Sorry results of tailism
Narrow nationalism of all varieties distorts, twists and inverts class politics. Paul Demarty provides a preliminary post-mortem on the May 6 results
In some respects, the unfolding of the election results was sequenced unfairly to Sir Keir Starmer.
The first things we learned about were the Hartlepool by-election and several English council elections, and it was here that we saw Labour’s greatest embarrassments. Strong showings in mayoral races and indeed in elections to the Welsh Senedd were tallied up too late to take the sting out of those initial failures.
Nor should they really. These local elections do not coincide with a general election. According to the rules of politics as usual, the government should get hammered. Instead, there was an 8% swing to the Tories and they picked up a large chunk of local councils and gained an absolute majority of an admittedly pitiful turnout in a parliamentary by-election.
The obvious, logical, inescapable explanation is Brexit. Put simply, ‘leavers’ who voted Ukip or Brexit Party defected to Boris Johnson’s ‘get Brexit done’/‘we have got Brexit done’ incarnation of the Tory party. Expecting them to vote for a colourless ‘remainer’ Labour candidate parachuted into Hartlepool and a colourless leader who fronted Labour’s serial sabotage of Theresa May’s deal with a resentful EU is to desert the post-2016 realities of a country where class politics has been - regrettably - overlayed, twisted, even inverted.
Those traditional Labour voters who voted ‘leave’ in 2016 did not, in the main, desert Labour in the 2017 For the many, not the few general election; indeed, that time, Labour increased its overall share of the vote. The party had, though, painted itself into a corner by participating in the EU referendum campaign and, most of all, pledging to ‘accept the result’ (all under the supposedly game-changing leadership of Jeremy Corbyn). The issue was thus always delicate, since the working class was split on the issue. Too-enthusiastic support for Brexit would alienate the working class of the cities; sabotage would alienate those of the post-industrial towns.
As for the left, apart from the CPGB and Labour Party Marxists, it divided neatly into ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ camps; and for all the rhetoric about offering distinctively ‘left’ versions of each vote, in the end the various groups were reduced to tailing the bourgeois leadership of each camp - even, in the case of certain left-remainers, to the point of taking George Soros’s money. If, instead, the left had put its energies into delegitimising the 2016 referendum, winning Labour to treat the whole exercise as an attempt by a besieged Tory prime minister to save his bacon, things could have been very different. The left was so corrupted by spontaneism, however, that it could not imagine convincing the masses of any tactic not written on a ballot paper by a Tory government.
In the 2017 general election Brexit was not the main issue. Corbyn’s Labour and May’s Tories were alike committed to abiding by the (constitutionally non-binding) 2016 referendum result. However, as the hapless May failed to secure a majority and then, predictably, suffered one crushing parliamentary humiliation after another, the temptation of triggering a new election proved irresistible. Corbyn and Labour’s attempts to collapse the government meant voting down every deal Theresa May could come up with; this ship was easily steered by a certain Sir Keir Starmer, by then shadow Brexit secretary, into a second referendum position (in effect, for ‘remain’).
The die was cast. Boris Johnson effortlessly brushed May aside, ruthlessly purged the Parliamentary Conservative Party of its ‘remainers’ and swept to a triumphant 80-strong majority against Corbyn’s now completely outmanoeuvred Labour Party. Labour was smeared by the Westminster bourgeois media with the anti-Semitism big lie, and - much more importantly - in the minds of millions of ‘leave’ voters in Labour’s traditional northern and midlands heartlands, tainted with sabotaging Brexit. So, after replacing the ‘anti-Semitic’ Corbyn as party leader and having easily seen off his pathetic ‘anti-Semitic’ heir and successor, Rebecca Long-Bailey, from the shadow cabinet - despite threats and protests by the official left - the rot continues under the witch-hunter supreme, the prosecutor general himself, Sir Keir Starmer.
Because the ‘remainer’ left is as much part of the problem as the ‘leaver’ left, there is widespread denial to the point of brain death. Most of what still passes for the ‘left’ is trapped in the bourgeois politics of either ‘remain’ or ‘leave’. Independent working class politics is beyond them.
Of course, May 6 produced its inevitable frenzy of scapegoating. Tony Blair wants to ditch the “woke brigade” and go for the “total deconstruction and reconstruction” of the Labour Party and a “radical” economic agenda, presumably code for breaking the trade union link, a total purge of the party’s left and a British version of Joe Biden’s Keynesianism. Blue Labour wants to unhesitatingly embrace ‘leave’ and the ‘leave’ electorate … a recipe for losing London and other big cities. Then there is the Chatham House ‘left’ and its not-so-secret plot to dump Keir Starmer … and get Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jess Philips or whoever, which will not happen until, and if, Johnson goes for an early general election … and Labour loses. (Johnson’s decision to scrap the fixed five-year law suggests that something like this is on his mind.)
Owen Jones, among others on the ever-less-left, clutches at Wales as a way forward. Like Boris Johnson in London and Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh, Mark Drakeford in Cardiff experienced his vaccine bounce. Each had control of the NHS, lockdowns, travel restrictions, etc. To point out the obvious, no such devolved bodies exist in the red wall constituencies. As for Starmer himself, he blamed the electoral disaster on the effects of ‘long Corbynism’ … and Angela Rayner (though he was sufficiently weakened by the English elections fiasco that he was forced to backtrack and hand her a triple front bench role).
North of the border, the main outstanding question for observers was whether the Scottish National Party would get an outright majority or merely a commanding victory of the sort to which they have become accustomed. On the day, we got the latter - the Sturgeon nats missed out on a majority by a single seat, in an electoral system deliberately designed to frustrate parliamentary majorities. Labour slipped into third, but there is little statistical significance in the difference between it and the Tories. The left, meanwhile, seems to have disappeared off the face of the country. The Scottish Socialist Party stood nowhere, effectively marking the end of that project. It was always a delusional, retrogressive, divisive idea, but once commanded a handful of Holyrood seats and significant votes. Tommy Sheridan, former SSP personality-cult frontman, finished off his slide into bourgeois nationalism, calling for an SNP vote in the constituencies and Alex Salmond’s Alba in the lists. Politics in Scotland is polarised around bourgeois independence and bourgeois unionism, just as Brexit divides England. Both separatism and unionism are narrow, but one is narrower than the other.
No better illustration of this polarisation could be imagined than Michael Gove, doing the media circuit after the Scottish result became clear: would there be a second independence referendum, he was inevitably asked. If there was a referendum on whether Scottish politicians should shut up about independence and deal with real British issues like Covid-19, he retorted, the ‘yes’ camp would win by a landslide. He cannot truly believe this, since he was being asked about an election in which the Scots had voted in huge numbers for a party that fought the election solely on the independence issue; but facts will never stop a slimeball like Gove.
It is not only narrow Scottish nationalism that drove the results, of course. The overall picture in England demonstrates very dramatically that the accomplishment of Brexit - such as it is - did not remove the question from the English psyche, any more than Captain Dreyfus disappeared from the French right’s crosshairs merely by being acquitted and making a hero of himself in the great war. There was, immediately before the poll, the showdown over Jersey fishing quotas - whether or not this was an ‘October surprise’ provocation on the government’s part, the press was full of chauvinist buffoonery for days on end. But this crisis merely follows on from countless others; and, while the fishing industry briefly cried ‘sellout!’ at the beginning of the year, when Brexit turned out not to be the Sugar Candy Mountain deal of Cornish trawlermen’s fantasies, on the whole it has proven perfectly simple to blame Johnny Foreigner for all the difficulties.
So, just as the national question long ago became the distorting lens through which near-on all Scottish politics is viewed, Brexit now plays the same role in large parts of England - most sensationally Labour’s old northern heartlands. The huge gaps in the red wall have appeared in towns, rather than cities; places that are or were once supported by particular industries, but which have rusted away. The young move away to the cities; those who remain lose the ties of workplace and union, as they are laid off, or simply grow old and retire, and watch their towns decay. In the crucible of deindustrialisation, impotent anger boils down to resentment, ready to be exploited by crafty political operators.
How all this is to be characterised depends on a serious account of class, especially since one explanation of Labour’s difficulties is that - as blue Labour’s Khalid Mahmood objects - the party has forgotten how to talk to ‘working class’ people by becoming obsessed with ‘middle class’ concerns like racism, the environment and what have you. The infamous Sewell report into racial disadvantage - among its other crimes - effectively elided class and social geography; but there is at least some sense in doing so. The most severely deprived areas of England are typically post-industrial towns: when we think of economic stratification in terms of ‘disadvantage’ and poor ‘opportunities’, as do Sewell and co, then there plainly is a vast gulf between Mayfair and Darlington.
By the same token, when immigrants arrive in Britain, they want to go where the action is, where the population is growing; paradoxically, this increases anti-migrant sentiment in the periphery, since canny demagogues can more easily represent the London metropolis as opposed to ordinary Englishness - an unholy alliance of greedy foreigners and cosseted snowflakes.
In its Marxist definition, the detailed composition of the working class is constantly in flux. The idea that we hold up a stereotype of cloth-capped factory-hands as the ‘real’ proletariat is itself a stereotype - which ironically is far truer of those recommending Keir Starmer take another lurch to the right.
In reality, the vast majority of London’s 10 million people own no means of production (or close to no means of production, as per gig economy contractors). They pay far more out of their wages in rent than those living elsewhere, thanks to the grotesquely overheated private lettings market. They are fully subordinated to capitalist or public-sector management. They are, in point of fact, working class - and they vote Labour. Similar accounts may be given of better-off cities elsewhere, such as Bristol and Manchester. Where these metropolitan areas have elected mayors, Labour has done well - they were run close in Bristol, but by the Greens.
The ‘red wall’ voters, of course, also - by and large - meet this definition, but as of today, they do not vote Labour in terribly large numbers. So there is an important qualification necessary: we are dealing in both cases with populations which have poor levels of class-consciousness. That produces the phenomenon described by the ‘post-liberal’ charlatan, David Goldblatt, of small-C conservative ‘somewheres’ facing off against cosmopolitan liberal ‘anywheres’. For Marxists, the working class today is only a class in itself, not for itself. As Marx said of the French peasants, they form a class “much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes”.
The grievances of both sections can thus be projected onto alien matter; and the immediately relevant question here is, as noted, Brexit. To the ‘somewheres’, if we can be forgiven for using this highly problematic terminology, Brexit represents victory over an alien bureaucratic force; and even if it goes badly, may be redeemed as a purifying national project, rather as World War II was, with some of the same antagonists. For the ‘anywheres’, European Union membership may in fact be directly practical (eg, for citizens of EU countries who moved here), or it may instead stand in for a different set of comforts from a harsh world, for diversity, above all of cultural consumption.
The polarisation is false because there is no possible resolution. The supremacy of the liberal bourgeoisie, especially from 1991 until 2015, produced only the slow growth of narrow nationalist resentment - both in liberal Scottish and Tory English forms - until finally the worm turned. The new chauvinist reaction cannot, in fact, make a success of Brexit; its continued vitality as a governing force will depend on the scapegoating and harassment of internal enemies. The same will be true of the Scottish nationalists, should they get and win their second referendum.
From this point of view, the balance of forces in Scotland is interesting. Nicola Sturgeon certainly has her mandate for a fresh plebiscite on independence; but she certainly does not want it. Her wing of the SNP is believed by Holyrood Kremlinologists to be more cautious than that previously represented by Alex Salmond, before his disgrace and abscondment. That she depends on Green votes on the referendum question may favour this agenda; Scottish Green policy is for independence, but it is not the party’s primary goal, and its leaders may not relish a Catalonia-style showdown with the forces of Westminster.
The latter, however, may favour one - and, just as the Partido Popular turned a provocation into a national crisis to distract from troublesome corruption allegations, so we expect that Johnson will one day try to produce himself a Scottish crisis. In the meantime, his government cribs from the American culture-war songbook, down to US-inspired voter ID laws that are somehow both repellent and extravagantly pointless, given the vast and apparently solid majority already enjoyed by his party. Perhaps he has decided to take note of the advice of his old adversary, George Osborne, and mend the roof while the sun is shining.
There is precious little optimism to be had in the wake of all this, for those of us on the left who are not totally addled by nationalism. Yet there is some. Starmer’s position has been revealed as weak, and by the same token we learn that there are still scraps to fight over in the ruins of the Corbyn project. The strength of the Green vote in some cities is not terribly promising in itself, since the Greens are a petty-bourgeois dead-end, but it problematises the idea that urban Labour votes can be taken for granted while red meat is thrown in the direction of the red wall. Confusion and fratricide look likely to continue in Labour’s ranks, in other words - and it is better for communists that people fight each other than that they are coerced into phony unity.
The crisis of Labour goes all the way down. Its former left leadership actively frustrated even the mildest attempts to subordinate the party machine and parliamentary party, absurdly leaving Sir Keir in charge of almost the same meddlesome bureaucracy bequeathed to posterity by Tony Blair. The only remedy it can imagine for ‘London-centric’ politics is to bureaucratically enforce the appearance - to quote an actual proposal for overcoming the ‘out of touch’ metropolitanism of the party - of “authentic values alignment” with the lost sheep of the north-east. Enforce it, that is, from London.
A true way forward will require a change in the political arithmetic far more profound than any of those envisioned by the wonks of left and right - or even the vandals who propose to disenfranchise millions of working class voters in the name of fighting imaginary fraud.