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Vol. 42 No. 2 · 23 January 2020
Short Cuts

So much for England

Tariq Ali

There’sno point being tribal now. Let’s face it: Johnson won the election because the Tories pledged to implement the result of the 2016 referendum without any more shilly-shallying. Democracy matters. Labour’s rejection of the referendum outcome at its bubble party conference last September did them in. John McDonnell was right to take the blame for the defeat. His insistence on a second referendum was a huge strategic blunder.

Johnson’s first speech as prime minister, delivered to the cameras outside Downing Street, was lucid and effective. This was not the knockabout party-political busker, who didn’t care whether what came out of his mouth was true or not. He will revert to that when things get tougher. (The exchanges in Parliament after Soleimani’s assassination are a case in point.) He often sounds like a character in a comic novel. His own. Roger Barlow in Seventy-Two Virgins is a self-portrait that reveals a surprising degree of self-awareness:

Barlow’s thoughts of political extinction had taken a philosophical turn. Did it matter? Of course not. The fate of the human race was hardly affected … In the great scheme of things his extermination was about as important as the accidental squashing of a snail. The trouble was that until the happy day when he was reincarnated as a louse or a baked bean, he didn’t know how he was going to explain the idiotic behaviour of his brief human avatar.

On that first day outside Downing Street it was clear that Johnson’s fears of ‘political extinction’ had been laid to rest, at least temporarily. Watching the Leninist Boris in action, I feared that, regardless of when the next election was held, Labour would lose it.

I never thought this one would be such a crushing defeat, but while Labour’s losses should not be underplayed, it’s worth remembering that the party’s share of the vote was lower under Gordon Brown in 2010 and Ed Miliband in 2015. In terms of seats and numbers, the Conservatives did worse in both 1997 and 2001. The liberal commentariat that was hoping that the Lib Dems would replace Labour as the main party of opposition must be even more disappointed than Labour supporters.

There is a counter-narrative. A few blowhards still insist that had Labour come out as a hardcore Remainer outfit, things might have been different. This is nonsense. What more could Labour have done? It had already linked arms in Parliament with the Remainer coalition of Tories who’d had the whip withdrawn, remainiacal Lib Dems, and Scottish and Welsh nationalists, with McDonnell even offering a warm welcome to the DUP if they changed sides. These parliamentary manoeuvrings failed since Jo Swinson (her defeat by the SNP in Remainerland was the only time I smiled on election night) refused any deal with Labour under Corbyn because he wasn’t prepared to press the nuclear button and was therefore a security risk. The country was spared a coalition that would have further discredited Labour. As some Labour canvassers have subsequently reported, many voters felt the conference decision to ignore the referendum was the last straw. Eyal Clyne, who canvassed throughout the campaign in six Northern towns – Crewe, Bolton, Altrincham, Blackpool, Bury, Leigh – described some of their concerns on his blog:

Leave voters are sometimes seen as ignorant, brainwashed or racist, images that did not correspond with my impressions overall. However, for Leave voters, Brexit now symbolises the way in which their voices were being ignored, repeatedly and undemocratically, by the losing Remainers, who are also associated with other classes and more privileged groups … As far as they are concerned, Labour (and others) did not fully respect the will of the working class, and a democratic result. They feel betrayed.

A striking example of the political recomposition taking place was the East Midlands town of Mansfield, which bucked the Corbyn surge in 2017, electing a Tory by a thousand odd votes. This time the Conservative majority was 16,000. How many of these traditional Labour voters will return to the fold depends on the policies of the Johnson government. If nothing changes or things actually get worse, many will think again. If the Tories pour in money for investment it might be different, though Michael Heseltine’s regeneration of some inner cities during the Thatcher years had very little real impact.

Could this all have been avoided? Corbyn was in a very difficult position. His own close allies had moved away from him on Brexit. His statement that he would remain neutral in a new referendum was ineffective. Was there any other way? Perhaps if Labour had stated clearly that the referendum and the chaos that followed it were the result of a Tory split, and that Labour would let them get on with it, Theresa May’s deal with the EU would have gone through and the scheduled April 2020 election would have centred on the NHS, education, public transport etc. Instead the Labour Party opted for suicide.

The personal vilification of Corbyn as an ‘enemy within’, carried out by the mass media and Blairite remnants inside and outside the party from the moment of his election as leader, reached a crescendo during the campaign. There was not much that could be done about this since Labour does not have its own press, but the claim of Labour antisemitism wasn’t effectively dealt with.* Corbyn’s office hoped the problem would go away, but it never did. Social networks were filled with rubbish from provocateurs. Press reports suggested that British Jews were planning to leave the country if Corbyn was elected. Internal Labour investigations revealed that, with more than half a million members, 0.06 per cent of them had been implicated in antisemitic behaviour. We have no idea how this compares to the Conservative Party (even before the recent arrival in the party of a claimed five thousand members of the far right group Britain First) or the Lib Dems. We don’t know because that was not the purpose of this campaign.

Corbyn is the most radical leader Labour has ever elected in the domain of foreign policy. His very presence questions the special relationship with the US that under Thatcher and Blair became the equivalent, in the phrase coined by John Lanchester, of the ‘“coital lock” which makes it impossible to separate dogs during sex’. Hence the absurd question relating to nuclear buttons that TV journalists are now putting to Corbyn’s potential successors. The fact is that, Remain or Leave, Britain couldn’t use its nuclear missiles without the authorisation of the Pentagon. The real question is: ‘Are there any circumstances in which you would refuse US orders to fire the missiles?’

Corbyn’s four years as Labour leader have transformed the party and it will not easily return to supporting neoliberalism and foreign wars. The leadership candidates are all aware of this fact. Even the Blairite Jess Phillips talks about renationalising the railways being a good idea and, to be frank, there is not much difference between Keir Starmer (Steer Calmer?) and Rebecca Long Bailey. Starmer has said that Labour will accept Brexit, and that’s that. RLB will press – or perhaps she won’t – the dreaded button, and like the late Eric Hobsbawm believes in ‘progressive patriotism’. Social democratic normality is slowly being restored.

So much for England. Will the SNP’s triumph in Scotland (especially if repeated in the Scottish elections next year) lead to independence? Johnson, with his huge majority, has said he will not permit another vote. Nicola Sturgeon is unlikely to opt for the Catalonian model of resistance. Will she accept devo-max? A lot will depend on how Johnson fares.

The undemocratic electoral system has preserved two-party hegemony in the UK so far, unlike Germany, France and Italy, where social democracy and traditional conservative parties have self-destructed or are in sharp decline. One of the missing elements in Labour’s over-full manifesto was the democratisation of the antiquated political structure of this country that Tony Benn used to argue for. (He also thought the first past the post system should be left intact: a mistake, I thought, but he was obstinate on the question.) Johnson is in favour of a constitutional commission, but one can imagine its composition. Labour should carry out a pre-emptive strike by proposing a written constitution. The pre-Blair IPPR drafted one. It should be dusted off and studied, together with the Commonwealth of Britain Bill tabled by Benn and Corbyn in 1991. It would be good to take the initiative.

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