This is a blog written a few days after the EU referendum. I confess to still feeling shocked, disappointed and too restless to settle to anything much, even reading.
I spent the evening of 23 June at the Dorking Sports Hall as a Labour Party observer of the Mole Valley count. It was a long evening but the ‘ins’ just nicked it, to the chagrin of a plentiful supply of local UKIPers. Getting home around 3am I stayed up and learned the worst: a victory for Brexit (in round figures, 52% against 48%). I had wrongly predicted on twitter and elsewhere that the ‘remains’ would win more comfortably than many anticipated. My failure to settle is reflective of an altered and splintered political landscape. I have a few early observations perhaps best grouped as follows:
Holding a referendum
It was always clear that the EU referendum was a device to keep Tory EU sceptics from throwing their toys out of the Party pram. In other words it was unnecessary, an accident waiting to happen, and, due to Cameron’s complacency, miscalculations and incompetence, an accident that ultimately did happen. And then, when it did happen, it scratched rather than healed the Tories’ running saw. If Blair’s legacy was Iraq, Cameron’s could be the EU exit and concomitant break up of the UK.
Labour and the EU
The traditional view of the Labour left has been antithetical to the EU as a set of interlinked institutions devised to further the interests of capital over labour. This characterisation of the EU is not far off the mark. What has changed since the UK joined is that social democratic postwar ‘welfare capitalism’ has been displaced by post-1970s ‘financial capitalism’, an altogether harsher order. The early experiments in neoliberal interventionism of Thatcher and Major were largely continued by Blair and Brown (who offered respite rather than reversal), and have been taken up with rabid enthusiasm by the post-2010 ‘coalition’ and Cameron regimes. The consequence has been scandalously high rates of wealth and income inequality by class, gender, age, ethnicity and area. Whole regions and swathes of the UK have been abandoned American-style, with London acting as a magnet for foreign money even as it cleanses its local citizenry. Abandonment breeds ‘disconnected fatalism’, hopelessness and deep alienation from the parliamentary club in Westminster. It is abandonment down to neoliberal UK politics and policies that, paradoxically, the EU now ameliorates rather than augments. Plus the EU is one of the world’s largest trading blocs in a heavily globalised marketplace. Hence the argument that continued EU membership has become the lesser of two evils. Moreover Brexit promised a shift to the right, and the probable premiership of a shallow, unstable and dangerous clown with an ego the size of Trump’s.
Labour fought its campaign under the slogan ‘remain and reform’. Corbyn’s heart was said not to be in it, although he engaged as tirelessly as he was under-reported for doing so. Anti-Corbyn rumours during attempted coups can be disregarded. In the event, 65% of those who voted Labour in the 2015 GE voted for remain, compared with 39% of those who voted Tory. Corbyn fared better in his own constituency than all those who turned against him later. It is odd that he has been accused of half-hearted campaigning when he seems to have done rather well compared to both Cameron and his Labour critics.
The result and an interpretation
The narrow win for Brexit was clearly not anticipated by Cameron, who was obviously embarrassed at his ‘broken promise’ when meeting his EU counterparts on 28 June. It is already being subject to analysis. It is unambiguously the case that a vote to leave the EU was disproportionately common amongst those less educated and lower paid, especially in the midlands and the north, who are despairing of any future improvement in their standard of living or quality of life. This is not to deny a disenchantment with the EU, but it is to contextualise that disenchantment. All of our decisions are in part influenced by our circumstances.
Part of the dissatisfaction articulated against Corbyn was his failure to win for remain in traditional Labour strongholds. There are several problems here. First, Labour support had weakened in these areas and regions long before Corbyn’s election a few months ago. This was apparent before and during the 2015 GE. Decades of regional neglect are not wiped out by slick campaigning. The deep harm done to a surprisingly high proportion of the 99% during financial capitalism is due to a succession of governments – from Thatcher to Cameron – acting out a near-ubiquitous neoliberal ideology on behalf of a mere fraction of the top 1%.
Second, electorates in any case no longer simply vote by class alignment. This is not to say that class no longer matters, rather that other things – especially cultural issues – matter too. For me, class relations, understood objectively, are more salient in financial than they were in welfare capitalism; but they are less salient subjectively, that is, in how people see themselves and order their projects and priorities. The days in which Labour could tap into a class-for-itself are numbered, at least for the time being.
Third, the very inequities and dissatisfaction that Labour would have picked up on in the past have been tapped for a few years, and never more successfully than in the EU referendum, by UKIP, a neophyte political party offering a populist mix of misinformation, unrealisable promises and racism. It is not for nothing that commentators have been reminded of Germany in the 1930s. There is real danger here. Worryingly, the systematic peddling of untruths has become commonplace and effective inside and outside politics in the relativised culture of financial capitalism.
Blairites’ attempted coup
Corbyn has been a marked man since the day he was elected by near-on 60% of Labour members. I have argued in another blog that conspiracies are fairly rare because ‘tacit understandings’ are generally sufficient to get the job done; but that wealth and powerful people are ready enough to conspire if and when. The data are still coming in, but there is no doubt that Blair and his consociates and disciples in the Commons determined to secure Corbyn’s downfall and replacement from the start. It is remarkable that Corbyn oversaw the successes he did against Torydom whilst simultaneously removing Labour MPs’ and tame journalists’ daggers from his back. I have never in my lifetime known such brutal disrespect. Blairism fears Corbyn as much as the Tories do. They want him to fail. When yesterday evening 172 (against 40) Labour MPs passed a motion of no confidence in Corbyn (‘he’s not up to the job’), he displayed commendable cool and nerve. His enemies will have to rig the rules if he is not to be re-elected in a new poll, maybe by excluding him from standing. Perhaps they’d settle for McDonnell instead? So we have a bunch of MPs, many screened for their faithfulness during the Blair years, pitted against the membership. Corbyn’s view is that he leads a party and a movement. If Corbyn wins again, and I hope he does, it may destroy the Labour Party as we know it. If he loses, we are back to a neoliberal, Tory-lite, Blairite status quo.
As I say, I hope Corbyn and socialists keep their nerve and maintain their support for him. It is one of those rare defining moments: ‘hold your nerve’, I constantly tweet! Or we are back to a tame pro-capitalist programme of light-touch governance. As far as the EU is concerned, I regret that the terms of the EU referendum were not challenged during the 2015 GE, and that Corbyn so quickly accepted its results rather than keeping his powder dry. The referendum results are not legally binding and the SNP is already rebelling. I would like to see either a second referendum or a GE fought on the issue. I readily admit that it is a tricky case to make, but I would emphasize one general philosophical point. Democracy is an independent but not an absolute principle; it has to be balanced against other principles, like justice, equality and freedom for example. Democracy does not, therefore, automatically trump all else. There are a number of other grounds: the Brexit campaign was replete with lies, false promises and appeals to peoples’ baser instincts (to ‘other’ and expel EU and non-EU people living in the UK); it is clear that many people simply did not understand the complex issues involved (and they were not helped much by either side or the media, an academic-free zone throughout); the Brexit protagonists reneged on their promises within 24 hours; there is evidence that Brexit voters are rethinking their crosses on the ballot paper; and those most likely to be affected by a risky non-EU future, younger people, were excluded from the ballot by age (16-17 year olds) or by non-registration. Farage had said he would not have accepted a 52%-48% result if it has gone the other way.
The present political scene is as volatile as at any time during my lifespan. Corbyn may or may not survive, ditto with the Labour Party. Cameron is dead in the water. His most likely successor is Johnson, a superficial, egocentric buffoon with no idea what he wants to do accept be PM. He has said that, if elected, he would not favour holding a GE. There is a breathing space before the decision whether or not to trigger A50, which starts the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. All to play for!