‘It’s in the Air, It’s in Your Bones’: Notes on an Aftermath
These are the early days of an even worse nation.
At least for the most part the Left appears to have learnt that grief is necessary. Where once, after catastrophe, we might have expected many hack injunctions not to ‘wallow’, because despair is a luxury, they are few today. Instead, in the writings, words and silences of shell-shocked activists since Labour’s agenda-shifting, landslide defeat, has been righteously unashamed lamentation. A wretched and necessary solidarity. Stormzy, so recently so eloquent on enraged class hope, now limns dolour as mass political phenomenon. ‘As soon as it hit midnight … it was like a dark cloud, that’s what it felt like. … Even waking up today, you can feel it. It’s in the air, it’s in your bones.’
We must learn to continue while our bones hurt.
Death to hot takes and to dogma. In the introspection of militant mourning, we stress yet again the necessity of humility. Of subjecting not only the world but our own nostrums to ruthless critique.
Granular details and breakdowns are emerging, but we need more, and more detailed, to approach a full analysis. What follow are starting points for analysis and discussion; observations; questions. We do not pretend to be sure of answers.
History plays its jokes, and it is not without malice. We insisted – correctly – that polls should not be trusted, certainly not as prognostication: in this case, they turned out to map fairly well with the final vote, but to underestimate not the Labour vote but the Conservative victory. We insisted that the pollsters were making the mistake of thinking it was 2017 again, and had not factored in our – genuinely vastly increased – ground game, the numbers of newly registered voters, the agenda-setting manifesto we wielded. In the event, it was we who mistook this election for a re-run of 2017.
The degree to which 2017 was an exception to a trend, an outlier, a lost opportunity to inaugurate a new era, or something else, is a vital question, and will be the subject of much investigation. But it is beyond doubt that 2019 was utterly different. Even if very few on the left thought Labour would win outright, a good number thought that it would hold power in a hung parliament. And, crucially, even among the many who thought that the Conservatives would win, most felt that it would be victory of a scale – a majority of, say, 20 or so seats – that would enable us, broadly, to continue with the outlines of our strategy, with corrections of course, validating our understanding of the epoch and its politics. Very few predicted a defeat not merely of this magnitude but of this kind, bespeaking such shifts.
This is not merely a setback: it is the culmination of long trends into a moment of qualitative shift, a reversal of generational scale. A defeat-event, very possibly, comparable in moment (though not particulars) to 1979.
Some, including Momentum in an official (and otherwise appropriately clenched) email, have pointed out that many of the seats lost to the Conservatives are only held with slim margins, that it would not take large numbers to win them back. That may indeed be possible. But even if those salvage operations are successful, focusing on such arithmetic in the face of widespread swings in traditionally deeply Labour seats of around ten per cent or more, risks missing what looks very much like a deeper systemic shift. It also risks a degree of complacency about the government’s ability to shore up its new northern support through targeted, business-friendly interventions. While no one should underestimate the structural stupidity of the British lumpenbourgeoisie, nor the fundamental short-termism of those around Johnson, it would be prudent to assume that a Conservative government with a big majority will seize the moment, and act in an attempt to fundamentally reverse the party’s secular decline. The stance of being ‘anti-austerity’ may no longer be sufficient.
One thing of which we can be fairly confident, even now, is that the actual social-democratic content of the Labour Party program is popular. Public support for tax increases on the top five per cent of earners, for worker representation on company boards, for nationalising of key utilities and of the railways, was solid, sometimes enthusiastic. The NHS, Labour’s creation, on which the Tories are traditionally highly defensive, was overwhelmingly the single largest factor that people cited as guiding their vote. Given this, and given the pitiful showing of the Liberal Democrats, let alone the risible rump of the ‘Independent Group’, the argument from the Labour right that the manifesto was too left-wing to be popular, that the country pines for a centrist leadership, is simply and flatly false. Voters deserted Labour in large numbers not because of, but despite, their program. We must understand why.
We are beyond classic Capitalist Realism. This was not an election in which the Right insisted on ‘steady as she goes’. They advert, rather, to real and important change. But we must understand that the end, or the mutation, of haute Capitalist Realism has not resulted in a mass but a partial and sectoral expansion of social horizons, in contradictory directions. Though the Left has benefitted from the passing of the ‘Fisherian’ ideological moment, it has been in terms of building important but uneven movements, and rigorous hope, particularly among certain sections of the young, but it has not come close to achieving even a mildly progressive mass consciousness. Instead, the Right is effectively hegemonising this terrain with an unstable and highly dangerous swirl of disaffection and protean new nationalism.
To a great extent, 2019 was not one but two elections. Ours – Labour’s – was the election of a generation, mapping out a bright, green, ambitious future, Brexit or no. The Conservative campaign was, broadly, another Brexit referendum, predicated on an appeal to understandable and despairing impatience among those Leave voters who feared – not without reason – that after over three years of Remain agitation they were about to be disenfranchised. We knew that Brexit would dominate the election, but, hard as we tried, we underestimated how difficult it would be to cut through it. 2019 was not, of course, the 2016 referendum redux. Rather, the new, necessarily systemic elements of an election campaign and of party manifestos were all read through the prism of that Brexit-based impatience. Thus the Labour party’s entire manifesto had to overcome the message that the Labour party were blocking Brexit, disrespecting a democratic choice, and causing deadlock in parliament – to which the Conservatives managed to coalesce blame for all manner of symptoms of a decade of austerity. They were in no small measure successful: thus the anecdata of canvassers reporting non-trivial numbers of voters supporting the Conservatives ‘to get Brexit done for the NHS’.
Which is not to impute voters with naivety. Few will be shocked, shocked, when the NHS remains desperate after Brexit. Or, indeed, that more of it is privatised and subordinated to market provision than ever before. Consciousness – all our consciousness – is more complex and contradictory than that. The Conservative promises, in this election more than ever, were coagulated with deliberately curdled public capabilities to trust tout court. Nihilism is not the curdlers’ end: the end is the mass disempowerment that comes with it.
This is what lies behind the oft-repeated insight that Johnson’s brazen and notorious lying hurts more truthful politicians – particularly Jeremy Corbyn, a politician of almost freakish sincerity – more than it does Johnson himself. Hence the astonishing and historically novel nature of this election’s Conservative propaganda, an unprecedentedly ‘chaotic’ sluice of obvious lies, memetic blather, subtle lies, dead-cat moments, bizarre lies, performative viciousness, lies not intended to deceive, sanctimony, lies very much intended to deceive, slander, lies about lies, misdirection, and half-truths. Such chaos is a feature, not a bug, and can serve more than one purpose, in a way that Labour propaganda cannot: for those seeking particular promises – whether with regard to ruling-class accumulation, or social sadism – signal can be picked from noise; for the rest, the noise does not need to persuade. Whether it results in abstention through confusion or disgust or shame, or a fear-based and desultory cross next to the devil you know, it works for the Conservative Party.
And the thuggish and thunderous insistence that Brexit paralysis would end was the loudest signal of all. As well as non-negligible numbers simply outraged by the threat to the democratic choice they had been invited to make, and had made, in the context of (real) political gridlock, precisely in the disempowering confusion of the rest of the noise, the political shitposting of the Conservatives, there will be some who do not have to believe politicians promising to make something move, to be so enervated that, cynically, they will give it a go. Something like this lies behind the widespread consciousness outlined by Aditya Chakrabortty, on the day of the election, among Leave voters who, when asked whether the Tories would use the supposed EU millions to help them, reply ‘’Course not,’ shrugging. ‘They accepted how bad things were,’ Chakrabortty writes, ‘but they didn’t imagine for a minute that politicians would make it better.’
The media has played a notorious role in this election. It is hard to see the reputation of, particularly but not only, the BBC ever recovering. As the shadow transport secretary put it, ‘never in my lifetime’ had he known ‘any individual so demonised and vilified, so grotesquely and so unfairly’ as Corbyn. Even the paladins of the hard, thuggish, anti-Corbyn centre, such as Alistair Campbell, expressed shock at the level of bias. The campaign of smear and defamation against Jeremy Corbyn will come to be studied by scholars of propaganda and the media as an exemplary moment, both in its scale and in its effect. There is absolutely no doubt that this had an effect: Corbyn was, indeed, made deeply unpopular with many voters.
The Labour right, particularly the Parliamentary Labour right, are utterly complicit in this project of vilification – and it must be repeatedly stressed, bear great responsibility for this defeat. (Among the many counterfactuals for which we reach is a timeline in which the PLP got behind Corbyn and his program and staunchly defended him from his traducers.) The impact of their long-term campaign of destabilisation, both overt and covert, through attrition, sulking, whispers, work-to-rule, outright lies, ad-hominem invective, conspiracy and smear, has been devastating. There are few more sick-making sights than right-wing Labour MPs lining up now to express their ‘fury’ at Corbyn for the ‘unelectability’ they strove so hard to pin on him. This is classic bully’s strategy: spit on someone, then shriek that they are disgusting because they are covered in spit.
Stories from the doorsteps are striking: time and again people would express their dislike of Corbyn, but could not express why, in particular. For large numbers of people, the campaign, in other words, effectively made dislike of Corbyn autotelic.
Notoriously, 88 per cent of Conservative Party Facebook ads contained falsehoods, compared to 0 per cent of Labour Party offerings. The impact of the Conservatives’ enormous online ad spend in the closing stages of the campaign will be hard to gauge. Key, however, is that that effect cannot be considered without taking into account the much longer-term campaign, less directed and more diffuse, to anathematise Jeremy Corbyn in particular and the Left in general. Such creation of a set of contradictory and incoherent but powerful ideologemes, a new common sense, takes place by accretion, layering up affect and anxiety such that the content of any claims is of less moment than the certainty that there is, must be, a there there. Social Industries are historically unprecedented in their imbrication of propaganda, social and parasocial relations,‘leisure’ and work time, and embed ideology into people’s lifeworlds and habitus in extremely powerful new ways. Its traditional understandable suspicion of online boosterism or moral panic has tended to leave the Left underestimating the scale and specificities of these, though some recent writing, such as that of Perry Anderson on the ‘mastery of social media’ leading to the fall of Dilma in Brazil, has started to redress this. And it seems clear that a similar mastery – manifesting not in iron control and careful messaging but in the ruthless deployment of its opposite – has been a powerful element in the attacks on the Labour leader and his message. As Dominic Pettman has written, what is distinctive about the social industry is not exactly the uniformity of the experiences millions have on it, but rather the ‘homeopathic parcelling of tiny and banal moments’ of ‘modest – but collectively significant – affects’. This is one reason the effects of online propaganda are so hard to detect. However massified and synchronised our ideological experiences online are, they are also so individualised as to create billions of ‘individual pinhole perspectives on life’.
It has become a commonplace that Brexit has become a floating signifier for many of its supporters, protean and changeable, fillable with all manner of content. The dissonances and ‘staggered distractions’ that constitute the fragments of online experience enable such floating signifiers to synch all the more precisely with tailored individual experience. A similar phenomenon, as is sometimes remarked, is true of the EU for some passionate remainers. But all signifiers can be made to float, within varying bounds, and the Conservatives have fewer scruples and more skills with regard to such enfloatage.
This strategy was an element behind the despicable and relentless accusations that the Labour left in general, and Corbyn in particular, are antisemites. Of course there are very real fears in the Jewish community, and even if they are the results of, as Michael Cushman of Jewish Voice for Labour puts it, a ‘false narrative’ in which specific items of antisemitic or putatively antisemitic behaviour are totalised into an existential threat to British Jews represented by Labour, they must be addressed and allayed. Moreover, the issue of antisemitic ideology and its potential purchase, even among those who believe they reject it, must not be conflated with or reduced to the relatively small number of hardcore antisemites. More broadly, given the demographics and geography of British Jewry and the historical specificities of antisemitism as a mobilising racism in Britain in past and recent decades, the fact is there are substantial numbers of people for whom the smear had traction yet/and for whom both ‘Jewishness’ and ‘antisemitism’ are highly abstract and ‘floatable’ concepts.
As one activist, Luke Pagarani, put it on a perspicacious and distressing Twitter thread:
The real charge against Corbyn is that he fundamentally believes that British/white lives are of equal value with the lives of others. Our opponents wouldn’t put it so bluntly but that is what it has always been about. That prioritisation of British lives must always be assumed. … It is impossible to defend Corbyn against this unspoken charge because it is clearly true. … I think this is also how the antisemitism scandal had such a big effect on people who don’t really care about antisemitism itself. Leaving aside all the people who do care about antisemitism for its own sake for a lot of people Corbyn’s association with antisemitism seems to represent his association with Islam, where Islam in terun comes to stand for the undifferentiated mass of humanity making a claim for equal eminence.
One can take this a step further. Not only does the ‘enemy’ of ‘Jews’, here ‘Islam’, stand for disposable non-Brits tout court in this imaginary, but ‘Jew’, too, is made synecdoche – for ‘us’, for Britishness. This latter ‘identification’ is in fact the purest racial othering, the rendering of real people as abstractions, in a kind of national ego-idealising philo-Semitism – which is antisemitism.
And it represents the quiet triumph and culmination of a forty-year project of the Conservative right. In 1978, the left Labour MP Ian Mikardo described as ‘the lowest of the low’ a campaign waged by the right-wing Conservative policy advisor to Thatcher, Sir Keith Joseph, to enlist British Jews to support the Conservatives hardline anti-immigration policy. Both men were Jewish. But where for Mikardo the ‘ethical traditions of the Jewish community’ meant solidarity with immigrants being attacked ‘in the same terms, almost word for word’ by which racists had previously attacked Jewish immigrants to the East End, Joseph, as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency put it in 1978, ‘cautioned British Jews against identifying themselves with present-day immigrants simply because their own families had been immigrants. … He said that whereas the Jews had assimilated successfully by their own efforts, the present immigrants, from different cultures, were far too numerous to do so’. (It is, of course, both the numbers and the cultures that are the threats, here.)
Jews, Joseph declared, in a breathtakingly telling formula, ‘are just like everyone else only more so’.
Twenty five years after Keith Joseph’s death, the ‘antisemitism’ smear testifies to the success of his ideological project and its imaginary. To the extent that it has had mass traction, it bespeaks in part a fear that Corbynism is a danger to ‘Jews’ qua echt Britain.
All this signification feeds into, and takes place in the context of, the highly regionalised disparities of class consciousness in England, brilliantly outlined by Duncan Thomas in Jacobin. Thomas describes how the disproportionately young and multi-ethnic working class of the south and large cities, despite precarity and, often, poverty, work in proximity both to the ruling class and wealth, on the one hand, and cultures of mass dissent and resistance on the other. In broad-brush terms, the absence of such, combined with the collapse of industry, social institutions and trade union militancy in the erstwhile ‘heartlands’ has tended to obviate the kind of lived experience behind belief not just that ‘radical change is an urgent necessity’, in Thomas’s words, but the certainty ‘that a great mass of people thought the same’ and ‘some kind of collective social reality that made and continues to make this all seem possible’. In those neglected zones, including much of the erstwhile ‘red wall’, not only this mass opposition to but ruling-class avatars of the system itself are largely absent – constraining both the radical consciousness and the class animus that such proximities enable and can provoke. In the rust belts, politicians are a more visible enemy than billionaires, in any case until relatively recently the beneficiary of a bipartisan cult of ‘wealth creators’.
There has always been a working-class Conservative tradition in the UK. The Tories have traditionally commanded a fairly stable thirty per cent or so of the working-class vote – and, suspicious of the collectivities that have sustained its Labourite counterpart, this culture is paradoxically better placed to survive the hollowing-out of communities, if in a hardened and nastier form. One likely effect of this is that among those pushed to defect from Labour, a move to the Conservatives is – to a far greater degree than would be a move to the Greens or to the Liberal Democrats – a move to an established position. There have long been Conservatives within families, among workmates and social groups, and what is depicted in many representations of 2019 as a bad-Damascene moment, an unthinkable apostasy, is in fact for many people a shift to a minority but hardly unfamiliar allegiance, whether as a temporary protest vote – Johnson himself has spoken of such voters ‘lending’ the Tories their vote – or in the longer term. (Willingness to switch Brexit Party complicates this story somewhat, but i) the party underperformed already declining expectations, ii) it has coded largely as an adjunct to the Conservatives, and iii) it is on its way into the dustbin of history.)
Thirty seven per cent of those who switched from Labour to the Conservatives between 2017 and 2019 cited the leadership: only twenty one per cent Brexit. But what does ‘leadership’ mean?
It, too, is a floating signifier. There are many Labour right-wingers for whom criticism of the ‘leadership’ is criticism of the political positions of the leaders. This is simply wrecking, to be treated with contempt.
For many on the left, however, Corbyn’s leadership style has been a real problem. Corbyn’s ‘politics of kindness’ are in many respects admirable, and compelling to some supporters: but faced with the filthiest campaign by the most unscrupulous and ruthless opponents in living memory, shored up by a sclerotic and degraded press, its limits were agonisingly visible. ‘When they go low’, Corbyn advised his staff, on camera, ‘we go high’, provoking howls and misery from watching supporters desperate for someone – it could never be Corbyn – to be let off-leash. It was left to his supporters – in Momentum, on the doorsteps, in the broadcasts of the redoubtable comrades of Novara Media – to spit what salt and fire we could, when we could.
As has been compelling outlined by James Meadway, the campaign suffered from ‘message overload’ and indiscipline, from a touching but heartbreaking faith in ideas over narratives and slogans and simple messages. Everything concrete in the manifesto was good, but there was too much of it, and it was offered in the context described above, when all trust in politicians and politics has been deliberately eroded, and in which a transformative agenda can thus all too easily be depicted as just yet more words. ‘How are you going to pay for this?’ cannot be persuasively answered by reference to the costings. Because what the question means, at least in part, is, We all know such things, and to hope for them, will never be allowed.
And, crucially, dovetailing with the limitations of kindness, the campaign presented no enemy.
‘Come and speak to us,’ John McDonnell said to the angry billionaires complaining about tax rises. We understand why he was playing nice. His position was invidious. But compare Bernie Sanders’ approach to the ‘Billionaire Class’: particularly as the dust clears, and as we and others said previously many times, Salvage holds that not only what was justified in principle, but what was needed tactically, politically, and, as Meadway implies with his insistence that the economy be understood as ‘zero sum’, economically, was for the enemy to be called the enemy.
They paid £500 billion to bail out banks. They have the money. Our society is crumbling, people are starving and sick and dying and furious, because they took the money and because they despise us and do not care if we live or die. We will take the money they do not deserve from them and start to build with it the society we do deserve.
There were twinkles. ‘I’ll tell you where the magic money tree is’, Corbyn said in one election broadcast. ‘The Cayman Islands’. Corbyn’s twinkles are winning. But what was needed was a roar.
Of course we cannot say this would have worked. It would have required Labour to efficiently portray itself as an anti-establishment party, after years of hung parliament in which it had effectively thwarted the government. By 2019, Corbyn was saddled with much of the blame of incumbency, with none of its advantages. But it might have worked better.
Amid the left post-mortems, certain tendencies are emerging.
Perhaps most clear is a cluster of takes from proponents of Left Brexit – ‘Lexiters’ ranging from supporters for leave in principle under all circumstances, those who thought Labour should have campaigned to leave in the first place, to the heavy-hearted remain-supporters who advocated a pro-democratic stance after the referendum. Ian Lavery has suggested that Labour should have tactically voted through May’s deal as a least-bad option when it was offered. As Ronan Burtenshaw puts it in Tribune, one of the strategic mistakes, if not the key, was to stand ‘against the democratic mandate on Brexit’ – the party’s shift between 2017 and 2019 to a second-referendum position. Whatever its particulars, such a shift did not honour the 2016 referendum, and could be understood and depicted as anti-democratic, and in any case would always have been seen as far closer to Remain than Leave. Given the losses in Leave seats, and given that Labour’s Brexit position gave Johnson space to audaciously position himself as pro-democracy, working in the interests of the people, and to position Corbyn as their enemy, there is a clear intuitive sense to this position.
Seeming to countervail it is the fact that, according to Datapraxis’s recent breakdown of voting patterns, ‘a larger number of Labour’s 2017 voters seem to have switched to other Remain parties’ than switched to the Conservatives – 1.1 million Labour Remainers to the Liberal Democrats, Greens and SNP, and as many as 250,000 Labour Leavers thereto, also, as compared to up to 1 million Labour Leavers to the Conservatives, by some way the majority in the heartlands. On this basis, some Labour Remainers, again, from left and right, and with varying degrees of criticisms of the actually-existing EU, are suggesting that an earlier decision by the leadership to support a second referendum much sooner would have been more effective electorally in 2019.
But unaccounted for in the Datapraxis report, as it readily admits, are the abstainers in the 2019 election: ‘[h]undreds of thousands more may have stayed at home’. Indeed, according to the latest Lord Ashcroft poll, the number of 2017 Labour voters who did not vote in this election dwarfs the switch to any other party. Pro-Leavers can very reasonably infer that the sum of those who switched allegiance and those who abstained due to Labour’s move to a second referendum likely exceeds those Labour Remainers who voted Lib Dem. That thus, allowing that this is all least-bad-options territory, the first referendum should indeed have been honoured.
The fact is that there are serious limitations to all such hindsight wisdom, on all sides.
One is confirmation bias. Grace Blakeley in Jacobin rightly criticises the Labour leadership for ‘vacillating’ over Brexit, but – admirably, given the inadequacy of data yet available – notably restrains herself from extrapolating from that to suggesting that sticking with a left Leave, a position she has articulated elsewhere, would ‘therefore’ have been electorally preferable. Not all commentators, however, are so restrained or rigorous about ‘deriving’ their already-held retrospective ‘solution’ – on either side – from the contested and incomplete data. But if the task is to analyse why Labour lost, and how it did so, then as far as possible not only points of principle but pre-existing druthers must be bracketed.
Salvage has always agree with the Lexiters that the EU is a neoliberal organisation, but contested that it follows that we should automatically always have been pro-Leave. Going into the referendum, our position – shared, we believe, with many on the left – was that it made little sense to be pro- or anti-Brexit in principle, because what was on offer was not an abstract Brexit but a Brexit in a particular political conjuncture overwhelmingly controlled by the hard right. Conversely, we were suspicious of the room for radical manoeuvre within the EU that the Remain-and-Reformers held would be available, and given the EU’s border barbarity and crushing of Greece – hence our plague-on-both-houses position in the referendum. Of course this by no means guarantees objectivity or rigour now: we have been wrong about much, and will be wrong again. But in terms of post-factum analysis of this appalling result, we can at least be confident that with regard to the party’s – clearly flawed – Brexit position, we are not falling prey to confirmation bias in one or the other direction.
Everyone can agree with Blakeley that the vacillation, the late decision-making, the palpable uneasiness with which Brexit policy was decided, Corbyn’s reluctance to commit to campaigning for one side or another in a future referendum, hurt the party badly. There were, of course, reasons for such hesitation, and it would be unfair to ignore them: the schism was very real and deeply divisive and destructive to the party. But the leadership’s ambiguity now looks pretty clearly not to have been constructive at all – rather the opposite. The least-bad of those bad options would surely have been to decide on a position earlier, to defend it full-throatedly.
But the fact that Brexit was the key variable and problem does not mean that it had a solution. Decide the policy earlier, certainly: but either way you decide it and no matter how early and how nimbly and how aggressively you defend it, there would have been cascading effects all the way down. In every case there is at least a reasonable argument that the cons would have outweighed the pros.
Retain Labour Remainers by supporting a second referendum much earlier, and make an impassioned and articulate case to Labour Leavers to stay with you on the grounds that the Leave on the table is in fact a wedge for Trumpian neoliberalism, a sizeable proportion of the latter might come on-side, perhaps enough to avoid this electoral melt-down. But given the long-term systemic collapse of Labour in the heartlands, which was already articulating in Brexit terms, there is every reason to be suspicious of this.
Retain those Leavers by accepting the referendum result early, and argue with passion to Remainers that as democrats we have no choice but to do so, and that the task now is to forge policies as radical as possible and a Brexit as positive and anti-racist as possible, perhaps large enough numbers of remain-supporting Labour voters, particularly in London and the south, would be persuaded. This seems at this point, with the clear-sightedness of hindsight, to have been probably the least bad-option. But even campaigning for a ‘progressive’ and anti-racist Brexit from the day of the referendum result is not without its own risks, particularly given the relative weakness of Labour tribalism among young metropolitan Remain voters offered the options of other pro-Remain parties, and given that floating signification of ‘Europe’ among many in that cohort. And bearing in mind that we could not take the Leavers for granted either – as Meadway points out, ‘[w]e were losing leave-voting seats like Mansfield already in 2017’, before the turn away from the referendum result.
And let us not forget that such a position would only have provoked even more attacks from the pro-Remain Labour centrists, causing chaos,possibly the further loss of MPs for Corbyn in the interim, if not another leadership challenge that would have done even more damage to the project. And even with such a position it would still have been possible for the Conservatives to paint Corbyn as an obstacle to democracy if his party had still voted down May’s dreadful deal.
In some principled Lexiters, no matter how judicious and careful they are about the analysis of class in the abstract, is in their pro-Brexitism a discernible nostalgia for the very traditional, ‘cultural’ or ‘income-based’ theories of class they would rightly criticise in others. Ash Sarkar persuasively contested John Curtice’s argument that Labour had become a party of the young rather than of the working class by pointing out the changing intersections of demographics, employment and income, to insist that his was a category error. And yet there are clear strains of such a position in Burtenshaw’s claim that ‘[a]s party memberships exploded in London and the South East, they were often stagnant in the very “heartlands” we lost … Labour lost not because it was too much of a working-class party, but because it was too little of one, in too few areas’. Of course, we would never disagree that it should always be more of a working-class party in more areas. But missing from this is the sense that the explosion of membership in the south might also be in substantial part of the working class – but a working class different from the traditionalist horny-handed-sons-of-toil image. This implicit culturalist workerism becomes explicit in Philip Cunliffe’s description, on the podcast Aufhebunga Bunga, of what he perceives from the Labour Party as a ‘shift towards a particular middle class, which is to say academics, cosmopolitan-minded academics, pro-EU areas of the country, and students’: to be a ‘pro-EU area’, seemingly to be ‘pro-EU’, is here definitionally to be middle-class, a position both circular in terms of justification for Lexit, and idealist in terms of theorising class. Missing, to go further, is any understanding of how the pro-Remain affiliation of many of these new, yes, in large numbers working-class, Labour members and supporters, is a class-inflected position. Such a position reflects the nature of class, culturally, politically, economically, professionally, as they experience it, no less than do the pro-Leave inclinations of a worker in the heartlands.
The point is not that one or the other of these is necessarily ‘correct’ class-for-itself class consciousness: it is that the Manichean Lexiter positing that Leave was, when you get down to brass tacks, the ‘real’ class vote, effaces the class consciousness of the multi-ethnic southern and urban working class – and any strategy to win back the heartlands that does not treat that other constituency as no less valuable, not ‘really’ working class, is ultimately nostalgic.
Relatedly, given that the key axis of contestation around Europe was always going to be immigration, the only way a ‘progressive’ Brexit could have been forged that would be acceptable in principle, let alone to the multi-ethnic left Remainers and abstainers like us, would have been to retain free movement after Brexit – or, even better, to expand it beyond Europe’s borders. And it is moot whether that would have been acceptable to large numbers of Labour Leavers. This is so whatever the stated concerns behind Brexit. The hard Lexiters like to point out – correctly – that attitudes to immigration have been softening over time. But their implied or stated conclusion that ‘therefore’ the Brexit vote was disentanglable in the past or future from racist immigration positions is wildly tendentious, overestimating the convergence of objective and subjective racism, the protean nature of immigration in the capitalist imaginary, the speed with which racism can be and has been whipped up, and the flotation of the Brexit signifier.
To repeat, none of this is to say that earlier, surer-footed respect for the referendum result, or even, just possibly, in similarly unapologetic and radical fashion, support for a second referendum – definitely wouldn’t have worked. It is to say that either might well not have, and that the implication that with this One Weird Brexit Trick the Labour Party could have ‘solved’ the problem of the 2019 election is profoundly unconvincing. Just because you can correctly diagnose a problem does not validate your proposed solution – nor even the assumption that there is any solution to be had.
This election went catastrophically wrong. There are certainly – above all in terms of leadership style and electoral tactics – things that clearly should have been done differently, even given the same circumstances, and those lessons we must learn. But that things went wrong does not mean there was, necessarily, a way they could have gone right, or even much less wronger. Everyone sensible on the left has long been talking in terms of lose-lose, of least-bad-options, with regard to the Labour Party and Brexit. As we continue our analysis, we must be open to the possibility that one lesson of this election might be that there was, in fact, no non-catastrophic option available.
It is possible that this would always, no matter what Brexit position was taken, when and how, have been the death knell of the parliamentary road to survival.
What will happen?
The Labour Party, for all the scale of its defeat, still has a very large and overwhelmingly left membership. That membership will fall substantially after this rout, but it will remain large, certainly for a while. Good: there are ugly battles coming within the party.
The PLP remains overwhelmingly hostile to a left project. Given the weight of the membership, and their fidelity to some kind of Corbynismo, it is extremely hard to imagine an openly centrist candidate for leadership winning. Much more likely is a battle between the left and something akin to, or explicitly, ‘Blue Labour’, that appalling communitarian formation with which the party right can work, which, indeed, cleaves to the right on foreign policy and towards socially conservative ‘traditional’ working-class positions on issues such as immigration and crime, while rejecting neoliberalism and austerity for a certain patrician welfarism.
Blue Labour, having fallen out of vogue under Corbyn, has been ratcheting up its presence again. It is a mooncalf Labour riposte to Phillip Blond’s once-fashionable ‘Red Toryism’, and can seem risible or sinister depending on the context. The speakers’ list from their 2016 event includes the unconscionable (Rod Liddle), the preposterous (Claire Fox), and the overrated (John Milbank – both Red Toryism and Blue Labourism were infatuated with the ‘Radical Orthodox’ theologians, most of whom combined the least interesting aspects of Anglicanism with the least-persuasive aspects of Catholicism). But this is an authoritarian tradition. Its website barks its (frankly terrifying) motto: ‘Work. Family. Community.’
Among the various names being thrown around, the likely chosen leadership candidate of Blue Labour – behind whom the right of the party of various other factions and wings would almost certainly rally – is another name on that 2016 list: Lisa Nandy MP. She looks likely to face Rebecca Long-Bailey for the Corbynite wing (although at the time of writing, Clive Lewis appears to be contemplating a run as the soft-Corbynite option). That choice would be stark: the left must and will mobilise to support Long-Bailey. And at the current (extremely early) moment, Long-Bailey would be the front runner.
This will likely be a very unpleasant fight. The left are numerically dominant but demoralised, the right both angry and (relatively) confident, and, as we have recently seen, should there ever have been doubt, they will be prepared to fight very dirty.
It is striking that some from the party right, like Caroline Flint, have talked up Long-Bailey. In part this is because the Labour right’s obsessive focus on Corbyn in particular (they are the Corbyn-cultists, though in their holy writ he is The Beast) may strategically hamstring them. A more worrying possibility is that they believe that Long-Bailey will be either more malleable or more palatable. Certainly there is no possibility that they will be sanguine about anything approaching Continuity Corbynism in political terms, so should Long-Bailey (or someone else from the left) win, either they will be subject to a wrecking operation as was Corbyn, or the right will fight very hard to ‘turn’ or ‘restrain’ them. The role of the left must be not only to help the left candidate win, but to keep them left when they do – indeed, to push them lefter.
This is not about purity politics: Corbyn himself and his circle made various compromises on various issues, and our openly stated disagreement on these issues did not mean we flounced away withdrawing our support for the project. Compromise is inevitable. But the left will be embattled, and understandably eager to find ways of working with a party establishment hostile to their politics. Much of the ‘Corbynite’ wing, including even Long-Bailey, are slightly to Corbyn’s right, particularly on international questions, and under such pressure, beyond the possibility of simple defeat, there will be a constant danger of compromising to the point beyond which the Labour party is not a vehicle worthy of support.
We are a way from there. But we must be ready for that horizon, to steer away from it. We must formulate our red lines and be watchful for them, fighting the inevitable, long-term, concerted attempt to degut Corbynist social democracy, whoever is in charge.
A hard right Conservative party is rampant, and fascism will rise. Anti-racist and anti-fascist organising is a matter of urgency. Attacks on BAME people, Eastern Europeans, Jewish people, and other minorities will likely increase. (For the forthcoming rise in antisemitism, which will be driven by the fascist right, large sections of the commentariat, and the Conservative Party, will continue to attempt to blame Corbyn, for the next couple of years at least. This, too, we must contest, and harder than before.)
A confrontation over the secession of Scotland is now inevitable. The departure of Northern Ireland from the union, in the slightly longer term, is probable.
Johnson’s Conservatives will likely push ahead with their now-hinted-at agenda to ‘reform’ the civil service and indeed the machinery of the state, make them more suppliant to the ruling party. The BBC and the media in general will continue to spiral into crisis. Those within the Conservatives who have long been dedicated to the BBC’s privatisation will be emboldened (and it will be hard to muster leftist sympathy for the institution that has performed such despicable and appalling work in this election. Our defence of public-service and public-sector broadcasting must be combined inextricably with a non-sentimental analysis of what has gone wrong with – indeed, what was ever wrong with – the actually-existing BBC).
The move in the direction of an authoritarian right Conservatism, coloured by certain Modi-ite elements of ‘managed democracy’, is a function of political victory in the context of structural weakness. All the long-term secular problems and crises that beset the Conservative party, of which we and our comrades have written before, remain in place. The long- and even medium-term management of capitalism is subordinated to rentiers and short-termism: the parasites are in charge of the dying animal. Profit rates are weak. Political, economic and cultural signs of the sclerosis and decadence abound. This phase of the crisis of capitalism, inaugurated by the financial crash of over a decade ago, has not been solved: recovery is weak and sluggish and highly unstable, and not predicated on anything approaching a shift in regime of accumulation.
Some on the left take comfort in the belief that Johnson’s Conservatives’ rule will thus be highly unstable, and unable to win over the working class from its traditional allegiance in the medium term.Johnson, in this model, will not have the option of making material offers to the working class as a means to establish hegemony, as did Thatcher, with, for example, the expansion of home-ownership. Instead, all he has to offer is what Du Bois called a ‘psychological wage’ – some symbolic, ideological offerings.
It is certainly true that this Conservative party has less room to manoeuvre, fewer resources, than did Thatcher in 1979. However, two very important caveats must be stated.
The first is that much of the left has tended to underestimate the power and potential longevity of just a psychological wage. Not to mention its particular appeal to those who already feel they have lost a relative advantage that they associate, unconsciously and otherwise, with some form of ‘whiteness’. And, indeed, one of the ways such a wage can work, particularly absent material improvements, is by increasingly extreme iterations, which means increasing barbarity. And thus we circle back to the likely increase in fascism, without any necessary optimism about the brevity of its hold.
The second is that while they will not be Thatcher’s, Johnson will have access to material resources. It is in fact perfectly possible, even likely, that Brexit will lead to an economic uptick, even – given the desultory current state of the British economy – a minor boom. This is of course unlikely to address the longer-term problems of the economy, but it could increase the tax base and levels of investment in the short term.
It is also crucial to remember that after ten years of austerity, the new normal in terms of what the state will offer, of everyday civil society, particularly for the young, is so degraded that it will likely take far less of a material offer than at previous times to actually register in lived experience. What Johnson is offering the NHS, for example, does not come close to what it needs, nor to making up for what austerity has done to it. But that does not preclude it, inadequate as it is, registering as an improvement, including to a section of the electorate who have never before seen anything improve.
And finally, for all that the left has, rightly, been stressing that it is a right-wing iteration of the Conservative Party that has won, that there is still the possibility of the Rees-Moggian nightmare of Singapore (or Blade Runner) by the Thames, we should listen when Boris Johnson insists that his is a One Nation Toryism. Not, to be sure, that it is, or could be, the one-nation-ism of Harold Macmillan and the postwar compromise. It cannot, and he would not have it so if it could. But it is certainly not beyond the wit of a canny and intelligent politician – Johnson is both – to choose to mitigate his hedge-fund economics with some investment. Particularly at a time when interest rates are so low, he might even borrow so to do.
None of this is to gainsay the observation that the material aspects of a hegemonising process will be harder for the Conservatives to deploy than in the past. It is, however, to say that it is hardly impossible that they might do so, with all the deeper and longer-term shifts in political allegiance that might entail.
In which case, 2019 will indeed be an epochal event.
Countervailing which is the incredible decadence of the ruling class.
Even with the Labour Party distracted with its own battles, quite probably for the whole of the forthcoming parliamentary term, there has rarely been an administration so ripe to collapse than this one. The ‘quality’ of the ruling class, within its own terms of skill, rigour and vision, has been degrading for decades (here there is a convergence of the conservative and radical critiques of the ruling class itself). We are ruled by an unstable and mutually co-constutive clique of braying spivs, bigots, and faisandé nostalgists. Every bit the ‘reckless opportunists’ that Aeron Davis eviscerates.
Johnson himself is canny, yes, but he is also lazy, supremely arrogant and reckless, and more than capable of steering his own ship into rocks. Such times as these are not only beset by morbid symptoms but are highly susceptible to contingencies, clinamina, the political swerve. There is a 100 per cent certainty of the most baroque scandals emerging in the Conservative administration, and a near certitude that some of these will involve Johnson himself. At this point, it seems at least as likely that Johnson’s tenure will be brought short by Johnson himself as by some enemy.
We can but hope. And indeed, as with the fag end of the Major administration, that the subsequent national disgust goes some way to rendering the Conservatives as toxic as they deserve to be, and reverses some or all of Labour’s reverses.
Whether or not that occurs, and no matter how appalling are the economic and political results of Brexit itself, the simple fact that it will soon be set in motion will free up political bandwidth. That is not to say that Johnson will in fact Get Brexit Done – he will not. A relatively painless and swift deal with the European Union may be obtainable, but seems unlikely while the European Research Group can eliminate the Conservatives’ majority by voting against such a deal. It is true, however, that the fact of the Brexit snarl has been desperately damaging and sapping for socialists. And – though in circumstances and with likely effects very, very much not of our choosing – being in a post-exit-commencement timeline will offer a certain relief, and space to give other issues the focus they deserve.
That relief is short-lived, of course, when one considers what those issues are. Foremost among them being the climate catastrophe.
Barring extraordinary events, and even allowing for the frankly unlikely possibility of the Labour Party being poised to win back control by the next election, that is not for five years. Which, given that traditionally conservative estimators have been talking in terms of ‘ten years to save the planet’, is five years we do not have.
In these terms, in terms of the lost inspiration that a Corbyn victory would have been, Boris Johnson’s victory is a calamity not only for Britain but for the world.
We must analyse. We must learn how to be activists with those aching bones.
We must take seriously the possibility that this is indeed a systemic event, with all the lacunae in our understandings that would bespeak. We need to return and enrich our theories of political consciousness, of ideology and propaganda, nuanced for and in these online days. We need to revisit theories we may have dismissed too fast, and focus less on what is wrong about them than what they get right, that we missed. If we have not just witnessed ‘manufacturing consent’, for example, it was surely at minimum the manufacturing of deep mistrust, from which, not consent, but acquiescence may follow. We must take seriously the geographic and generational schisms in the UK as co-constitutive of class, finally break with the implied nostalgia of working-class traditionalism, and instead focus on how the specificities of different working-class experience does not justify a culturalist definition of class, but urgently necessitates an understanding of distinct working-class cultures, enabling and constraining.
The negotiation of electoral and extra-parliamentary activism remains key. Bromides about ‘real politics being in the street’ are profoundly inadequate. Which is not to say that politics do not occur in streets, and workplaces, and trade unions: they do. And for at least the next five years at least, in our actions on racism, austerity, on climate, on pay and conditions, we will have to learn again how to organise after crushing defeat.
As long as the radical left sees any hopes in the Labour Party, electoralism, certainly very far from being the be-all and end-all – as we on the extra-parliamentary, the ruptural, the far, the revolutionary Left know – is necessarily an element of an overall radical strategy. But there is absolutely no quick fix to what has happened electorally, to the loss of the ‘red wall’, to the turning-away from Labour in the face of years of incompetence and arrogance and inadequacy and remoteness of local government, of, all too often, Labour councils, who cannot even organise efficient bin collection.
To win elections in these places, we must stop thinking electorally.
Rebuilding trust with voters who see a Labour party who stood in the way of their ‘taking back control’ will be long and patient work. Doing so without losing the trust and enthusiasm of the hundreds of thousands of activists who were involved in the most energised and radical campaign for a Labour government is essential. We will need a revived labour movement, which will require serious involvement in our unions to focus their priorities on the task ahead of us, to rebuild from their collapsed base. And in these ‘left-behind’ zones? We, the Left, in the Labour Party and beyond it, will need to be and be seen to be – as the Labour Party has not been – on the forefront of local campaigns and to be part of the social fabric. To listen. To take no vote and no opinion for granted. To ‘build’ ‘electorally’, do unglamorous, necessary work. Fight the effects of this government, not least with breakfast programmes and food banks. Join the campaign to save the local hospital. Recruit 12 people. Keep at it. Build networks. Keep going. For years. Save a youth centre. Become community councillors. Build more. Make sure the bins get collected. Take minutes. Support striking cleaners. Open a new youth centre. Join committees. Recruit.
Repeat in 150 towns, for ten years.