Britain: The Tories, the general election and neoliberalism’s second phase

By Neil Faulkner
May 9, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Left Unity — ‘Ignorance never yet helped anyone.’ So raged Karl Marx as he leapt from his chair and thumped the table so hard that the lamp shook. The occasion was a meeting in Brussels in 1846 of the newly formed Communist Correspondence Committee – the tiny acorn from which, over the next 150 years, so many mighty oaks would grow. The target of the tirade was a somewhat vacuous activist called Wilhelm Weitling, who professed to believe that socialist theory was unnecessary. This was, Marx fumed, ‘equivalent to vain dishonest play at preaching which assumes an inspired prophet on the one side and only gaping asses on the other’. Theresa May’s decision to call a general election should not mean that socialists stop thinking and mumble platitudes. To become uncritical cheerleaders for a cack-handed reformism can only foster illusions and false hopes at the expense of equipping activists with the understanding they need in the struggle to change the world. Left websites which are simply shouting support for a Corbyn victory – without discussing any of the contradictions in play – are the modern Weitlings. Corbyn is not a prophet, activists are not gaping asses, and a general election should not be the occasion for putting our brains in deep freeze.

Brexit, the Tory right, and neoliberalism’s second phase

I want to start with the wider context for May’s decision to call a general election. The Brexit vote, which represented a sharp shift to the right in British politics, with a clearly detectable ramping up of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim racism in particular, led directly to the fall of the Cameron government. However viciously anti-working class that government may have been, it was relatively liberal compared with what was to follow. The Brexit result was above all a victory of the Tory Right – as the marginalisation of UKIP since has made clear – and the May government is an artefact of the Tory Right’s new ascendancy. When May says that Brexit is irreversible and that ‘we’ must have control over our borders, she means it. The Tories are now implementing the UKIP programme. But there is something more. As Phil Hearse has argued in relation to the Tories here , and John Bellamy Foster in relation to the neo-fascist corporate takeover of the White House in the States, the hidden agenda is a drive by the Far Right – fascists and hard-right traditional conservatives – to push the neoliberal counter-revolution to much more radical extremes. If you want a practical example, watch the chilling video of Tory Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt sitting in a New York hotel and calmly explaining (in suitably coded language) that he is there to sell the NHS to private health and pharmaceuticals conglomerates []. He seems, incidentally, to have acquired the mad stare of Dr Strangelove – a bit like Thatcher and Blair at the end. The grand plan is to complete the privatisation of the commons, dismantle what is left of the welfare state, and turn society into an unregulated casino serving the greed of the corporate super-rich. In Britain the only way for the Tories to make a go of Brexit Britain is to turn it into a low-wage sweatshop and corporate tax-haven on the edge of Europe: the place to invest if you don’t want to pay European wages or European taxes. In relation to all this, May’s immediate purpose in calling a general election now is obvious enough. The economy – buoyed on unsustainable debt, facing further deflationary austerity, and destabilised by the self-imposed disaster of Brexit – is set to tank. The Tories are determined that public services and the working class will pay the price: only the rich and the corporates will be gold-plated against the coming downturn. So best to go now, while the Tories are riding high in the polls and Labour is hamstrung by its internal civil war. In any case, an election now is a chance for May to win her own mandate, bolster her control over the party, and boost a dangerously narrow parliamentary majority. A clear victory will also mean marginalising the anti-EU obsessives on the lunatic fringe of the Tory Party and giving her the space to do some horse-trading in the Brexit negotiations.

Could Corbyn win?

Faced with this, every socialist, trade unionist, and activist is bound to want a Labour victory. Everyone on the Left, except hopelessly benighted sectarians, will do what they can to make it happen. And it could happen. It is not, as things look right now, a likely prospect, but the Tory victory with an increased majority that May is banking on is not the virtual certainty that present polls suggest. The hollowing out of society, the democratic deficit, the historic alienation from elites and the political system, the disintegration of traditional voting allegiances, all this and much more mean that the electoral process has become far more volatile and unpredictable. Witness the Bernie Sanders challenge to Clinton for the Democratic nomination in the US presidential race, or the outcome of the first round of the French presidential election, where the two traditional parties of Right and Left cannot manage 30% of the vote between them, while a Far Left candidate takes 20%, the fascist takes 21%, and a cardboard neoliberal ‘independent’ tops the poll with 24%. This is off-the-radar unpredictable. In this respect, Corbyn is playing it well so far. He seems to be positively relaxed now that he is again talking to real people instead of New Labour androids and Laura Kuenssberg, and he is saying many of the right things, attacking the rich, the bankers, and the corporations, and giving voice to the anger at the base of society about the hideous injustices being heaped upon working people and the poor. Can it be sustained? The Labour Right can be expected to keep mum. They want to keep their seats, and any one of them who now started making the sort of public attacks they have been indulging in over the last two years would, of course, be self-destructing. Labour is a deeply tribal party likely to consign to oblivion any right-winger deemed to have plunged the dagger during a general election. But the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, and the overpaid media hacks who serve as neoliberalism’s ideological apparatus will meet the socialist outsider with vitriolic and unrestrained hostility. Corbyn will deserve our admiration if he simply stands his ground. And if he does, is it beyond the bounds of possibility that the tectonic plates of British electoral politics might begin to shift like they did in France and trigger an earthquake? At the very least, a strong socialist candidature may reduce the scale of any defeat, undermine the argument that radicalism cannot win, rekindle some of the excitement generated by Corbyn’s two leadership campaigns, and put us all in a far stronger position to fight the battles to come. We want a Labour victory, but if we can’t have that, we want the strongest possible Labour showing on the basis of a clear socialist message. We need Corbyn’s campaign to help us build a mass movement for radical change on the streets.

The contradictions of Labourism in 2017

If Corbyn can pull something off – if not victory, at least an advance and a rekindling of enthusiasm – it will be down to rhetoric alone. Our call for a Labour victory (‘optimism of the will’) has to be tempered with hard analysis of the contradictions working against it (‘pessimism of the intellect’). Let’s just remind ourselves of the absolute basics. The Labour Party is a hybrid formation. An age-old fusion of a social-democratic/moderate reformist Right with a socialist/radical reformist Left, it has now been transformed into something yet more dysfunctional: a fusion of New Labour neoliberals and Old Labour reformists. This is a hopeless shambles. The main fracture line in British politics runs not between parties, but down the middle of the Labour Party. This is the point on the political spectrum where supporters of the rich and corporate power, of austerity, privatisation, and war, meet supporters of a radical alternative based on equality, democracy, peace, and sustainability. The Parliamentary Labour Party, most Labour councillors, and the bulk of the party apparatus at both national and local level is essentially Blairite. They are counter-reformists who are engaged in dismantling, at the behest of big capital, the social-democratic achievements of post-war Labour (and even Tory) governments. They are the political agents of the neoliberal counter-revolution. That is why, since they lost control of the leadership to the Left, they have turned the Labour Party into a civil war. This situation is unsustainable. Either there is mass deselection to bring the party’s parliamentary representation into line with the aspirations of the membership, or the Right re-establishes unchallenged ascendancy by overthrowing the Left leadership (which some of them are already plotting to do after the anticipated election defeat). This basic contradiction has all sorts of implications for the election campaign. It means Labour’s policies are pitifully weak. There is no substance to Corbyn’s rhetoric when you compare it with the minimalist proposals being made in the face of what is surely the worst crisis in the history of world capitalism. The repudiation of speculative debt, the nationalisation of the banks, and public control over money creation is the obvious starting-point for any real alternative economic strategy. But that most tentative of moves towards something like this – ‘people’s quantitative easing’ – was no sooner mentioned than dropped. Why? Because the Left leadership is locked in an embrace of death with the New Labour Right. Policy is reduced to lowest-common-denominator ‘same old, same old’. Then there is the dismal mess around Brexit. Abstract commitment to ‘anti-racism’ is not sufficient: socialists have to be actively opposed to the dominant expression of racism at any particular moment. The spectacle of Corbyn whipping his MPs into giving May a thumping Commons majority for triggering Article 50 and launching the Hard Brexit project – using the fantasy of ‘People’s Brexit’ as a smokescreen – was pretty soul-destroying to watch. Most young people, most trade unionists, and most Labour supporters voted Remain. Some are now tempted by the siren call of Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats, posturing as ‘progressives’ largely on the basis of their anti-Brexit position. As for Leave voters – gulled by the anti-migrant racism of Farage, Johnson, and Gove during the EU referendum campaign – the job of any serious ‘people’s party’ is to confront the racism head-on, arguing that immigrants are not to blame, migrants are welcome here, and breaking up the EU and retreating into a national-racist enclave will weaken the labour movement, not strengthen it. Had the Labour Party adopted an alternative economic strategy and come out fighting on Brexit racism, perhaps it would also have found the will to form an alliance with other anti-austerity forces: the Greens and the Nationalists in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Just how ludicrous is it that the Labour Party – in the face of the mountain it is attempting to climb – is campaigning to unseat Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion and Mhairi Black in Paisley and Renfrewshire South? Whatever the outcome of the general election – and we want and will work for a Corbyn victory – we need to be realistic about the prospects, clear about the political context, and prepared for what is to come. If Corbyn wins it will be a historic victory but he will be hamstrung by a House of Commons with a large neoliberal majority of Tory, Liberal Democrat, and New Labour MPs. If he loses he will have done much good if he has sustained a socialist campaign that rekindles enthusiasm for a radical alternative and helps us towards building the mass movements of resistance we are going to need after 8 June to fight the racism and ramped-up austerity of the Tory Right and ‘second phase’ neoliberalism. Neil Faulkner is the author, with Samir Dathi, of Creeping Fascism: Brexit, Trump, and the Rise of the Far Right.