Business Macs. Graphic: Pixabay/Pete Linforth Business Macs. Graphic: Pixabay/Pete Linforth

Alex Snowdon on a fractured yet immobile capitalist class and a new initiative from Jeremy Corbyn

As news breaks that the current negotiations between the UK government and European Union representatives have been extended, it is worth stating that we are a very long way from the referendum of 2016. This is obviously true in terms of time, but also in people’s sense of what is at stake.

Many voters in the referendum – on both sides, but especially among Leave voters – felt that the outcome really mattered. But any hopes for a substantially different way of doing things – expressed in the slogan ‘Take Back Control’ – have narrowed to what this was, in truth, always about: competing business and political interests within neoliberal capitalism.

Boris Johnson wants to accelerate deregulation and erode workers’ rights and environmental protections. Any deal he eventually negotiates will be a bad deal. This does not mean, however, that the EU negotiators represent anything benign: they are representing the interests of other sections of European capitalism. The EU’s restrictive prohibitions on state aid, for example, are part of the long neoliberal project, not any sort of antidote to it.

Shabbir Lakha has already provided a very clear and useful discussion of the Brexit trade deal, and the debate and tensions surrounding it, so I will focus here on the bigger picture: how did we get here?

The dominant factions in the British debate about EU membership were, until 2016, always the different strands of the Tory Party. This largely reflected, though in distorted fashion, the tensions inside the British ruling class.

The interests and views of the great majority of the rich and powerful, especially finance and big corporate capital, found expression in the broadly pro-EU elements of Conservatism. Going into the referendum this included David Cameron, George Osborne and the majority of Cabinet ministers.

Those ruling class elements – much less numerous – who leaned towards breaking from the EU had out-sized representation on the Tory benches (and in the Tory-supporting press). Among the Tory grassroots the anti-EU felling was stronger still. This was partly an expression of sectional economic interests, but combined with more ideological elements: a mix of nostalgia, nationalism and racism.

Tariq Ali referred to the cross-party neoliberal consensus, which crystallised in the 1990s, as the ‘extreme centre’. In the UK the more centre-left elements of this political elite – the liberal centrists – really found their voice on the EU question after the 2016 referendum. Whether it be the right-wing Labour, Lib Dem or SNP variants, they uniformly lined up on the side of defending a status quo that includes EU membership.

There was little, if any, attempt to champion policies that would address the grievances – job insecurity, stagnant pay, housing inequalities, industrial decline, neglect of small towns – that had fuelled the huge Leave vote in the first place. Instead they increasingly polarised British politics along Leave/Remain lines, while of course attacking and undermining the political project – led by Jeremy Corbyn – that offered a genuine economic and social alternative.

This was in part motivated by their desire to overturn the referendum result or – more realistically – moderate the nature of EU exit, so that life outside the EU would be as similar to the old orthodoxy as possible. It was also, to a great degree, about restoring the certainties of the centrist consensus.

This consensus was challenged from two directions. One was the right-wing populism of Brexiteers, both inside and outside the Tory Party, boosted by the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election a few months after the Leave victory. On the other hand, there was the greater and more dangerous threat from an insurgent left-wing challenge in the form of Corbynism. The liberal centrists were determined to shore up the old order.

During 2019 the balance in the Tory Party shifted decisively towards the dedicated Brexiteers. Theresa May was replaced as prime minister by Boris Johnson, whose platform in the Tory leadership election was that he would Get Brexit Done.

Johnson went for an early general election and repeated the same mantra relentlessly in the campaign, tapping into widespread popular disillusionment with the delays to Brexit. In this framing, an obstructive Remainer parliament was blocking the people’s will – and a convincing Tory general election win was the only way forward.

It paid off. The large Tory majority was aided by years of increasing polarisation around the Brexit issue and by Labour’s terribly mistaken decision to back a second referendum. Corbyn came to be seen by millions of voters as another establishment figure, disconnected from the popular mood, while paradoxically the Old Etonian insider Boris Johnson could pose as a popular tribune confronting an out-of-touch parliament.

The election result killed off any chances of a re-run referendum, though this had never been especially likely. The architects of the People’s Vote campaign did, however, achieve another key objective: killing off Corbynism. The Labour politician most associated with the ‘second referendum’ policy – Keir Starmer – was subsequently elected leader, commencing a rapid shift back to the supposed centre of politics.

The general election was near-universally framed in the political mainstream as a repudiation of left-wing politics, conveniently overlooking the surge in votes that Corbyn’s Labour achieved in 2017. The decline between that election and December 2019 was overwhelmingly due to the Brexit debate, in particular Labour’s shift from accepting the referendum result to spurning it. But that is rarely acknowledged.

The current impasse for Johnson’s government – unable to strike a trade deal satisfactory to all interested parties – is a reminder of the complexity of actually leaving the EU, a powerful neoliberal institution that expresses the corporate and economic interests of Britain’s European rivals, above all Germany and France.

After the 2017 election, Labour could have increasingly articulated a progressive version of Brexit: a post-EU settlement that would prioritise working class people. But it wasn’t to be. Consequently, the left-wing vision for life beyond the EU was marginalised.

The debate remains dominated by the hard-right Brexiteers – with their economic race to the bottom and their nostalgic post-imperial delusions – and the liberal centrists who wish the political shocks of the last few years, including the referendum result and the rise of Corbyn, had never happened.

Politics beyond parliament

Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement of a new initiative called Peace and Justice is very welcome. It will hopefully become part of a wider burgeoning of left-wing politics outside the suffocating confines of Westminster.

This is a left that operates outside the increasingly repressive structures of the Labour Party, though involving thousands of left-wing Labour Party members. Many of those members joined Labour because of the inspiration and hope that came with Corbyn’s insurgent rise to the leadership. Many are feeling that Labour is more and more inhospitable to socialists, with a witch hunt of the left (symbolised by the withdrawal of the whip from Corbyn) alongside the political shift to the right.

The era of Corbyn-led Labour, from Corbyn’s election as party leader in September 2015 until the awful general election defeat a year ago, was an exceptional one. It was exceptional because it has been so rare for the left to gain such influence and score such success in the Labour Party.

But it was also highly unusual because that success led to huge numbers of socialists focusing on the Labour Party – and the fields of electoral and parliamentary politics it engages in – far more than on other spheres of activity like trade unions and social movements. Prior to 2015 it had been a very long time since many socialists viewed Labour as the principal focus of left-wing aspirations or activism.

The shift in focus was perhaps understandable in the circumstances: a socialist in Downing Street, leading a left-wing government, seemed like a real possibility. The Labour Party could be the vehicle for ending four decades of neoliberalism and charting an alternative direction. But that project has been decisively defeated – a reality that must be faced.

Counterfire makes a contribution to building a stronger, independent left beyond the Labour Party. This involves pulling together a network of socialists around a general political alternative to capitalism as well as playing a role in strengthening the movements and the unions.

Corbyn’s new project is different in significant ways. However, it will hopefully be another valuable element in constructing a Left that isn’t hampered by the narrowness of parliamentary politics and endless compromise with the Labour Right.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).