Richard Seymour on British elections: Where we go from here
What a difference election day makes. “Make June the end of May,” they said; and so they did.Theresa May has gone from being the adored “mummy” of Tory activists, whose secret strength according to A N Wilson and Matthew D’Ancona was her matriarchal “sex appeal”, to being the woman who shot the Tory party “in the head” according to Tory MP Nigel Evans. If only Tory activists had read a little of what Winnicott said about mothers, they might have seen it coming.
May spent Saturday holed up in the fantasy world of negotiations with the DUP toward “strong and stable” government: less “North Korean mode”, as Robert Harris claimed, than K-Pop mode in its upbeat surrealism. Her Downing Street speech seemed blithely oblivious of events, promising “a government that can provide certainty” on the basis that the Conservatives command “a majority in the House of Commons” – which is exactly what, thanks to her decision to call an election, she has lost. She repeated the words “certainty,” “prosperity” and “safe” mantra-like, but it might as well have been “Candy Quahog Marshmallow” for all the relevance it had to the real world.
In the end, May claimed to have negotiated a ‘confidence and supply’ lash-up with the DUP, in exchange for unclear concessions – only to admit hours later that no such agreement had been reached, and the statement had been issued in error. Meanwhile, her apparent colleagues and allies are briefing furiously against her. ITV political editor Robert Peston reports a “senior Tory MP” saying: “We all fucking hate her. But there is nothing we can do. She has totally fucked us”. According to Ian Katz, editor of BBC Newsnight, the fear of “senior Tories” is that they “can’t go to the country any time soon” since Corbyn is the “likely winner”. This might prolong May’s career, but only in the sense that it lengthens the gangplank she will walk.
And at that point, as Jeremy Corbyn has said, Labour is ready to govern. It would only take another two percent swing in Labour’s favour for it to have a majority.
The political settlement, which mere weeks ago looked to have all the implacable, unstoppable force of an angry, Brexity majority, is now severely stricken. This is all the more shocking in light of the long curve of development.
Across Europe, social democracy had been dominant throughout the early 2000s, the high point of social liberalism, but was on a downward slope since 2008. The crisis moved fastest in Greece, but it was also evident in Germany, Spain, France, and of course the United Kingdom, where Labour was reduced in 2010 to its lowest vote share since 1983 and lowest number of members since 1918.
The immediate popular response to crisis in Britain was to look for a safe pair of hands. The surge of the Liberals signalled the success Nick Clegg had, however briefly, in situating himself as an honest broker who would, if given the chance, humanise austerity and liberalise the polity. But all three parties positioned themselves as centre-seeking, with Cameron’s brief experiment in ‘Red Toryism’ and ‘Big Society’ rhetoric signalling the Tories’ acceptance that insurgent-era Thatcherism was no longer electable. In that election, Ukip performed poorly and the BNP, despite scoring half a million votes, was unable to win any seats. The old wisdom that the centre could not hold in the event of crisis was overturned – the centre was stronger than ever.
There was absolutely no question, however, that behind the soothing bromides something nasty was coming. The post-Thatcherite settlement was shifting into a new, austerian mode, albeit one initially sold as a necessary temporary fiscal adjustment to get the economy back on its tracks. And the Liberal-Conservative coalition was the ideal expression of the politics of this move. The pact gave the leaderships of both parties a degree of freedom from their base, so that Nick Clegg could support trebling tuition fees, and David Cameron could support gay marriage.
Labour’s 2010 failure produced a moderate shift to the left in its ranks, resulting in the election of a slightly left-of-Blairite candidate in Ed Miliband. And then, the stalemate seemed to break open, with a student rebellion against tuition fee rises and the abolition of Education Maintenance Allowance. Tens of thousands of students and school pupils, mostly from working class suburbs, participated directly in a movement of occupations and street protests.
The fall back of this movement once the fee rises and cuts were passed would have been registered as a lot more disappointing had a broader anti-cuts movement not broken out. Groups like UK Uncut leveraged the strategic concepts of ‘the swarm’ and ‘the network’ to surprise, disrupt and shame corporations that avoided paying taxes. The trade union movement geared up for big public sector strikes and demonstrations against austerity. Globally, the opening shots of the Arab revolutions saw hopeful new forms of mass democracy emerge, centred on the mini metropolis in Tahrir Square, which inspired a new Occupy movement.
There were some encouraging straws in the wind that after years of declining strike rates and union density, after the fall off of the anti-war movement, and the general confusion of the Left in the face of recession, a counter-politics was emerging. The crisis of the tabloid media during Hackgate implicated a series of politicians and police chiefs in a corrupt relationship with the Murdoch papers. And the Labour leadership was, completely unlike the previous one, mildly susceptible to this kind of pressure. Miliband recognised that Labour had lost much of its working class vote, and needed to reach out to movements rather than shunning them. At this point, the Labour opposition was riding high in the polls and articulating a broadly anti-austerity politics.
However, the protests tended to fizzle. The strikes were large but far less about disruption than demonstrating political clout. The union leadership, who held the initiative in the strikes, were not interested in reliving the ‘Glorious Summer’ of 1972 when nationwide strikes broke the Heath administration. All they wanted was to pressure the government into modifying their pensions offer, which they achieved. The far left groups which carried disproportionate weight in organising left wing activities were unable to agree among themselves or with the wider left, and would soon collapse into their own internal crises arising from their backwardness and sexism.
And in the summer, as these processes unwound, the latest in a string of police murders of black men caused a social explosion. The extrajudicial execution of Mark Duggan, by officers from the armed CO19 unit, was conducted under the rubric of Operation Trident, a unit specialising in “black-on-black” crime. At a time when the government was embarking on a reorganisation of policing, to create a more Americanised system based on sheriffs, the old ‘community’ based form of policing by consent was under increasing pressure. The killing followed the death of Smiley Culture, which the police claimed was the result of a self inflicted stab wound while they were searching his premises, not to mention a string of CCTV captured incidents of brutality against black men. The bankers were getting away with the credit crunch, newspaper magnates were getting away with hacking citizens, the government was getting away with austerity, and the police seemed to kill with impunity. The country, beginning with Tottenham, exploded in a series of multiracial working class riots, which the Tory historian David Starkey complained meant the “whites have become black”.
This was, in retrospect, a critical turning point. A minority understood the rioters, but for most the disturbance was a physical manifestation of all their fears and insecurities in the context of austerity and recession. For some, especially older reactionaries, they were the hallmark of a generation taking the piss and disrespecting the institutions they’d grown up to revere. It was one thing for students to disobey police officers, but this had gone too far. And, for all the tributes to social media’s democratising power, through Twitter and Facebook a pro-police, authoritarian consensus quickly emerged: water cannon, rubber bullets, lead bullets, deportations, cutting off benefits, conscription, prison, all these were among the proposed remedies for the unrest.
As social protests wound down, strike actions ceased, and Occupy barely began, a new chill fell on the country. The rate of strikes fell back to historic lows, union density continued to fall, and Labour took a turn to the right, abandoning its anti-austerity politics in favour of a mawkish soft nationalism and a moralistic anti-welfarism drawn from the populist right. From then until the summer of 2015, every major incident benefited a shift to the right, whether it be panic about halal meat, the fake ‘Trojan horse’ scandal about Islamist penetration of schools, the frenzy about new waves of Romanians and Bulgarians arriving, or the paedophile rings scandals involving groups of Pakistani men which were quickly racialised in the national press. Ukip, talked up endlessly by the press as a champion of the forgotten and exoticised ‘white working class’, was the major beneficiary of this turn. By 2015, it was the dynamic factor in the general election, the reactionary mouthpiece, polarising things to the right so that Cameron could play the ‘invisible man’ of the election.
That Conservative victory in that election was won with only 37 per cent of the vote, but this was poor consolation given that together with Ukip and various unionist votes, the Right had a majority in the country. Backed by triumphalist yet whinging right wing press, they were systematically driving the agenda of the country to the harder and harder Right, pivoted on a backlash against a multiracial society and a renewed white nationalism. This was to colour and contour the ensuing referendum over EU membership.
Meanwhile, Labour was in dire straits, having improved its vote in England and Wales only to be wiped out by the SNP in Scotland. Ed Miliband’s experiment hadn’t really resulted in a significant membership increase, nor had the total vote been raised by enough to justify his continued leadership. Column inches were filled with braying pundits, the John Rentouls and Philip Collins and Dan Hodges, all explaining that ‘Red Ed’ had been too left wing for Mondeo Man, Asda Woman, and other fictitious persons populating ‘Middle England’.
The universal presumption was that an austere social liberal, replete with orthodoxy, would take over. Liz Kendall, the favourite of the punditocracy, fit that model perfectly. She had the faux sympathetic demeanour of a human resources manager firing you, and a good patter for the media, as long as no one asked too many questions. But the Right couldn’t agree a single candidate, and felt they had the luxury of competing in the absence of a serious challenge. It might even have a vaguely democratic air, in the way that various brands of tinned beans at a supermarket feels like choice. And so, Andy Burnham, Mary Creagh, and Yvette Cooper also threw their hats into the ring. With the exception of Creagh, a former leader of Islington council, they were all ‘spads’ – members of the gilded generation of elite educated special advisors, technocrats from the hard centre moulded in the early days of New Labour. They were good at influence mongering during their hour in the sun, but not great politicians. But then who was a great politician? Surprisingly, Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn, famously, joined the campaign under pressure from left wing colleagues, with no expectation of winning. It was ‘his turn’ to put the Left’s case, to make the sort of anti-austerity arguments that the Left might make were it to be – ha ha – within a shot of winning. There were a number of unknowns which turned out to be decisive in making Corbyn’s campaign something more than a token bid. While the Blairites were having the run of the argument in the press, they had lost the argument in their party and among the trade union membership. The election defeat which they assumed would lead to their coronation only confirmed that the old guard hadn’t a clue; after all, Blairites like Jim Murphy had led the disastrous Scottish indyref campaign which resulted in Labour’s wipe-out.
There was a resumption of anti-austerity protest, led by the young, who were palpably angry about the election result, and with a Labour establishment that was so vacuous. And Corbyn, unlike Miliband, wasn’t just anxious to reach out to the protesters: he was one of them. Activism had been a lifelong vocation. And when he spoke at these rallies he had an analysis not only of the grimly familiar litany of austerity’s failures but also of Labour’s crisis. He understood it as a crisis of the roots, a failure to connect to the activists and movements without whom Labour was just a professional political elite obsessed with psephology and spin.
From that point on, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign became a sort of protest movement in itself, attracting enormous rallies of the angry and disaffected Labour base up and down the country. The buzz was reflected in the profusion of social media accounts collectively reaching millions daily with Corbyn related news and memes. He won a majority of constituency branches and trade unionists, gaining the support of Unite, Unison, ASLEF, TSSA, and the CWU. He drew hundreds of thousands of new members to the Labour Party. The miniature, empty room gatherings of the rival candidates became a synecdoche for their entire campaign. Their evasive, flat flooted, and vapid responses to simple interview questions, contrasting with Corbyn’s direct and substantive answers, indicated that they were ideologically bankrupt. Their atonal, affectless ‘pledges’ to members and union affiliates signalled their detachment.
Having, with baffled condescension, struggled to cope with Corbyn’s rise, the Labour machine and its press allies kicked into Project Fear late in the campaign. The John Manns, Tom Blenkinsops, and Simon Danczuks lined up to denounce ‘Trotskyite’ infiltration, a neo-Militant Tendency, and were amplified in the press by sympathetic journalists like Dan Hodges. At best, the new members were political day trippers, inexperienced dreamers being manipulated by sinister forces. The Compliance Unit, under the direction of general secretary Iain McNicol, set about trying to purge some of these interlopers, most of whom were barred for such offences as tweeting support for the SNP. Neither fearmongering nor condescension worked, and Corbyn won the Labour leadership in the first round with a simple majority of the vote.
This was already the beginning of the end of an era. The long march to the Right would not be halted overnight. Predictably, the scum British press and usually obsequious broadcasters embarked on a furious wrecking mission, usually aided and abetted by leakers from within the shadow cabinet or backbench ‘rebels’. But as soon as Corbyn was Labour leader, in spite of all the obstacles immediately put in his way by saboteurs, many of whom promised a coup within weeks of his taking power, the agenda changed. The opposition was unanimously anti-austerity, breaking with the punitive moralism that had characterised Labour’s welfare stance since the Blair era. The tone on refugees and migration shifted drastically away from the mandatory soft racism of the hard centre. The official opposition began to oppose, and even to force reversals on the part of a government with a small majority.
The party’s putschists were still planning, of course, and took every opportunity to leak poison about him to the press. They sat sullenly during Corbyn’s parliamentary interventions, fucking about on their smartphones, and let everyone know they were rulers in waiting. They whinged incessantly about a handful of social media trolls. They turned a few scattered cases of antisemitism in the party into a national crisis, having either said nothing about the rise of nationalist racism in Britain or peddled a soft version of it. Particularly on foreign policy, where bipartisanship traditionally ruled, his parliamentary colleagues caused maximum disruption, with the now forgotten Hillary Benn styling himself as a great Gladstonian moral imperialist. Most unforgiveably, in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, when the Conservative Party were vulnerable, they embarked on a suicidal coup attempt. The putsch bore all the hallmarks of a Tom Watson operation, from the choreographed resignations to the line up of party grandees calling for him to “do the decent thing”.
The coup attempt demonstrated that they still didn’t get it. Corbyn’s victory had not been an accident, and was not the result of some fanatical takeover. Corbyn was an experienced campaigner in a style of politics which mainstream social democrats used to be thoroughly schooled in. He was not ‘charismatic’, but he was a good communicator, and he understood what motivated his supporters. He knew that numbers and organisation had power in a democracy, even a managed democracy like the Labour Party. He was not frightened of media attacks, because he knew that for all the media’s power to shape agendas, they could be defeated. Their manufactured crises could be waited out. And indeed, the short attention span of the press is demonstrated in the way they colluded in the ego trips of successive would be Labour leaders. Angela Eagle, for example, was given inane puff pieces in every broadsheet and radio programme in the country for as long as the media thought she was the candidate to defeat Corbyn. That was all dropped as soon as Owen Smith pushed her aside, and in turn his Butlins redcoat act has long been forgotten.
Corbyn repeated his performance in the Labour Party with yet another leadership campaign that was part protest movement, recruiting yet more people to the party, driving its membership over half a million. But the damage of the coup was done, giving the Tories time to orchestrate a coronation to a seemingly competent Home Secretary and sensible Remainer, Theresa May. From then on, the Tories adopted wholesale the language and thematics of Ukip, in an effort to capitalise on a reunified right wing vote.
The question was always whether Corbyn would repeat in the country what he had done in the Labour Party. Certainly, within Labour, he had reached out to a radicalised minority, particularly of young people, but also of former Labour supporters who had given up in despair. But when Theresa May called a snap election in late April, the prospects looked bleak. Labour had been struggling in the polls, the leadership seemingly adrift in a context defined by the national question. Corbyn had tried to defuse Brexit as an issue by swiftly accepting the result and three line whipping Article 50 through parliament, but the effect had been to deprive Labour of oppositional teeth on this central point.
Egged on by the right wing press, Theresa May was leading a nationalist campaign to “crush the saboteurs,” and twenty points ahead in the polls. It looked like a deft move, with the Tories seemingly united on Europe by the victory of their hard right: if they campaigned on Brexit, they could make Europe Labour’s problem for once. Corbyn, for his part, declined to let that happen. This would not be an election about Brexit. So, about what then? It would be about class, inequality, and the hopes of the next generation. The manifesto was the turning point: it was the same message with which Corbyn had taken the Labour leadership, but given the form of specific policies — remedies for the dilemmas and distress of working class people of all backgrounds.
And once again, Corbyn’s campaign began to acquire the feel of a movement. His packed public meetings, his surprise attendance at concerts, his social media campaign, all suggested that Labour was going to outperform expectations. Even the polls began to pick up on it, though most refused to credit the idea of a youth surge. Corbyn was confident, aggressive, and relaxed in television appearances, unfazed by the predictable Tory onslaught focused on a Crosbyite smear campaign about the IRA. This happened despite the official Labour HQ running a defensive campaign, despite Progress MPs campaigning for re-election against him, and despite Scottish Labour running its own campaign pivoted on slagging off the SNP and protecting the Union.
What happened on election night surprised all but the most optimistic of Labour supporters. The exit poll showed that most of the polls were wrong, and that the surge was bigger even than YouGov had dared predict on the final day. Labour was heading for a huge increase in its vote, and the Tories were headed for a hung parliament. Lord Ashcroft’s retrospective polling found that 67% of 18-24 year olds who voted supported Labour. 58% of 25-34 year olds and 50% of 35-44 year olds backed Corbyn. The only demographic among whom the Tories had a majority was over-65s. Corbyn had raised the Labour turnout nationwide, with New York Times charts showing that turnout was raised most in constituencies where the majority are aged 18-34. This wasn’t just a youth movement, but generational experiences are in part class experiences. The young and left wing are those who have grown up with the war on terror, the credit crunch, and global stagnation, and who bear the worst of growing class inequality.
The result now is that Labour is just a two percent swing away from power, with a popular left wing agenda, and ahead in the polls. The Conservatives are once more tearing themselves to pieces, with Europe being a major issue of contention. Theresa May, George Osborne chortles, is a “dead woman walking”, while Michael Heseltine has also stuck the knife in. But the laughter won’t last long, since the Tories haven’t an abundance of talent to take May’s place, and are saddled with an issue that is once more shown to be toxic for them. Boris Johnson is increasingly been talked up as a potential leader, but given his role in creating what Heseltine calls the “greatest constitutional crisis in modern times,” the Tory establishment wouldn’t put up with him for long. The role would also outmatch him horribly.
Jeremy Corbyn took the leadership of the Labour Party at a moment when its secular crisis had become crystal clear, offered a diagnosis and a cure, and made it take the medicine even against stubborn resistance. Organisationally and electorally, he has begun to turn it around, much faster than anyone would have expected. He has found hidden reservoirs of support and strength for the Left, raw materials for social transformation. In doing so, he has also exposed the inherent fragility of the supposedly indomitable, terrifying Tory machine, accentuating its inherited crises and long term decline, and potentially hastening the end of its role as a viable party of government.
This is a once in a lifetime moment, wherein mobilisation and activism could fundamentally change the whole direction of the country, giving a socialist inflection and shape to popular discontents and aspirations. The Left has nothing better, or more important, to do than make this happen.