Johnson, Corbyn, and post-election Britain

Updated: Feb 14

Seema Syeda argues that Johnson’s Brexit purge has turned the Tories into a party of the far right.

11 December 2019.

I write this article days before the December 2019 UK general election. Some predict a whopping Tory majority, others another hung parliament.

This election will be a turning-point in history: either ushering in the most right-wing authoritarian government I’ve seen in my lifetime, headed by Boris Johnson, or enabling a left-controlled Labour Party with a programme of limited social reform, perhaps in coalition with the SNP.

Whatever the outcome, radical socialists will need to take stock of the new political landscape, and assess the positives and negatives of the campaign.

The political landscape

There is no doubt that the Conservatives have morphed into a far-right party. A pact with the Brexit Party has given the Tories a free run in all Tory-held seats. Old ‘one nation’ Tories, supporters of austerity but relatively socially liberal, are now balking at and in some cases even standing against their former party. Johnson suspended, in one fell swoop, all the moderates who refused to vote for his Brexit deal, replacing them with pliable minions who will do his bidding.

The party is now too right-wing even for ex-Tory prime minister John Major, who is cautioning voters not to lend his old party their support, and fascist street thug Tommy Robinson (real name: Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) is urging his followers to vote for Johnson. This shift to the far right mirrors the direction of politics across the globe, from Trump in America to Modi in India, Orban in Hungary to Bolsonaro in Brazil. What such a party might do in government is terrifying.

Brexit is the proxy for the rise of the far right in Britain. Johnson’s mantra is one thing and one thing only: get Brexit done. It is the solution to every question, it is the message pumped out by the tabloid and broadsheet media in thrall to his agenda, and it is the slogan blindly repeated by his Leave-voting supporters.

It is premised on racism and immigrant scapegoating – used to cohere votes across classes, representing elements of Britain’s socially conservative white population. For Eurosceptic Tories and American capitalists, it is an opportunity to rip up Britain’s protected markets, sell off the NHS, and intensify the exploitation of workers by erasing the bare minimum of employment rights, consumer protections, and environmental standards currently guaranteed by the EU.

Johnson evades scrutiny, is heckled by an angry public wherever he goes, and has delivered a campaign full of waffle and lies – but is fawned upon by most of the mainstream media. Yet he is still slated to win this election.

The Labour Party

The Labour Party, too, has undergone a transformation – but not as complete as the Tory one. Though Jeremy Corbyn has held onto the leadership and the Left controls the party structures, no purge of right-leaning Labour MPs has taken place. There are still many ‘moderate’ Labour MPs and Corbyn-sceptics in the party’s parliamentary ranks.

As well as this, the trade unions – especially Unite and the GMB – wield immense influence within the party, but the leadership and bureaucracies of these unions have barely changed. This places a heavy drag on the more radical direction of the grassroots membership.

Labour is still very much a broad church, and fierce internal struggles continue. The programme Labour might implement, the messages it broadcasts, and the manner in which it campaigns are all constrained by this.

Election campaigning

In the run up to the election, the Labour Party and Momentum have built on their experience of the 2017 election. The ground game and the mobilisation of activists are formidable. Momentum has become more efficient at targeting marginal constituencies, has raised more money than it did in 2017, and has upped its social media output and voter reach.

But it also has to cover more ground than last time. Unlike the Tory Party, which has united Leave voters (support for the Brexit Party has completely tanked as polling day approaches), the Remain vote appears to be split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. (Of course, it may be that many Remain-supporting Liberal Democrat voters would never have voted for a left-led Labour Party, no matter how pro-European; but a large chunk of those who vote Liberal this time will have voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in 2017.)

This, of course, is a consequence of Labour’s long-running triangulation on Brexit. The leadership has backed neither a left-wing ‘remain and reform’ position nor a pure ‘Lexit’ position. It is instead promising to remain in the single market and customs union while keeping immigration controls and dropping hints that free movement of people will end.

This panders to the image of a reactionary white working class, fails to challenge migrant-scapegoating rhetoric, and leaves intact the widespread belief that it is immigration and the EU, not capitalism and Tory austerity, that have created social misery.

In the short term, this fence-sitting could lose Labour the election; in the long term, it helps solidify the grip of the far right on voters and demoralises Labour’s activist base.

Outside parliamentary politics, issue-based protest movements have been building on the streets. Extinction Rebellion continues successfully to disrupt day-to-day-life, gaining publicity for the climate movement and pushing demands which are, by implication at least, revolutionary. Student climate strikers continue to mobilise, democracy protesters continue to march and occupy, and anti-Trump protestors have filled the streets too.

But by far the largest mobilisations have been headed by the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign – led not (as it should have been) by the Labour Left, but by Liberal Democrats and Blairites back from the grave.

This is a disaster for the left as a whole. Any project for real social transformation must be able to mobilise millions of people to defend it and drive it forwards. A truly democratic socialist movement is embedded in grassroots activism: not just canvassing and electoralism, but political education and radical action. The left should be leading the fight against Brexit.

This is where the Corbyn-led Labour Party has been lacking. This is where socialists must build.

Seema Syeda is a Labour activist and co-author of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it.

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