We have been warned
Edinburgh based socialist and trade union activist Ray M argues that we have to learn the lessons of recent years if we are going to construct a fighting socialist movement. This longer piece is being republished from RS21 in two parts, the first below.
A warning from the U.S.
The situation we face in Britain is not new or unique. In the US, a ‘culture war’ dominated politics long before Trump became president. The culture war prioritises values, morality and lifestyle over class. Writing in 2005, Mike Davis challenged liberal commentators who treated the election of G.W. Bush as, ‘the French Revolution in reverse—one in which the sansculottes pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy.’ Following their defeat in 2004, many liberals and so-called progressives were simply in denial over the Democrats’ abdication of the interests of core voters in declining industrial sectors and regions. Davis pointed out that Democrats offered ‘little more than aspirin and a pat on the back for terminal cancer’ to workers who had suffered decades of decline at the hands of both Democrats and Republicans. Many traditional blue-collar Democrats no longer saw a home in the party and as one West Virginia voter pointed out: ‘we didn’t leave the Democrats, they left us.’
In Britain, the left is at risk of further isolating itself from working class support as we try to come to terms with this latest defeat. Culture war positions from ‘extreme centre’ liberals are already finding an echo in the left. The radical left has a responsibility to develop an analysis and strategy that can unite our class against a triumphant and brutal Tory government.
How Labour lost its ‘heartlands’
“Early on Monday morning, when it was still dark, more than 100 Conservative MPs began a new weekly commute. From the north of England, Wales and the Midlands, freshly minted members, many of whom never imagined they’d be elected last week, descended on Westminster. The arrival en masse of these ‘Teesside Tories’ — named after a region in the north-east of England that is emblematic of the new cohort — is proof of how British politics has shifted”
This is how the Financial Times described the breaking down of Labour’s ‘red wall’.
The scale and nature of Tory gains in this election has shocked the left in Britain to its core. Many of us anticipated at worst a small Tory majority or more likely a hung parliament that would present opportunities for Corbyn and the radical left. Instead we now face an unprecedented situation where the Tory victory is being celebrated by the radical right internationally as a model of how to reach into and break down working class strongholds. This radical right government is triumphant with an agenda that in the first few days has organised labour, the low paid and disabled working class people in its sights.
This essay doesn’t claim to offer a full analysis of the general election defeat which will come in time through further debate and discussion. It does however seek to identify the principal reasons behind the defeat and points to lessons we need to learn. Before we can begin to come to terms with the general election result we will need to get to grips with the drivers behind the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum.
Neoliberalism, the ‘traditional working class’ and the EU referendum
In a recent study on Brexit and the working class, Luke Telford and Jonathan Wistow provide a vivid description of how a Labour supporting working class community were driven to vote Leave in the EU referendum. Teesside was home to shipbuilding, mining, steel, petrochemicals, heavy engineering and was central to capital accumulation in Britain throughout the 20th century. Industrial work provided stable jobs, economic security and a framework which allowed working class life to flourish. In these communities there was a high degree of community identification with the industry and workplace as a source of employment and culture. Communities often grew around industrial conurbations that linked together pits, steel, heavy engineering and shipbuilding. These were often located in close proximity to each other. Meaning that communities often had family members and friends working in the same factory, pit or yard where cultures of solidarity and resistance were given sustenance in both the workplace and community.
Teesside experienced a shift from an economy oriented around production to one comprising mainly of leisure and retail. Between 1971 and 2008, the area suffered from a loss of 100,000 manufacturing jobs. These well-organised industrial jobs were eventually replaced by 92,000 jobs in services with poor pay and benefits with little employment rights and no union organisation or collective voice. The introduction of flexible, mobile and more precarious work has eroded solidarity and traditional bonds in the community with a dramatic impact on the economic security of the workforce and their families. In working-class communities, work is central to working class life as it anchors people in a community with a sense of collectivity, respectability and common purpose. As Aditya Chakrabortty argued in The Guardian, with this loss: “…went the culture of Labourism: the bolshy union stewards, the self-organised societies, most of the local newspapers. Practically any institution that might incubate a working-class provincial political identity was bulldozed.”
As these changes bedded in, the global financial crash of 2008 became a defining moment. While New Labour politicians had done nothing to reverse the changes in the North East, they threw billions at the banks responsible for the crash to ensure that the status quo prevailed. They failed to offer an alternative social project and instead agreed with the political right that the state should provide public subsidies to the banks and that wider society should shoulder the burden for the bailout. New Labour’s reward for helping prop up this discredited economic model was a swift exit from government. The Tory-Lib Dem coalition accelerated economic and social decline with an austerity plan that targeted an already enfeebled public sector with severe cuts to public services and local authorities. Welfare, which provided a degree of security following the disappearance of traditional jobs, was cut, hitting the poorest areas hardest in what can only be described as further punishment. Not only had the political class thrown everything at saving a system that was clearly damaging these working-class communities but they then set about forcing them to pick up the tab with cuts to services that further undermined their way of life. This made survival a daily struggle for the most vulnerable.
Political abandonment and the Leave vote.
After World War Two, workers in the major industries in Britain had built powerful trade union organisation with effective workplace representation, giving workers economic power and political influence. They would also have a degree of influence in the Labour Party through their trade union structures and would often have people from these industries and communities sitting in parliament to afford working class people some degree of political representation. However, New Labour sought to cleanse the party of its historic roots in the labour movement alongside its commitments to full employment, state ownership, wealth redistribution and solidarity. Following the hollowing out of these industries and communities, MPs increasingly came through the political machine with little relationship with the communities and workplaces they claimed to represent. For New Labour, these people – the urban poor – had nowhere to go: they were, as Mike Davis has put it, ‘a surplus humanity’.
Blair internalised neoliberalism in New Labour and naturalised it in the left and civil society – reinforcing what Mark Fisher called ‘capitalist realism’. This is the notion that there is no alternative to capitalism and that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism itself. In the working-class communities, Tory cuts delegated to Labour councils were implemented sometimes with sorrow where representatives of the community remained in elected positions but increasingly without much thought about the impact by careerists with no connection with these communities. Not only did New Labour in government do nothing to reverse the changes that had done so much damage to these communities – the decline in manufacturing accelerated under Blair and Brown, as did much of the deregulation, privatisation and retreat of the welfare state. Blair’s ‘third way’ of integrating the provision, financing and management of public services to a ‘social market’ model, prioritised internal market disciplines. This made for out-sourcing, competitive tendering and a race to the bottom based on a ‘value for money’ principle. It transformed local authorities into the champions of neoliberalism – often under New Labour management.
After the economic crash, people increasingly came to regard politicians of all shades as liars. The political class and the interests of big business were seen as one and the same. They looked after each other but not working people: they were viewed as ‘being on the take’. The expenses scandal, which implicated Labour MPs alongside Tories, reinforced the view ‘that they’re all the same’. People felt that it didn’t matter who was in power because nothing changed for them. New Labour had defended the system that undermined working class communities and presided over the massive transfers of wealth from the poor to the rich. Blair’s leadership had destroyed the relationship between them and the Labour Party. In particular, his lies about the Iraq war symbolised an era in which politicians could get quite literally get away with murder. Millions of working-class voters withdrew their support from New Labour.
In many working-class communities a deep and widespread estrangement from politics combined with a sense of fatalism. As neoliberalism became the consensus, ‘capitalist realism’ generated a culture of cynicism and disaffection. While other communities across Britain were also subjected to neoliberalism, the impact was extreme in communities that had been hardest hit by de-industrialisation. It wasn’t just the scale of cuts but the way the new consensus affected the social and cultural fabric of these communities. Historically, social clubs associated with work, the workplace and the labour movement in shipbuilding, mining, steel and other major industries played a central role in shaping working class people’s social life. These clubs had also begun to disappear alongside the declining industries. This meant that the spaces for working-class leisure, collective social experiences and cultural affirmation were also in retreat.
With trade unions weakened, the working classes ability to organise and defend itself suffered. Working class consciousness was eroded, alongside other expressions of collectivity in an increasingly fragmented community. Parliamentary elections offered nothing but differing variations of the existing order. The actions of New Labour fed the belief that this entitled political class of all shades had at best forgotten about the interests of ordinary workers or even worse – they simply didn’t care. However, to paraphrase Mike Davis again, the urban poor were not about to ‘go gently into this dark night’. New Labour’s abandonment of these communities became one of the principal reasons driving people to vote leave. It should come as no surprise that many working-class and poor people in these communities began to look for political representation elsewhere.
The EU referendum – enacting vengeance?
Between 2014 and 2016, UKIP presented itself as the anti-establishment voice with an anti-migrant agenda that found sizeable support in Teesside. Throughout the referendum campaign Nigel Farage tried with some success to position himself as the leader of a ‘people’s army’ standing against the establishment who backed Remain. Leaving the EU was popular in Teesside. The common view in left and liberal circles is that Leave was a racist vote. While there is no doubt that racism featured in both Leave and Remain campaigns, it was weaponised in the Leave campaign and had some traction with people desperately looking for an alternative vision. Sometimes in distressed communities, hope can be replaced with despair.
However, to see the racism inherent in the leave campaigns as being the prime motivating factor behind the leave vote fails to understand the principal dynamics behind it. In their study in Teesside, Telford and Wistow found that racism was a factor amongst a minority supporting Leave who wrongly believed that immigration was the source of their problems. Some wanted to stop migrants entering the country. Concerns with migration were often linked to these peoples’ own struggles. Migrant workers were viewed as economic competitors for housing and for scarce and poorly paid jobs, and were regarded as putting pressure on already underfunded public services. A minority also believed that migrants were favoured by politicians who had forgotten about them. However, the majority in the survey expressed deeper concerns rooted in the changes their community had undergone following changes to political economy and these feelings were widely held in other areas that had suffered like them.
Brexit’s margin of victory was 56 to 44 across northern England. As Tom Hazeldine pointed out, writing in the New Left Review:
“The strongest Out vote in the North West came in the deprived seaside resort of Blackpool, which has suffered the greatest financial loss from government welfare cuts of any local-authority district. Leave swept through the Pennine mill towns—at either extreme: Burnley 67 percent; Bradford and Bury both 54 percent—and the former heavy-industrial and coal-mining communities of west Lancashire and south Yorkshire (Wigan 64 percent, Doncaster 69 percent). The Tyne, Wear and Tees also registered strong protest votes, particularly the former shipbuilding town of Hartlepool (70 percent) and Redcar–Cleveland (66 percent) Redcar had lost its steelworks—including the second largest blast furnace in Europe—and 3,000 jobs the previous October, when Thai multinational SSI pulled out and the Cameron government refused to renationalize it.
“Towns where EU migration had risen quickly were also more inclined to vote Leave—for example, Boston in the East Midlands, which posted the strongest ‘Out’ vote in the country (76:24). But many others that leant heavily towards Brexit have seen few arrivals from the Continent. Only 2 per cent of residents in Hartlepool were born elsewhere in the EU; in Stoke-on-Trent, centre of the decimated Staffordshire ceramics industry, 3 per cent. Yet these depressed localities […] voted about 70:30 for Leave.”
It is true that often anti-migrant racism can feature in areas that have experienced little migration. However, decline and abandonment were the key drivers.
People felt abandoned both socially and politically. Many had given up any hope that things could change or get better for them, their children or grandchildren. Arguments from representatives of the political class that Brexit would cause further economic damage to these communities fell on deaf ears. People who were already living in a state of crisis felt they had nothing to lose. They had lost hope and stopped believing fundamental change was possible. The referendum provided these working-class communities with a unique opportunity for political recognition. In the referendum every vote would count – not like in parliamentary elections where first past the post meant your vote often made no difference. It was a chance to vote for the possibility of changing how the economy and society were organised. A chance to hit back against the establishment. So, they were prepared to gamble. It was shit or bust anyway.
For many such people it seemed that the future had been cancelled; life continues but time had stopped. Enzo Traverso describes this abandonment of hope in the future as ‘presentism’: where people live in a ‘suspended time between an unmasterable past and a denied future, between a “past that won’t go away” and a future that cannot be invented or predicted (except in terms of catastrophe).’ Up until the referendum these people couldn’t imagine a world beyond the present condition. How could things really get any worse? The narrative of ‘taking back control’ appealed to those who had no voice, who had lost their way of life.
When looked at this way, the vote for Brexit had little association with the EU or its influence on British society and more to do with the changing situation of working-class life and rejecting a system responsible for decades of decline. Hazeldine concludes: ‘The rhetoric of Leave was anti-immigrant; the anger that powered it to victory came from decline.’
Corbyn’s acceptance of the referendum verdict in 2016 drew widespread hostility from the pro-Remain media. But it also prevented a potential outpouring of aggrieved Leave voters. This meant that in 2017 Brexit fell behind the health service and spending cuts as priorities for Labour voters and the Labour Party was able to hold onto most of its support.