Simon Hannah argues that Johnson's premiership marks a qualitative shift in Tory - and British - politics.
8 February 2019.
Make no mistake, Boris Johnson as Prime Minister marks a new low for the Conservative Party. Facing the right-populist upsurge, they are abandoning their role as the historic party of British capitalism to plumb new depths of jingoism. This is the party of ‘fuck business’, the party led by a man who plotted with a friend to beat up a journalist, who makes racist comments with impunity, whom so many people have described as incompetent, a man who has condemned a British citizen to torture in an Iranian prison because of his careless words. This is not the Tory Party we knew, the most successful bourgeois party in electoral history.
The Tory Party has been rapidly eroded by the same right-populist social forces as coalesced in the USA as the Tea Party and then took over the Republicans. In Britain, they are more diffuse, but UKIP and the Brexit Party play similar Tea Party roles.
Seeing the party of British capitalism so hopelessly crushed by their own internal contradictions, even I feel almost a glimmer of sadness at how low the Conservatives have stooped. It is too pathetic to watch.
Normally, a period of crisis in the politics of the capitalist class would fill my left-wing heart with hope. But we cannot underestimated how dangerous Johnson will be. Even if his premiership turns out to be a disaster, the fact that it happened at all is a symptom of a political system moving sharply to the right. In 2016, the crowds urged Trump to ‘lock her up’. Now they chant ‘send her back’. Johnson calls Muslim women in niqabs ‘letterboxes’ and gay men 'bumboys'. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer joked approvingly about how 69 immigrants were deported back to Afghanistan on his 69th birthday (one of the deportees killed himself the next day). This is playing politics with peoples lives, playing to the gallery of rabid reactionaries, frothing at the mouth for blood.
This could represent the death throes of Conservatism, though Amber Rudd’s Damascene conversion from Remainer to hard Brexiteer means that – so far – the Tory opposition’s bark has been worse than their bite. With a handful of exceptions like Dominic Grieve, Tory rebels do not appear particularly rebellious. The resignations of Philip Hammond and others might lead to a coalescence of an opposition, but so far anti-Brexit Tories have failed to muster much.
Brexit was – politically and socially – the UK version of Trumpism. Railing against the elites through a campaign that was itself championed and fought by elites, from the posh Tories of UKIP to disaster capitalists like Aaron Banks, the forces unleashed by Brexit have now delivered us our own, bumbling, oafish version of Trump in the shape of Boris Johnson. But behind the Tories lurk dangerous forces. Behind Johnson stands shadowy men like Lynton Crosby and Steve Bannon, and alongside them elected far-right demagogues like Jair Bolsonaro, Matteo Salvini, and Viktor Orban. It would be a mistake to dismiss Johnson as a clown when he is the part of a carnival of reaction, a parade made up of dangerous racists and bigots.
If Johnson calls an early election, it will be to win back Brexit Party voters. This is why so many Tory MPs have backed him: they fear the Brexit Party will split their vote and they will lose their seats. Alternatively, Johnson could deliver a Brexit Party/Tory pact, to deliver the votes. The Peterborough by-election result no doubt planted a seed in their minds: after all, the combined Tory/Brexit Party vote would have blown Labour out of the water. Johnson is their best hope to stop the rot.
This is why Labour members need to be cautious about the recent spate of good polls. Unless they go up dramatically, they might only deliver a hung parliament in the case that the Brexit Party splits the Tory vote. This is not the landslide that would be needed to enact the most radical reforms, especially in the teeth of fierce right-wing populist opposition which is increasingly mobilising on the streets.
And on the left, Labour could well be flanked by an emerging electoral alliance (Unite to Remain) between the Greens, Liberals, Welsh nationalists, and the debris of Change UK. Heidi Allen has spoken out about the importance of firming up an electoral agreement prior to any general election. It might not deliver more MPs for the various parties involved, but it could eat into Labour’s vote. The clarion calls for a Remain electoral pact delivered a narrow Lib Dem victory in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election.
No doubt this is the mood music behind the recent massive shift of senior Labour MPs to the Love Socialism Hate Brexit (LSHB) PLP caucus. LSHB started off as a small grouping of pro-Corbyn MPs who were critical of the leadership’s position on Brexit. Through their determination, they have contributed significantly to the growing shift in the party. As Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and John McDonnell attended the meeting or sent solidarity greetings, Clive Lewis announced to applause, 'The cavalry has arrived!'
And not before time. The leadership’s support for a ‘soft’ Brexit has opened a door for the Labour right to realign and galvanise themselves in opposition to the left.
But the tide is turning in Labour because the soft-Brexit option was publicly put to the sword at the EU elections. Society is polarising whether you like it or not. Corbynism used to be part of that polarisation, but when it came to Brexit, the Labour Party was strangely reluctant to be radical, preferring to sit squarely in the middle and advocate for a direction which pleased no-one. The key thing is for the left not to be hamstrung with a position on Brexit that sees them at the same pole as Farage, Johnson, Trump, and company.
If a General Election is called, then it could well be a struggle for Labour to win. The simple left /right dichotomy of 2017, when an army of young people came out onto the streets to get a Labour government, has been replaced by a messy, contradictory, scrappy fight where Brexit cuts like a knife through the old political divisions.
Labour will clearly need a radical programme, a vision of society transformed. Anything Johnson and Farage favour, we should be against - Brexit, nationalism, reactionary populism, racism, sexism, boorish pro-Thatcherite triumphalism. No more dainty responses aiming to split the difference.
All-out political, cultural, and ideological war is that is required now to secure a win for the left.
If the parliamentary road is blocked by the forces of reaction, then the spirit and energy of early Corbynism will need to be translated into campaigns from below. The student climate strikers show the way. The proposed climate strike on 20 September shows the way. The largely immigrant workers at BEIS on indefinite strike show the way. The brave sailors rescuing immigrants in the Mediterranean show the way.
Even if Boris Johnson’s premiership is short, it will be brutal and nasty. Each move to the right ratchets up the confidence of the far right, who are increasingly making the most vulgar displays of power, both in Britain and internationally. Even if it ends in chaos, it is a chaos that emboldens the far right.
We are living through dark and dangerous times. Now is not the time for faint hearts.
Simon Hannah is a UNISON and Labour activist and author of A Party with Socialists in it: a history of the Labour Left.