The growth of the Brexit party is remarkable, but not unstoppable, argues John Rees
By any metric the rise of the Brexit Party is phenomenal. In a matter of weeks the party has held rally after rally with thousands in attendance, and notably in working class areas like Newport and Peterborough. It has every chance of getting the largest share of the vote in the Euro elections. And it has a social media following already in the hundreds of thousands.
These facts are all the more remarkable because the electoral fortunes of the populist right were in a catastrophic state in the wake of the EU referendum. UKIP, Nigel Farage’s previous electoral vehicle, crashed and burned when it’s ostensible reason for being disappeared with the Leave vote. UKIP rapidly lost its leader and it departed effective electoral politics to join the openly fascist street movement headed by Tommy Robinson.
The gulf between the effective rebuilding of an electoral right-populist party and the alternative far right perspective represented by Robinson can be measured by the dramatic increase in support for the Brexit party. Compare the rise of the Brexit Party with the milkshake-strewn catastrophic beginning to Robinson’s own Euro election campaign.
So, what explains the Brexit party’s initial success?
Some say they’ve got money behind them. And that is undoubtedly true. But if money were enough then Chuka Umunna’s Change UK would be a lot higher in the opinion polls.
No, the truth about the Brexit Party support is a harder pill to swallow: it is that the more than 17 million people voted to leave the EU have no clear representative in electoral politics.
The Tory Party is divided and catastrophically incapable of delivering Brexit. The Labour Party is divided and appears to many Leave voters as it as if it is permanently held hostage by the majority Remain Parliamentary Labour Party and constantly pressured into compromise by the second referendum campaign.
So, Leave voters have no effective, unequivocal, voice in establishment politics. After three long years of watching the political establishment twist and turn, squirm and prevaricate, the political system is held in even lower esteem than it was before the referendum took place.
In other words, everything that produced the Leave vote in the first place has become worse in the last three years while the political representation of those who voted Leave is still non-existent. The secret of the Brexit Party’s success is that it has filled this void.
And while Farage is obnoxious he is not stupid. The “democratic revolution” is a clever pitch to those who are politically disenfranchised. The “tell them again” line perfectly expresses the anger of those who see a political establishment desperate to nullify the democratic vote of the initial referendum.
And the election material of the Brexit Party, prominently displaying a black candidate on its London leaflets for instance, is meant to mitigate the core racism of its essential politics. Farage has even managed to convince a couple of gullible and/or desperate former leftists to act as window-dressing for his own free-market, NHS privatizing, xenophobia.
For all these reasons the Brexit Party’s successful launch is a considerable challenge to the left and to the Labour Party. And it is simply not good enough to dismiss Leave voters as knuckle-dragging racists who simply have to be exposed to the expertly informed opinions of Michael Heseltine, Tony Blair, Vince Cable, and Caroline Lucas until they except the revealed truth.
That’s one reason why Jeremy Corbyn was absolutely right to make opposition to Farage a centerpiece of his speech launching the Labour Party Euro-election campaign. Leave voters need to see that there is a radical left voice providing a real alternative to what Jeremy accurately described as the “snake oil” on offer from Farage.
Now the Labour Party machine needs to take its cue from the Labour Party leader. Action needs to follow words. And the action needs to start at the top.
The clearly fruitless and ill-advised discussions with the Tory government need to be halted now. The Tories have no intention of guaranteeing workers’ rights or meeting any of the other requirements that Labour would need in order to be able to agree a deal.
Indeed, in order to avoid the appearance that Labour had colluded in a class collaborationist relationship which extracted the Tory government from the very deep pit into which it has dug itself, a more or less total surrender by the government would be necessary.
That isn’t going to happen, so the negotiations need to end now because all they are doing is sending a message to disillusioned voters that the Labour Party is part of a political establishment which has already lost their trust. In short, it makes Farage look like the insurgent outsider and Labour look like pork-barreling insiders.
Then, Jeremy Corbyn needs to get on the road. It is simply embarrassing that the Labour Party machine keeps Corbyn doing invite-only launches and internal Labour Party events instead of allowing the whole movement to build rally after rally which can provide an alternative focus to those being mounted by the Brexit Party.
This is how Jeremy won the leadership contest, and this is what delivered the successful 2017 election campaign. It is what can now provide the visible proof that the labour movement is both larger than the Brexit Party and a more effective representative of working people.
A return to mass rallies would be one vital step in restarting the popular dynamic of support for Jeremy Corbyn.
But more is required. The essential element now missing is a direct relationship with the mass movements from which Jeremy Corbyn has historically drawn his strength. This weekend’s Palestine demonstration would have been easier to build if the Labour Party machine had committed Jeremy not only to speak on it, but to be advertised in advance as a speaker.
This may seem like a small matter, but it is not. It sends a signal in advance to millions of labour movement activists that the demonstration is important and has the support, the active support, of the leader of the Labour Party.
On the question of Palestine, it would send the message that the retreats and equivocation in the face of accusations of anti-Semitism are over. It would signal that opposition to anti-Semitism is entirely compatible with whole-hearted and active solidarity with the Palestinians. It would make it easier for activists to mobilise Labour Party and trade union support for the demonstration.
And what goes for the Palestine demonstration goes for the mobilization against the visit of President Donald Trump to London in June. And what goes for that mobilization, goes double for the protest outside the Tory Party conference in Manchester in the autumn called by the People’s Assembly and the trade unions in the north-west.
Whether or not the Labour Party throws itself into these mobilisations, and whether or not Jeremy Corbyn is allowed to play a leading role in them, the social movements will mobilise all they can. But if the Labour Party as a whole, and not simply Labour Party members as individual activists, does not play its part it will not only underline the fact that sectarianism is not the sole property of small organisations, it will also undermine the very radicalism at the heart of Jeremy Corbyn’s success.
For it is this kind of politics that makes you look like an insurgency not in incumbency. This is what makes you look like you really mean to take down a complacent political establishment, not become part of it. This is what exposes the fake outsider Farage. This is what a mass movement of those left outside the fairytale world of free-market prosperity really looks like.
- This article first appeared in the Morning Star
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.