“And tomorrow the stock exchange will be the human race”? Reflections On the Election in Britain

With darkly appropriate humour it was on Friday 13th December that British people awoke to learn that Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party had won the country’s general election. A landslide victory, giving Johnson a majority of 78 members of parliament (MPs), ensured that he will be able to enact whatever measures he wishes. We can be sure that this will be bad for the majority of the population, and most especially for those already poor or socially marginalised. The Tory manifesto was short on details, but the party is presently being led from the hard right, and we can expect ongoing attacks on socialised provision of services and redistribution of wealth from bottom to top.

Some attempt might be made to secure the traditionally Labour working class electorate of northern English seats which switched to the Tories by a modicum of regional investment, say, or funding of the National Health Services (NHS). Such things are not, however, in the Tories’ blood and we can expect the overall nature of their programme to be a turbo-charged version of the social sadism that has been unleashed since the 2010 Tory-Liberal coalition’s austerity regime began. The issues to which Labour rightly drew attention – street homelessness, child poverty, in-work poverty, the cruel pared-back state of social security provision, the dire condition of mental health services – will worsen. People will suffer and lives will be lost.

In this short piece I want to explain some of the background to Johnson’s victory, and the defeat of his left-led Labour opponents, and to offer some reflections from a socialist and, as will be clear at the end, Christian perspective. I will focus my attention on England, since that is where this election was won (and lost), but readers ought to be aware that there are significantly different stories to be told about Scotland (where the pro-independence SNP swept the board, making the case for a second independence referendum hard to counter) and about the north of Ireland (where, for the first time, MPs supporting a united Ireland outnumber those supporting union with Britain). It is England, though, and to a lesser extent Wales, where the Tories won their seats, notably in traditionally Labour voting and working class majority areas. It is worth asking why this happened, both for the sake of socialist politics and Britain itself and because there are lessons to be learned elsewhere (the US is the most obvious example) where a reactionary right seeks to appeal to post-industrial working class voters in the context of a culture war.


Neoliberalism, New Labour and Corbyn

As is so often the case, the story begins with neoliberalism. In Britain, the reconstitution of capitalism along neoliberal lines had received a cautious impetus under the 1974-9 Labour government as a condition for an IMF loan. With the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Tories in 1979, however, it found an enthusiastic champion, fully prepared to deploy the might of the state in the cause of the free market. Over the next two decades of Tory rule, the economy was deregulated, services privatised, and the industrial strength of the labour movement sapped. The defeat of the 1984-5 miners’ strike was crucial in this last respect. Deindustrialisation and the fragmentation of formerly stable working class communities followed as the near inevitable consequences of neoliberalism: this was the formation of Britain as it now is, and key to understanding what happened in the 2019 election.

The forces opposing Thatcher floundered. Organised labour was in retreat, and whilst there were brave civil society resistance to particular measures (a notable example being ‘clause 28’, banning teaching about homosexuality in schools), the Tories were in general able to get their way. An important exception was provided by the 1990 poll tax riots, opposing a new and regressive form of local taxation, which helped leaver Thatcher from office. The example was isolated, however, and Tory rule continued without Thatcher.

There are sobering lessons here for the left in Britain today. The Labour Party, meanwhile, suffered a catastrophic defeat in 1983, on the back of Britain’s victory in the Falklands War and a right-wing split from Labour (the Social Democratic Party, or SDP, many of whose leading lights found their way back to Labour in the Blair years). Thus began a long march to the right, informed by the conventional wisdom that it was the left-wing content of the 1983 manifesto that had lost Labour the vote (the parallels with 2019 are striking). The culmination of this rightward shift was the leadership of Tony Blair, on whose watch Labour won a landslide victory in 1997. Labour was then in government until 2010, first under Blair, then under his successor Gordon Brown, albeit winning a decreased share of the vote at each election.

The British Labour Party is always subject to pressure from the wider labour movement: trade unions are affiliated to the Party and have input into policy decisions. As a consequence of this and of broader grassroots pressure some positive measures were introduced by the Blair governments: notably a statutory minimum wage and a human rights act. However, the main thrust of these governments was towards accommodation with neoliberalism, with the state being placed at the service of the market and new initiatives to contract out public services.

At a fundamental level New Labour (as Blair’s Labour Party was known) left Thatcher’s settlement untouched. The uncertainty and perpetual competition of neoliberalism remained the lived experience of millions. In some respects things were made worse, notably by the introduction of university tuition fees, a regressive measure and straight from Thatcher’s copybook. Quite apart from the unpopular 2003 Iraq War, New Labour simply couldn’t appeal to those who needed a Labour government most. Its vote eroded, especially in its northern ‘heartlands’, this fact being disguised by the electoral system. Over the course of its time in government, New Labour lost five million votes. Then came the 2007-8 financial crisis, and the incumbent government was duly punished. Labour lost the 2010 general election and has been out of government ever since.

The election of veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party arose out of desperation with the New Labour era and opposition to the austerity regime of the Tory-Liberal coalition. People joined the Labour Party in their tens of thousands to vote for Corbyn. Many of these were people who would not so much as voted for Labour in its New Labour incarnation. The young were well represented, hit disproportionately by high rents and educational debts this group needed a new politics, a decisive break with neoliberalism. Corbyn’s 2015 victory, and his winning a subsequent leadership election forced by disgruntled MPs on the Party’s right, marked a U-turn relative to Labour’s post-1983 path. No longer would the Party simply accommodate itself to neoliberalism.

This so-called ‘Corbyn surge’ was wonderful, a sign of hope and a real focus of resistance. Yet it was limited. It was the product of desperation, rather than of strength. Working class struggle, as reflected in strikes and other forms of industrial action, remained at an all-time low. Nor was the geographical appeal of the Corbyn movement even. In fact, those areas most ransacked during the Thatcher years, the homes of now-defunct industries in the north of England, were often the places where support for the new left-wing leadership was most patchy. There could have been moves to put this right. There were not, and failure to secure more even support for Corbyn across the English working class was an important factor in the 2019 defeat.


The Brexit Culture Wars

An uneven support base, compounded (it should be added) by an overwhlemingly hostile print media, was one factor in Labour’s defeat. But it cannot by itself have been decisive. After all, just two years earlier a Corbyn-led Labour Party had defied expectations to make significant gains in the 2017 general election. What changed between 2017 and 2019? The answer is simple: Labour’s attitude towards the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU), known as Brexit.

It is one of the odder effects of ideology that there is a level of ambiguity on the British left about the EU, in its 1950s origins as the European Coal and Steel Community an explicitly anti-communist formation, and in its present incarnation the main instrument of neoliberal capitalism on the European continent. Confusion is sown, no doubt, by the fact that the most vocal opposition to the EU in the past few decades has come from the nationalist right, indulging the fantasies of lost empire and opposing, in particular, the free movement of people across borders.

The issue has divided the Tory Party in particular, and it was in an attempt to move beyond those divisions that then Prime Minister David Cameron called the 2016 referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU. The result was a narrow vote to leave the EU (52% versus 48% of voters, on a 72% turnout) and a country bitterly divided. A division within the Tory party had become a division within Britain itself, and all of this entirely in terms dictated by the political right – issues around class and the capitalist nature of the EU itself were irrelevant to the public debate.

That does not mean however that people in areas the industrial decline of which had been on the EU’s watch did not possess some sense that the organisation was hostile to their interests. Many Labour consitutencies voted decisively to leave the EU. Voters in these places were too quickly written off as racist, little Englander, or ignorant. Rarely were they listened to, still less often given a voice in public debate. Polite opinion could little comprehend the desire to kick back at a political and economic establishment that had very little to offer swathes of working people. Appeals to ‘expert’ economic opinion to the effect that any form of Brexit would be bad for growth, jobs, and wages invariably missed the point that these very same experts had failed to foresee the 2007-8 crisis and that the victims of that crisis had no reason to trust them this time.

Labour needed to keep hold of these Leave-voting constituencies in order to win in 2019. Unfortunately what happened next was a culture war. An angry liberal constituency, well-represented within the Labour Party, reacted with a steadfast refusal to accept the referendum result. Ill-judged opinion pieces spoke of the stupidity of voters who had shot themselves in the foot, whilst pro-EU protest marches featured placards demanding ongoing access to French cheeses. An urbane metropolitan middle-class was pitted against a, by implication, bigoted constituency of Leave voters.

This allowed right-wing pro-Leave politicians to present themselves, absurdly, as voices of the people. Former banker Nigel Farage and old Etonian Boris Johnson somehow remarketed themselves as speaking for the majority. Meanwhile Labour, in spite of having successfully campaigned in 2017 on a manifesto accepting the referendum result, caved into pressure, its 2019 manifesto committing to a second referendum on EU membership. Johnson meanwhile adopted the snappy slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’. And that, we would discover, is exactly what a multitude of former Labour voters wanted to happen.


What Should Socialist Christians Do?

I want to end by turning to the question of the contribution Christian socialists can make to the struggles that will now intensify in Britain. There is a relatively strong and influential Christian socialist tradition in Britain so the question has more than personal relevance.

First, we have a particular vocation to be residues of hope. The defeat of Corbyn-led Labour, a project in which so many socialists in Britain and elsewhere, had invested so much tempts us towards dark questions: doesn’t this mean it is all finished? Can even modestly left-wing ideas win over a majority? Doesn’t the future lie with people like Johnson and, even worse, Trump? In part the answer to these questions lies in offering an explanation for Labour’s defeat according to which the left-wing content of its manifesto wasn’t intrinsic to that defeat. I’ve attempted that above. But human feelings are not always susceptible to calculating reason, and it is here that the vocation of Christians to be a people of hope can be of use to the political left.

Hope, of course, is not a matter of walking around with a fixed grin safe in the apparent knowledge that everything will be soon almost immediately – the title of Terry Eagleton’s book Hope Without Optimism is a sobering corrective here. Rather, we trust that, when all is said and done, when the birth pangs of history are played out, the Kingdom will be realised. And this hard-won hope frees us from the despair that can paralyse. Simply living that hope at a time like this can be invaluable.

Second, the Christian left has a role to play in challenging attempts to weaponise our faith by conservatives in a culture war. Britain is not the US, and religion plays a much less prominent role in public life. Still, there is a marked tendency for conservative politicians to appeal to ‘Christian values’ and ‘Christian Britain’. There is much to object to here, not least because we do not want to see our religion used to baptise parties and policies that harm the poor and already-excluded. More dangerous yet is the combination of Christianity and reviving nationalism, particularly in the ongoing context of widespread Islamophobia. Against this potent brew we can only insist that our faith does not, in the final analysis, belong to any country. ‘For here we have no abiding city’.

Simon Hewitt is a labour movement activist and a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds.  His new book Church and Revolution is out with Sacristy Press.


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