A crushing defeat for British progressives


The Conservative election victory has killed the last hopes of averting Brexit and set the stage for disaster capitalism and climate chaos. The work of building an alternative world must take place not in government offices, but on the streets.

Downing Street

One would have thought that, ten years after the global financial crisis, people would have had enough. Enough of austerity in public spending, stagnant incomes and a housing shortage. Enough of child poverty, foodbanks, a stretched public health service and inaction on the climate emergency. Enough of tax cuts and subsidies for the rich but cutthroat capitalism for everyone else. Last week’s election result, however, suggests the British are quite happy to have more of the same - and worse.

To be clear, no one was really expecting a full-scale overhaul of the status quo ante. With Brexit still the defining political divide, none of the opposition parties (bar, perhaps, the Scottish National Party [SNP]) has succeeded in bringing people together in an alliance of Leavers and Remainers. Even most optimistic polling only indicated a hung parliament, with the possibility of constructing a progressive coalition government that could command a small majority. The price of such a post-election deal might have been the replacement of Jeremy Corbyn by a less controversial prime minister, but Labour’s policy programme could have remained largely intact with support from liberal, green and Celtic nationalist MPs.

Instead, the exit poll on Thursday night showed the exact opposite. The Conservative Party, led since July by Boris Johnson, was set to win its first stable parliamentary majority since the late 1980s. Labour had lost dozens of seats, but neither the Liberal Democrats nor the Greens had made any headway in its place; among the opposition parties, only the SNP had benefited by maintaining its hegemony north of the border. And bitter experience of previous years had shown that, unlike other attempts to gauge public opinion, the exit poll is almost exactly right.

Johnson has achieved something remarkable. For the first time since the financial crisis, and amid political and economic turmoil in the international arena, Britain has a secure majority government. And it has been won on the basis of people voting directly against their own interests.

Like most liberal market economies, Britain has a long and venerable tradition of working-class conservatism. Whether by elite design or intangible social forces, political order is maintained by a critical mass of the population feeling they have a stake in the existing system of capital accumulation. At times this has meant a social-democratic compromise under which people collectively benefit from strong trade unions and a generous welfare state; at others, ladders have been erected so that some individuals can ascend to home ownership and self-employment. Meanwhile, middle-class Leftists have spent over a century lamenting (often patronisingly and hypocritically) the dearth of radicalism among the oppressed masses, while the British establishment has seldom missed an opportunity to assemble a popular coalition in support of elite interests.

This class dynamic reached its apotheosis in the 2016 EU referendum. A question superficially about Britain’s place in Europe in fact provided the perfect proxy for a culture war. On one side stood a combination of university graduates, metropolitan professionals, migrants and business people, comfortable with the social liberalism and internationalism of the 21st century UK. On the other stood a strange mixture of blue-collar workers from semi-urban and rural areas and wealthy nationalists, some suspicious of cultural change and others obsessed with an outward-looking return to Britain’s mercantilist and imperialist past. The split between the two sides was almost exactly 50:50, but in a fully proportional ballot with a record turnout the Leavers won by around a million votes.

A great deal of ink has been spilled about the unfairness of the referendum campaign, from the barefaced lies told by leading Brexiteers to interference by shady digital consultancies and foreign states. There is something in these claims, but they miss the point: the British working class was ready to give a kicking to a political elite which had bailed out investment bankers and handed the bill to ordinary people in the form of tax rises and spending cuts. (Indeed, David Cameron’s great miscalculation was to assume the support for his brand of liberal conservatism under Britain’s archaic electoral system would translate into an easy victory for Remain in a proportional vote.) That populist urge was entirely understandable, and a clear sign that mass consent for the British economic model had waned to dangerously low levels. The alchemy that Johnson has worked, on the other hand, has been in persuading those same disaffected voters to reaffirm support for the very forces they are raging against.

How can an aristocrat with an astonishing record of deceit and misconduct in public office, planning to increase the price of basic commodities by erecting trade barriers and expected to shred social protections via other international agreements, be elected prime minister on the back of a proletarian revolt? The starkest aspect of Thursday’s result was the demolition of the ‘red wall’, the bulwark of Labour’s working-class seats in the Midlands and north of England. The historic heartlands of British socialism, sucked dry in recent decades by Tory-led deindustrialisation and austerity, have now apparently decided that their future lies in full-throttle capitalism.

Neither can we take comfort in the idea that there was no clear alternative on offer. The gulf between the policy programmes of the two main parties has rarely been greater: doing away with a generation of caution and compromise, Labour stood on a radical platform of public investment, decarbonisation and pro-worker reforms. Corbyn’s manifesto was designed to heal the damage left by 40 years of neoliberalism and equip the British economy to combat the climate emergency. This was not the United States in 2016 or France in 2017, where the opposition to Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen came from centrist liberals rather than the Left. Rather, when given the choice, the British electorate rejected the most class-conscious offer from any party since the Second World War.

Indeed, the circumstances could hardly have been more hospitable for a turn towards an alternative politics. The Tories had been in power for nine years, burned through two previous prime ministers, unilaterally caused the Brexit crisis and then spent over three years failing to resolve it. The traditional charge against Labour and other progressive parties - that spendthrift Lefties cannot be trusted to responsibly manage an economy - had been all but neutralised, for no degree of public borrowing can match the economic damage of a hard Brexit. And yet, with all the information on the table, millions of people including many lifelong Labour voters decided that Johnson was the man they wanted in Downing Street.

This is especially galling given the urgent need to wean the British economy off its addiction to fossil fuels. In the same year that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we have only 11 years to avert environmental catastrophe, Extinction Rebellion protests rocked cities worldwide and a visionary Swedish teenager became a household name with her green gospel, the British elected a government with no discernible green credentials. We may well look back on 2019 as the point at which the world’s first industrial nation failed to step up to the climate challenge.

So, where does this all leave us? In the short term, the result has killed the last hope of preventing or softening Brexit. Johnson has already indicated that he intends to push forward a parliamentary vote on his withdrawal agreement before the new year. Soon after this it will become clear that the timetable promised for negotiating a future trade agreement is totally unrealistic, but the Conservatives will continue to blame any delay on EU intransigence - and, judging by the election, most Brits will continue to believe them. The much-anticipated backlash of Remainers against the government’s handling of Brexit has not materialised.

On the domestic level, austerity will continue, notwithstanding the promise of moderate public spending increases in some areas that apparently persuaded millions of Johnson’s good intentions. The next battleground will be over the bonfire of rights and regulations scheduled for as soon as the country moves outside the protective framework of EU law - although ‘battleground’ is perhaps an optimistic term, as many of those worst affected will presumably stick by their vote rather than put up a fight. The process of deregulation and privatisation will only accelerate in the event of a trade deal with the Trump administration, as American capital moves in to exploit opportunities in a newly liberalising foreign market.

The outlook is certainly bleak. And with such a clear democratic mandate, it is hard to imagine from where the green shoots of resistance will spring. A section of the Left will march on Westminster demanding a revolution, as it always does after an election, while the public and media alike tune out and move on.

The real resistance will, by necessity, be localised, partial and reactive, at least at first. It will mean opposing tooth and nail the most punitive reforms, from further cutbacks to the National Health Service to the flattening of social housing in order to make space for luxury apartments. It will mean ethnic minority and migrant workers organising themselves into grassroots unions to defend against the rising tide of racism and fascism. It will mean people reclaiming green spaces and restoring the land, providing some small respite from the headlong rush into US-style industrial agriculture, climate-induced flooding and spiralling emissions from airport expansion.

One can only hope that a future generation of Brits come to their senses and choose a different path for the country. For now, the work of building an alternative world must take place not in government offices, but on the streets.