Making plans for Nigel
While the Brexit Party surges in the polls, too much of the left lines up with one or another faction of the bourgeoisie, says Paul Demarty
As the dust settles after the local elections, so the first opinion polls taken from fieldwork conducted after them roll in; and the numbers are rather startling.
They are, of course, dominated by the looming European vote; and, as far as voting intentions in that poll go, there is one very clear winner - Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. ComRes has it on 27%, narrowly pipping Labour (25%) to the top spot. The headlines, however, are grabbed more by another survey, conducted by Opinium, which has Farage’s party on 34% - way in the lead. If this were reflected in the final poll, he would have registered the best performance at least since 1999 (when William Hague’s Tories managed 33.5% - within rounding distance of Opinium’s numbers).
The Brexit Party has the dubious distinction of somehow having come out of nowhere, to nobody’s surprise at all. To be sure, if God Himself was - as per the XTC classic - making plans for Nigel, He could hardly have done a better job. The Brexiteers have always mocked at how remote and worthless the putatively democratic institutions of the European Union actually are, but it has surely never been truer than it is today, with such British electors as can be bothered trudging to the polls to elect members of the European parliament solely because the despised Westminster machine has (in its own language) failed to deliver - or (in increasingly common parlance) betrayed the Brexit vote of 2016.
Meanwhile, Farage’s former outfit, the UK Independence Party, is in fairly awful shape. To individual political organisations, timing is all-important, and for Ukip, the time is definitely out of joint. Theresa May’s swift effort to take ownership of Brexit in the wake of the referendum result - an ‘inspired’ and ‘professional’ effort which, it is sometimes worth reminding ourselves, had us all under the impression she knew what the hell she was doing - decisively robbed Ukip of its initiative at the very moment of its triumph. It then endured a year and change of farcical churn in its leadership, and a series of splits. The last guy left standing was current leader Gerard Batten, who decided to steer the ship sharply towards the far right.
He sealed the deal by hiring Tommy Robinson - once of the English Defence League and now for the second time facing a contempt of court charge - as a personal advisor. He could do no more, for Ukip’s standing orders - a product of a more genteel era - forbid former members of extreme-right organisations from joining and, while no doubt many old hands in British fascism are sneaking in, Robinson is too high-profile a figure to make it. The result is that he is standing against Ukip as an independent in the north-west, supported by counter-jihadist fruitcake Anne Marie Waters and her For Britain sect, but still casting a pall over Ukip by his association with Batten: the worst of all possible worlds for the latter.
Under these circumstances, and with Euro elections conducted by proportional representation in multi-member constituencies, the situation is ideal for a ‘just get on with it’ party to emerge, with no more than innuendo to offer so far as the associated political concerns (migration, Islam, etc) are concerned. This explains the ease with which Farage has managed to pluck a party out of the sleeve of his blue blazer, like the children’s party magician he should have been.
As with such a conjurer, the question arises as to what is being hidden from view. Certainly there are large sums of money sloshing around. The Brexit Party claims that most of it comes from small donations, but that all rather depends on your definition, and an assumption of good faith on the part of large donors, such that they will not try to conceal their largesse. In any case, several six-figure sums are known to have made it into the coffers. Yet dark mutterings from remainers on this point are rather rich (if you’ll excuse the pun) when Change UK - the organisation of gaffe-prone, intellectually defunct, ‘moderate’ defectors from both major parties - is so scandalously opaque in its finances.
Farage’s other party trick has been to get various figures associated, more or less closely, with the left on his lists. Some are relatively easily dismissed, like various members of the insular clique that once called itself the Revolutionary Communist Party.
It was only a matter of time before its infantile, mean-spirited hostility to bien-pensant liberals breached whatever final defences it had against formal political affiliation to the right, and so we find RCP diehards Claire Fox and James Heartfield standing. Both are quite capable of trading on their former associations, making that old renegade’s lament that it was not she who betrayed the cause, but the cause who betrayed her. Given that post-RCP initiatives spend most of their energy on dishonest polemic against the left, however, we feel it rather unlikely that many on the left will fall for it. (How the more simple-hearted Colonel Blimps in Farage’s voter base will react to the RCP’s long record of deliberately shocking ‘anti-imperialist’ postures, meanwhile, remains to be seen.)
George Galloway is a different matter. For all his many brushes with the wrong kind of notoriety - George dressed up as a cat is something, regrettably, impossible to unsee - he remains unabashedly a figure of the left. Galloway is a kind of historical relic - a Stalinist fellow traveller from the centre-left of the Labour Party, who refused to budge an inch, as Kinnock and Blair dragged his old co-thinkers to the right in their wake, and took genuinely courageous stances in the early stages of the Iraq war.
His support for Farage’s party, then, is a disappointment, but not exactly a surprise. Brexitism is at the core of his politics, and in 2016 he even shared platforms with Farage, in a rerun of Enoch Powell’s and Tony Benn’s unlikely partnership in the first European referendum 45 years ago. His decision causes a certain awkwardness on the left and, though the condemnations are more or less universal, from some quarters they have a rather pro forma feel.
The Communist Party of Britain’s Morning Star, for its part, does a certain amount of muck-raking so far as Nigel’s merry men are concerned, with one article on the “far-right Tory rejects campaigning for [the] Brexit Party”,1 another on the six-figure donations, and so on. Yet we know that the CPB has taken the decision to boycott the election entirely. The comrades seem to have got themselves into a real bind on this: their fervent Brexitism must not be confused with that of Farage, so they talk up the neoliberal, reactionary character of the Brexit Party. The ‘natural’ position of calling for a Labour vote, however - which the CPB did throughout the Blair years - is complicated by the fact that the candidates actually on Labour’s lists tend to be, in Galloway’s words, “Euro-fanatics”. So they are stuck with a “people’s boycott” of the “undemocratic” European parliament, which “cannot even initiate its own legislation”.1
A superficially different approach is adopted by the Socialist Workers Party. We have mentioned in a previous article the SWP’s objections to the Brexit Party - it notes that Farage’s real aim is a permanent, stable, far-right party after the fashion of Europe’s new ‘populists’, with him as a kind of pin-striped Beppe Grillo. Thus, for SWP theoretical leader Alex Callinicos, Galloway and the like are merely “useful idiots”. For all practical purposes, however, the SWP’s focus is entirely on the individual, Tommy Robinson, and Ukip, despite the latter’s obvious replacement by Farage’s outfit in the front running.2
And the SWP is not the only group trading on the odium of far-right creeps; a recent email circular from Momentum offers recipients various ways to stop Robinson. It also offers the utterly risible claim that “with the centre ground crumbling, only principled, socialist Labour candidates can beat Tommy Robinson”. Assuming that we can count Labour’s number one in the north-west, Theresa Griffin, as a principled socialist (she has at least put in the hard yards in the unions), that means that the Tommy Robinson list, consisting entirely of himself, will beat the Tories, Greens, Lib Dems, Ukip and Farage’s crew, headed by the aforementioned and distinctly unprincipled Claire Fox. I am not inclined to put a tenner on that at Paddy Power, but perhaps ‘Team Momentum’ know something I do not.
More generally, the internet is alive with alarm that Robinson might need just 9% of the vote to get in, assuming turnout is exceptionally low; but the source of that seems to be dubious back-of-the-fag-packet calculations from Hope Not Hate, which is professionally dedicated to fear-mongering on this point. Meanwhile, all serious opinion polls - as we stated at the outset - put the Brexit Party’s chances of success very high.
The latter cases amount to silence on the Brexit issue. For Momentum, the problem is the carefully cultivated ambiguity of the Labour leadership on the matter, which it is doomed to tail in its bureaucratic fashion. For the SWP and CPB - both ‘Lexit’ organisations - it is an attempt to dodge the obvious lesson that Lexit was a fantasy, and that the political choice actually posed by Brexit is the distinction between ‘enlightened’ neoliberalism in its desperate extremity and its chauvinist-Thatcherite shadow. Their political choices in 2016 place both organisations by default in the latter camp, with a hope of wrenching the EU issue somehow out of the hands of the right.
Wrong way round
The trouble is that doing so requires that Brexit be treated not as a ‘single issue’ on which there is a correct answer as such - in other words, in the misleading, Bonapartist terms of the referendum itself. Just as the left remainers are driven into the arms of Blair and Soros, in spite of themselves, so the different kinds of issue-dodging here end up playing into the hands of Nigel Farage. The ‘people’s boycott’, as ably pointed out by Labour far-left lifer Mike Phipps, can only serve the purpose of taking votes away from Labour:
Imagine for a moment that the Morning Star had more support. Imagine it still enjoyed significant influence in the trade unions and the broader socialist movement. Its suggestion of a boycott could carry considerable weight with sections of the working class. It would be Labour voters who would be encouraged not to vote in these elections. Farage and co, the Tories and other parties would be under no such pressure.3
As for the SWP’s hysteria about Ukip and Robinson, we argued already that the principal effect is to distract opprobrium away from Farage. In both cases, the need to be seen to take a ‘strong line’ leads straight into a trap - the trap of the referendum, which was designed as a piece of political theatre and, though it disastrously backfired, has merely exposed the reality that such things as treaty abrogations are the act of governments, not plebiscites. The CPB demanded a vote for Brexit in the referendum, and now demands a boycott of a vote between parties on the basis of the supposed sanctity of the plebiscite; in doing so, it gets things exactly the wrong way round. The SWP, meanwhile, by focusing entirely on incidental protests and strikes, treat everything as a ‘single issue’, decrying all deliberative high politics as demobilising, and in substance make the same mistake.
Thus are our Lexiteers disarmed before Farage. The SWP and CPB expect a socialist government to emerge from sufficiently dramatic strikes and protests - the inadequacy of this strategic-programmatic approach leads directly to their present paralysis.
See ‘Anti-racism and “useful idiots”’ Weekly Worker May 2.↩