Return to Recent Articles menu

British general election: The rise of British Trumpism

1 January 2019

One overwhelming element of the British General Election was that British capitalism has finally made up it's mind on Brexit. Under Theresa May there was something of a debate. In this election money poured into Tory coffers to ensure a win. The vote appears to resolve the Brexit debate and secures a mass base for a unified Tory Party.

As it was meant to, the election suppressed the Labour left and wiped out the threat from UKIP and the Brexit Party on the right. Capitalism saw the prize of a stable Conservative majority as worth the downside of sharply reduced economic activity and a life outside the European market. The plan is to overcome the economic negatives through an immense squeeze on workers rights in order to build a British Singapore. Manufacturing capital will be hard hit, but as it now accounts for roughly 1/6 of all economic activity this is not seen as decisive. The belief is that deregulation will reverse the long term decline in labour productivity. The big money people in the banks and hedge funds have decided
that they need political stability above everything.

Sterling and the stock market rose sharply on the Conservative win. They then fell sharply again when Boris Johnson revamped the hard Brexit threat by demanding settlement within one year. The underlying decline in the capitalist mode of production continues and stability will not be won by one battle in the long war that lies ahead. Boris knows that he must continue the hard swing to the right to finish off the Brexit Party and his backers must become accustomed to the rough and tumble and the risk taking of the new leadership style.

The money poured into Tory election funds. The press and media launched an unprecedented level of attack on Jeremy Corbyn. Right wing, pro Israeli, Zionist groups and the far right of the Labour Party publicly denounced Corbyn as "unfit to govern" while apparently happy that the opportunist and dishonest clown Johnson was perfectly fitted to rule.

However this sort of mass hysteria on the right is par for the course and not the first time that there has been insanity about the prospect of a Labour government. To understand the electoral failure we have to look at Labour itself. The political weakness of the party cost it the election.

In fact Labour's vote share did not fall sharply. It gained many young voters but it lost the "red wall" of constituencies in traditional Northern and Midland areas. For these voters in decaying industrial Britain their Brexit vote in the referendum was the pathway to voting Tory.

Johnson targeted these constituencies with his utterly false "get Brexit done" slogan and many open anti-migrant dog whistles. Corbyn refused to express an opinion on Brexit. By focusing on welfare he was ignoring the central question facing the British working class and he paid the price.

The lack of policy was a result of divisions in the Labour party and Corbyn's attempts to unify it by conceding to the right. Young recruits in the party opposed Brexit from the left, but the Blairites opposed it from a position of unconditional support for Europe and commitment to continuing austerity. The trade union "left" around Len McCluskey had long ago conceded to the racist current in Labour's Brexit wing by adopting the slogan: "British jobs for British workers".

The second big issue in the election was Corbyn himself. A large section of voters saw him as dishonest and untrustworthy. Again this was the result of a mass assault from the media and treachery within the party, but this was aided by Corbyn. He constantly gave way to his opponents. He apologised over and over again for imaginary anti-semitism to enemies who were comfortable with Tory racism and Israeli genocide against Palestine. He threw many of his past policies under the bus and many of his close friends also. Once a supporter of Irish self-determination, he criticised Tory plans for threatening the "four nations" of the united kingdom, aligning himself with the far right of
Unionism.

Unity in the party, he believed, would enable him to present a programme for a return to the welfare state of the past, to be achieved by the election of a Labour government. A full blown anti-austerity policy after a decade of austerity was bound to win.

Yet many workers rejected his vision. A demoralised minority had put their faith in racism and English nationalism. Many others were unconvinced by the Labour programme. In part this was due to a propaganda offensive that argued that ending austerity was unaffordable and unrealistic. In part it was because it was put forward by a Labour Party that had in fact launched austerity - one Tory candidate pointed out that managerial control and Private Finance Initiatives, strangling the NHS, were initiated by Labour. In part it was because the policy was agreed with the Labour right on the grounds that it was costed - that the banks and IMF would OK it in government. Again Corbyn, unable to face up to existing enemies, was unlikely to face down finance capital.

Overall, basing policy on the return of the welfare state of the 1950s and 60s through the structures of the capitalist state really is unbelievable. Austerity is baked into a capitalist system in terminal decline. A realistic defence of the workers involved a direct challenge to capital.

The small socialist movement in Britain saw a collapse in its political coherence. The majority of groups supported an imagined left Brexit. This is a result of a long history of British nationalism and flirtation with the "British jobs for British workers" position held by Len McCluskey and other sections of the trade union leadership. The reverse of the coin was "Yo Jeremy" and an unconditional acceptance of Labour reformism.

Tipping Point

A tipping point has passed. The class struggle has moved on. Boris Johnson is already returning to threats of a hard Brexit and is squeezing the judiciary and an already submissive BBC. Boris's threats towards the courts are echoed in an extraordinary attack by former Tory leader Lord Howard. Retreat from workers’ rights and derogation from the European Court of Human Rights is already progressing. Johnson says he will give carte blanche to the military and protection from "vexatious" claims of murder and torture. This will affect workers everywhere the British army is deployed and is final proof that Britain has torn up any obligations claimed under the Good Friday Agreement in relation to Ireland.

Yet the brave new world of Brexit is far from settled. Reckless lying Boris has a limited playbook which he is now repeating. Lie like hell, say anything to get your way, be utterly ruthless and try to rush events in the hope that the opposition will concede. This was successful with a craven Irish bourgeoisie, focused on their own bottom line, who gave up the backstop guarantee, yet the current threat to go on to a hard Brexit shows that his promises to Dublin are utterly meaningless. It will be much harder to pull the same strokes against European capital. Many battles lie ahead and the outcome can not be foreseen.

The picture in Britain is not sharply different from developments across Europe. Social Democracy commits suicide in order to ram home austerity. A left variant tries to advance an anti-austerity programme only to be defeated in its turn. The only unusual aspect of the British experience is that both currants were in the Labour party. The story elsewhere is not that right victories lead to acquiescence, but that class struggle becomes more intense and the struggle for an effective leadership of the workers becomes more pressing.

In the Labour party Blair and his clones are already on the offensive. The claim is that leftism and Trotskyism lost the election, while the fact is that the Labour right took a hammering, especially whenas, with Change UK, they attempted to organise outside the party. Former deputy leader Tom Watson, who left for personal reasons, now claims to have been forced out, while simultaneously admitting that he had conspired against Corbyn. Even Baron Hattersley of the Kinnock era returned from among the undead in the House of Lords to join in the attack. Yet it was the right's close friends in the Liberal Democrats who put defeating Corbyn ahead of defeating Brexit and ensured a Tory victory. Jo Swinson's defeat was richly deserved and undercuts the Lib-Lab politics of Blairism.

There is a fight to be had in the Labour party, but the confines are rather narrow. On the one hand the Blairites want to bury any element of socialism. So-called leftists from the union bureaucracy declare the Brexit debate over and suggest that the local variety of Trumpism will bring prosperity just as the Tory offensive swings into gear. The radical candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey, calls for a programme of "progressive patriotism".

The battle will not remain inside the Labour party. Racism is on the march and will have to be fought. Further assaults on the right to strike will lead to resistance from sections of the working class and a sharp battle with a largely complacent trade union leadership. Many will protest deregulation of industry. Johnson's promises on the NHS are largely illusory and rest on robbing Peter to pay Paul. Austerity will continue and intensify under the Brexit programme.

New terrain

Yet blind spontaneous resistance is not enough. If socialists battle in the Labour party, it is not to save the party, but to make the case for a party of the working class. Battles in industry should focus on defending immediate rights but workers must also organise independently of the union bosses. If we fight on against Brexit it should not be to defend the Europe of austerity, but in order to argue for unity in action of the working class across Europe.

Already the faint hearted are looking for short cuts. However the new terrain needs a complete rethink. It will be possible to support a continuing effort to prevent Brexit, but if the process goes to completion should socialists be part of a campaign to rejoin Europe? Many have already fudged the line between arguing that Europe provides the best terrain for fighting for workers rights in the current period and the belief that European capitalism will act in defence of workers.

There are a number of mirages. Many hint that the SNP call for Scottish independence represents a way to stymie Brexit. Yet the SNP are keener in waving the independence flag than actually leaving the UK. The old scenario, of independence in a Europe that also contained the rest of the UK, is quite different from one that includes a new European land border between Scotland and England. Of course the Scots should be able to leave if they wish, but that decision is more likely to weaken Scots and English workers. The last referendum wiped out much of the Scots left.

An even more bizarre claim is the idea pushed by Sinn Fein that Brexit will force a border poll and lead to Irish unity. This ignores the fact that a poll is absolutely at the discretion of the British and ignores the soft unionism of sections of the Catholic middle class as well as the much harder unionism of the major Irish political parties.

Ignoring those completely deluded by left Brexit, the story of Brexit and the Corbyn era is that the centrist Socialist groups constantly looked for shortcuts. Some found that it was not enough to work with those opposing Brexit, it was also necessary to accept the idea of a benign European capitalism. It was not enough to defend Corbyn, it also seemed necessary to adopt the limited left social democratic programme that he stood for. Above all, driven by the desperation of a working class and an activist layer generally on the retreat, there was an acceptance of the potential for a parliamentary victory to transform the class struggle - this in a labour movement that V I Lenin reviled for its "parliamentary idiocy".

The victory of the right will have a momentarily stunning effect, but the outline of future battles is already around us. The central task of socialists is to provide an alternative - to argue for a United Socialist States of Europe and for the self-organisation of the working class in each struggle.


Return to top of page