Face to an incumbent prime minister, Boris Johnson, who had lost every political battle he had engaged in ever since he replaced Theresa May last summer, capitalising on an impressive electoral performance in 2017, in spite of the Cassandras who kept saying that a radical Labour leader could perhaps command the following of the rank and file of the party, but could not possibly convince the electorate at large, Jeremy Corbyn nonetheless managed to bring upon himself the dubious honour of the worst performance of Labour in more than half a century!
The Conservatives won a resounding victory, getting 43.6 per cent of the vote and winning a full 365 seats, up 66 from 2017. Labour, on the other hand, lost close to 8 percentage points relative to 2017, receiving overall 32.2 per cent of the vote, winning 203 seats, with a loss of 42 seats compared to the earlier election. This is a triumph for Boris Johnson, possibly the most reactionary British prime minister since World War II, even granting that Margaret Thatcher was no angel. The irony of it all is, as we shall see in a moment, that the Conservative Party led by this evil charlatan, a rather peculiar combination, achieved this feat as a result of rallying to its side, thanks to the Brexit Party of Nigel Farage, a sizeable part of the working class of the Midlands and northern England, traditionally Labour fortresses. And this despite a left-oriented electoral platform of Labour, promising nationalisations, propping up of the ailing National Health Service, a policy centred on the slogan “for the many, not the few”, which would, under other circumstances, sound like music to the ears of the impoverished traditional working class of Britain. It is this irony that needs to be explained. Only then can one draw the correct lessons from these elections.
In order to understand what lies behind this debacle, one has to go back a quarter of a century. In the reactionary atmosphere created by the long rule of Margaret Thatcher, who defeated the working class movement in the early 1980s and started to implement a full-scale neoliberal programme, Labour itself underwent an elemental process of change. Tony Blair became the leader of the party in this atmosphere and distanced the party from trade unions, evicted the revolutionary groups from the party, and, once he came to power in 1997 after 18 years of Tory government, undertook the implementation of a Thatcherism without Thatcher in the area of economic policy. To add insult to injury, he became the henchman of Bush junior and joined the US assault first on Afghanistan in 2001, then even more importantly on Iraq in 2003. All this, in particular the brazen lies concerning Iraq, eroded his considerable popularity and he withdrew from the leadership of the party a decade after he became prime minister. But Labour had been infested with the liberal virus. The parliamentary Labour party, a great part of the Members of Parliament had become globalists, pro-EU, open to the ideas and practices circulating within the modern well-to-do petty-bourgeoisie, totally divorced from the working class itself.
When Jeremy Corbyn, a decades-long backbencher considered to be a Marxist by the entire party who stood not only for the classical economic programme of labour but, exceptionally, attacked Britain’s imperialist interests and even sided with the Palestinian movement against Israel, was elected to lead the party before the Brexit referendum of summer 2016, this was the overall situation of the party. In other words, Labour was suffering from a profound inner contradiction between the liberalism of the modern petty-bourgeoisie and the politics of the working class, albeit formulated in reformist fashion.
We pointed out immediately after the Brexit referendum (http://redmed.org/article/brexit-burying-end-history) and we will repeat it here: the success of the “yes” vote at the Brexit referendum was, first and foremost, based on the revolt of the traditional working class of Britain to globalism. As of 2019, this working class has, for fully four decades (1979-2019), suffered the destructive impact of, first, Thatcherism and, later, Thatcherism without Thatcher. Britain was also one of the countries that felt the tremors of the Third Great Depression that set in in 2008 in the severest manner. Because the liberal leaders of Labour before Corbyn were pro-EU, in the debate on Brexit, the working class came under the spell of Nigel Farage, the capitalist businessman newly turned politician, leader then of the United Kingdom Independence Party (and later of the Brexit party) and a darling of Donald Trump. Obviously, the pro-Brexit wing of the Conservative Party, led by reactionaries in the mould of Boris Johnson, was also influential in increasing the “yes” vote, but the working class was, at that moment, under the spell of Farage.
The working class is still, in 2019, heavily inclined to Brexit and enraged against the politicians who have been procrastinating for three years after the people pronounced their verdict in 2016. That is why workers voted massively for Nigel Farage in the European Parliament elections in 2018, when the latter created an ad hoc party, astutely named Brexit, which came in first with a 30 per cent share of the popular vote. That is why they followed his tactical summons to vote Conservative in many constituencies in these elections of 2019. So it is Brexit that has sealed the fate of the parties in these elections. Look at the Liberal Democrats, the most ardent self-appointed defenders of the remain position: they lost half of their seats in Parliament and their leader hideously lost her seat to the candidate of the Scottish National Party (of which more below) and is no longer member of parliament.
Although Corbyn himself had held a critical position vis-a-vis Britain’s engagement with the EU throughout his political life, at the head of Labour, he was not able to put forth a clear position on the Brexit question under the pressure of the liberals within the party. The problem needs to be understood very clearly: Brexit split British society, or at least England, between those who enjoyed the advantages gained by the so-called process of globalisation and the relations with the EU (London and the South were the main beneficiaries) and those like the traditional working class who suffered immense damage (Midlands and the north). There was no possibility of holding the middle ground. But Corbyn, under the pressure of the still powerful Tony Blair and his cohort, engaged in a balancing act. He was unable to put before the English working class a progressive, truly class-based Brexit. That is why Labour lost many seats in its traditional heartland, veritable working class bastions, to the Conservatives, who, under Boris Johnson, had become the intransigent advocate of Brexit. The triumph of the Tories at these elections is a contradictory combination of the support it has enjoyed from, on the one hand, its traditional anti-working class electorate and, on the other, the sections of the proletariat who have been ravaged by globalism.
We are not saying this with the advantage of hindsight. This is what we wrote immediately after the Brexit referendum:
“Jeremy Corbyn, who won the elections for the leadership of the Labour Party last year as a sign of the ebullition in the ranks of the British working class and youth, failed the test of the referendum. Although he kept a low profile during the whole campaign period, during the last few days he appeared on TV and advocated remaining in the EU. A journalist commented that he had the voice of a “hostage reading the ransom note put out by his capturers”. Why? Because in the past he had stood against the EU all throughout his life! Now, under the pressure of his party, he had to make the same choice as the English bourgeoisie!” (http://redmed.org/article/brexit-burying-end-history)
Let us point out that Brexit does not imply an insular, isolated Britain, but the integration of the country with the United States rather than the EU. That is why the Brexit debate has been unfailingly attached to the debate on the US-UK free trade agreement. In an age of approaching fragmentation of the world market among economic blocs, Britain is coming more and more under the domination of the wing of the bourgeoisie that opts for the tying of the country’s fate to the US. The winner of these elections is the alliance Trump-Boris Johnson-Farage. Corbyn has lost because he was not able to counter this pro-American alliance with an anti-imperialist, internationalist, progressive Brexit programme. Blair was not able to bring down Corbyn during the latter’s three-year leadership of Labour (Corbyn, when challenged, won a second leadership election in 2017 with an even higher margin), but he immobilised Corbyn to such a degree that, having suffered defeat because of this immobility, Corbyn has now promised that he would never lead Labour at an election any more. To put it differently, Corbyn did not lose these elections to Boris Johnson, but to Tony Blair, the embodiment of the liberal forces that had conquered Labour from within. That is why we have above, next to Corbyn, not a picture of Boris Johnson, but of Tony Blair.
Without these considerations the left cannot draw the correct lessons from this electoral debacle of the Labour left and of Jeremy Corbyn. Explanations that dwell on secondary factors rather than these fundamental class dynamics only imply that a great part of the socialist left is still under the influence of Blairism! If the socialist left still insists on surrendering to the ideas of liberalism, the people will continue to vote for and rally around the Trumps and the Boris’s and the Farages and politicians of their ilk all around the world.
Buckle up, we are entering a turbulence zone!
A host of tremors are now awaiting both Britain and the imperialist system as a result of the British elections. We will only touch upon these in the form of bullet points.
- Boris Johnson is a gambler. He has proved, during his months in office, that in order to obtain better conditions from the EU, he is prepared to march on the path to a no-deal Brexit. The previous parliament prevented this, with a minority of Tory members of parliament joining the ranks of the opposition and leaving Boris Johnson in the minority. However, now he has both a big majority in parliament (365 out of a total of 650 seats) and, even more importantly, a clear mandate from the people. A no-deal Brexit, if it happens, may trigger a profound economic crisis in both Britain and the EU, both of which are already at the edge of the precipice.
- Scotland will leave Britain.The Scottish movement for independence had lost the referendum of 2014 by a very small margin. Now that Brexit has become a prospect only waiting to be materialised, the balance of forces within this historically oppressed nation will necessarily undergo a tectonic shift. Already the results of the elections have given the initial signal for this. The Scottish National Party raised its number of seats in Westminster by 13 to a total of 48. It is now overwhelmingly the first party in Scotland (48 out of a total of 59 seats) and the third party nationwide. However, there is an alternative scenario, which is no better for Britain: having observed the leniency of the supposedly fully democratic EU towards the central government in Spain regarding the use of force and incarceration in order to repress the extremely popular Catalan independence movement, Britain may drop its earlier position of allowing an independence referendum to be held in Scotland. This would necessarily imply convulsions in British political life and clashes of a mass scale on the streets of Scotland. Even the question of Northern Ireland (Ulster) will now be cast in a different light, since this colony of the UK had been enjoying the benefits of a single economy on the island of Ireland, which will now be eliminated, at least partially.
- A powerful attack on the British working class will be set off. This is one of the most ironic and contradictory consequence of these elections on class struggle in Britain. The working class, having been taken in by the nationalistic rhetoric of one wing of the bourgeoisie, will now have to confront the consequences of the free trade agreement between the US and Britain that is in the offing. One simple example of the dire consequences of this free trade agreement: American health insurance and pharmaceutical companies will attack like sharks the historic gain of the British working class that the National Health Service represents. Furthermore, should the US-Britain free trade agreement be successfully signed, this will represent a big leap forward in the process of fragmentation of the World market.
- Centrifugal forces will be boosted in the EU.If and when the impending recession results in the collapse of some economies (in the same manner as the 2008 recession struck the Greek economy, as well as some others), many political forces and social strata will be inspired by Brexit. If this happens in eastern Europe, in such countries as Poland or Hungary, Donald Trump may very well instigate their departure, as the weakening of Europe is an important item on his agenda.
The British working class was the victim of the machinations of a reformist and semi-liberal leadership, despite the personal left-wing views of Jeremy Corbyn. But those who would regard electoral results as the guarantee for stability in the age of the Third Great Depression should beware. That would imply that they are not looking at politics and society through the lens of class struggle, but have been infected by the old virus of parliamentary cretinism.
In order to understand what we mean by this, one need only turn one’s head to the other side of the English Channel. Macron was elected only two and a half years ago, receiving, on the second round of the French presidential elections, two out of three votes. Today, under the blows, first, of the Yellow Vests and, now, those of the organised working class, he finds himself cornered and helpless. For reasons we have explained above, Britain is vulnerable to even greater tremors than France.
The solution is to learn how to speak French. It is the staging of general strikes, workplace occupations, sit-ins and pickets. True, the major political party of the British working class has always been a reformist party. But this national contingent of the international proletariat has a long and rich tradition of trade union struggles. It has had strong revolutionary movements that claimed affiliation to the Fourth International, working inside and outside the Labour party. Most of these have disappeared now. But the tradition of revolutionary Marxism is well-established within the British working class, the intelligentsia of the country and its youth. A leadership that grasps the dynamics of the third wave of world revolution going on under our very eyes can create the conditions for a big leap forward in class organising and struggle.
The solution is speaking French and entering the path of revolutionary organising and preparation.