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Brexit and the Coalition of Chaos

A view from Ireland

22 June 2017

In the intense political activity that followed the British general election it is important to stand back and identify the central process around which all the other events can be set in context and explained. In this case the context is the ongoing decay of British capitalism and its desperate search for political stability. As in many other parts of the world, unending austerity has eaten away at the political institutions. As in other areas of the world, capitalism has turned to racism and right-wing populism to shore up the major capitalist parties. As elsewhere this strategy has turned rancid before it was fully under way.

In Britain the capitalists and press built up a thinly disguised racist reaction around the issues of refugees and migrants. This helped build UKIP and the Tory party then conciliated them with the promise of a referendum. The referendum resulted in a majority Brexit vote and led to an internal collapse in the Tory party. May, a hollow woman lacking any personal convictions, stabilised the party. A remainer, she became the shield bearer for Brexit, placating the Tory right with “Brexit means Brexit” and promising withdrawal from the customs union if this was the only way to restrict movement of refugees and migrants.


Behind the rhetoric it was fairly evident that capitalism was riven by insoluble contradictions. A hard Brexit would be an economic disaster, but softening the racist line and agreeing to free movement would lead to the disintegration of Conservative coalition with the far right that had become the foundation of capitalist rule. It was also becoming evident that a rebirth of the British Empire was not on the cards. The alternative to the EU was to become the next US colony, an outcome that Liam Fox was actively pursuing by building a privatisation alliance with US capital. It was also evident that Brexit would lead to a sharp economic contraction and even deeper austerity.

Against this background the decision to call an election was not a reckless gamble but hard logic. May hoped to absorb UKIP and become the dominant rightwing force. She wanted authority to silence the warring factions in the Conservative ranks. Even the manifesto proposals for the privatisation of social care via an insurance model copied directly from the US made sense against a backdrop of a 20% lead in the polls. If it proved possible to win a large majority the announcement would defuse later opposition to austerity.

Turn towards Labour

The success of Jeremy Corbyn in facing down the Labour right and advancing a left social democratic programme of nationalisation, welfarism and state investment brought the May bandwagon to a halt. UKIP was absorbed, but in many working class areas, faced with the reality of the new austerity programme and with a left alternative now available, a majority of workers turned back towards the Labour party. In addition the promise of a society that would not rob them of a future was sufficient to mobilise a mass of young voters desperate for change.

Now there is chaos.  May is one of the walking dead. There are no credible leadership figures among the many factions that make up the conservative party, nor any credible negotiating position to go to Europe with. The support of the ultra right Irish party, The Democratic Unionist Party, could head off collapse, but the stench of this open alliance may well poison the reputation of the Conservative party for decades. 

The Blair project

However the political crisis is not merely a crisis of British capitalism, but of all the other political forces that claimed to offer an alternative.

First among these is British liberalism, with many years to go to overcome its role in holding up the Cameron austerity government as junior partner.

Much more significant is the fact that the Blair project is finally buried at the crossroads with a stake through its heart. Although a large rump remains buried in the Labour party, the idea of a cross-class movement in support of European capital is dead in the water. The idea that the Blairites could revive and win a parliamentary majority is simple fantasy, although they may yet strangle the Corbyn movement.

There are many forces to the left of Blair who preach a thin reformist gruel and who have been pushed back. Yanis Varoufakis and his Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) tried to promote a cross party pro-European movement and won little support. This is significant in that many European socialists have promoted Varoufakis as a way of keeping the illusions in the Greek movement SYRIZA alive even as its brand of reformism has utterly collapsed. The left populism that promoted Scottish independence as a cure for austerity and essentially supported the capitalist SNP saw a sharp collapse of their vote and the return of both Labour and Conservative MPs – the indyref vote was supposed to drive conservatism out of Scotland forever!

To their credit, the majority of socialists seem to have aligned with the large sectors of the working class that rallied around Jeremy Corbyn. However in most cases there is no political clarification. The socialist groups were flirting with British nationalism, trying to build themselves through unlimited opportunism or sunk in unity programmes that collapsed because they were to the right of Corbyn himself and had no connection to the working class.

Socialist solution

If there is no right wing solution to hand it should also be recognised that Corbyn himself does not have a left solution. The job of socialists cannot reduce to shouting “Yo Jeremy!”  The most immediate problem is his method as a parliamentarian.  To implement a left social democratic programme you must gain a parliamentary majority and to do that you must conciliate the right wing of your party. Corbyn keeps doing this even though the Blairites respond by further sabotage. The supporters of Corbyn support the programme because it is the first mildly left programme to see the light of day since Blair. His opponents support it because it has been costed.  That is, they support it as long as the complex calculations avoid any strains on the banks and the capitalist system. If that were the case they would withdraw support. In fact the idea that labour can force capital to stop tax avoidance and pay more is simply fanciful. Tax avoidance is entirely legal and the capitalists have hired the best accountants. 

In real life a Corbyn government implementing a programme in support of working class needs would face revolt within the party and a much more extensive revolt from the banks, the capitalist class, the state forces and the massed ranks of the IMF and European Central Bank.

The coming battle will need a working class party. There should be a mass drive to force the right out of the Labour party and this should involve parallel organisation outside the Labour party. Campaigns for housing, for decent wages, for human rights should drive home the lesson that the British state institutions at local and national level will not deliver and that workers must forge their own society, their own institutions, their own party if they are to succeed.


Until recently most socialists saw these sorts of pronouncements as ultraleft, but the success of Corbyn has changed popular consciousness, reducing the influence of the reactionary press and media and filling sections of the working class and youth with a determination to resist.

Nothing could illustrate this better than the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster. The local community and their supporters understood right away that they had been the victims of a crime and the crime was based on class hatred and class oppression. The capitalist class understood right away that they were responsible for the deaths and acted as guilty criminals, deepening anger as they opened new conspiracies to disperse the victims and make the world safe for vulture capitalism that controls much of the local borough.  Corbyn’s call for expropriation of empty property led to a rabid response from the Tory right and yet again sharpened the class dimension.

You don’t have to be a weatherman to see what way the wind blows. The Tory programme of racism, austerity and Brexit is in tatters and they do not command the united political force that can deliver it.

Capitalism has survived for decades by eating at its own entrails and squeezing out concessions made to workers in earlier periods of expansion and when labour was in a stronger position. It has been able to do that because the organisations seen as representing the workers, the trade unions and political parties, have refused to oppose austerity and have assured the workers that there is no alternative to capitalism. With the labour vote in Britain the workers and youth are saying that there has to be such an alternative. The socialists must urgently find a role in this new movement.

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