Regardless of the entirely reasonable cynicism, many on the far-left might have of the Labour Party as a vehicle for a post-capitalist transformation of the UK the general election results have had a profound impact on the left. At an event, I went to recently various radicals from anarchists to Trotskyists glumly reflected on the results. To many, it may have seemed like a refutation of one of the few attempts in recent political history to truly break with the neoliberal consensus and begin to develop a wider-reaching transformative economic and social project.
Whilst I’d definitely concede to some degree of disappointment, I still remain positive somewhat for a post-capitalist future. Over the last couple of days, I’ve been poring through different analyses of the general election and talking to various people about the results. One of the major dividing lines that has emerged in many analyses that have written has been Brexit. In the last few posts, I’ve wrangled over my position on the monumental vote in 2016. Whilst I’ve previously espoused plenty of critiques of the EU project and the urgent necessity for reformation. I was somewhat split over the best way to respond to the vote. One thought, that has solidified in my mind is that something akin to a Norway Plus deal or Common Market 2.0 would have most likely been the best way forward for Labour.
Curiously this has attracted plenty of acrimony among friends and colleagues who accused me of courting rather than pushing back against a reactionary project.
My reasoning is however somewhat more complicated, firstly I do not believe that Brexit would be beneficial for working people in the UK. Not only because of the potential economic ramifications of removing the UK from a tightly knit trading relationship with 27 different countries or disrupting the lives of EU nationals working in the UK and UK nationals working in the EU however I do recognize that Brexit was the symptom of a growing malaise partly linked to widespread economic deprivation in the UK’s post-industrial heartlands, (https://tribunemag.co.uk/2019/07/has-labour-lost-the-north) and partly from a continuous dealignment from mainstream political parties who did not appear more representative of the populace.
The broader project to correct these issues will require much time, investment and effort. Not least to ensure they’re attributed to their correct causes, namely neoliberal capitalism and austerity. However, my thoughts were that this pivot would require far too much time, and in the interim, the conservatives had managed to create a message which cut through the noise to speak to a considerable portion of the populace who were already tired of what seemed like an endless debate over the UK’s exit from the European Union.
The excellent blogger ‘Another Angry Voice’ also made some excellent comments about the changing nature of post-industrial town demographics leading to a situation where those who, broadly speaking are asset rich tend, to have formed a greater part of the voting population that the traditional labouring classes. Similarly, issues around the lack of opportunity caused by a lack of investment have lead to many of those remaining to move to more metropolitan centres.
Whilst I’m somewhat reluctant to blame Labour’s losses on the media, as it seems too easy an escape for a project that in truth, probably tried to cover too many bases switching from one cause to another, the ill-thought-out (if ethically sound) attempt to seek justice for the WASPI women being a clear example of this. It cannot go unremarked that much of Corbyn’s perception and the perception of the wider leadership appeared skewed by a media campaign that stretched across several papers and even papers that had in the past been somewhat predisposed to left-wing politics appeared to some extent reluctant to back Corbyn with the New Statesman remaining neutral and the Guardian choosing only to back Corbyn the week of the election having remained fairly lukewarm on their coverage so far.
In many ways, I saw this as a quintessentially post-modern dilemma in line with Baudrillard’s conception of the Simulation. Brexit, the signifier, had become a stand-in for self-determination, national reinvestment and positive economic and social transformation. However, what has been promised seems unlikely to deliver this with the Conservatives public spending capped at around 2.9 billion (compared to the 83 billion pledged by Labour and the 35.6 billion pledged by the Liberal Democrats https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2019-50545673). The Conservatives could be counting on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) (http://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/uktpo/publications/not-backing-britain-fdi-inflows-since-the-brexit-referendum/) to boost the overall levels of investment in the UK however this has shown some signs of wavering recently with Germany attracting a higher level of FDI. This could potentially change with a break in regulatory alignment however it’s not yet clear whether that will be the case. In terms of social transformation, the last 9 years of the conservatives have seen wages still not recover to the same levels they were at in 2008, a rise in foodbank usage and an increase in child poverty which appears to show little sign of abating despite record low unemployment.
The question remains whether Johnson will be able to hold on to several of his new constituencies once the issue of Brexit is resolved. I say resolved, the withdrawal bill is in many ways only the start of the process which will conclude late 2010 with the Conservatives needing to strike a free trade deal with the EU during this time period, however, it’s unlikely this bureaucratic wrangling will be the subject of much speculation given that Brexit as a way of fundamentally transforming the UK’s relationship with Europe rather than ending or continuing it has not typically been of much interest, partly perhaps due to the binary nature of the referendum choice and the more hardline positions taken by the likes of The Brexit Party, The People’s Vote campaign and the Liberal Democrats which rather than deepening the engagement with the wider question of the UK’s place within Europe sought to polarize positions within the debate further.
I welcomed DiEM25’s attempt to further democratize Brexit but again I felt as though the movement required further clarity on the boundaries for the discussion. Johnson’s messaging in the aftermath has been a veritable confection of announcements declaring the government ‘The People’s Government’, promising a Northern Infrastructure fund (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/dec/15/andy-burnham-warns-northerners-to-be-wary-of-glib-tory-promises) alongside a cabinet shake-up. However, underlying these spending pledges has been rumblings of rollback’s of worker’s rights (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-brexit-workers-rights-environment-climate-change-election-a9248611.html) and rumours of a new ‘social insurance’ system with the potential to levy more charges on those who rely on the NHS.
Brief Notes on Socialism In the 21st Century
In the last few days I’ve been enthused by the numbers of my friends who have looked to engage with local initiatives from cooperatives spaces, to volunteer-run initiatives all of which aim to create networks of solidarity whether for direct action against the withdrawal of certain state provisions or raise awareness of key issues. A recent article by John Harris pointed out the absence of the left from spaces of direct action and community solidarity (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/15/labour-revival-change-community-activists-plymouth) perhaps, in part, because of the dissociation of modern socialism from the lived experience of some activists in part due to lack of engagement with extra-parliamentary causes and a tighter focus on national rather than local politics. However, the huge turnouts of Momentum and CLP members into constituencies all over the UK have in many cases made those campaigning acutely aware of the challenges faced by those who’s votes they’re trying to obtain and perhaps more ready to engage with them on the ground. The construction of these alternate means of welfare is in many ways a break from the more paternalistic centralized welfare structures which assuage rather than radically break from capitalist contradictions.
I would posit one further critique which is the necessity of engagement to change not only the environment activists operate within but also to change the activists themselves through the development of a broader class consciousness based on the mutual recognition of aims and lived experiences and the experience of working within truly socialized, cooperative rather than just state-run community institutions. This being part of a fairly well-established tradition pre-figurative political practice, with the specific aims of putting in place structures meant to reflect a desired, future state of affairs. Forging and in some cases reinvigorating these links can be part not only of a revitalized Labour Party but, more importantly, part of a revitalized left and a reconstructed commons.