The wages of Brexit

Issue: 165

Alex Callinicos

The Seattle protests 20 years ago opened a new cycle of anti-capitalist struggle. Despite the influence of the autonomist politics summed up by John Holloway’s famous slogan—“Change the world without taking power”, the dominant currents have looked towards the state to achieve social and economic reforms.1 This reformist wave has taken different forms—compare Podemos in the Spanish state, initially organised online and inspired by a mix of Latin American movements and the broodings of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe on populism, with the much more traditional left reformism of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. But all have in common an orientation on elections as a means of implementing policies that move away from neoliberalism.

In the past couple of months we have had two dramatic illustrations of the brutal tests to which reformism is subjected by the centres of entrenched capitalist power. In Bolivia, Evo Morales, the first modern indigenous president and far and away the most electorally successful politician in the country’s history, was forced from office thanks to the intervention of the military. The coup was carried out in support of vicious racist mobilisations mounted by an urban middle class threatened by the social ascent of indigenous people and backed by the traditionally dominant oligarchy and its allies in Washington and the Organization of American States (OAS).2

Closer to home in Britain, the most left-wing leadership the Labour Party has ever had was swept away in a general election that saw the Conservatives win their largest parliamentary majority since Margaret Thatcher’s last victory in 1987. The most devastating aspect of this result was Tory prime minister Boris Johnson’s success in winning a swathe of traditional Labour seats in the north of England. Not only is this a crushing disappointment for all inspired by Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party but it leaves us at the mercy of a very right-wing Tory government. We are going to have to fight our way out of this.

Joseph Choonara discusses the Bolivian coup in his contribution to Analysis on the new global cycle of revolt. So what is there to be said about the British general election of 12 December 2019? There has been much talk about what a dirty campaign this has been, particularly on the Tory side. The eccentric and independent-minded right wing journalist Peter Oborne denounced the “client journalism” of media outlets from the Mail to the BBC that “allows Downing Street to frame the story as it wants. Some allow themselves to be used as tools to smear the government’s opponents”.3 And indeed, even by the standards of mendacity typical of the Conservative and Unionist Party, this has been a vile election campaign, particularly in the way fears of antisemitism have been weaponised against Corbyn (though the Labour right bear a heavy responsibility here).

But fake news has been around for a long time: consider the so-called “Zinoviev Letter”, published by the Daily Mail in October 1924 and purporting to be instructions by the president of the Third International to the Communist Party of Great Britain to foment insurrection in the armed forces. The letter, which even the official history of the Secret Intelligence Service admits was a forgery, generated by its Riga station and leaked to the press, probably via the Security Service (M15), helped to ensure that the minority Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald was defeated in the general election of 29 October.4

Indeed the election campaign this time round was in many ways a reminder of the commanding reality of class interests. As we have discussed repeatedly in these pages, the Brexit crisis that has almost paralysed the British state saw a loosening of the normal connections that ensure that what Antonio Gramsci called “political society” functions in the interests of capital. The Tory Party, for the past 100 years the party of big business in Britain, has been bitterly at odds with the City of London and business more broadly, which would prefer to stay in the European Union and is vehemently opposed to anything resembling a hard Brexit.5 But the election saw the links between the Tories and capital begin to be reforged.

Johnson’s nationalist gamble

The election was about Brexit. Let’s remember how it was called. After becoming prime minister, Johnson rapidly found himself boxed in. On the one hand, the House of Commons fell under the control of a hostile coalition of Labour, the pro-Remain parties and (critically, because they delivered this alliance a majority) a small group of pro-EU Tory MPs that passed the so-called Benn Act making it illegal for Britain to leave the EU at the last deadline but one (31 October), without a deal. On the other hand, the Supreme Court struck down Johnson’s attempt to prorogue Parliament and rid himself of these turbulent MPs.

Johnson escaped from this trap by the simple expedient of making a new deal with the European Union on 17 October. This represented two crucial changes compared to the Withdrawal Agreement laboriously negotiated by Theresa May a year ago. First, Johnson dealt with the infamous backstop designed to prevent a new border dividing Ireland after Brexit by throwing its most vehement opponents, the loyalist bigots of the Democratic Unionist Party, under the bus. He accepted the EU-27’s original proposal, that only the Six Counties would remain in a customs union with the rest of the EU. This had been rejected by May in favour of keeping the whole United Kingdom in the customs union, because it would give Northern Ireland a special status different from the rest of the British state.

After she lost the Tory parliamentary majority in the June 2017 election, May needed DUP support to get legislation through. But Johnson’s only interest in the House of Commons was to pass his new Withdrawal Agreement. After that he wanted a general election as soon as possible. For this he didn’t need the DUP, since he was able to cobble together a majority for the second reading of the Withdrawal Bill from Tory MPs (including some he had expelled for voting for the Benn Act) and a handful of Labour Leavers. The Tory right, previously firmly behind the DUP, went along with their abandonment. It was a Nixon-in-China moment: the right allowed one of their own to do what they would have denounced if others had tried it.

The second major difference with May’s Withdrawal Agreement helps to explain the right’s acquiescence in the betrayal of the DUP. At Brussels’s insistence, she had undertaken to maintain a “level playing field” in trade regulation after Brexit: in other words, British firms would not be allowed to undercut their Continental rivals by adopting lower standards in areas such as workers’ rights and the environment. This was opposed by the Tory right both because it entailed continuing subordination to the EU and because the will-o’-the-wisp of trade deals with economies outside Europe is central to their vision of Britain after Brexit. So Johnson started off negotiations with Brussels by dropping the “level playing field”; and the EU-27 pushed back, saying that a “Singapore-on-Thames” eroding their regulatory regime was unacceptable. The eventual formula that the two sides agreed on responded to these concerns, but it still offers Britain more wiggle room than it had had under the previous agreement.

This success—facilitated, it must be stressed, by the EU-27, who went back on their previous refusal to renegotiate May’s deal and did their best to help Johnson—allowed him to escape the parliamentary trap. The opposition parties had been refusing to give him the general election he demanded, on the grounds that it could not take place until the threat of a no-deal Brexit had been removed. But, in the event, Johnson complied with the law and grudgingly applied for an extension, which the weary EU-27 granted till 31 January 2020. (Despite numerous conspiracy theories, Johnson’s behaviour—as opposed to what he says—suggests that one of his priorities is to avoid the disruption a no-deal Brexit would entail.)

The Tory campaign was dominated by Johnson’s slogan: “Get Brexit Done”. Since he entered 10 Downing St his aim has been to win a general election by uniting the Leave section of the electorate. He successfully squeezed the Brexit Party, which had won the European parliamentary elections back in May: Nigel Farage capitulated to pressure from his backers and didn’t run in Tory seats. But even in Labour seats it was the Tories who led the drive to win over working class Leave voters disaffected with their traditional party’s ambivalence on Brexit.

The Financial Times commented on the transformation in the Tory base entailed by this strategy:

Millions of less well-off voters are turning to the party because they dislike not only the EU but large-scale immigration, political correctness and liberal social values.

However, these voters like large, well-funded public services. They want the state to protect them against the cruelties of the free market. In short, their preferences are light years from the purist economic libertarianism favoured by pro-Brexit right-wing ideologues.

The Johnson government will struggle to reconcile its proposed radical divergence from the EU model with the desire for protection of the new Conservative voters… The magnetic force of Brexit has pulled the Conservatives towards voters who are older, more blue-collar, less well-educated and less likely to live in pro-EU areas such as London, other affluent cities and Scotland.

In the process, the Conservatives have acquired features typical of right-wing populist parties on the continent of Europe.6

One shouldn’t, however, overstate this transformation at the leadership level. Johnson presented himself as a “One Nation Conservative”. This label has traditionally been associated with the wing of the Tory Party opposed to Thatcher’s adoption of neoliberalism, the so-called “wets” who remained committed to the welfare state and a degree of state intervention. This current is more or less dead politically now, with Ken Clarke expelled from the party and Michael Heseltine supporting the Liberal Democrats in the election.

But Johnson’s manifesto did not represent any significant move in their direction. Instead it tread a cautious path. It avoided both the big tax cuts beloved of free-marketeers and the kind of “national-conservative” gestures towards working class voters that May and her adviser Nick Timothy toyed with at the beginning of her government—though Johnson did subsequently take a step in the latter direction with a promise to relax the EU’s restrictions on state aid to industry after Brexit and use public procurement to “back British business”.7

The manifesto’s caution was partly a consequence of chancellor of the exchequer Sajid Javid’s successful defence of a relatively fiscally orthodox economic policy. To counter Labour’s challenge he relaxed his predecessor Philip Hammond’s fiscal rules, allowing an extra £22 billion a year public investment. But he replaced them with a commitment to maintain a balanced budget over three years. This was, as the Financial Times put it, “a constraint which leaves little room for extra day-to-day spending on issues such as social care or bold tax cuts”—a move that apparently angered Johnson’s own chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, widely portrayed as a populist schemer deep in the bowels of Downing St.8 This economic caution left Johnson’s commitment to Brexit in the limelight. Nevertheless, he was able to cast this in an anti-establishment light, exploiting the Supreme Court judgement against him and the blocking majority in the House of Commons. This paid off on 12 December among Labour Leave voters in the north of England.

Capital rallies against Labour

The centrality of Brexit in the Tory campaign encouraged a debate among Remainers about whether Corbyn was the lesser evil, given Labour’s commitment to holding a second referendum on Brexit. Oborne, for example, a repentant Brexiteer, argued that Corbyn would save Britain from the damage caused by a hard Brexit and would be constrained from going too far in a radical direction by the highly probable dependence of a Labour government on other parties for a majority in the House of Commons.9

Oborne was writing before Johnson’s deal with the EU-27 and the extension of the Brexit deadline, but this didn’t put paid to his argument. The UK in a Changing Europe think-tank estimates that the one-off effect on national income of Labour’s very soft version of Brexit (which would have kept Britain “closely aligned” to the EU Single Market) varies between -0.2 and +0.7 percent of GDP, not massively different from the impact of staying in the EU (+1.2 percent), and much more positive than the two Tory options—a free trade agreement with the EU (-1.1 to -2.6 percent), no deal (-3.2 to -4.4 percent).10

It would seem, then, particularly as the stridently pro-Remain Lib Dems found themselves squeezed (so brutally, in the event, that their leader, Jo Swinson, lost her seat), that a Labour vote would either prevent Brexit or mitigate the damage it caused.

Interestingly, however, this is not what the most sophisticated pro-Remain press concluded. The Economist directly attacked the lesser evil argument for voting Labour, insisting that “if the party were to be elected, even as a minority government, it could fundamentally reshape the British economy, to a degree not seen since Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.”11 The Economist has form as a consistent champion of free-market economics even when this was unfashionable during the Keynesian era after the Second World War.

The Financial Times, however, has been much more nuanced, with its chief commentator Martin Wolf taking a highly critical stance towards mainstream economic policy since the crash of 2007-8. But it too invoked the shade of Thatcher against Labour’s economic programme. Labour’s proposal to introduce free high-speed broadband and nationalise BT’s Openreach subsidiary (denounced as “broadband communism” by a BT executive) sent the FT into a frenzy. “The Thatcher revolution is coming under threat,” it thundered.12 Wolf denounced Labour’s manifesto and the 163 economists who supported it: “In an economy with low unemployment and a current account deficit of around 3.5 percent of GDP, this hugely expansionary and revolutionary programme is likely to trigger capital flight and a currency collapse”.13

Labour’s manifesto, meanwhile, with its central pledge of a ten-year £400 billion investment programme to power a “green industrial revolution” creating at least a million new jobs and designed to achieve a net carbon-neutral economy by the 2030s, caused enormous enthusiasm among its supporters. It would definitely have marked a clear break with the neoliberalism of the past four decades. But “revolutionary”? Labour’s plans would raise state expenditure from 37.8 percent of national income in March 2019 to about 44 percent in 2023-4. Even the Financial Times had to concede that, “under a Labour government led by Mr Corbyn, spending would be lower than in France, around the same as Germany and only a little higher than the Netherlands. All are successful capitalist economies”.14

The investment programme unveiled by McDonnell would have been financed largely by increased borrowing. The conventional objection to such a policy is that higher government borrowing “crowds out” private investors and pushes up interest rates. But this argument, whatever its merits, is irrelevant in a global economy still in the doldrums more than ten years after the crash.15 Even mainstream economists have been canvassing the theory that the advanced economies are suffering from “secular stagnation”, where “negative real interest rates are needed to equate saving and investment with full employment”.16 Central banks have been unable to take the financial system off life-support: their attempts to “normalise” interest rates (ie raise them back to the levels prevailing before the crash) have failed, their inflation targets have generally been undershot, and some (most recently the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan) have resumed “quantitative easing”—ie buying bonds to pump money into the banks and thereby (in theory) stimulate investment.

This situation represents the breakdown of the economic policy framework (based on the quantity theory of money) that has prevailed since the triumph of neoliberalism in the late 1970s and early 1980s.17 The policy vacuum has helped to create the space in which left-of-centre economists and ascendant reformist politicians have converged both sides of the Atlantic on an alternative programme centred on the Green New Deal pioneered by the socialist Congresswoman from the Bronx, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Left-wing academics have gained greater access to policy-making than they have enjoyed for decades.18

Some have been influenced by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), a form of bastard Keynesianism that holds that “monetarily sovereign” states can finance their activities by printing money, and don’t need to raise taxes; so long as the new money generates more investment and therefore higher growth, there is little risk of inflation. Like mainstream neoliberals such as Milton Friedman, the founder of monetarism, supporters of MMT see money as a tool of the state: they don’t grasp the insight common to Karl Marx and post-Keynesians such as Nicholas Kaldor that what counts is not the supply of, but the demand for money, generated by the spending of capitalists and workers, and met these days through the credit money created by bank lending.

Relying on monetary manipulation to finance reforms bypasses the contradictory class relations of capitalist society and ignores the role of progressive taxation as an instrument of redistribution from rich to poor. As the American Marxist economist Doug Henwood puts it: “taxation may not be full expropriation but it’s the next best thing in this fallen world. It is a form, however mild, of socialisation—transforming private investment and consumption into public expenditures”.19

MMT has gained currency thanks to the near-paralysis of orthodox policy-making. And indeed even among mainstream economists it has become common to argue that, faced with economic stagnation, governments should take advantage of very low interest rates and borrow to finance investments that can both upscale capacity and stimulate growth. It is a measure of the hypocrisy of Wolf’s assault on Labour that a few months ago he endorsed MMT as (with reservations) “analytically correct”, and concluded that “proponents of MMT are right that during a period of structurally feeble private demand (as in Japan since 1990) or a deep slump, a sovereign government must and can act… to offset private weakness. There is then no reason to fear the constraints. It should just go for it.”20

But “go for it”—stimulating and transforming the economy by borrowing to invest—is exactly what Corbyn and McDonnell propose doing. In mid-November the Financial Times ran an article with the alarmist headline: “Will Jeremy Corbyn’s Spending Plans Trigger a Crisis for the UK Economy?” The answer the authors found in the City was a resounding No:

The calm in UK government bond markets since Labour last week set out its pre-election plans to borrow to invest—notably in infrastructure—suggests few think the party’s proposals would be difficult to finance given historically low interest rates, even if many think they are not a good idea.

In the 1990s, US Democratic party adviser James Carville said he wanted to be reincarnated as the government bond market because “you can intimidate everybody”, but in Britain’s election campaign it seems that vigilante investors in UK gilts are keeping a low profile… Mark Dowding, chief investment officer at BlueBay Asset Management, summed up the view of many bond investors about the borrowing plans of the Tories and Labour by saying: “The bond market is offering a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a big fiscal expansion”.21

The Marxist blogger Michael Roberts has suggested, in effect, that the relaxed attitude in the bond market is indeed justified by the comparative modesty of Labour’s programme:

Can just one state bank and investment board [that would be set up to manage the new public investments] really be enough to re-direct Britain’s rentier economy into more productive areas for employment? Labour does not propose to bring into public ownership and control the big five banks or the major insurance companies and pension funds. Yet these will continue to provide the bulk of potential investment funding (some 15 percent of GDP compared to the state’s 4 percent, at best). That will weaken the ability of a Labour government to deliver real improvements in investment, services and incomes. Labour’s tax and other measures to redistribute income and wealth from the super-rich to the rest are also very limited. Indeed, although Labour plans to raise the annual increase on spending on the NHS by 4 percent a year, that is still less than under the Blair government and is barely enough to meet the needs of an ageing population. And Labour’s measures will only make a small dent in the extreme levels of inequality.22

Another way of putting it is to say that Labour’s manifesto set out a classic Keynesian programme that sought to use the state to boost investment and to restructure the economy (by moving towards carbon neutrality) without changing the underlying structure of class power. Marxists have long argued that this kind of policy cannot overcome the structural contradictions of the capitalist mode of production.23 But the 2019 election has shown that such a programme is still too much for British capitalism. Labour’s support for a second referendum and commitment to negotiating a soft Brexit did not stop the ruling class rallying behind Johnson and the Tories. Up-market, this has been reflected, as we have seen, in the attitude of serious bourgeois publications such as the Financial Times and The Economist (though neither could quite stomach the logic of their position and explicitly endorse Johnson). Down-market, there’s been the mobilisation of the corporate media (not least the BBC) to rubbish Corbyn and lionise Johnson in a way that we haven’t seen since the Suns antics during the heydey of Thatcherism in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The most “objective” measure of this class mobilisation has been the behaviour of the pound. When the parliamentary crisis was at its height, it would drop on the currency market whenever Johnson seemed to be doing well, presumably because of fears that this might mean a no-deal Brexit. But in early December, sterling reached its highest level since April on the prospect of a Tory victory, and climbed even higher immediately after the exit poll was published on the night of 12 December. The stock market celebrated the next day.

I referred earlier to “the commanding reality of class interests”. In some cases, these are quite narrowly “economic-corporate”, as Gramsci would put it—for example, investors in the utilities (water, power and railways) that Labour had pledged to nationalise, who were planning lawsuits under EU competition law and bilateral investment treaties and creating overseas shell companies to facilitate this.24

More broadly, however, the common front against Labour reflects something fundamental. Although the global economic and financial crisis of 2007-9 demonstrated the failure of neoliberalism, the capitalist class is not prepared to abandon it. Why? First of all, because it has served them so well, again in the “economic-corporate” sense of the huge salaries and bonuses, the share-options, etc from which senior corporate executives have benefitted in the neoliberal era. Secondly, the greater political control of the economy implied by Keynesianism might get out of hand and encourage much greater inroads in corporate power: indeed, Corbyn, McDonnell, and their advisers are socialists and hoped for exactly this kind of transformation over the longer term. Muddling along, which now requires much political management of the economy, but primarily by unelected and thoroughly loyal central bankers, seems like a safer bet for capital.

Why Labour lost

The bosses may tolerate reformist governments, particularly as a way of containing movements from below, but they don’t welcome them. They have been congratulating themselves on having ducked a bullet with Labour’s defeat. So why did Corbyn lose? International Socialism went to press four days after the general election, so this assessment is written amid the heat generated by a crushing result for the left as a whole, not just the Labour Party.

One explanation that won’t wash has been pushed relentlessly by the Labour right, namely that the defeat is down to Corbyn’s weaknesses as a leader and the radicalism of his programme. The problem with this self-serving argument is the general election of 8 June 2017, when Corbyn, campaigning on a manifesto almost as radical as the one he stood on in 2019, succeeded in seeing off May’s play for northern Labour seats and raising Labour’s share of the vote to its highest level since 2001. The answer lies elsewhere.

Four factors stand out.

First, this has indeed proved to be the Brexit election. “Get Brexit Done”, relentlessly repeated by Johnson, was a very clever slogan, calculated to appeal to both Leavers and the substantial number of Remain voters who polls show accepted the referendum result. He was able to channel the growing popular impatience with the endless manoeuvres in Westminster. Meanwhile, the protracted parliamentary paralysis over Brexit had a very damaging effect on Corbyn’s leadership, which was essentially besieged by the Remainers in the shadow cabinet and the Parliamentary Labour Party demanding that he back a second referendum to reverse Brexit.

Corbyn, eager not to cut loose Labour Leavers, rightly resisted this pressure (which McDonnell shamefully reinforced), but the effect was to convey an impression of vacillation. In the event the tortuously negotiated compromise on Brexit—renegotiating Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement but putting the choice between this and Remain to a second referendum—failed either to unite the Remain vote or hold enough Leavers to stave off Johnson’s assault. The Tories were able to channel the widely held objections to trying to overturn the result of the 2016 referendum and to conjure up the prospect of yet more confusion and uncertainty accompanying what would inevitably (thanks to the loss of Scotland) be a minority Labour government.

But, important though Brexit was to the result, it isn’t a sufficient explanation. The Labour vote fell by 10.4 percent in seats that voted strongly to leave in June 2016, but by 6.4 percent in seats that voted strongly to remain.25 Overall, the Tory share of the vote rose only slightly, by 1.2 points, to 43.6 percent. But Labour’s share dropped by 7.8 points, to 32.2 percent—a much higher share than in the terrible defeat Michael Foot suffered at Thatcher’s hands in 1983, but enough, given the collapse in the north of England, to leave it with the smallest number of seats since 1935.

Secondly, there has been relentless opposition to Corbyn from within the PLP—largely in public and hugely amplified by the corporate media. In particular, the extravagantly false accusation of antisemitism against Corbyn came from the Labour right, and probably did the biggest damage to his image. Thirdly, and most predictable, there has been the more “normal” campaign by the corporate media themselves, acting, as we have seen, in line with the interests of capital, to rubbish Corbyn as they have other heroes of the left—Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill in the Thatcher era, for example.

Finally, as Roberts points out, there is the largely ignored factor of the economy:

Usually, elections are won on what the state of the economy is. This election was generally different. But even so, the measure of “economic well-being” index (based on a mix of the change in real disposable income and unemployment rate) suggested an improvement since former PM May lost her majority in 2017. The economy at the level of investment and output may have been stagnating, but the average UK household was feeling slightly better off since 2017, with full employment and slight improvement in real incomes. That helped the Johnson government.26

The Labour campaign sought to counter these factors by a determined ­mobilisation of its large activist base around a social and economic programme that, as Corbyn endlessly repeated, was aimed at working-class people irrespective of whether they supported Leave or Remain. The tireless efforts of thousands of activists in canvassing teams around the country was admirable, and the rallies mounted particularly in the final days of the campaign recaptured some of the spirit of 2017. There will no doubt be much discussion of how well directed this activity was, but this isn’t the main issue. Just as in June 2016 we are witnessing the deep alienation from the political process of millions of working class voters. Then, it led to them voting Leave, now many of them have voted Tory—or chosen to stay at home.27

The lazy left Remainer response is to dismiss them as racists. No doubt many have felt some pull of nationalism and even racism. But this doesn’t cut to the heart of the problem. A recent study by the economist Thiemo Fetzer argues that the austerity policies of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition played an important role in the vote to Leave in 2016: exposure to three main “welfare reforms”—the scrapping of council tax benefit, the Disability Living Allowance, and the bedroom tax—significantly increased individuals’ propensity to vote Leave. Indeed, Fetzer suggests, “without austerity, Remain would likely have won the EU referendum”.28 But, on its own, this doesn’t explain the further step of voting Tory.

The electoral collapse of Labour in parts of the north of England has to be set in a much longer-term context—the erosion of working class organisation and community in the neoliberal era. Take, for example, the former mining communities that went Tory. They have experienced since the defeat of the Great Strike of 1984-5 the disappearance of the coal industry and the absence of any alternative sources of secure and well-paid employment. The New Labour governments of 1997-2010 treated them as vote banks and pumped in public money to keep these communities going. Austerity removed this prop. And, as the old forms of working class organisation shrivelled, anger and bitterness sought expression outside the framework of a labour movement that no longer seemed relevant. So we are still paying the price for the devastation Thatcherism caused when it bulldozed over key sections of the industrial working class—not just the miners, but also steelworkers, carworkers and dockers—during the 1980s.

On election day Aditya Chakrabortty summed up the mood in a Colchester lunch club he had visited a few week earlier:

In one of the country’s biggest Leave-voting regions, most people in this room had voted for the promises of Brexit, and yet had zero faith in them. They would believe the lying £350 million bus, but not its fibbing, blond frontman. They accepted how bad things were, but they didn’t imagine for a minute that politicians would make it better.

This is part of a far more complex, contradictory picture than you are normally given of working class leave voters, and without it you can’t understand the forces shaping this election… First, the EU is almost always a proxy for anger at things happening right here at home. You kicked out at Brussels in rage at the waiting time for your mum’s hip replacement, the number of pupils crammed into your daughter’s classroom, the way you, your family and neighbours always have more month than money…

Second, while the political class define ancient history as what happened last week, voters remember that they have been waterboarded by crisis after crisis. Take Gary, who knew where this Brexit dividend would end up: “It’s going to go to their mates in the City of London.” His remains perhaps the only reference I’ve heard to the financial sector in this entire election, yet it is being fought in the shadow of the 2008 crash and the cuts to the public realm and to our living standards that have followed…

This is what decades of distrust produces. Not magical thinking or unstinting belief in posh-boy fairytales, but a deep and sullen resentment. A nihilism that neither party nor any other democratic institution can even get their hands around, let alone find a response to.29

The only way this erosion of working-class consciousness can be countered is through struggles that rebuild collective organisation and self-confidence. But the level of strikes (as we have discussed at length in this journal) remains abysmally low. And there has been a contradiction about Corbynism. Part of what makes Corbyn such an admirable figure has been his commitment during more than 35 years in Parliament to campaigning activity. He was the MP for the movements. As leader he transformed Labour into a mass party with a hugely enthusiastic membership. But, though this was at least in part an expression of the movements against war, austerity and climate change, it didn’t feed back into them. Instead, the hope Corbyn raised and the resulting focus on elections encouraged a more passive stance (greatly reinforced by trade union leaders eager for any excuse not to organise strikes) of waiting for Corbyn.

Alas, Corbyn isn’t coming. Before the election there a lot of talk about “Corbynism without Corbyn”—of the continuation of his project by others even if Labour lost. That doesn’t look like happening now. The wolves of the Labour right have been unleashed thanks to the scale of the defeat; cheered on by the corporate media, they will try to tear the left apart. The left, with the strong base in an enlarged membership that will be one of Corbyn’s main legacies, will fight back. Labour will almost certainly turn in on itself. This is a pity because life isn’t going to be so easy for Johnson.

First, “getting Brexit done”, as numerous commentators have pointed out, won’t be straightforward. Britain will definitely leave the EU on 31 January. But that’s the easy bit. Johnson still has to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement with Brussels. It will be hard to square his desire to undercut Continental firms with securing access to what is still far and away Britain’s biggest market. German chancellor Angela Merkel reacted to the election result by saying the EU will now have “a competitor at our doorstep”. Brussels will continue to bargain very hard.

If Johnson sticks by his commitment to end the transition period (during which Britain is still in the Single Market) by 31 December 2020, he gives the EU the same kind of negotiating advantage that May surrendered them by activating article 50 so quickly. He may well have to choose between ending the transition without an agreement—another version of no-deal Brexit with all the disruption this may entail—or breaking his promise and extending the transition. My guess is that he would take the latter option, as he did when he dumped the DUP, but there will be a political price to pay.

Secondly, this election has seen socio-political antagonisms starkly expressed geographically—England divided between Remain south and Leave north and Scotland lined up behind the pro-Remain Scottish National Party (SNP). In the north of Ireland, the pro-Leave DUP lost two seats and is now outnumbered by the anti-Brexit nationalist parties Sinn Féin and the SDLP. The conflict between London and Edinburgh will be very hard for Johnson to handle: the more he beats the Unionist drum, the greater the head of steam behind a second independence referendum will build up in Scotland. Despite the SNP leadership’s caution, the kind of explosion that has engulfed Catalonia can’t be ruled out.

Thirdly, Johnson will have to give some body to his “One Nation Conservativism”. We’ve already seen that the Tory share of the vote increased only slightly. Labour was badly beaten, but it still won nearly a third of the vote and it retained its big-city strongholds. The Tories will need to hang on to at least some of the northern seats it won this time. Can Johnson offer the Labour Leave voters enough to hold them in a few years time? He may have shifted the Tories towards becoming a Continental-style far right party, but, as we’ve seen, they haven’t broken with neoliberalism (nor generally have his counterparts in the rest of Europe).

Finally, as Roberts points out:

There is the joker in the pack: the global economy. The major capitalist economies are growing at the slowest rate since the Great Recession. There may be a temporary truce in the ongoing trade war between the US and China, but it will break out again. And corporate profitability in the US, Europe and Japan is sliding, alongside rising corporate debt. The risk of a new world economic recession is at its highest since 2008. If a new global slump comes, then the mood of the British electorate may change sharply; and the Johnson government’s Brexit bubble will then be pricked.30

So the struggle goes on. There will be plenty to resist, as emboldened employers squeeze workers even harder, austerity in all likelihood continues under another name and racists are envigorated by the Donald Trump-like figure returning to 10 Downing St. Above all, there is the looming catastrophe of climate change to prevent. But struggle will have to be accompanied by political discussion. We have had a harsh reminder of the limits of electoralism, even when practised by the most admirable of Labour socialists. The left can recover from this disaster, but it will need to learn the right lessons from it.

Alex Callinicos is Professor of European Studies at King’s College London and editor of International Socialism.


1 Holloway, 2002; see the debate in this journal—Holloway and Callinicos, 2005. Thanks to Joseph Choonara, Richard Donnelly and Camilla Royle for their help with this article.

2 See Webber and Hylton, 2019, for a balanced account that doesn’t spare Morales from criticism.

3 Oborne, 2019b. Shortly afterwards, Oborne gave up his column for the Daily Mail.

4 Jeffrey, 2010, pp214-222; Andrew, 2010, section B1. Andrew’s history of MI5, though generally more apologetic than Jeffrey’s of SIS, has more detail on the dirty tricks involved, including the fact that both SIS and MI5 realised the letter was a forgery within weeks of the election, but didn’t bother to tell the Foreign Office, which maintained that it was true for the next 50 years.

5 For example, Callinicos, 2019b.

6 Barber, 2019.

7 Payne and Giles, 2019.

8 Parker, Pickard, Giles and Bounds, 2019.

9 Oborne, 2019a.

10 The UK in a Changing Europe, 2019, p16.

11 Economist, 2019.

12 Financial Timeseditorial board, 2019a; for “broadband communism”, see

13 Wolf, 2019b; the economists’ letter, published in the Financial Times on 25 November, can be found here, with all the signatories,

14 Giles, 2019.

15 For a Marxist view more sympathetic to the crowding-out argument, see Roberts, 2019b.

16 Teulings and Baldwin, 2014, p142.

17 For a devastating contemporary critique, see Kaldor, 1986.

18 For an enthusiastic account of the British end of this new thinking, see Blackburn, 2018.

19 Henwood, 2019; see also Callinicos, 2019a.

20 Wolf, 2019a. See also the Financial Times editorial board, 2019b.

21 Giles and Stubbington, 2019.

22 Roberts, 2019a.

23 For example, Mattick, 1971.

24 Ford and Plimmer, 2019.

25 Curtice, 2019. Other election figures in this article come from the BBC website.

26 Roberts, 2019c.

27 Lord Ashcroft’s election day poll suggests that only 9 percent of Labour voters in 2017 voted Tory in 2019, while 5 percent of 2017 Tory voters switched to Labour—Ashcroft, 2019. Maybe the Labour-Tory crossovers were highly concentrated in the north of England; maybe abstentions were important in the Labour seats that fell. Despite the “historic” character of the election, turnout actually fell by 1.5 points to 67.3 percent.

28 Fetzer, 2019, quotation from p3850.

29 Chakrabortty, 2019. See also the interesting, and (as it turned out justifiably) pessimistic YouTube lecture by the Canadian Marxist Leo Panitch, who was involved in canvassing in old mining communities—Panitch. 2019.

30 Roberts, 2019c.


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