Labour lost its 'heartlands', and the Tories swept to power – Ray M

Hatfield Colliery, Yorkshire. Photo: Jeff Pearson, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13812603

This essay follows on from two recent articles. The first was written before polling day and defined the election as the ‘Revenge Election’. It argued that Labour needed to articulate the desire for revenge felt by working-class people who have suffered years of neoliberalism, austerity and injustice. The second article, written after the election, drew on Mark Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism to explain the failure of the Corbyn-led Labour Party to present an alternative that convinced enough working-class people to vote for them in 2019; Labour’s manoeuvring over Brexit between 2017 and 2019 made Corbyn seem more like another establishment politician. This piece builds on these, drawing on Enzo Traverso’s reflections on ‘militancy coming from mourning’ to outline a framework for how we understand the defeat with suggestions about how we begin to rebuild. We need a strategy that transcends the current culture war and unites our class against both the radical right-wing Tory government and the metropolitan liberals from the ‘extreme centre’.[1]

What’s the matter with the UK?

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.’[2]

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’.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

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.

The politics of revenge

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’.[6]

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’.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]

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).’[10] 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.’[11]  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.

The second referendum and the ‘revenge election’

As the third anniversary of the EU referendum approached, Ann Widdecombe addressed a Brexit Party meeting in a Miners club in Featherstone. Featherstone is a traditional, ex-pit town near Pontefract where 70 % of residents voted to leave the EU. Featherstone is also hugely symbolic. It was at the centre of the 1893 strike in the pits of Lord Acton. Miners were locked out, shot at and two were killed by soldiers of the Royal Staffordshire regiment. The event became known as the ‘Featherstone massacre’. More recently, during the Great Strike of 1984-85, a miner from Acton Hall colliery in Featherstone, David Jones, was killed at a Nottinghamshire pit at the beginning of the strike. He was buried with the inscription ‘David Jones, flying picket NUM’ on his headstone.[12] For several years, commemoration marches marking his death attracted thousands. Featherstone is a town that is rooted in mining and working-class history.

The Brexit Party meeting drew people from all walks of life. There were lorry drivers, labourers, hairdressers, pensioners, small-business owners and retired miners at the meeting. They came from Featherstone, Wakefield, Doncaster, Brigg, Castleford, Hemsworth, South Elmsall, Bradford, East Harwick and beyond. The majority were angry ex-Labour voters. Many were veterans of the Great Strike. They didn’t hide their disgust with Labour. When the names of Labour MPs were mentioned they were booed and Widdecombe received a standing ovation as she spoke of ‘sweeping the traitors from parliament’. This Brexit Party meeting in a miners’ club in Featherstone with Ann Widdecome receiving a standing ovation is testimony to how alienated these working-class people now were from the labour movement and how desperate they were for change. As argued above, the Brexit vote was above all a rejection of the status quo. This fed the growing demand to have the vote implemented and placed those who seemed to be blocking it in the sights of those who wanted revenge on the establishment in this election.

Many principled socialists had campaigned for Remain in the original EU referendum with concerns about a growing racist environment developing with Brexit. They were now agitating for Labour to adopt a second referendum. However, the main drive for the second referendum was coming from sections of British capital and the ‘extreme centre’. Under pressure from sections of its own membership and some of the radical left, Labour pivoted towards a second referendum with many on the front bench coming out and publicly supporting Remain. This decision sealed Labour’s fate with voters in towns and villages across England and Wales who had voted to leave; they felt that their democratic wishes were being ignored and frustrated by the ‘political class’. Former Labour voters from these communities, who had suffered decades of betrayal under Blair, Brown and Miliband, now saw Corbyn and the left as betraying their democratic wishes. This was catastrophic for Labour and became the final straw for many of their supporters. The change in position also couldn’t guarantee the support of all those who had voted Remain as many of them were sick of Brexit and wanted to see the democratic decision implemented.

A cursory glance at the list of seats lost by Labour should settle any doubts as to the devastating consequences of the pivot. Labour lost seats where previously it was thought that ‘you could stick a red rosette on the arse of a donkey’ and people would vote for them.  Labour fared significantly worse in Leave-supporting areas. Of the seats lost during the 2019 general election, 52 voted to leave the EU in 2016. The party lost eight Remain constituencies – of those, six were Scottish seats. The fact that around two-thirds of Labour MPs were Remainers who represented Leave-voting seats helped ensure the rout.

In the buildup to the election, many Remainers emphasised the Liberal Democrats’ success in the European election. These contests have historically been taken far less seriously than national elections. The Lib Dems came second to the Brexit Party, defeating Labour — yet their 3.3 million votes, a small proportion of the electorate, represented nothing but a minority obsessed by European identity. While a majority of Labour members, young and BAME voters backed Remain in the referendum, Corbyn could have used his leadership to argue again that the referendum result should have been respected. This was the position that successfully united working-class voters in 2017. The capitulation meant that Labour entrenched the divisions and portrayed Labour as the establishment party on Brexit allied to the ‘extreme centre’ who had done so much to ruin working class communities.

It wasn’t just the decision to back the second referendum that proved fateful. The four-year campaign of vilification against Corbyn had a significant impact. An audit of media coverage has revealed that hostility in newspapers towards Jeremy Corbyn was twice as bad during this election than in 2017. This audit also included The Guardian and The Mirror. People often couldn’t work out why they couldn’t support Corbyn – a telling sign that the campaign had been successful. However, failing to control an openly divided parliamentary Labour Party was clearly not a sign of ‘strong leadership’. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the frustration with the referendum delay and switch in policy was the driving factor in turning Labour voters away from voting Labour. The Tories under Johnson and his advisors understood this.

Once elected leader, Johnson had a clearout. It didn’t matter who they were or how prestigious their careers, MPs who backed Remain lost the Tory whip. No-one was allowed to deviate from the line. Within a few days, the Tory Party looked decisive while Labour was divided. The Tories said Labour was a muddle and voters agreed. While Labour were trying to popularise the most radical manifesto in generations, Cummings and his team were touring Leave voting constituencies. Their aim was to harden up their support as the real ‘Brexit Party’ and undermine the Labour vote. Not heeding the lessons of the EU referendum and the 2017 election opened up Labour strongholds to the Tories and the Brexit Party. The result was significant falls in Labour turnout with a small minority of former Labour supporters voting for the Tory vision of Brexit. This was a disaster that could have been avoided. It’s not as if the signs weren’t already there. In 2017, Labour lost Mansfield and four similar seats.

Revenge against the left?

People in these communities already believed that the political left failed to look after their interests. The crash of 2008 provided the left with an opportunity reengage with its traditional working-class base by fighting for an alternative social model. It was resisted by New Labour. In many of these working-class communities, where a socialist left doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense, the failures of New Labour are widely associated with the left as a whole. The attachment to the Brexit vote highlights the strength of feeling about political abandonment and social dislocation amongst sections of the working class. So when sections of the radical left agitated for a second referendum and joined the Peoples’ Vote marches this only confirmed the mistaken notion that the left doesn’t care about ‘people like us’. This situation allowed Johnson to appear as though the Tories were the only people who understood the concerns of these abandoned communities.

The 2019 Labour manifesto was the most radical in generations. However, most people in these communities didn’t care how radical the Labour manifesto was. The manifesto fell on the arid terrain of ‘capitalist realism’, where communities have had four decades of scorched earth policies. It wasn’t that the manifesto lacked vision or hope, it’s just these communities had lost all hope and it had no connection with their experiences. This is one reason why they didn’t believe the promises. Ultimately, if Labour couldn’t honour the Brexit referendum result then why would they trust them to deliver free broadband or any of the other pledges?

For the manifesto commitments to connect with working-class voters, Labour had to make the promises feel real. It was a strategic mistake for Corbyn and McDonnell to back away from taking on the cuts in local councils. Had they mobilised in councils where the left had local councillors or an MP, they could have led local campaigns with council workers and communities. This approach would have transformed the perception and experience of working-class voters who believed that the Labour Party had left them behind or was responsible for the decline. As Labour was seen to be consumed by battles in Westminster, it was easy to portray Labour as part of the Remain-supporting establishment. Postponing the fight in the councils missed an opportunity to develop an insurgent strategy in a way that could have touched people’s lives and involved them in action. Without a strategy that generated conflict against the cuts and disruption of the parliamentary narrative, voters and supporters were passive onlookers unless they were part of the minority involved in the election campaign.

In this situation, the Tories were able to connect with the mood of passive voters in these communities over Brexit. No matter how ridiculous and disingenuous ‘Get Brexit Done’ was as a slogan, it was perfect. The combination of Labour’s pivot to support for the second referendum and its inability to break through the sense of ‘capitalist realism’ helps us understand how a politically incontinent, lying, cheating, racist, misogynistic buffoon like Johnson could succeed. If he was going to ‘Get Brexit Done’, then he might not be as bad as the rest of them. For these people that’s all that mattered.

The failure however raises deeper questions. It’s not just that the pivot towards Remain was disastrous. Labour’s defeat has called into question the ability of a social democratic Party to deliver a radical manifesto today in a way it might have done in the heyday of Keynesianism. What does it mean that the biggest political party in Western Europe has failed to persuade communities that have been ravaged by neoliberalism that it can deliver ‘on their behalf’?

From revenge to resistance

This essay has highlighted people’s lack of self-worth, their loss of pride, a sense of political abandonment, lost hope and an inability to imagine a better world. It’s this sense of abandonment by Labour that drove the Brexit vote and the Tory success last week. However, it’s worth contrasting the political situation in Scotland with that of the North, Wales or the Midlands.

Scotland has experienced a similar hollowing out of heavy traditional industry and the influence of neoliberalism over economic policy but voted to Remain in the EU. However, working class people in Scotland have another vehicle to voice their disgust or discontent with Labour. The SNP has, despite its commitment to a neoliberal economic model been able to supplant the Labour Party as the opposition to the Tories in Scotland. It has achieved this with a vision of change, and hope. Whatever its limitations, the SNP agenda of independence with a desire for sovereignty, democracy and empowerment has captured the aspirations of working-class people desperate for change. The SNP didn’t arrive at this position of its own free will. A radical campaign for real change driven in the main by the Radical Independence Campaign was responsible for changing the form and content of the independence referendum in 2014. This meant engaging with the working-class communities who had been ‘left behind’ by a political establishment that included the SNP. With voter registration drives and radical collective initiatives to build support for independence in towns and cities across the country, we came close to breaking up the British state.

Following the election, the Tories have moved swiftly to push their Brexit Withdrawal Bill through parliament. Their version of Brexit will be used to undermine labour, welfare, consumer and environmental standards as the Tories try to pivot closer to the U.S. No-one yet knows in detail what their Brexit agenda is but it’s unlikely to offer any relief or salvation for those in Leave voting working class communities. Only a Brexit led from the left could have provided a deal with free movement, protection for EU migrants and freedom from the anti-working class diktats of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and EU Commission. ECJ judgements such as Viking Line and Lavalundermined the right to strike by making unions liable for damages to employers and were used to undermine strike action by British Airways pilots in 2008. A left-led Brexit could have defended and expanded rights for all workers, migrants and non-migrants. For the moment that vision of Brexit has gone.

Remain is now dead. The cynics from the ‘extreme centre’ who led the drive for the second referendum to primarily undermine Corbyn have achieved their main objective. They admitted as much when Tony Blair announced that the pivot towards a second referendum was a mistake! The people feeling abandoned now are those who marched on ‘Peoples Vote’ demonstrations for a second referendum. They have been cynically manipulated and betrayed by the ‘extreme centre’. However, while working class communities who voted Leave may feel vindicated as the Tories enact the Brexit bill, there will be no respite from the decades of political, economic and spiritual impoverishment. A Tory Brexit will not free these communities from ‘capitalist realism’.

If we are to recover, then the left has to rebuild relationships with communities fractured by four decades of neoliberal restructuring. We shouldn’t see these people as victims with individual sufferings but as potential collective subjects striving for their redemption – beyond Brexit. The establishment – which includes the radical right – wants to brush these people’s decades of suffering under the carpet. The establishment want these legacies to stay in the past as ‘dead matter’ to be kept there never to disturb the present or the future. But, as Enzo Traverso puts it, for our class  the previous lost battles are ‘a burden and a debt’. The past never abandons the present, it haunts it and remains with us to be reactivated in the fight to change the present with the possibility of redemption and hope for future generations. What Walter Benjamin called ‘now-time’ (Jetztzeit) is the dialectical link between the unaccomplished past and the future we fight for. It is the sudden irruption of the past into the present, which can break up the presentism of ‘capitalist realism’.[13] So Brexit became the political medium through which decades of suffering found expression. The problem for the left shouldn’t have been Brexit itself but the way the political right were able to shape it.

Brexit will on the one hand be an event with unexpected and disruptive characteristics, opening up new scenarios, projecting the peoples of these islands onto unpredictable political and economic terrain. On the other hand, Brexit is not just for Christmas. This year or next. It will be a process that drags on for years with unintended consequences. The Johnson Brexit deal opens up the very real possibility of the breakup of the United Kingdom. The claims from the SNP for Scottish self-determination are the first salvo in the main fault-line for the Tories and the British state. In Ireland the Irish question will also be posed in starker terms as support for Irish independence draws in people who now feel abandoned by the British. However, it will be in Scotland where the immediate question of opposition to British rule will be posed. The radical left here has an opportunity to lead the opposition to the Johnson government beyond the constitutional routes that will be posed by the SNP. If we can transform the huge demonstrations for independence into a mass campaign of civil disobedience, we can develop a strategy that aims to make Scotland ungovernable for the Tories.

As recessionary pressures grow in Europe, the economic slowdown will likely spread across Europe. Economic retrenchment in Britain is already a major worry, which could deepen the economic woes and close down options economically for Johnson. While it may be difficult for Johnson to throw carrots at working class people who ‘lent’ him their vote, it would be foolish to underestimate the capacity for this hard right Tory government to accelerate the culture war to try and further divide our class as they seek to build a hegemonic alliance. It’s also important to remember that liberals from the ‘extreme centre’ are active participants in fuelling the culture war. They will look to stoke division by caricaturing working class people who voted Leave as stupid, ignorant, racist people who don’t understand what’s good for them. This is despite overwhelming evidence that the working class in Britain is more socially liberal now than it has ever been.

As we resist the Tories we should consciously aim to unite Leave voting working-class people who will be betrayed again by the Tories with those who supported Remain and have been betrayed by the ‘extreme centre’. The left has an opportunity to resist the culture war and rebuild an alliance of workers across the Brexit divide. There will be pressure on all sides for the Labour Party to tack to the right from Corbyn’s principled stances on racism and imperialism. Racism wasn’t the primary driver for Brexit nor for Labour losing the election. The recent pronouncement from Rebecca Long-Bailey about ‘progressive patriotism’ is a worrying indication of retreats on this from the Labour left. The radical left has to take a firm and principled position of opposition to such concessions to bigotry.

Instead, we should find common ground in struggles against racism by defending those still targeted by the Windrush scandal, by protecting EU migrants, by participating in tenants’ campaigns, helping organise precarious workers and by defending the right to strike. The climate emergency will make it imperative for the left to link action against climate change with action to defend our jobs and communities. While the renewed drive to war will pose starkly questions about how we stop western imperialism and the kind of world we want to live in.

In communities  where the left have influence, we can  bring together left wing MPs and councillors with the local labour movement and community to resist further cuts, privatisations and campaign against any drive towards war . The disruptive tactics from Extinction Rebellion should be brought into these struggles. With a militant and combative strategy we can begin to plan how we avenge the defeats we have suffered from both wings of the establishment who equally support austerity, privatisation and war Only a disruptive strategy can break up the presentism of ‘capitalist realism’ and help the radical left rebuild. A campaign to turn Labour activists into union reps and community campaigners would be an important step towards laying the basis for future victories and restoring hope in our communities.

The Brexit vote was framed as a racist vote. However, it’s clear that decline and political abandonment were key drivers in both the Brexit vote and election result. To date the left has failed to heed the warnings from these votes with some foolishly backing the pro establishment Remain alliance. If we don’t take note of these repeated mistakes, we will be preparing the ground for yet more serious failures. The hard-right Tory government are trying to build bases in former Labour heartlands in England and Wales. The fascists have instructed their members to join the Tories, who have been received so far without any complaint. With mass strikes in France, and mass movements for democracy, against austerity and oppression spreading across the world, people are increasingly looking for radical solutions to their problems. If the left and labour movement don’t provide them, then the Tories and the far right will try and fill the vacuum. Once again, we have been warned!

From rs21

Notes

[1] Jonny Jones, ‘Winning the Revenge Election’, rs21.org.uk [online] (9 December 2019); Proltariato_Papi, ‘Wading through the mud’, Medium.com [online] (16 Decewmber 2019); Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (London: Zero, 2009); Enzo Traverso, Left-Wing Melancholia. Marxism, History, and Memory (New York: Columbia UP, 2016), p. 20.

[2] Mike Davis, ‘What’s wrong with America? A debate with Thomas Frank’ (2005), reprinted in: In Praise of Barbarians: Essays Against Empire (Chicago, IL.: Haymarket, 2007), pp. 42, 47, 48.

[3] Sebastian Payne, ‘“Teeside Tories” have promises to keep’, Financial Times (17 December 2019).

[4] Luke Telford and Jonthan Wistow, ‘Brexit and the working class on Teeside: Moving beyond reductionism’, Capital & Class [online] (16 September 2019): 1–20.

[5] Aditya Chakrabortty, ‘This Labour meltdown has been building for decades’, The Guardian [online] (14 December 2019).

[6] Mike Davis, ‘The urbanization of empire’, in: In Praise of Barbarians, p. 128.

[7] Davis, ‘Urbanization of empire’, p. 129.

[8] See note 4.

[9] Tom Hazeldine, ‘Revolt of the rustbelt’, New Left Review 105 [online] (May-June 2017) 69.

[10] Traverso, Left-Wing Melancholia, p. 8.

[11] Hazeldine, ‘Revolt’, 69.

[12] Based upon recollections from Brian Parkin

[13] Traverso, Left-Wing Melancholia, pp. xv and 10, quoting Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, No. 14, in: Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973), p. 263.

After Brexit Day: now the real fight begins – LeFT Campaign statement

Photo: pixabay

As the dust settles after Britain formally left the EU on the 31st January, the task for socialists remains the same: to work to raise working class consciousness, and to arm our movement and our class with the necessary weapons in the struggle ahead. What context Britain outside the EU provides, and where the likely terrain for the battle will be, are questions we must seek to answer, and ones in which the LeFT Campaign aims to play a part.

Brexit Day is only a prelude to at the very least 11 months of Tory-EU negotiations to agree a new trading arrangement.

It’s very likely that this will provoke further crisis in Britain’s ruling class, as the Tories try to negotiate with Brussels and Washington simultaneously.

Regarding the latter, the mooted ambition is a trade deal with the US, but that is difficult, and is unlikely to happen before the presidential election in November. There are already signs of US-UK tensions, exacerbated by the furore over Huawei’s role in Britain’s 5G network.

Johnson wants to be free to engage in state investment. That requires a ‘Canada-plus[i]’ deal with the EU.

This new vision, brought on by economic necessity and the wishes of a section of British capital, as well as by the political reality of how Johnson won his majority, is rather different from the delusional, harking back to empire vision beloved of Tory Brexiters in the European Research Group. This will potentially create further tensions in the UK’s first party of capital.

For its part, the EU doesn’t want to set up barriers to trade, or allow Britain to gain competitive advantage by using state aid for investment in key manufacturing sectors.

Pascal Lamy, former WTO Director General and EU Trade Commissioner, told the BBC this week that forthcoming negotiations between the EU and Britain will be the first in history where both parties began with frictionless trade and discuss what barriers to put up – and this is in the context of EU power brokers being historically opposed to such measures.

All this points to a set of contradictions that will provide an opportunity for the left, providing we fight Johnson with full knowledge of the context of the struggle, which is that we have a Tory government that is going to try and use its initial period to address, however inadequately, the concerns of the people who lent it their vote, while attacking trade unions and tacking further right on social issues and upping the ‘culture war’ that has so weakened political discourse and undermined class unity in recent years. In doing that it will embolden forces to its right, and worsen the racist hostile environment that it has done so much to foster.

Responding to that cannot mean arguing to keep alignment with the EU, as John McDonnell argued on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday 2 February. There are three principal problems with the position that he articulated:

  • It would stymie the parliamentary left and any future Labour government, and give succour to the left’s enemies, and those responsible for the election loss.
  • It fails to understand whatsoever the political context, and hopes for a future of rebuilding industry and prosperity in regions blighted by deindustrialisation and will help not one jot with rebuilding the left in the so-called ‘Red Wall’.
  • It is not going to happen. The Tories have a large majority. As is obvious from the lack of pressure coming from the corporate media, the People’s Vote campaign and even the ghosts of New Labour, much of British capital is confident that it can cope with whatever happens in post-Brexit Britain, providing the City of London’s banking and financial interests are kept safe.

We in Leave – Fight – Transform, the LeFT Campaign need to continue to make the case for what can be achieved outside the EU and to fight to rebuild the left in our communities in all of Britain.

The LeFT campaign:

  • Acknowledges that this will require a united left, one in which how people voted in 2016 does not define them. Remain and Leave are finished. This will require us to continue to make the correct analysis, both of the actual concrete reality of the EU, and of the tactics needed to rebuild an independent, fighting left.
  • Will fight for workers’ rights in post-Brexit Britain. As part of this, we will continue to make the case that our rights are not dependent upon workers’ relationship with the EU, but on the strength of our movement.
  • Will, in the context of a new and unpredictable terrain, fight for full social and political rights for migrant workers in Britain, demand an end to the discriminatory treatment of non-EU migrants to Britain and continue to call for an end to Fortress Europe. This is the path to international working class unity
  • Will build solidarity with the working class movement across other EU member states, in particular with socialists looking to develop a case for exiting.
  • Will develop a series of meetings and material for education for use both here and internationally: in the unions; in the workplace; in colleges and universities.

The EU has been hugely weakened by the loss of a tenth of its population and a sixth of its GDP, along with one of its most powerful military and diplomatic powers. What couldn’t be done has been done: a major country has broken with the largest trading bloc in history.

If we look to the debates taking place in the US, Bernie Sanders’ opposition to NAFTA has begun a conversation that it has been impossible to have in the UK (or anywhere in the EU) for generations. Now we can begin to have that debate, and to think about what the path to a transformed Britain and Europe looks like. It won’t be easy. 

There are right wing governments throughout the bloc, and enemies everywhere. But the terrain is now open. 


[i] The so-called Canada-EU trade agreement (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement of 2017) abolished 98% of tariffs on goods traded between Canada and the EU. The rest will go by 2024. The EU and Canada agreed to open public contracts to each other’s contractors and co-operate on technical standards, safety and quality checks for mutual recognition of professional qualifications. CETA is not a customs union or single market so parties are free to do trade deals with other countries. CETA does not remove border controls, but encourages use of advanced electronic checking to speed customs clearance. CETA does not cover trade in financial services, which remain under WTO rules.

On Brexit day: LeFT Campaign Statement on Britain leaving the European Union

Tonight Britain legally ceases to be a member state of the European Union, Leave, Fight, Transform – The LeFT Campaign says: 

Now Fight for Socialist Transformation

The fact that Britain is at last leaving the EU on 31 January 2020 some three and a half years since we voted to do so, is a victory for popular democracy and the real People’s vote over Britain’s political establishment and the corporate-sponsored Remain campaign. 

Now we are leaving the EU, the real political struggle begins:

  • To end austerity policies (mandatory for member states under the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact)
  • For investment in manufacturing jobs and public services (severely restricted under EU State Aid rules)
  • To bring our railways and utilities back into public ownership (which EU Single market rules were designed to prevent)

Of course as the decline in Labour’s vote share at the 2019 general election showed, it didn’t need to be a Tory government that delivered Brexit. Labour’s adoption of a second referendum policy was a demonstration of bad faith and a self-inflicted wound for which the party was punished by voters. 

Boris Johnson’s Tories may brag they ‘Got Brexit Done’, but the political battle now moves onto new terrain – the future we make for ourselves as a country outside the constraints of the EU.

The Labour movement and the left in Britain have a choice to make between continuing to be cheerleaders for membership of the increasingly authoritarian, neoliberal EU empire, or standing up for the millions of working people in Britain who want the socialist policies that only a Labour government can deliver. 

The Road from Wigan's clear

Our Brexit, or Theirs – the LeFT Campaign’s North West event on Saturday 18 January at Gerrard Winstanley House – named for Wigan’s most famous son of the English revolution – saw a big turnout by trade unionists and socialists from across the North west region and beyond. 

As Tony Benn once remarked, there are two types of people in political life, signposts and weathervanes. At Wigan we began to signpost the way to win back a labour movement willing and able to fight for working class interests and a voice for those tired of being ignored. 

Keynote speakers Ian Lavery (Labour Party Chair and MP for Wansbeck) and Jon Trickett (Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and MP for Hemsworth in Yorkshire) crossed the Pennines to join us. But comrades were also present from Liverpool, Crewe, Chesterfield, Manchester, Preston, Blackpool, Bury, Bolton and as far afield as Gloucester and London to debate the aftermath of Labour’s 2019 general election defeat and discuss the demands our labour movement must take up as Britain exits the European Union on 31 January.

LeFT Campaign groups in Greater Manchester, South Yorkshire and London met in recent weeks taking soundings from labour movement activists. The Wigan event was planned to bring together as many North West left activists as possible and given the short notice can be judged a success. 

We were welcomed to Wigan by Steve Shaw, chair of transport union RMT’s Wigan branch whose banner adorned the stage and who spoke with justifiable pride about his home town and his members’ 40 days plus of strike action in the last two years taken in defence of railworkers’ jobs and to stop introduction of Driver-only trains. 

Steve praised the minority of local Labour Councillors in Wigan who had supported RMT picket lines and lambasted the majority who had not: “If you wonder why some railworkers in the North West didn’t vote Labour at the general election and may have even voted Tory, they will tell you one reason is because those Labour councillors never support us when we are on strike” he said.

 Ian Lavery opened the meeting, speaking powerfully about his feelings of dismay at being proved correct that by adopting a de-facto pro-Remain policy to appease Lib-Dem voters in a minority of Remain-voting constituencies mainly in the south of England, Labour had been the architect of its own general election defeat. He recalled being told before the general election that he didn’t understand his own constituents (who voted by 70 per cent to Leave the EU in 2016) by Shadow Cabinet members armed with opinion polls funded by pro-Remain campaign groups. 

Ian Lavery MP, Chairman of the Labour Party

Paula Barker, MP for Liverpool Wavertree who until the 2019 general election was Unison’s Regional Convenor in the North west spoke on the impact of European Court judgements such as Alemo-Herron that entrench low wages and inequality for outsourced workers. As Paula pointed out, leaving the EU offers fresh relevance to socialist policies of public ownership and investment: “Being outside the EU makes it easier to renationalise our railways, post office, gas and electricity. The party that argues for these policies now stands a real chance of delivering them.”

Paula Barker, Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree

Michael Calderbank is a lay member Labour activist and officer from Brent CLP. He works with the Trade Union Coordinating Group and writes for Red Pepper magazine. Michael spoke about how working class voices had been pushed out to the margins of the debate over leaving the EU. Instead of reflecting the anger that working class voters felt at deindustrialisation, low wages, casualised jobs, poor housing and declining public services, many Labour politicians had spent the years since the 2017 general election ‘shaming’ working class Leave voters. 

Michael reminded us that working class voters have demonstrated repeatedly they want real change: “Labour must offer real change by using the possibilities offered by Brexit to end free movement of capital and impose exchange controls with systematic nation-wide planning and investment”, he said.

Laura Smith, who lost her seat as Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich at the 2019 general election, spoke brilliantly and passionately about the folly of Labour’s 2019 EU policy: “Leaving the European Union is a precondition for democratic socialist politics”, she reminded us. 

Laura appealed to the audience to start painting a positive picture of life under a Labour government outside the European Union. As she put it, “Life will be shit for working people under a Tory government whether we are inside the EU, or outside it. We must shift the debate about Labour’s future plans to ignite enthusiasm for socialist policies.”

Laura Smith, former Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich

Laura blew the cobwebs of Remainer pessimism off Labour’s internal EU debate, telling us, “We have to organise so that people value solidarity. We must campaign to repeal the Trade Union Act. We must empower our people by democratising our economy and society.” Commenting wryly on her fellow former Labour MP, Laura said, “Let’s resolve to all be a bit more like Dennis Skinner.” 

Jon Trickett went into some of the detailed exchanges he and Ian Lavery had endured with fellow Shadow Cabinet members who argued against all political logic and evidence that by adopting a pro-Remain policy Labour would win both votes and seats at the general election. The full film of Jon, Ian and others’ speeches will be available on the Leave – Fight – Transform Facebook page. 

Jon Trickett MP, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office

Our second panel of trade union and community campaigners set out ideas for the way forward to rebuild our labour movement from the grassroots. 

Trade Union and community organisers

Kevan Nelson, Unison North west Regional Secretary, reminded us that the recent general election is not a zero-sum game. Irrespective of Labour’s drubbing, the fact that we are leaving the EU on 31 January is a case for celebration for all democrats. 

Kevan reminded us of Marx’s words in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” 

Bakers’ Union President, Ian Hodson paid tribute to BFAWU members’ 2013 strike in Wigan, where Hovis attempted to impose zero-hours contracts on new staff entrants. To their credit, his members refused to accept the creation of a two-tier workforce in a unionised workplace. The exponential growth of zero-hours and agency employment in Britain is a direct outcome of EU-driven, liberalisation of employment legislation such as the 2008 Temporary Agency Work Directive which normalises agency and casual employment. 

Ian recalled how due to her support for the strike, his union recommended Jeremy Corbyn invite Wigan MP Lisa Nandy to join the Shadow Cabinet after his election as Labour leader in 2015. She was duly appointed, and within months was in cahoots with Lord Mandelson to become, along with Chris Leslie, a principal protagonist of the 2016 ‘Chicken coup’. Lesson learned. 

Steve Hedley, RMT Senior Assistant General Secretary commented on the 2019 Tory manifesto attack on railworkers’ right to take strike action by threatening to impose a minimum service requirement during rail disputes. If rail unions such as RMT are banned from organising lawful and effective industrial action, he predicted railworkers would take matters into their own hands by organising industrial action independently of official trade unions. 

Finally, Karen Buckley, a Manchester activist and member of Counterfire, addressed the need for campaigns in communities abandoned by politicians and subjected to a decade of austerity policies. Our discussions were enriched by dozens of socialist and trade union activists from Wigan and across the North West. 

Michael Calderbank and Paul O'Connell – The Socialist Offensive

“We’re gonna have to do more than talk. We’re gonna have to do more than listen. We’re gonna have to do more than learn. We’re gonna have to start practicing and that’s very hard. We’re gonna have to start getting out there with the people and that’s difficult. Sometimes we think we’re better than the people so it’s gonna take a lot of hard work”. – Fred Hampton

In the few days since the election, Boris Johnson’s new government have already begun attacks on left-wing media outlets (and the media more generally), moved to undermine the BDS movement in solidarity with the people of Palestine, and indicated that they intend to pick a fight with stalwart trade unions such as the RMT. The fightback against Johnson and his cabal has to start now, but as we move forward we also have to learn the key lessons from the Brexit referendum, the misdeeds of the continuity Remain campaign and the mistakes of sections of the left.

Margaret Thatcher is reported to have said that her greatest political achievement was Tony Blair and New Labour. The New Labour project, like social democratic parties across the developed world, ‘won’ on the electoral plain by abandoning any vision of an alternative to finance-led, neoliberal capitalism, which tossed millions on the scrapheap while hollowing out democracy.

In the wake of the great financial crisis of 2008, the bankruptcy of social democracy in this mould has meant that the right, in general, has triumphed, while the left is almost everywhere floundering. This conjuncture attests to the accuracy of Samir Amin’s observation that in the absence of positive utopias, people will retreat into reactionary ones. The Brexit vote was by no means a simple working-class rebellion against the status quo, at least not in any progressive sense. But it was a clear statement that working class people want an alternative to the status quo.

The historical obligation of the left is to articulate this alternative. In the wake of Brexit this could not be achieved by aligning with Tony Blair, or the charlatan Lib Dems, but unfortunately liberal left commentators, and opportunistic elements within the Labour Party failed to see this. The left, in the Labour Party and elsewhere, should have accepted Brexit as a political fact and begun a socialist offensive to remake British society – to build, as Amin puts it, the world we wish to see.

We failed, collectively to do this, and the recent election result is a consequence of that. To  move forward now and build the movement we need to resist the Tory onslaught, it will be necessary to move forward, to pick up the fractured pieces of the left and build around shared beliefs and goals. In this regard three key lessons need to be drawn from the Brexit debate, which in turn provide three key principles that should shape the struggles of the left going forward.

The first is that the left in the Britain, whether in the Labour Party, trade unions, or various groupings on the revolutionary left, is divorced, in key respects, from the working-class communities that it purports to speak for. This is not just Northern working-class communities, but throughout the country. A central tenet of socialist politics, articulated explicitly by Marx, has been that the emancipation of working-class people was, in the first instance, the job of the working class. In various ways many sections of the formal left has lost faith with this basic principle, and by retreating into professionalised politics (whether in political parties/groupings, NGOs, trade unions, media punditry or academia) has lost any meaningful, organic connection with the with working class communities and their daily struggles.

In the era opening before us, it is crucial then that those on the left work assiduously to ensure that their work, ideas and arguments are immersed in the concrete struggles of all working-class people. This will take the form of specific workplace struggles, campaigns for migrant rights, community struggles to defend the NHS, and more. Whatever form the struggle takes, socialists must ensure that their frame of reference is the experience of communities at the coal face, and not the self-referential and self-reinforcing bubble of mainstream politics, parliamentarianism and faux radical media personalities.

A second key principle, which draws on what was best in those who argued for Remain, is that a large number of people are committed to a form of internationalism. The mistake is to identify these positive ideals with the EU, which, as E. P. Thompson long ago noted, has only ever been a truncated form of internationalism. The positive principles implicit in the best elements of the Remain campaign will be central to socialist politics. We must make an uncompromising defence of workers’ rights – including those of migrant workers – together with an unrepentant anti-racism and a genuine internationalism, the core of our politics.

The final key lesson and principle that emerges from the Brexit debate is the centrality of the struggle for democracy. It is easy for the liberal commentariat to blithely dismiss the slogan of ‘taking back control’ as articulated by Eton-educated career politicians. But the purchase of this slogan shows vast sections of the working class want more of a say in the decisions that shape and impact on their lives. People, with varying degrees of consciousness, are rejecting the tyranny of impersonal market forces controlling their lives and demanding a say in what the future looks like. This desire to become active protagonists in shaping the world around them is something socialists must embrace. This is even more reason why the siren call of overturning the referendum result should have been resisted.

The left needs to push for an expansion and proliferation of democracy and participation in every aspect of our shared lives: in local communities, political parties, trade unions and over matters of national policy. In certain respects, the Corbyn phenomenon produced a surge of such democratic, mass involvement within the Labour Party. This, of course, faces a counter-offensive from the representatives of the extreme centre in the Labour Party, and in the mainstream media, including erstwhile supporters. Those focused solely, or primarily, on the politics of parliamentarianism are happy to jettison the green shoots of change that Corbyn represented in favour of a Blair-lite, ‘electable’ candidate.

In the impending leadership election to decide who succeeds Corbyn, it will be crucial that the left of Labour, trade unions and the wider socialist movement focus on the key priorities for the movement going forward, and not on the mundanities of personality, stature and so on. The left should articulate its short-term priorities, draft a set of core principles, and demand that anyone standing to lead the Labour Party signs up those principles – to salvage what gains have been made during the Corbyn moment the focus has to be on substance, and not cosmetics.

Instead of resignedly accepting the logic of the establishment, socialists must make every aspect of people’s lives a realm of politics, struggle and change and must argue for and work towards a fundamental transformation of the post-Brexit landscape. The Chilean socialist Marta Harnecker has articulated the real challenge for socialists in the 21st century – for her:

‘Politics is the art of making the impossible possible, not from some voluntarist urge to change things but because our efforts should be realistically focused on changing the current balance of power so that what appears to be impossible today becomes possible tomorrow.’

For the left in the UK, resignation and melancholy are luxuries we cannot afford. Having plunged us into a major crisis by airing their dirty laundry in public, the right has regrouped and is on the offensive. The sort of Brexit that many fear, is only inevitable if we resign ourselves to it. If, instead, we go on the offensive, then we can take this moment to remake British society. The future is open, how it turns out will depend on the steps we take, and the resolve we show: there are no guarantees, but if we unite and fight, we can win.

Michael Calderbank and Paul O’Connell are members of the LeFT Campaign Working Group. This post draws on an updated extract of an article previously published in Red Pepper.

Dan Evans – Election Fallout

Many Marxists on the British left, variously derided as lunatics, Stalinists, lexiters, cranks, warned that Labour’s liberal drift on Brexit would be disastrous, both electorally and in terms of trying to build an insurgent, socialist movement. Such warnings were ignored, and unfortunately, we all know how the election played out. Labour’s original position of respecting the result of the 2017 referendum was patently right. The pivot to a second referendum, informed by polling data (propagated by opportunistic political scientists) which claimed that Labour voters in leave voting Labour heartlands actually voted remain, was a disaster. Labour leave voters deserted the party en masse across their traditional heartlands, Labour lost all the key marginals. People wanted to get Brexit done. You cannot win over working class people, no matter how good your social programme, by prefacing it by telling them you are going to overturn their democratic wishes.

The fact that this glaring, painfully obvious fact was not grasped, and continues not to be, illuminates one of the key problems with Corbynism: rather than building on the 2017 bounce and becoming a mass, working class movement rooted in trade unions, parallel working class institutions and working class communities; it allowed itself to become a top down movement, led by celebrity leftists who, although very well meaning and useful in many ways, have no clue about working class communities and no clue about class politics. This celebrity cadre and groups like Another Europe provided left wing cover for the party’s gradual pivot to remain- a campaign funded and driven by the likes of Peter Mandelson- because they ultimately don’t come from the communities that voted leave and simply don’t know what it’s like to be patronised and taken for granted.

Since 2016, the left’s prevailing culture of solipsism prevented people from performing the simple, vital human task of putting themselves in the shoes of others, of people who voted leave, and to reflect on how they would feel if their vote was overturned.

This is not about gloating, there is no time for that. The fact that that those of us who argued the principled, socialist case for respecting the referendum result and leaving the EU were so marginalised and helpless during the campaign, that we could do nothing to prevent the disastrous pivot to remain, also reflects poorly on us. There is no pride in being a minor tendency that people can routinely ignore, no comfort in being right when our communities stand to be decimated.

I personally feel desperately ashamed that I have not done more, have not been persuasive enough: I know that Marxist analysis rooted in the working class provides both map and compass to help us navigate these dangerous times, but this is no good if people won’t listen. On reflection I have almost certainly been too snarky with people, too hostile – more concerned perhaps with being ironic and building cultural capital on the echo chamber of Twitter, rather than persuading people in a comradely way. This is something I will reflect on over the coming days and months.

Next steps.

The LeFT Campaign has already set out an analysis of why we lost, and what we need to do next to make sure we can win the critical fights ahead. This provides a starting point for how we orientate ourselves going forward. The key immediate short-term task (i.e., over the next 6 months) for Labour will be to defend the gains of Corbynism, prevent the party from tacking right and becoming once again controlled by neoliberals, or by the deeply worrying, chauvinistic identity politics of Blue Labour. The left need to finally win control of the Labour party once and for all. This will require providing intensive political education to the new cadres of activists who have recently entered the labour movement and have been inspired by Corbynism.

The British Labour movement have never understood how power works, and this naivety has repeatedly proved extremely damaging. One of the key pillars of this political education therefore needs to be illustrating the nature of state power and the huge structural forces arraigned against the left. If we take any positives from this defeat it should be that in the campaign against Corbyn, the state establishment – the Labour right, the civil service, the security apparatus, the media, etc – was repeatedly unmasked as a tool of capital. The attacks on Corbyn need to be analysed and understood as an example of how the state is not a neutral tool that the left can simply take over and wield, but has a class character of its own. Hopefully, many of the young people drawn into the Labour movement by Corbynism saw this with their own eyes and will be less naïve about the scale of the challenges we face than their forebears.

After this, the long term task is to begin the unglamorous task of rebuilding the working class apparatuses which once sustained working class power. Corbynism tried to take power without undertaking this necessary work, and its failure proves that this is non-negotiable: there are no shortcuts to taking power.

The first part of this strategy will be to develop a mass trade union movement. This will require the movement to become more flexible in its recruitment practices and modern and radical in its aims, focusing on mass increases in union membership in the huge swathes of workers who remain un-unionised in the gig economy and service sectors. For starters, there needs to be an unemployed workers’ union, a renters’ union, a union for third sector workers. The second part of building up counter-hegemony (or ‘dual power’) will involve building community centres, libraries, adult education, sports clubs, political education provision, and finally, belatedly, becoming involved in non-parliamentary forms of politics.

Realising that politics doesn’t just mean voting and canvassing every 4 years is a powerful lesson to take from all this. One of the most potent ways that this could (and indeed urgently needs) to be achieved is allying the mass Labour movement to an insurgent, extra parliamentary environmental movement, most obviously represented by (but not limited to) the group Extinction Rebellion. This will prevent the labour movement from reneging on its crucial environmental promises, and will stop the environmental movement being co-opted by capital and let down by some of the problematic people involved in XR.  

Becoming Resolute

Liberals, including some (by no means all) of the leaders of Momentum and the Labour party, routinely shit the bed. They are bottlers. They are weak. They panic and wobble when things aren’t looking good, they clamour to try and appeal to everyone, to please The Guardian, to placate the media (who will hate us whatever we do) and the middle classes.

In the event, Corbyn’s biggest flaw was that he was not resolute enough as a leader. He didn’t stand up to people like John McDonnell and Owen Jones who pressured him into pivoting to remain. He didn’t go through with deselections when he needed to be ruthless and clear out all the Blairites from the PLP by any means necessary. He capitulated and accepted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and apologised when he had nothing to apologise for. He capitulated and got rid of Chris Williamson even when Tony Blair was allowed to remain in the party. He didn’t win the battle for the soul of the Labour party, and ultimately paid the price for this.

I want to emphasise that while I am critical of Corbyn (and many on the Labour left) for this, Jeremy Corbyn is a hero of the Labour movement. A kind, compassionate man who gave hope to millions of people and dented the prevailing consensus of capitalist realism. I am proud to have campaigned for him and socialists around the world should all be extremely grateful to him. But while Corbyn’s personal qualities and contribution are laudable, as a movement we need to be far more resolute in the face of our enemies.

Despite being utterly repellent, Boris Johnson and many of his public-school ilk are ruthless, hard, motivated individuals (perhaps as a function of the brutalising trauma of boarding school). When he came into power, Johnson cleaned house. Our new Tory leaders are determined to get what they want and don’t care what people think.

It is possible to be unwavering whilst retaining love and compassion that marks us out from Tory sociopathy. Socialists have to be tough when the chips are down, we have to take strength from the fact that we believe in what we are doing is right, and above all, we draw strength from being part of a mass movement rooted in our communities. Without being part of a collective we will always falter, and the harsh reality is that when it mattered, we were not there in sufficient numbers as an extra parliamentary movement to support Jeremy Corbyn when he should’ve stood against his right wing and taken the tough decisions outlined above. He was exposed and isolated when he needed a mass movement to lean on.

We must always remember that we the working class are alone the motor of history and when we are organized we are the most powerful force in the world.

Dan Evans is Welsh sociologist, founding signatory of the LeFT Campaign and co-host of the Desolation Radio podcast.

Paul O'Connell – Why We Lost, How We Win

“Intelligence enough to conceive, courage enough to will, power enough to compel. If our ideas of a new society are anything more than a dream, these three qualities must animate the majority of the working-people; and then, I say, the thing will be done”. – William Morris

Why Labour has lost the election despite the immense efforts of thousands of committed activists and the most progressive manifesto in years is a crucial question to orientate the next phase of socialist politics and class struggle in Britain. Indeed, the battle of interpretation over the result will be a determining factor in the ongoing internal fights within the labour movement, the strategy and tactics moving forward for the radical left and for the lessons drawn by the wider working class.

One interpretation which is already being pushed by the liberal left is that Labour (read Corbyn) were too slow to articulate the politics of Remain. As such, the argument goes, Labour ended up electorally betwixt and between, when it should have embraced the virtues of Remain, while bringing recalcitrant Leave-voting working class voters with it. This argument is being pushed by groups like Another Europe is Possible and the usual coterie of liberal commentators in the Guardian and elsewhere. But this analysis draws all the wrong conclusions from the last five years and would set the left up for further failure if it gained traction. Another view, pushed by elements on the right of the Labour Party, is that Labour lost touch with the “socially conservative” or “traditional” working class – this is as mistaken and detrimental an approach as that advanced by the liberals, and both should be rejected by the socialist left going forward.

In truth, the decisive reason Labour lost the election is that over the last three years it shifted from being a party committed to respecting the result of the Brexit referendum, to being a party of Remain in all but name. There were, of course, a number of other important reasons, ranging from the undisguised bias of the mainstream media, the pessimism ingrained by more than thirty years of neoliberalism, and a concerted campaign of character assassination against Corbyn, carried out over the last four years, often with the support of many Labour MPs and disgruntled Blairites in the media.

But Labour’s changed stance on Brexit proved decisive as this was the key issue for many voters in the election, formed the core of the Tory election message (dutifully parroted by the media) and is reflected in the Leave voting constituencies which Labour lost to the Tories. Indeed, partway through the election campaign it’s clear the Labour leadership recognised that this issue was hurting the campaign and pivoted to Leave voting constituencies in the North and Midlands, while keeping arch-Remainers like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer out of the media spotlight. This, unfortunately, proved too little, too late.

The shift in Labour’s position was brought about by a concerted campaign led by the worst remnants of the Blair years (Mandelson, Campbell, Blair, Watson and co.), with the support of most in the media and the wider political class. Once Labour was successfully manoeuvred into backing a second referendum, the electoral logic of this position was to try to capture the disgruntled middle classes, who form the social base of the second vote/Remain block, and to hope that working class communities that had voted Leave in the referendum could be won over with promises of a brighter material future under a Labour government. In order to pursue this strategy, Labour had to try to make the election about everything but Brexit, but this was a naïve strategy, that never stood a chance.

While working class people’s lives are blighted by austerity, the effects of public sector cuts, job insecurity and falling wages, and the spectre of climate catastrophe has increasingly come to the fore in recent years, politics (in the narrow sense the frames the terrain of electoralism) in Britain has been dominated by Brexit for almost four years. It has become the terrain on which a bizarre, but entrenched, culture war is fought out, and in the weeks before the election was called Labour had twice refused to vote for a General Election, on the basis of wanting to secure guarantees about a “no deal” Brexit.

In the end, this remained, as it was always likely to be, the “Brexit election” and large numbers of working class Leave voters (as well as many working class Remain voters) bought into the empty rhetoric and promises of Johnson and co, and voted for what they hope will be an end to the Brexit uncertainty (it won’t be), but they have also voted against the perceived contempt in Labour’s disingenuous offer to Leave voters. The election, then, was lost because Labour chose to privilege the politics of the middle class, over that of large sections of the working class on the defining issue of Brexit.

This was also crucial because of the core issue of trust and integrity. While the Brexit vote is complex, the majority of working-class people that voted for it (which was a majority of the working class that voted) are from areas that have witnessed industrial decline, poverty and marginalisation for decades. These are areas were people have been told for years, explicitly and implicitly, that there was nothing they could do to change their lot. With the Brexit vote, they got a say on a crucial issue of national policy, a once in a lifetime say. But when they voted for Brexit, the established reacted immediately with efforts to delegitimate and overturn the result.

In the 2017 General Election, Labour promised to respect the Brexit vote, and fight for the best possible Brexit – married to its radical manifesto, this allowed Labour to present itself as a genuine insurgent force. In this election, having capitulated to the demands of reactionary liberalism and committed itself to a second referendum, Labour could not consistently present itself as a party of insurgent change and transformation, while playing the part of restoring the status quo ante on the Brexit issue. Labour could not be partly radical, partly on the side of the working class in Leave voting areas, it had to be wholehearted, and it wasn’t.

The election result leaves us facing up to five more years of Tory rule, and we can be under no illusions that in this time they will go on the attack against workers’ rights, migrants, public services and the environment. Given that we have likely already entered the early stages of the next recession, the austerity and inhumanity of the last decade of Tory-Lib Dem rule will be redoubled and the working class will, as ever, be at the sharp end of this class warfare. As such, we have to reject the entirely understandable impulse to mourn this loss, and instead move swiftly to organising ourselves for the fights ahead.

But in moving forward we have to take stock of the experiences of the last few years, to understand how we have gotten to where we are now, and to orientate ourselves for our next steps. To do this we must refocus on the central principles of socialism. Socialist politics is grounded on the central divisions in society between the tiny minority that owns the wealth of society, and the rest of us who have to work for the scraps off their table. Socialism is about class, class interests, class struggle, and understanding the dizzying, confusing mess of modern society through the lens of class analysis, so as to make sense of it, and work to transform society.

In this election, and over the last four years marked by the Brexit conjuncture, Labour and many on the left have lost sight of the centrality of class when it comes to Brexit. As such, it has been possible to dismiss Brexit as a mere racist endeavour, to imagine that the vote to leave could be dismissed, and the mob who voted for it could be won around with the promise of what’s better for them – this is the politics of arrogant Fabianism, and is not the basis for building a radical alternative.

At the General Election in 2017, a Corbyn-led Labour Party secured the biggest increase in the party’s vote since World War II by accepting the result of the referendum and connecting the ruptural energy of the Brexit vote to a manifesto that promised radical change for working class communities. In this election, Labour advanced even more radical policies, but was not able to convincingly present itself as the party of radical transformation, while at the same time being committed, in effect, to disregarding and overturning the Brexit vote.

While the Brexit conjuncture is complex, it is in the first instance a rejection of the status quo. In this way it overlapped with the growing support for Corbyn, this is why it is no mere coincidence that those most fervently opposed to Brexit are also those most hostile to Corbyn and the Corbyn project in Labour. In this election Labour sided, on a crucially defining issue, with its opponents, and as such was rejected by many of those who should be its natural base.

The great shame of it is that the policies on almost everything else in the Labour manifesto are in line with the interests of working class people, but the fundamental problem is that because of how it approached the issue of Brexit, Labour ended up, in many working class communities, appearing as an outsider, offering to advance socialism for the working class, but not with it. This stems from the fact that while the Corbyn moment reflected a reinvigoration of loosely socialist ideas, it was not grounded in working class communities and workplaces. The recently formed community organising unit presages some of what can and should be done on this front, but this sort of work has been a peripheral element of the Corbyn moment, and the broader movement around it, to date.

In the weeks, months and years ahead, we have to expand our efforts to build a serious, socialist movement grounded in, led by and responsive to working class communities. We have to make clear, as the Tories unleash even more savage class warfare, that only the working class itself can resist austerity, defend workers and migrants’ rights, lead the fight back against the bourgeoning far right and confront the threat of climate catastrophe.

This will mean many different things:

  • we will need to develop organised networks of activists and trade unionists both within and outside the Labour Party to advance a genuine, socialist analysis of the problems that confront our communities (in an otherwise barren landscape, some local Momentum groups, Helping Hands in Edinburgh, and ACORN provide some templates to build on);
  • political education has to be a priority within the movement, far more so than it has been to date – notable celebrity commentators imparting bland slogans are no substitute for organised, educated cadres of committed socialists in our communities and workplaces;
  • in doing this, we will need to develop media platforms that break with the individualism and narcissism of the current sea of podcasts, Patreons and niche publications.

Recent years, marked both by Brexit and the Corbyn moment, show that in these turbulent times there is appetite for serious change, and this election does not change that. The Tory Party may now, at least, deliver on the UK formally leaving the EU (this won’t be “Brexit sorted”, as Brexit is a complex process and not a formal event), and that opens the space for the socialist left to re-focus all our efforts on fighting to fundamentally transform and shape post-Brexit Britain. For while the Tories have held together around Brexit for this election, they are a party riven with division, reflecting the crisis of the British state and ruling class, and their apparent strength at present is an illusion.

As we face up to these new challenges, we must learn from the mistakes of recent years: too much time has been spent on the minutiae of Labour Party proceduralism, and not enough on building in communities and workplaces. Going forward, we need to take the inspirational energy demonstrated during the election and carry it over into organising and mobilising to transform our trade unions, to build alternative models of democracy and community empowerment on issues from public transport, to schools, health care and the environment. Crucially, we need to reorientate our politics to the centrality of class (of the working class in its entirety, not some mythical traditional or white working class).

This has to be the focus, because without the working class there is no socialism: in the absence of empowered, protagonistic working class communities and organisations there is no rupture with the status quo. We have to take the best that has emerged from the Corbyn moment but break with the errors that have brought us to where we are now. We have suffered a defeat, but the battle of our lives begins now.

Paul O’Connell is a member of the LeFT Campaign Working Group.

Which Side Are You On?

The Brexit Party appeared on the UK political scene in January of this year. We ought to see it as an effect of the political impasse of the last three years; in particular, as a political grouping (it is hard to really see them as a party, seeing as they have so few policies) that would not exist if two discrete sets of circumstances had not come about: the failure of the Tory party to deliver Brexit and the failure of a left argument for Brexit to gain traction. Let’s take both of these in turn.

Brexit brought to the fore contradictions in British Conservatism that could not be resolved, namely:

  • How the first party of capital could affect a break with the EU in the context of the fact that it would damage capital. There is no better deal for British capital and the vast majority of the ruling class than the one that they currently have.
  • How a remain-supporting parliamentary party could seek a deal that achieved damage limitation while keeping both its Eurosceptic base and Eurosceptic right in parliament happy.

Brexit also brought to the fore contradictions in the left and specifically, British Labourism, though they are of a different order:

  • How the leftward push brought about by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership could be maintained in the context of the majority of the labour movement in broad terms aligning itself with the EU from the late 1980s onwards. This is an alignment that has placed the left on the same side as the establishment.
  • In this context, given the paucity of concrete analyses of the material character of the EU, how the left could continue to grow in the Labour Party while being under attack from the Europhile right and centre.
  • How the Labour Party could speak for its traditional base, much of which had voted out, while keeping on board the section of the working class that had voted remain, and its liberal middle class base, which identifies strongly with a certain notion of Europeanism.

This set of circumstances has given ample space for the growth of the Brexit Party. It is important to note that it is not the same as UKIP, despite the presence of the ubiquitous Nigel Farage. It is not as anti-immigrant; the context here is UKIP’s increasing move rightwards into working with fascist groups and individuals such as Tommy Robinson. Moreover, left cover has been given to it by the support of George Galloway, who also considered standing for it, and of Claire Fox, and other former members of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) who now congregate around the online site Spiked. In reality, Fox et al made the journey from ultra-leftism to right wing libertarianism quite some time ago, but the veneer is still there, as witnessed by Fox’s speech at a rally in May, where she quoted Tony Benn and Sylvia Pankhurst. She is now an MEP.

Do not be fooled by any of this.

The Brexit Party is an anti-working class organisation that organises around nationalism, and abstract ideological notions of democracy and traitorousness. Its entire modus operandi is to deny the contradictions described above and instead to ascribe blame to the actions of individuals, who they refer to as elites standing in the way of the ‘will of the people’. That is the language of the 1930s. No socialist should have any truck with such a way of viewing the world, as it effaces the reality of how capitalism works: its structures; its sites of power; its clash of competing forces.

Furthermore, what will a vote for the Brexit Party achieve? What else do they stand for? Is there any version of reality where they would work with a Brexit-supporting left? Of course, the answer to the last question is no. In terms of their other policies, there are none to speak of, though Nigel Farage has attempted to respond to the way in which Brexit represents a rupture with the neoliberal consensus by suggesting he would get rid of the House of Lords, a demand he has been making periodically for some time now. This is extremely unlikely, notwithstanding the chance of his ever being in a position to do it. He and the other driving forces behind the Brexit Party are thoroughly establishment figures, even if they do project a sense of being renegades.

It is a shame that the response of the Labour Party to the rise of the Brexit Party – and more broadly, to the threat of no deal – was to form a sort of Popular Front with forces to its right, as discussed in this piece we published in September. The effect of such forces is never to further the interests of the left, and this can be seen in the two months of wasted parliamentary shenanigans prior to Labour thankfully agreeing to a general election recently.

At that election next month, there will be working class socialists tempted to vote for the Brexit Party in an attempt to show their frustration at Labour’s drift, which has seen it back a second referendum. However, LeFT strongly cautions against going down such a road. While we do not support a second referendum, the reality is that the road to a left transforming government outside the EU must now take that in along the way.

What is the alternative?

Five more years of Tory government, perhaps propped up by more reactionary forces to its right in the Brexit Party. A vote for the Brexit Party outside the cities in the north and midlands will most likely let the Tories in. No socialist can want that.

Kevin Ovenden – Trump’s Syria Move, Fossil Fuels and Growing Crisis in the Mediterranean

A summit meeting between Greece, Cyprus and Israel took place in Cairo yesterday.

It came amid mounting tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, which may intensify sharply when the expected Turkish invasion of northern Syria takes place – and with it an intensification of the Syrian regime’s offensive in Idlib.

The tripartite pact of Greece and Cyprus acting alongside Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s dictatorship in Egypt and Israel is a continuation of a deep policy pursued under the former Syriza government and is at the centre of the Greek state’s strategic ambition in the region.

There is already an escalating standoff with Turkey. Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades has recklessly broken off the semblance of a peace process with Turkish northern Cyprus and has unilaterally moved to begin exploiting the gas fields off the island.

Despite control over the maritime zone being disputed, Anastasiades’s right-wing government has been parcelling up the area and selling off drilling licences to France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and other fossil fuel giants.

Observers in Nicosia say the Cypriot government and its big business backers are behaving as if they have discovered Eldorado.

They have been intimating that the involvement of French, Italian and US multinationals means they can rely on those states to back Cyprus in the face of strident objections from the Turkish state.

But the months of provocation have produced a reaction from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A couple of days ago, he sent two Turkish ships into the middle of the zone to begin his own drilling.

There’s now a very dangerous crisis. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias flew to Nicosia to make theatrical noises that gunboat diplomacy “belongs in another century.”

But Erdogan’s move has exposed something of the bluff in the Cypriot position. Neither France nor Italy show any inclination to deploy naval force to confront the Turkish presence or pose as deterrent.

The Greek military and diplomatic strategy in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean has been to try to exploit tensions and divergences between the US and its other major Nato ally in the region, Turkey.

That is a continuation of a settled Greek state policy going back decades. This, incidentally, gives the lie to “left-patriotic” claims that Greece’s outsized military machine is somehow progressive because in confronting Turkey it is “challenging US imperialism.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed a new defence deal with Greece in Athens on Saturday, extending the licence of the Souda naval base on Crete and expanding the number of bases for US forces.

Greece is the only country other than the US to have the highest level of military co-operation with Israel — a policy secured by Alexis Tsipras.

Since Saturday, it is not only the Turkish naval deployment that has brought this Greece-Cyprus expansionism up against reality.

Even more so is Donald Trump’s decision to pull back US forces from northern Syria, facilitating Erdogan’s plan for a huge military operation to destroy the quasi-independent Kurdish entity there.

Trump is running into opposition from hawkish Republicans, progressive Democrats and the Pentagon. The last time he tried to do this, it brought the resignation of his defence secretary.

The US opposition is nothing to do with loyalty to the Kurds. It is everything to do with fear that a drawdown and pullout from Syria would signal the collapse of any pretence of US hegemony in the region, already seriously wounded from Iraq onwards.

It’s also a major blow to Greece and Cyprus — hence the emergency summit with Sisi and Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter facing possibly a third general election in a year.

The Greek gambit has depended on Washington constraining Turkish ambition and Greece benefiting from the unstable balance. If Trump gets away with shifting that balance, it will strengthen Erdogan, but in a more chaotic situation.

There are the flashpoints off Cyprus and also in the Aegean.

Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria are meeting with the EU to come up with more emergency and brutal methods to prevent a major refugee flow anticipated from the Turkish offensive in Syria and Damascus’s advance into Idlib.

Erdogan is also using the Syrian refugees as an instrument. He wants to remove large numbers from Turkey.

He’s used the “threat” of them crossing the Aegean to extract billions from the European Union through the infamous deal with Angela Merkel.

Now he wants to repopulate the zone in northern Syria, ethnically cleansed of Kurds, with Sunni Arab Syrians dependent on Turkish military overlordship.

The impacts cascade from the north Aegean to Cyprus — home, of course, to Britain’s sovereign military bases that give it some prestige in the region.

Trump is running up against the same problem Barack Obama did and, despite the erratic current administration, there is continuity with what went before.

Obama wanted a lighter touch in the Middle East, a “pivot to Asia” and to leave the regional powers to stabilise things in concert.

But the regional powers have their own interests, overlapping sometimes but also in conflict. That is seen from Yemen and the Gulf, through the disaster of Syria, to Cyprus and the Greek-Turkish conflict in the Aegean.

It has been suppressed over the decades only by the cold war and then by continuing US power holding the ring between its two allies.

This is all breaking down. And the EU is not going to fill the gap, except on the anti-refugee front.

The need for vigorous anti-war movements guided by the internationalist principle of confronting your own imperialist war machine is growing.

This applies to Britain, where — thanks to the hangover presence in Cyprus from the days of empire — British governments still feel their interference in the region is required.

As climate change protests continue, it is also a point not lost on many that a critical centre of this morphing crisis is the exploitation by fossil fuel companies and rival states of massive gas deposits. One estimate is that gas fields under the sea between Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel (Palestine) rival those of Algeria’s, a major gas producer.

The case for leaving it in the ground is not only about future impact on the climate. It is about stopping the spread of war right now.

Kevin Ovenden is a journalist, political activist and signatory to the founding statement of LeFT. This article was originally published in the Morning Star.

Dan Evans – Some Brief Thoughts on Wales and Brexit

The Merthyr Uprising (1831)

In the 2016 EU referendum, unlike our Celtic cousins in Northern Ireland and Scotland, Wales voted to leave. There were significant regional variations in the vote. Welsh speaking rural areas of Gwynedd and Ceredigion voted to remain, alongside Cardiff and its hinterland, the Vale of Glamorgan. All of the former industrial areas of south and west Wales voted to leave, as well as the ‘British Wales’ areas of Pembrokeshire, Powys and the north east Wales border counties. Only 5 out of 22 local authorities voted to remain, and of those, Monmouth and the Vale of Glamorgan were remain by an incredibly narrow margin.

Turnout in the EU referendum was higher in Wales than in Scotland and Northern Ireland, at 71%, dwarfing the usually tiny turnout in the Welsh Assembly elections, which has not passed 45% since the first ones were held in 1999.

In Merthyr, one of the Welsh towns that has since become synonymous with Brexit, turnout was 67%, compared to 60% in the 2017 General Election, 53% in 2015, and 58% in 2010. In Blaenau Gwent, turnout for the referendum was 68%, higher than any general election since 1997. In Bridgend, where I’m from, and in many other parts of Wales, this surge was repeated.

This wasn’t meant to happen. In the popular imagination, Wales was a social democratic (and by extension, pro EU) country. What’s more, Wales had received over 4 billion pounds worth of EU ‘Objective One’ funding since 2001- surely it wasn’t going to bite the hand that feeds?

But, it did. Wales has since become a worldwide case study for short sightedness, for people allegedly voting against their material self-interest, in a way reminiscent of Thomas Frank’s case study of Kansas.

Since the result, journalists have descended on the Welsh valleys in their droves, measuring people’s heads like colonial anthropologists as they attempt to get to the bottom of it all. With honourable exceptions, these John Harris- inspired walking tours of the valleys have been patronising and simplistic, reliant on clichés and stock imagery.

The stories blend into one: This area depends on EU money but voted to leave! How could they do this! They hate immigrants but there ARE no immigrants!

Articles bemoaning the leave vote when Wales is ‘entirely dependent on EU objective one funds’ were (and continue to be) written without a hit of irony, as if being entirely dependent on the whims of footloose foreign capital or surviving on handouts is a good thing, or that shiny new buildings or roads could genuinely compensate for the lack of jobs and sense of deep despair in leave voting areas.

Of course, there were myriad reasons as to why Wales voted to leave. Wales is not just ‘the valleys’ but is a remarkably diverse place which contains middle class areas, migrants from all over the world, as well as huge amounts of English born people. In some ways, the leave vote usefully exploded annoying, entrenched narratives weaponised by Labourists over the years in Wales- that Welsh speaking areas were parochial and racist, that the valleys were beacons of socialism and progressive politics(nowhere is innately anything).

Yet this cardboard cut-out caricature has been replaced with a new one: that ‘the valleys’ are full of racist, ungrateful morons, whilst Welsh speaking areas are all full of cosmopolitan Europhiles, (something undermined by the fact that the Welsh speaking anthracite coalfields of West Wales also voted leave).

In Wales, some academic analyses (or more accurately, polling) have also strongly intimated that Wales’ leave vote was down to the English population, something which cannot explain the fact that the highest leave voting areas in Wales- the valleys- are also those with the highest % of Welsh born and Welsh identifying people.

The English population in Wales is extremely diverse and in all likelihood the ‘English’ also contributed significantly to the remain vote in Ceredigion, Monmouth and the Vale of Glamorgan, as well as contributing to the leave vote in places like Conwy.

It has also been rightly pointed out that, unlike Scotland, Wales has no national media to counter the xenophobic British press, nor a popular leading party that could offer a relatively coherent case for remain as the SNP did in Scotland.

Whilst there is some truth to all these analyses- and indeed they are often combined together as people try to make sense of it all- focusing on them can obfuscate the most glaringly obvious reasons as to why people voted to leave: capitalism has destroyed Wales, ‘politics’ has failed Wales, devolution has failed to do what it promised to do, and that most people (whether Welsh or English) were upset about being ignored and exploited. Sometimes the most obvious explanation is the right one: the leave vote in Wales was a vote for political change rooted in material conditions and exposure to austerity.

Brexit is the logical outcome of alienation from the political and economic system. Whilst the Welsh ‘devolution industry’ ignores established academic norms that decreasing turnout in elections represent symptoms of distrust and a rejection of politics, there are other, ‘non-political’ indicators that we live in a deeply broken country. How about the rapidly increasing suicide rate?; or our mass dependence on painkillers?.

It would of course be dangerously complacent to deny that there wasn’t an anti-immigration element to the leave vote in Wales, but like in other cases, this is not articulated as blind xenophobia, but is instead a proxy for economic precarity and decreasing wages. It is vital that socialists stand in solidarity with migrants and those groups who may be feeling vulnerable during the present moment and begin a campaign of political education to eradicate national chauvinism.

As the LefT campaign has made clear, the leave vote in Wales was not about Europe per se, but about alienation born of poverty and a hollowing out of democracy. It is important to realise that the conditions that led to Wales’ alienation are of course not unique, although they are exceptionally sharp here and have longer roots.

These symptoms, whilst glaring to those of us who live and work in working class communities, were ignored by Wales’ political and media establishment prior to Brexit, and three years hence, continue to be ignored by the same people- those who have made their careers off the back of our communities, who have profited from devolution and who have remained insulated from austerity.

People who claim with a straight face that a 35% turnout in the 2011 referendum on further powers to the Welsh Assembly was resounding and evidence that devolution is the ‘settled will’ of the Welsh people; who wouldn’t have dreamed of re-running the 1997 devolution referendum despite it being far narrower than the 2016 referendum, have done all they possibly can to overturn the result and pour scorn on the communities who voted to leave.

For these people the idea of people losing faith in the political system, of being angry, of being hurt, is clearly inconceivable.

Most of Wales’ Blairite Labour MPs- who are largely responsible for the sharp decline of the Labour vote in Wales since 1992 — are heavily involved in the Progress/ultra remainer bloc in the PLP, and have been at the forefront of the campaign to depose Jeremy Corbyn. Naturally, they blamed Jeremy Corbyn for the 2016 referendum result rather than face up to their own culpability of meekly accepting and administering the economic paradigm which has created the conditions which drove the leave vote in Wales.

Welsh Labour in the Senedd, despite the election of the deeply underwhelming ‘Corbyn supporter’ Mark Drakeford, remains similarly dominated by pro-EU ultras. Whilst Drakeford feebly tried to hold Labour’s original, principled line of respecting the referendum result, he has gradually been bullied into going hard remain and supporting a second referendum, a position which is sure to cost Labour votes in Wales.

In 1975, Plaid Cymru campaigned against the EC, arguing that an overreliance on EU aid simply confirmed Wales’ position as a dependent periphery, and that regional aid policies were simply designed to reconcile places like Wales to their subordinate position and to open up Wales to foreign capital.

In 2016, many nationalists interpreted the leave vote as representing an existential threat to Wales itself, similar to the trauma of the failed 1979 referendum vote. In response, Plaid have now transformed into an ultra remainer party, even calling for article 50 to be revoked. Indeed, their old socialist leader, Leanne Wood, was deposed last year, allegedly for her principled stance that Plaid Cymru in Westminster should not collaborate with pro remain Tories.

Plaid’s strategy is somewhat bizarre given that poll after poll suggests that significant numbers of Plaid Cymru voters voted to leave. Plaid’s cognitive dissonance over the EU’s silence in the face of Spanish repression of their Catalan allies is a sight to behold, and they similarly stubbornly refuse to engage with those who point to the treatment of the peripheral states by the EU- clear evidence that the same fate would undoubtedly await an independent Wales within the EU.

The arrogance of this response by Wales’ two tokenly left parties is typical of the Welsh political class, unused as they are to any scrutiny or accountability or to having to answer to their constituents. This is a group of people who have been perfectly happy to accept the steady decline in democracy in Wales as long as they keep getting returned by default.

What is to be done?

Earlier this year, the Brexit Party predictably won the EU elections in Wales, simply because they were given an open goal: they could legitimately claim that a democratic vote is being ignored by a political elite. This came as no shock to anyone other than Wales’ political establishment, which even now, refuses to acknowledge the resilience of the leave vote; the reasons why people voted to leave; or the sheer gravity of how what they are doing- overruling a democratic vote– is perceived by working class people.

They are not interested in solving the issues that drove Brexit, only in returning to ‘stability’ (i.e., the old status quo) as soon as possible .

Whilst we of course need to offer radical redistributive policies to people, democracy is ultimately the most powerful tool we have as socialists. Democracy and socialism should always be intertwined- you cannot have one without the other. To win, socialists have to harness people’s anger at the status quo. If we don’t, then the right will. We must ultimately prioritise and empower the people we profess to speak for, the working class, rather than keep them at arms- length from the decision making process (this undemocratic paternalism is, after all, what killed the welfare state).

The transformative power of democracy has been completely forgotten by many on the left in Wales. This is not surprising. Politics here is something which happens to people, not something we have an effect on ourselves. The idea that we could ever have a say over the issues that impact our lives seems fantastical, because for most of us, our votes have never counted: Labour will win no matter who you vote for on the national level, and we will be governed by who the English vote for regardless.

Over time, the idea of democracy itself has faded from view in Wales, reduced to a banal, unthinking ritual for those people who still bother to vote. Certainly, the enthusiastic defence of ‘EU Democracy’ by many Welsh left remainers- the EU parliament cannot pass legislation- suggests that many people have just accepted that democracy is not that important to a socialist programme, that EU handouts are more important than having a say in the decisions that affect your lives.

Yet the democratic deficit- your voice not mattering- is what drove campaigns for Welsh home rule in the early twentieth century, and later, devolution. It is what is driving the growing, vibrant Welsh independence campaign, and a lack of democracy is why socialists like myself who support Welsh independence are similarly against the EU.

In 2016, people who had stayed away from politics for years exercised their right to vote and influenced the result for the first time in generations. Any left project simply cannot be seen to be overruling this vote, cannot be seen to be on the side of establishment politics.

It is the responsibility of leftists in Wales and beyond to re-emphasize the power of democracy, to make it something that is tangible and possible again to all the communities in Wales. This takes on new urgency and relevance given the democratic crisis that is currently unfolding in Westminster.

Dan Evans is Welsh sociologist and founding signatory of the LeFT Campaign, this article was first published here.