The prominent left journalist Paul Mason has rightly been taken to task for his unprincipled attack on senior members of the Labour leadership after the party’s disappointing results in the European parliamentary elections.
But the content of his article deserves a more detailed analysis. He makes the panicky claim that “We have to begin from the facts: the struggle against rightwing authoritarianism and fascism is now the main priority.” Of course, it’s important to struggle against rightwing authoritarianism. But the only facts he references are the large vote for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. He conveniently forgets the utter humiliation of the extreme rightwing Islamophobe “Tommy Robinson” in the Northwest, who slunk off from the count rather than face the tiny vote for him in this working-class stronghold.
Prof. John Curtice assesses the vote as showing the country is equally divided for and against Brexit – so nothing much has changed materially since the referendum in 2016. What has changed is the complete disintegration of the Tory party’s vote: Farage was able to hoover up its disaffected voters as well as those of the dying UKIP he abandoned. The election result is not evidence of a sudden rise in xenophobia: the bulk of the Brexit party’s voters are the same people who always voted for the right.
It got support in Labour heartlands because the statements of a number of Labour MPs gave the impression that the referendum vote would be overturned, allowing Farage to present himself as defending a democratic decision. As Skwawkbox commented: “To working-class leave voters who voted leave because they were sick to death of feeling ignored and discounted – and who feel even more ignored and discounted by media and politicians looking to prevent the enactment of their vote – that message resonated.”
Labour also lost voters to the Liberal Democrats because they took a clear anti-Brexit position. However, it is not clear they would stick with the LibDems in a general election, given their association with the Tory coalition government. Their call for a second referendum obfuscates the fact that the social conditions that motivated people to vote Leave have not just persisted, they have gotten worse.
Theresa May’s tearful resignation as Tory leader marks the collapse of her party’s hegemony in the UK. Her indifference to her own dismal record is not a personal characteristic, but is shared by her entire party. Although the proximate cause is the failure of the government’s Brexit negotiations to arrive at a deal that both factions of the party could agree on, the roots of the crisis go back to the 2008 banking crash.
Austerity after 2010 began to dismantle the core of the welfare state that was the foundation of parliamentary legitimacy and national identity. Oblivious to the social effects of austerity policies, Cameron called the referendum when parts of the UK were already profoundly alienated from Westminster representation.
The referendum unleashed social forces that turned a Tory political project into a constitutional crisis. Cameron originally called it to counter the electoral threat from the anti-EU party UKIP, which was attracting support from the ultra-right of the Tories and its voters who were blaming immigration for welfare cuts. The narrow victory of the Leave vote, however, transformed his attempt to deflect the political cost of austerity into a crisis of governmental legitimacy, and Cameron immediately resigned. The vote cut across party lines, superseded the constitutional sovereignty of parliament, and threw its authority into disarray. The majority for Brexit was thus a signal of the disintegration of consensus, not an aberration or the result of a rise in racism.
Mason has imperiously written off Brexit voters as supporting a project of the “racist and xenophobic right.” But the referendum Leave vote gathered those who were signalling disaffection with the Westminster elite that had devastated their communities. The rhetoric of national sovereignty and “taking back control” had a resonance for many working-class voters who wanted a restoration of the 1950s economy and welfare state, symbolized by the Leave campaign’s cynical slogan of returning £350 million per week from the EU to the NHS.
Mason’s prescription for winning back “socially conservative” voters from ex-industrial towns is “to fight personal insecurity, crime, drugs, antisocial behaviour and organised crime as enthusiastically as it fights racism. It needs to sideline all voices who believe having a strong national security policy is somehow ‘imperialist’. It needs to forget scrapping Trident.” Essentially he holds that the antidote to pro-Brexit views is to return to the failed politics of New Labour, forgetting that New Labour’s record in these ex-industrial towns is as tarnished as the Tories’, since both encouraged the financialisation of the economy that drained resources away from these areas to the Southeast.
What was Corbyn’s mistake? In Mason’s opinion, it was “an attempt at triangulation between two wings of Corbynism: between the demands of an economic nationalist current from the old left, and the internationalist and progressive politics embedded in Labour’s new urban heartlands.” He is attempting to pit the sources of Corbynism against each other, as though nothing new was created out of the fusion of anti-austerity protesters with the legacy of Bennism that led to Corbyn’s election as party leader. One of the fruits of this fusion was the successful 2017 election manifesto. Since then Corbynism has developed creative policies that address how to deal with the power of transnational capital.
It is true that Labour’s position of uniting both leavers and remainers on the grounds of their shared experience of austerity is hard to explain on the doorstep, in the context of a political discourse that drowns out everything but Brexit. In the next general election, a simpler position needs to be developed that places the blame for the realities facing both sections of society more squarely on those responsible. I’m going to suggest: “Tax the rich!” In order to restore and rebuild communities in Britain, the economic elite must be made to pay back the social resources they have leached out of privatization of necessities and fraudulent contracts.
The way to win the war against the right is to campaign on the message: “Rebuild our towns! Rebuild the NHS! Tax the rich!”