexit, the message was mud. Unable to take the correct position, being neither one thing nor the other, in a highly polarised debate between Hard Brexit and Remain, Labour suffered mass desertion.

Remainers defect en masse

Doubtless some of the defections were from pro-Brexit voters in ‘left behind’ working lass towns, but that was not the key aspect of it. Surveys showed that defectors who supported Remain outnumbered those who supported Leave by four to one.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. While Labour scored 14%, the Greens won 12% and the Liberal Democrats 20%. There is no other explanation of the surge of these two parties: people who wanted to cast a Remain vote, people who wanted to stop the Brexit Party and the Tory Right, turned to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens in huge numbers.

That is the immediate reason for the Labour collapse. But there is a deeper reason: Labour’s failure to challenge the nationalism and racism of the Far Right since the EU Referendum in 2016. Instead of leading a mass campaign to win people, instead of waging a battle of ideas for a class-based alternative, it has simply capitulated to the reactionary ideas behind the Leave vote. We now taste the bitter fruit of two years of pandering instead of persuading.

The Brexit polarisation is hugely symbolic. You can be sure that, compared with Brexit Party voters, those who backed the Remain parties will have been on average younger, more internationalist, more multi-cultural, more feminist, more supportive of social justice and civil rights. In other words, people who should have been voting Labour.

As Paul Mason puts it:

‘To renew Labour’s electoral alliance with progressive young voters, the salaried working class of the big cities, and progressive working-class voters in the ex-industrial towns, the party needs to unite around the strategy of remain and reform in Europe. It needs to tell voters honestly: it’s time to scrap Brexit and rebuild Britain instead.’ (1)

Labour’s damaged state has two main causes: its inability to answer the ‘anti-Semitism’ offensive launched against it after the 2017 election (see below), and its hopeless prevarication over Brexit.

Lexit Fiasco

Labour’s shambles over Brexit is shared with many Left groups outside the Labour Party, including the Communist Party/Morning Star, the Socialist Workers Party, and Counterfire. None of these organisations has grasped the simple and obvious truth that Brexit is a project of the Far Right and represents a clear and present danger to the oppressed. Specifically, in relation to the Tory Party, as Nicola Sturgeon explained just three days before the referendum, it was (and is) an attempted putsch by the Tory Right.

It is not fundamentally about trade deals and the European Court of Justice. Above all, the anti-EU propaganda was a symbol, an emblem, of extreme nationalism and anti-immigrant xenophobia and racism. And that was the cover for attempting to impose on Britain an even more harsh anti-working class regime, to radically transform the labour market to make it even more ‘flexible’, to sharply reduce taxes, to get rid of (often EU-imposed) environmental and workplace standards, and to finish off the last remnants of the post-1945 welfare state.

This ultra-neoliberal project is all explained in the 2013 book Britannia Unchained by Tory MPs Dominic Raab, Elizabeth Truss, Chris Skidmore, Priti Patel, and Kwasi Kwarteng, who claimed:

‘The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.’ (2)

Labour’s inability to deal with this issue is perhaps caused by internal leadership divisions and concerns about losing pro-Brexit voters in ‘left-behind’ working-class towns. But more likely it is an inability to understand the meaning of the pro-Brexit campaign.

The most likely consequence of the Brexit Party surge as far as the Tory Party is concerned is that Boris Johnson – who describes Muslim women as ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’ – will become leader. That is because the Tory benches are filled with opportunists whose main priority will be saving their seats. Most of them will consider Hard Brexit a small price to pay. 

Looking further ahead, some sort of realignment/lash-up between Farage and Johnson (or another Tory leader) may be in prospect – either in the run-up to a general election or following it.

Whatever the details, a Far Right government of neoliberal ultras, climate-change deniers, nationalists, and racists now becomes a clear and present danger. 

The social and political catastrophe of a Tory government run, in effect, by Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group may be avoidable only through the election of a Labour government. But for that to happen, Labour has to reconnect with the people who swarmed behind Corbyn post-2015 – like the thousands who turned out to see him in Liverpool in 2016, in sharp contrast to three or four hundred who turned out to see him in April this year. 

This will involve foregrounding the demands of Extinction Rebellion and dramatically changing tack on Brexit – arguing all-out against Tory Brexit, and any other kind of Brexit, and for a second referendum (with Labour leading the Remain camp).

Nothing has been more demoralising for Labour supporters – revealed on the doorsteps and in the votes – than the sight of John McDonnell and other Labour leaders being unable to give any clear answer on Brexit and a second referendum when interviewed on TV. That has to stop.

The Euro elections revealed something else. Hard Brexiteers are probably a minority. The Brexit Party, the Tories, and UKIP took 43% of the vote. The bulk of this vote is for the Far Right (Farage and Batten), and this represents an extremely dangerous political development. But it is not a majority, and, on the safe assumption that the vast bulk of Labour voters were Remain, the Brexiteers are probably in a minority. 

As Paul Mason reports:

“A ComRes poll on 21 May showed that, with a clear position of remain and reform and the call for a second referendum on any deal, Labour could have beaten Farage’s Brexit Party and cemented the electoral alliance that could put it into power. But – as at all other times – Corbyn’s advisers saw fit to ignore the evidence.’ (3)

When the Brexit Party has to publish policies on a wide range of issues in the run-up to the next election, some of its support will fade away. But a major problem is the dispersal of the anti-Brexit vote.

Change UK is a minor problem and may well collapse. The real problems are the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the SNP – problems because they threaten to split the progressive vote permanently. 

Seize Back the Initiative

Above all, Labour must seize the initiative from the Liberal Democrats – by pointing out that they are a pro-austerity neoliberal party, but also by seizing the anti-Brexit banner from them.

The very fact that we have a Tory austerity government is down to the coalition formed by the Liberal Democrats with the Tories in 2010 – symbolised, of course, by their instant sell-out on student fees, such was their eagerness to get their legs under the cabinet table. But pointing this out will not count for much if Labour fails to swivel its position on Brexit.

The damage done by the hue and cry over alleged ‘anti-Semitism’ should not be underestimated. This will be used by the Right and uncritical supporters of Israel again and again. Labour cannot continue to demoralise and confuse its members and supporters by refusing to fight back on this issue. If you do not run, they cannot chase you. But the Labour leadership ran and ran, and ended up signing up to a Zionist definition of Israel which makes activists liable to expulsion from the party for stating the simple fact that the basis of the Israeli state is the racist dispossession and discrimination.

This summer, the Human Rights Commission will make its report on this issue, and it is likely to be extremely damaging. Labour must fight back by rejecting the whole basis of the allegations – that Labour is an inherently anti-Semitic party – effectively on the basis that most of its members support the Palestinian resistance.

At a European level, the Far Right surge was not as damaging as it could have been – but it was bad enough. In Germany, the Alliance for Germany got 10% of the vote, less than expected, while the Greens got 22%, much more than expected. In the Netherlands and Spain, social democrats came first.

But elsewhere on the Continent, as in Britain, social democrats did badly. In France, the Communist Party and Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Insoumise got barely 10% between them, while Marine Le Pen got 23% and the Greens 13%.

The failure of social democracy – the collapse in its vote across most of Europe – does not signal a decisive defeat of the Left. Millions voted for progressive alternatives, and the Green surge must be understood not just as a reflection of the growing climate crisis, but also as a massive vote against austerity, corporate power, and the Far Right. It is part of a continent-wide polarisation.

The job of socialists is to stare reality in the face, to draw political lessons, and to align themselves with the millions of voters who reject nationalism, racism, and climate-change denial, and the hundreds of thousands who are prepared to go onto the streets against the politics of the Far Right.

A good start here in Britain would be putting two fingers up to Farage, Johnson, and Rees-Mogg – by ending the sectarian madness of ‘Lexit’.

(1)https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/27/corbynism-crisis-oppose-brexit-jeremy-corbyn-labour

(2) Dominic Raab,  Elizabeth Truss, Chris Skidmore, Priti Patel and Kwasi Kwarteng, Britannia Unchained, Palgrave, 2012

(3) Paulk Mason, ibid

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