Britain: Politics in crisis — prospects for the hard right and militant left

Lego parliament

First published at Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

The resignations of Owen Jones from Labour and Lee Anderson from the Tories (as well as the resignations of three junior ministers) have shown the strains in the main parties as the general election approaches. But the hard right has much more chance of crystallising a new right-wing party or of winning the Tory leadership outright (or both) than the left has of creating a significant new party to the left of Labour or of capturing the Labour leadership, which is excluded. The new rightwing party nucleus, Reform UK, has extravagant funding, a permanent 6–10% in the polls, an MP (Lee Anderson), and its heaviest run scorer has not even come into bat yet, although he is padded up in the dressing room (Nigel Farage). 

The rise of the hard right in a post-Sunak world

Liz Truss and Boris Johnson are actively plotting for the post-Sunak Tory leadership. Meanwhile, the usual suspects, Steve Baker and Michael Gove, will also be scheming to secure their positions in the party’s future.

By contrast, the Left is much more disorganised both inside and outside the Labour Party, the huge potential of Corbynism having been crushed by the right wing witch hunt against it. Corbynism was also pathetically wasted by a point-blank refusal to fight back against the witch hunt, which demonstrated the brittle nature of the project from the very moment of Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015.

Corbynism collapsed Left Unity as the latter’s membership largely went over to Labour, but it was also wrecked by a series of political mistakes that we discuss below. 

Let us first note the essential background. Leading academic pollsters say a Labour victory in the general election is 99% certain. This is over-egging the cake, but given the quasi auto-collapse of the SNP, a swathe of Scottish seats has been gifted to Labour. 

Bookmakers offer more realistic odds of 2/7 on a Labour victory. Interestingly, they also provide odds of around 3-1 for a minority Labour government. The bookmakers consider the likelihood of Rishi Sunak being ousted as Tory leader this year to be roughly even.

The betting on Rishi Sunak’s replacement is 2/1 Kemi Badenoch, with Penny Mordaunt and Suella Braverman both on 6/1, all of them utterly right-wing and socially reactionary, with the qualification that Penny Mordaunt has previously defended progressive positions on gender recognition and equality, positions she ceased airing during the Conservative leadership campaign.

Labour’s inevitable disappointment and the left’s disarray

If there is a Labour government, what will happen? Nothing and a lot. Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves have ruled out any more money going into NHS social care, local authorities, education, and public sector pay. Any remaining hope for a transformative Labour government will be met with immense disappointment. The accumulated anger of millions over living standards will now be transferred to Labour—and in spades. Labour will be just as hard-nosed as the Tories on democratic rights, just as grovelling towards the energy and water monopolies, just as tight-fisted on investment in reaching climate goals, and Dickensian in its treatment of poor families and single parents. In other words, Starmer’s new Blairism will be much more tied to neo-Thatcherite monetarism than even the Blair and Brown governments between 1997 and 2008. It will be remembered that until the financial crisis, the Gordon Brown policy of allowing the City of London to make unregulated billions while using the increased tax revenue to invest in public-private partnerships was put into effect. Starmer’s government will be much less ambitious. 

Of course, the interaction of a new government with its electorate will not happen in a vacuum, but against the background of a Tory party rampant, with Reform UK affecting a major gravitational pull on the Tory right, and in a position—at least—to win many council seats in 2025 and 2026. The number of Tory MPs itching to jump ship to Reform UK is tiny for a simple reason: many of them could not find any employment capable of giving them anything like the £87,000 plus expenses that being a Tory MP gets them.

The right wing Tory and media campaigns against Starmer in the election and after will be brutal. It will focus on immigration, culture wars (in particular trans rights), shrill militarism, and new Cold War rhetoric, all underpinned by the chronically illiterate monetary rules of the Treasury and the Bank of England, which are a guarantee that the ‘death zone’ predicted by Keynesian economist David Blanchflower and brought in by the Cameron-Osborne austerity, will continue.

It’s worth noting that the Levelling Up debacle will likely cost the Tories dearly in Red Wall seats. However, voters in these constituencies may not enthusiastically embrace Labour, and Reform UK could potentially achieve respectable results in percentage terms. Despite this, even securing 15% of the vote in some constituencies will not translate into a significant number of parliamentary seats for Reform UK. Much more likely is a symbiosis between the Tory hard right, Reform UK, and others outside the Tory party proper, the kind of symbiosis represented by Policy Interchange and other more uniformly right-thinking think tanks. It should be noted that Frank Furedi (the eminence gris behind Spiked! and a series of right wing think tanks) was one of the organisers of the Brussels National Conservative Conference, at which Suella Braverman, Viktor Orban, and Nigel Farage were scheduled speakers. In terms of general election ambition, the response of Farage to Lee Anderson going over to Reform UK was interesting—the Tory anger was class-based, he said; the Tories don’t like Anderson because he’s working class. It seems likely that Reform UK will angle its election campaign strongly against both major parties this time, with no assistance to the Conservatives, as occurred in 2019 when the Brexit Party stood aside in Tory winnable seats. 

If there is ferment on the Tory right, pro-Starmer commentators are worried about defection on the left, which the fall in Labour membership of 23,000 in the first two months of this year has only fuelled. 

As Paul Mason says

…from Day One of a Starmer government, an alliance of far-right populists, alt-media groups, and Putin-friendly millionaires will be at war with it. They are already ramping up campaigns against abortion, refugee rights, and climate science. This won’t be a re-run of Blairism, where the business elite swing behind Cool Britannia. 2.0: The left will need to actively defend the agenda of a Labour government.

According to Mason, a new Left party could split the Labour vote, and if Jeremy Corbyn goes down that road, it could be a nasty affair. He says:

… I hope Corbyn will think again. In October, he told colleagues he was worried he might become a ‘prisoner’ in such a party. And he was right. Whatever precautions he takes, such a party would be a magnet for overt anti-semites, Putin acolytes, the British fan club of Bashar al-Assad and an army of single-issue obsessives.

But, he says, it could get going:

If Corbyn wanted to establish a new Left party he might stand 15 or 20 “Peace and Justice” candidates in nominally safe Labour seats where Muslim councillors have quit the party over Gaza. He might gain support from the RMT, which already backs far-left electoral candidates. For infrastructure, there is no shortage of sympathetic campaigns, with email lists running to hundreds of thousands. 

The urgent need for a new militant left party

For Mason, this is all a nightmare scenario, and he is probably exaggerating the likelihood of a new Corbyn party for dramatic effect. For the militant Left, it would be a golden opportunity, even if the chances of it happening seem slim. But let’s note that the language Mason uses about the left reflects a definitive break with anything left-wing. 

Owen Jones has done a fantastic job on Gaza, constructing a detailed rebuttal of the right-wing and media lies. However, his resignation from Labour is a bit limp. He advances no organisational-political perspective for the Left. Whatever happens to Jones individually, his resignation from the Labour Party is representative of left-wingers leaving the party in droves. This is not just the broader swathe of resignations after the fall of Corbyn (and suspensions and expulsions), but a new tranche of defectors disgusted with Starmer’s line on Gaza, the abandonment of carbon emission goals, and the treatment of Diane Abbott and Kate Osamor—the latter suspended for saying Gaza is genocide in the Commons and still in limbo. All this has not just fuelled the resignation of councillors in several areas, but a Labour membership fall of 23,000 in the first two months of this year. 

Doubtless, there are some areas where the Labour left is strong, but others where it doesn’t exist anymore. It is right not to call for people to leave the Labour Party in these strong areas, but we need an overall strategic orientation, and that can only be towards a new left party. 

But what about the repeated failures of the broad left-party perspective in England and Wales? More particularly, why did Left Unity fail? What about the Socialist Labour Party and the Workers Party of England and Wales?

Neither the Socialist Labour Party (prop. A Scargill) nor the Workers’ Party of England and Wales (prop. George Galloway) are serious attempts to build broad left parties. But what about Left Unity, Respect, and the Socialist Alliance?

We won’t rehash the whole story here, but in my view, there was a serious possibility of the Socialist Alliance building a broader left party out of the 2002–04 anti-war movement. But the SWP didn’t want it. What about Left Unity? Why did that fail? 

Left Unity got off to a bad start with an unnecessary and divisive debate on the name and its conferences, with an over-concentration on the Constitution at the expense of strategic discussion of political developments and tasks. This was not just a leadership mistake; the membership threw itself into debates about policy and constitution because of the large percentage of former members of revolutionary organisations and Labour Party activists for whom this kind of conference wrangling was meat and drink, led above all by the utterly pernicious role of the CPGB/Workers Weekly. And this comes right back to the question of how and with what forces a new left formation can be built.

There is without doubt a socially radical layer in society that expressed itself in the 2015 general election as a swing to the Greens, then, of course, a massive recruitment to the Labour Party under Corbyn, and now a massive outflow. The Labour leadership’s chosen method of purging the party has proven to be utterly catastrophic. It has driven individual members to resign in frustration, leaving them without a clear political vision or a substantial left wing organisation to align themselves with.

However, now the tide is turning somewhat. There is a broad radicalisation of youth, especially in universities, as evidenced by the emergence of groups like Youth Demand. Tens of thousands of young people have been mobilised in the Gaza demonstrations, many of whom have taken part in direct action. The Muslim communities are furious about Starmer’s stance on Gaza, which will likely result in Labour losing hundreds of thousands of votes, potentially in key constituencies. The raw material is there for the building of a new left-party. It could only happen in the short term if significant leaders like Jeremy Corbyn were prepared to lead it. And even in this case, it would require an influx of young people, not just the rehashing of existing left activists.

But we should not be naïve. It is not a question of bad, dogmatic Trots versus good, open-minded youth. Horizontalist and anarchist ideas are rife, and the importance of building a socialist party is not widely understood. We must resume the debates from 20 years ago on changing the world without taking power. Without a militant left party, it will be the reactionary right that will step in and channel mass discontent.

The anti-war movement and student youth are far from the only sources of social and political radicalism in Britain. The strike figures in post-pandemic Britain have gone through the roof. Anti-racism is much more widespread than the narrow nationalism and chronic racism of the Tory right and its Reform UK co-thinkers. But the whole history of the last 50 years shows something that should be ABC: passive ‘opinion’ in itself does nothing. Radical opinion has to be mobilised and organised permanently to give perspective to workers’ struggles, social movements, and electoral conflicts. And that can only be done with a political party. Those who supported the objectives of democracy and social equality had to forge a path from protest to power.

Phil Hearse is a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance and joint author of both Creeping Fascism and System Crash.