Anti-politics & the last gasp of British Labourism

by · December 13, 2019

By Tad Tietze

The significance of the Labour Party’s defeat in the UK election goes well beyond the scale of the electoral drubbing it received, holding onto fewer seats than in its 1983 catastrophe. A long series of heartland working class Labour seats fell for the first time in many decades (or ever) to the Tories: Blyth Valley, Sedgefield, Bolsover, and many more. Put in a broader historical context this election confirms the terminal condition of British Labourism just as much as bigger electoral setbacks signalled the deaths of once-powerful parties claiming to represent the working classes in the last 10 years — from Greece’s PASOK to France’s Socialist Party and even Germany’s once-mighty SPD. There is no coming back from this one in any meaningful sense.

The outcome confirmed how the 2016 Brexit referendum had driven realignment of UK politics on whether the Leave vote would be delivered by the political class, with Labour losing heavily in traditional, working-class strongholds outside London where the Leave vote had been strong, mostly to the Tories. Meanwhile in Scotland, which had voted strongly against Brexit, Labour was reduced in what was once a heartland to just a single seat, down from 56 in Tony Blair’s historic 1997 victory and 41 as recently as 2010.

Perhaps most painfully for the UK left, which almost unanimously threw itself headlong in the controversial radical left-wing Corbyn experiment (even if formally standing outside it, as some radical groups did), the disaster comes after the false dawn of 2017. In that election Labour did much better than expected in what looked like a revival of the old two-party, class-based British electoral set-up (their combined vote was the highest since 1970), and in which the Conservatives under Theresa May lost their majority and were forced to govern in alliance with Northern Irish Unionists. Relatively unknown to the public, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaigning energy allowed him to appear as an agent of change. In 2019 virtually every voter knew who Corbyn was, and they didn’t much like him, as indicated by record negative net satisfaction ratings in opinion polls.

The problems for Labour are three-fold. First was its positioning around Brexit. To understand this a bit of background is needed. The 2016 referendum was called by Tory prime minister David Cameron to solve what he considered a “party management” issue. The Tories had been bedevilled by internal ructions over EU membership since the 1990s, with the issue standing as an avatar for the party’s identity crisis in an era where the end of the Cold War and the decline of the trade unions had robbed Tories of historic coordinates with which to define themselves. Rising support for the right-wing, anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the early 2010s had emboldened a series of backbench revolts over Europe in the context of the Tories being unable to recover their former electoral strength even with Labour’s loss in 2010 and while driving through unpopular austerity measures. The Leave result, unexpected in elite circles, was a shattering popular rebuff of the Westminster political class, over three quarters of which wanted to remain in the EU. Perhaps just as importantly, the vote was seen by most Leave voters as “taking back control” of politics. It is this slogan, formulated by Leave strategist (and now top Boris Johnson adviser) Dominic Cummings, that underpinned a surge in turnout for the referendum in working class areas where abstention had grown during the Tony Blair years.

The political class reacted with a series of attempts to — covertly or overtly — re-establish its authority. This included the mobilisation of nasty, condescending tropes against Leave voters, court cases to establish the legal supremacy of Parliament over any government trying to implement the vote, and Theresa May’s negotiation of a watered-down Brexit deal with the EU that would have left the UK under many EU rules while having no power to change them. All these were part a concerted effort to smother and perhaps even overturn the referendum result. Almost all the parties, including Labour, had gone to the polls in 2017 promising to deliver Brexit, and yet very soon all kinds of provisos and doubts were being raised by MPs across partisan divides, and a “People’s Vote” campaign was pushing for a second referendum to “reconfirm” (but in reality reverse) the 2016 result. Politicians’ insistence on the right of Parliament to veto any deal led to a series of catastrophic defeats for May’s deal in the House of Commons, as well as “indicative votes” that showed that while majorities of MPs could be found to oppose any number of permutations, there was majority support for pretty much nothing on offer.

Opinion polls showed that Brexit became the key polarising political issue in the country, and this drove substantial realignment in 2017 with the Tories making inroads into traditional working class Labour seats and Labour making gains in better-off constituencies that had voted Remain in part because it was offering a softer version of Brexit.

After its unexpectedly strong showing in 2017, the Labour leadership started to edge closer to becoming a force for stopping Brexit, despite Corbyn’s inner circle and a series of key backers in the union bureaucracy resisting the tide on the entirely reasonable basis that the party’s electorate was far more split on the issue than its overwhelmingly Remainer membership and activist layer. The result was the sense of betrayal over Brexit was especially acute among many “rusted on” working class voters who had seen in the referendum a chance to reassert some control over politics, precisely because their traditional party now seemed to be part of the charge to deny their popular sovereignty. The alienation could not be more extreme.

Labour’s second problem was in the contradictions of the Corbyn project. Corbyn won the party leadership in 2015 thanks to changed rules that gave members and paying supporters exclusive control over the choice. His campaign and victory produced a growth surge for the party, making it (at around half a million members) the largest political party in Europe. In the context of despair over the Tory win in 2015, a victory for a previously marginal hard-left candidate infamous for sticking to his principles was seen by most of the left — including its most radical elements — as indicative of a potentially momentous left-wing revival in British politics. Large numbers of self-identifying revolutionaries and Marxists threw their support behind Corbynism in one way or another, many joining the Labour Party after having in the past been highly critical of “parliamentary reformism”. The reality, however, was that while the radical left could win outsize influence in a party that was a husk of its former self, it had no means to overcome the social vacuum at the heart of a decayed Labourism.

This configuration set up a dynamic in which Corbyn was reviled by most Labour MPs but supported by a large majority of members, most of the party’s committed activists and several key union leaders. Between 2015 and the 2017 election he was the subject of white-anting and coup attempts but held on because he had the numbers where they counted most. After 2017 his parliamentary foes largely resigned themselves to working with what seemed to be an electorally credible leader.

For all of the left’s enthusiasm for Corbynism it had no ability to deliver on dreams of fundamentally transforming UK politics (let alone society) in a radical direction. Talk of Corbyn Labour being a social movement in gestation was not matched by any significant revival of social struggle in the UK. Indeed, levels of industrial action have been at lows not seen since the late nineteenth century, and there has been no evidence that Labour has driven a rise in on-the-ground campaigning separate from official politics. The tensions in the party have meant that high levels of activist energy have been pulled towards internal wrangling and, later, purely electoral work, rather than any kind of “movement building”.

Internal tensions were perhaps most acutely expressed in the party’s anti-Semitism crisis. Despite a large number of serious allegations being made by Labour MPs, staffers and members, Corbyn failed to decisively admit (or for that matter deny) the problem and then seemed to drag his feet on making serious change to party processes to deal with it. His defensiveness on the issue, not helped by evidence he and his inner circle had repeatedly intervened to protect factional allies accused of anti-Semitic statements and behaviour, was like an albatross around Labour’s neck. This stance was encouraged by activists and social media warriors who saw in every accusation another “right-wing smear” in a conspiracy to undermine the Labour leader. Talking up Corbyn’s record as an anti-racist campaigner or exposing Tory Islamophobia only made it look like the party was trying to change the subject. Any look at some of the language described in reports on the problem speaks more than anything to Labour’s bizarre internal world, where “Zionist” was thought to be a reasonable epithet to direct against those you politically disagree with. For voters not privy to the febrile Labour bubble this must have seemed as at best bizarre and at worst clear evidence of a lack of seriousness in stamping out anti-Jewish prejudice.

While many on the left saw in Labour’s relatively radical (for the UK) big-spending statist programme a serious rupture with “neoliberalism” and “austerity”, full of policies that were in themselves popular with the public, in fact the program looked unrealistic to many voters, who would have been sceptical of Labour being able to deliver it given the constrained realities of state finances. It also seems likely to me that public scepticism was exacerbated both by the policy program’s “created by central office” feel and Labour’s inability to deliver on Brexit, making its other promises seem even less plausible. Finally, there is the simple fact that the radicalisation of Labour has not happened at a time of radical change in public attitudes, making Corbynism look ideologically very far out of step with the vast bulk of voters who still hold more moderate views. These are similar contradictions to those which have humbled other left projects in recent years, most catastrophically SYRIZA’s decision to implement harsh austerity in Greece when it had no social base to do otherwise.

In the end, though, the contradiction at the heart of Corbynism was its inability to address Labour’s third problem, the long-term loss of its former social base, a decline that — ironically — had created the possibility for a radical left-wing Labour leader to be elected in the first place. Labourism’s base was in the bureaucracy of a mass, powerful but relatively conservative trade union movement, one that by WWII was deeply integrated within the political structures of British capitalism. Union leaders and Labour MPs dominated the party, with the constituency members a relatively weak component until more recently. The more recent change in that balance has been driven by the decline of the unions as a social force, which was accelerated by their wage-cutting Social Contract with the Labour government of 1974-1979. Despite the subsequent mythology about Thatcher successfully practicing “hegemonic neoliberalism”, she really mainly depended on Labour’s travails during the 1980s to protect her from her own unpopularity.

With the Tories bereft of an agenda and losing their reputation for good economic management after the currency crisis of 1992, they lost to Tony Blair’s New Labour, a project leveraging public discontent with the now hollowed-out left-right politics of the past. This was Labour discarding core aspects of Labourism but while Blair comfortably won three elections, helped by the Tories’ identity crisis and internal ructions, his modernising project did nothing to overcome the decline of Labour’s former bases. While Blair made much of reforms to manage public withdrawal from engagement with a disliked political system — e.g. electoral reforms, devolution, a greater reliance on technocratic decision-making and greater integration into the EU — all of these measures only worsened popular anti-political sentiment. As the UK Democratic Audit grimly concluded in 2012:

Almost all available indicators suggest that representative democracy is in longterm, terminal decline, but no viable alternative model of democracy currently exists. All measures of popular engagement with, and attitudes towards, representative democracy show a clear decline since the 1970s. Whether the measures we adopt are turnout in elections, membership of political parties, voter identification with political parties, or public faith in the system of government, the pattern is the same.

These processes were driving the possibility of realignment and fragmentation of entrenched political arrangements, something that was presaged in Labour’s 2015 collapse in Scotland, exacerbated by its decision to line up with the Westminster establishment to oppose Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum. Moreover, the old markers of social class were becoming less important in voting patterns, with Labour losing working-class voters in 2015 and 2017 and the Conservatives sweeping up significant numbers of them in 2017 especially.

The great irony was that Corbynism, a left-wing project drawing on the historic image of Labour as being the party of the working class, the poor and oppressed minorities, controlled a party that was more disconnected than ever from its historic base of support in the electorate. For all the talk on the left that Corbyn Labour was about “rebuilding class solidarity”, organised class solidarity in British society has been at historic lows with the decline of the unions and other civil society organisations. Labour electioneering was never about solidarity, but about getting atomised voters to support its political project. Labour’s membership surge also blinded activists as to how these numbers couldn’t even begin to make up for the loss of bases in a once-powerful mass union movement in terms of giving the party social weight and relevance. Neither could any “radical manifesto” substitute for social institutions that are long gone.

Finally, it is worth considering Boris Johnson’s achievement here. When the two-party system fell off a cliff in 2019 and briefly became a four-party system because of voter discontent with its handling of Brexit — with the Tories, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage’s newly formed Brexit Party all on about 20 percent in the polls and the Tories beaten into fifth place in the EU Parliament elections in late May — Johnson ran for the Tory leadership clearly stating that only by delivering Brexit could the party beat back an “existential” threat posed by the Brexit Party. So bad was the crisis that large numbers of Tory members were willing to see Farage lead the Tories or for the UK break up in order to get Brexit done.

Ideologically amorphous, a socially-liberal “One Nation” Tory, a provocateur whose trolling left him exposed to overheated claims he was a racist or homophobe, Johnson was no “right-wing populist” (nor even an anti-politician) despite the desperation of opponents and commentators to squeeze him (and the Leave vote) into their preferred narrative of the age. Johnson was a political insider seeking to restore the authority of politics by ruthlessly delivering on a democratic mandate, and not a firebrand trying to tear down the political class in the name of the will of the people. He was certainly chaotic in style, yet in fact was trying to restore political order in a situation where it had imploded because of its own detachment from society.

Johnson positioned Brexit as not just something that he had to deliver because the public had voted for it but because getting it done would both end the paralysis afflicting Westminster and unleash the potential for politics to deliver for society more generally. Meanwhile the majority-Remain political class had only a negative agenda, of trying to delay, hold back, smother and even overturn Brexit. They did this by using a series of unorthodox parliamentary manoeuvres in which they trapped Johnson in government but without a majority to pursue his agenda, unable to call an election, in the name of preventing a “no deal” Brexit. In this they had the support of the overwhelming bulk of the left, with many radicals twisting themselves into knots to extoll EU membership and some of them joining in the denigration of the “racist” “left behind” voters who had voted for Brexit and were now abandoning Labour.

Johnson upended their expectations by securing a deal with EU leaders, thereby exposing their parliamentary games as an attempt to overturn the popular mandate. This political approach meant that his deal, only a bit more “Brexity” than Theresa May’s, was welcomed by voters in a way that hers had been rejected. This further allowed Johnson to outmanoeuvre a real anti-politician, Nigel Farage, whose Brexit Party went rapidly from existential threat to irrelevancy. Finally, the Tories pushed a relatively high spending, pro public services agenda, seeking to attract working class Labour voters who might once have seen the Tories’ pro-market and pro-austerity image as a bridge too far. Of course, many on the left will say this is all smoke and mirrors, but that distracts from the fact that this was an election far more about a massive rejection of Labour in its former heartlands than widespread enthusiasm for the Tory alternative.

Tory electoral vulnerability was laid bare when the party’s vote collapsed earlier in 2019 and there is no reason to believe that Johnson’s government can reverse the long-term decline of the Tory social base. We live in an era where declining social bases have led to socially weightless parties, new and old. Despite winning a crushing landslide, beyond a popular mandate to “Get Brexit Done” Johnson relies mainly on the implosion of his opponents. Even with Labourism effectively over, further political crack-up and realignment in the coming years will be virtually impossible for the Tories to side-step.

What I think is very clear is that Labour will find itself unable to benefit from the conflagrations ahead, its contradictions having now caught up with it and left it in terminal condition, after having dragged much of what counts for the left in Britain with it.

Tad Tietze is currently in the late stages of writing The Great Derangement: Political Crisis and the Rise of Anti-Politics for Verso Books.

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Discussion16 Comments

  1. Sean says:

    If this is supposed to form part of a pantheon of intelligent soul searching analytical articles from the thinking left in the coming weeks, months, years, we are in trouble. Because hardly anything here dares to get to the root of the matter.

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  4. Pelham says:

    Fascinating analysis here.

    I’m a novice observer of UK politics, but like many I find it tempting to draw parallels with the US. In that spirit, it seems to me that in the US (and perhaps in the UK), the two big parties represent three sections of a quadrant while leaving out the fourth.

    Think of quadrant formed in terms of social and economic issues and conservative and left-leaning politics. We have plenty of pols and voters who are both socially and economically conservative (1st quadrant section) and others who are socially and economically left-leaning (2nd section). We also have many who fashion themselves socially left and economically conservative (3rd section; think of the reviled professional-managerial class).

    But there is no representation and no place in either of the two parties for voters who might be socially conservative and economically liberal (4th section). Thus a US voter who might favor further restrictions on immigration and abortions but would like to have single-payer health insurance finds nowhere to go.

    I believe this constituency might be rather large and, if presented a viable option, capable of rapid growth. From the article, I gather that the UK may be experiencing a similar (though not identical) political vacuum, but neither the Tories nor Labour, neither UKIP nor the Liberal Democrats filled the bill.

    The closest thing we have in the US at the moment is the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who certainly isn’t conservative on social issues but doesn’t beat voters over the head with them to the extent that many of his primary opponents do. And he’s creeping up in the polls currently, although he has a very long way to go. It’s also interesting to note the presence of others in the primary — Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer — who are managing to hang in there by decidedly NOT continually playing on the socially divisive tread-worn identity politics that’s the stock in trade of much of the rest of the field.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      I think in theory there is a gap in the market, one that Trump in his own way managed to address by cutting across the usual polarities. But I also think the main line of division is a structural one, in which the public and political class have become mutually detached because of the breakdown of the old social institutions which used used to link them. So you get both a breakdown of the control the old parties had over their supporters and the rise of new entrants with a wide variety of ideological and policy stances (or lack thereof).

      In the absence of social bases to glue together their voters under the umbrella of a collective political identity, the old parties have turned more to identity politics as a way to try to additively create new electoral coalitions “from above”. But the nature of political identities is that they tend to fragment ever more as their assertion fails to resolve the grievances faced by the individuals asserting them. Gabbard, Yang and Steyer are trying to forge a different kind of collective identity from above, but I don’t see where that can go in the absence of either something happening along those lines in society (no sign of that) or them taking a harsher stance against the old politics. Trump could do it because he’s such a disruptor. Those 3 Dems simply aren’t up to it, and also aren’t helped by not having a functioning Dem establishment to fight against. The same goes for Sanders this time around.

  5. Biswadip Dasgupta says:

    I understand your argument about Labour losing its “social base” in the trade unions but what do you mean by the “long term decline of the “Tory social base”?

    • Dr_Tad says:

      The Tories were in the past a mass membership party that peaked at just below 3 million members in the early 1950s and was still officially over 1 million until the late 1980s. Latest membership figure I can find is around 180,000.

      But also the party’s close association with business interests and organisations waned after the early 1990s, with New Labour drawing closer to business not just in terms of policy but as donors.

  6. w ch says:

    I enjoyed reading this but I did not do so in an uncritical manner given the campaign of lies and misinformation against both Corbyn the man and his policies was significant, both from domestic and international sources. The Loughborough University study showing 85% of media commentary hostile to Corbyn was a major factor. It was a mass Establishment propaganda campaign in Coalition with the disaffected Labour right to discredit Corbyn from the start. Disloyalty to the leadership by the right and the Labour Party organizational staff were very detrimental to Corbyns image. The same disloyalty that threatened a damaging public split if the leadership respected the referendum result and advocated for Brexit. Thereby forcing the leadership into a limbo situation of advocating a second referendum as a sop to the rebellious right faction. This proved very damaging electorally. The right wing parliamentary party insurgency against the wishes of most of the party membership was just money for old rope to a hostile billionaire owned media determined to derail Corbyns policies of wealth redistribution. That is the core issue of opposition to Corbyn. Wealth redistribution was resisted by the ruling class which has a lot of power to spread untruths, dissent and false narratives. Once Brexit is no longer the issue, the failing economic system will redound to Labour’s advantage

  7. w ch says:

    Additionally I would say the success of Labour’s big spending, 2017 manifesto forced the Tories to concede more public spending and investment were necessary. I am not over stating this but any move in this direction is a significant move from the right to the centre. Similarly Johnson identifying as a One Nation Tory is possibly a significant move to the left, given that Thatcher annihilated One Nation Toryism, especially after 1981 and the cabinet reshuffle. If Johnson can be believed his One Nation Toryism indicates a move to the left, which it can be argued was a concession to the Corbyn agenda of more public spending. Evidence of this was Johnsons abandoning the corporate tax cuts during the campaign.

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  9. Sara says:

    I agree with many of what’s written here, however, you’re dead wrong on your analysis of the antisemitism smear campaign, which tells me that the writer is coming in from a position of centrist or right wing nihilism, dressed up as a leftist perspective, whether knowing or unknowingly.
    Labour did not have an antisemitism problem, it had a problem of not standing up firmly to fabricated charges and a well-funded smear campaign — which is an all too common tactic launched against Palestine solidarity activists allover the Western world — a tried and true tactic. Corbyn should have stood up firm and called this campaign for what it was, instead his party adopted the disastrous, IHRA definition, and apologized for what wasn’t done and didn’t exit.

    Listen to Labour Organizer, Asa Winstanley, on this podcast for a better analysis:

    • Dr_Tad says:

      I don’t agree with all the IHRA “examples” myself, some of which I think are examples of what I would consider to be mistaken but not anti-semitic criticisms of Israel.

      However, I think that the IHRA imbroglio was peripheral to a bigger problem, which is that the Labour leadership didn’t act either to decisively deny the allegations outright or to decisively expunge the problem if they thought it was a real problem.

      If the allegations were without substance then why make such slow, partial and contradictory moves regards them, rather than simply outright rebutting them?

      If, because the publicly-seen evidence seems to confirm that there was a problem among a minority of Labour members, activists and leading lights, why not smash it on the head straight away?

      What happened was dragging of feet, excuses made, changing the subject to Corbyn’s record of fighting racism and Tory Islamophobia, meddling in the process, etc. Even in the recent Andrew Neil interview Corbyn seemed unable to deal with what should have been a simple issue. That doesn’t mean that Corbyn is a conscious anti-semite, but his actions have not looked like those of someone who understands the problem (and the incidents he has conceded include not just anti-Israel but anti-Jewish speech and behaviour). Another cause of the prevarication is undoubtedly that the issue has been used by Corbyn’s enemies inside and outside the party as a line of attack, and so many have treated even credible, serious allegations as part of a right-wing pro-Israel conspiracy rather than treating them on their own merits. I think there is also something to how conspiratorial thinking has risen in politics, including within the left. That has allowed conspiracy theories about Corbynism’ enemies dovetail with conspiracy theories about capitalism and the Israel question get tangled up with each other.

      • Jacks says:

        Great point Tad…. Conspiracy thinking has clearly risen amongst the Right and the general populace, but also seems to be rising on the Left.

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