The Tories, the General Election, and Neoliberalism’s Second Phase

Neil Faulkner

‘Ignorance never yet helped anyone.’ So raged Karl Marx as he leapt from his chair and thumped the table so hard that the lamp shook. The occasion was a meeting in Brussels in 1846 of the newly formed Communist Correspondence Committee – the tiny acorn from which, over the next 150 years, so many mighty oaks would grow. The target of the tirade was a somewhat vacuous activist called Wilhelm Weitling, who professed to believe that socialist theory was unnecessary. This was, Marx fumed, ‘equivalent to vain dishonest play at preaching which assumes an inspired prophet on the one side and only gaping asses on the other’.

Theresa May’s decision to call a general election should not mean that socialists stop thinking and mumble platitudes. To become uncritical cheerleaders for a cack-handed reformism can only foster illusions and false hopes at the expense of equipping activists with the understanding they need in the struggle to change the world. Left websites which are simply shouting support for a Corbyn victory – without discussing any of the contradictions in play – are the modern Weitlings. Corbyn is not a prophet, activists are not gaping asses, and a general election should not be the occasion for putting our brains in deep freeze.

Brexit, the Tory Right, and Neoliberalism’s Second Phase

I want to start with the wider context for May’s decision to call a general election. The Brexit vote, which represented a sharp shift to the right in British politics, with a clearly detectable ramping up of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim racism in particular, led directly to the fall of the Cameron government. However viciously anti-working class that government may have been, it was relatively liberal compared with what was to follow. The Brexit result was above all a victory of the Tory Right – as the marginalisation of UKIP since has made clear – and the May government is an artefact of the Tory Right’s new ascendancy.

When May says that Brexit is irreversible and that ‘we’ must have control over our borders, she means it. The Tories are now implementing the UKIP programme. But there is something more. As Phil Hearse has argued in relation to the Tories here , and John Bellamy Foster in relation to the neo-fascist corporate takeover of the White House in the States, the hidden agenda is a drive by the Far Right – fascists and hard-right traditional conservatives – to push the neoliberal counter-revolution to much more radical extremes.

If you want a practical example, watch the chilling video of Tory Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt sitting in a New York hotel and calmly explaining (in suitably coded language) that he is there to sell the NHS to private health and pharmaceuticals conglomerates []. He seems, incidentally, to have acquired the mad stare of Dr Strangelove – a bit like Thatcher and Blair at the end. The grand plan is to complete the privatisation of the commons, dismantle what is left of the welfare state, and turn society into an unregulated casino serving the greed of the corporate super-rich.

In Britain the only way for the Tories to make a go of Brexit Britain is to turn it into a low-wage sweatshop and corporate tax-haven on the edge of Europe: the place to invest if you don’t want to pay European wages or European taxes.

In relation to all this, May’s immediate purpose in calling a general election now is obvious enough. The economy – buoyed on unsustainable debt, facing further deflationary austerity, and destabilised by the self-imposed disaster of Brexit – is set to tank. The Tories are determined that public services and the working class will pay the price: only the rich and the corporates will be gold-plated against the coming downturn. So best to go now, while the Tories are riding high in the polls and Labour is hamstrung by its internal civil war. In any case, an election now is a chance for May to win her own mandate, bolster her control over the party, and boost a dangerously narrow parliamentary majority. A clear victory will also mean marginalising the anti-EU obsessives on the lunatic fringe of the Tory Party and giving her the space to do some horse-trading in the Brexit negotiations.

Could Corbyn Win?

Faced with this, every socialist, trade unionist, and activist is bound to want a Labour victory. Everyone on the Left, except hopelessly benighted sectarians, will do what they can to make it happen.

And it could happen. It is not, as things look right now, a likely prospect, but the Tory victory with an increased majority that May is banking on is not the virtual certainty that present polls suggest. The hollowing out of society, the democratic deficit, the historic alienation from elites and the political system, the disintegration of traditional voting allegiances, all this and much more mean that the electoral process has become far more volatile and unpredictable.

Witness the Bernie Sanders challenge to Clinton for the Democratic nomination in the US presidential race, or the outcome of the first round of the French presidential election, where the two traditional parties of Right and Left cannot manage 30% of the vote between them, while a Far Left candidate takes 20%, the fascist takes 21%, and a cardboard neoliberal ‘independent’ tops the poll with 24%. This is off-the-radar unpredictable.

In this respect, Corbyn is playing it well so far. He seems to be positively relaxed now that he is again talking to real people instead of New Labour androids and Laura Kuenssberg, and he is saying many of the right things, attacking the rich, the bankers, and the corporations, and giving voice to the anger at the base of society about the hideous injustices being heaped upon working people and the poor.

Can it be sustained?  The Labour Right can be expected to keep mum. They want to keep their seats, and any one of them who now started making the sort of public attacks they have been indulging in over the last two years would, of course, be self-destructing. Labour is a deeply tribal party likely to consign to oblivion any right-winger deemed to have plunged the dagger during a general election.

But the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, and the overpaid media hacks who serve as neoliberalism’s ideological apparatus will meet the socialist outsider with vitriolic and unrestrained hostility. Corbyn will deserve our admiration if he simply stands his ground. And if he does, is it beyond the bounds of possibility that the tectonic plates of British electoral politics might begin to shift like they did in France and trigger an earthquake?

At the very least, a strong socialist candidature may reduce the scale of any defeat, undermine the argument that radicalism cannot win, rekindle some of the excitement generated by Corbyn’s two leadership campaigns, and put us all in a far stronger position to fight the battles to come. We want a Labour victory, but if we can’t have that, we want the strongest possible Labour showing on the basis of a clear socialist message. We need Corbyn’s campaign to help us build a mass movement for radical change on the streets.

The Contradictions of Labourism in 2017

If Corbyn can pull something off – if not victory, at least an advance and a rekindling of enthusiasm – it will be down to rhetoric alone. Our call for a Labour victory (‘optimism of the will’) has to be tempered with hard analysis of the contradictions working against it (‘pessimism of the intellect’).

Let’s just remind ourselves of the absolute basics. The Labour Party is a hybrid formation. An age-old fusion of a social-democratic/moderate reformist Right with a socialist/radical reformist Left, it has now been transformed into something yet more dysfunctional: a fusion of New Labour neoliberals and Old Labour reformists. This is a hopeless shambles. The main fracture line in British politics runs not between parties, but down the middle of the Labour Party. This is the point on the political spectrum where supporters of the rich and corporate power, of austerity, privatisation, and war, meet supporters of a radical alternative based on equality, democracy, peace, and sustainability.

The Parliamentary Labour Party, most Labour councillors, and the bulk of the party apparatus at both national and local level is essentially Blairite. They are counter-reformists who are engaged in dismantling, at the behest of big capital, the social-democratic achievements of post-war Labour (and even Tory) governments. They are the political agents of the neoliberal counter-revolution.

That is why, since they lost control of the leadership to the Left, they have turned the Labour Party into a civil war. This situation is unsustainable. Either there is mass deselection to bring the party’s parliamentary representation into line with the aspirations of the membership, or the Right re-establishes unchallenged ascendancy by overthrowing the Left leadership (which some of them are already plotting to do after the anticipated election defeat).

This basic contradiction has all sorts of implications for the election campaign. It means Labour’s policies are pitifully weak. There is no substance to Corbyn’s rhetoric when you compare it with the minimalist proposals being made in the face of what is surely the worst crisis in the history of world capitalism. The repudiation of speculative debt, the nationalisation of the banks, and public control over money creation is the obvious starting-point for any real alternative economic strategy. But that most tentative of moves towards something like this – ‘people’s quantitative easing’ – was no sooner mentioned than dropped. Why? Because the Left leadership is locked in an embrace of death with the New Labour Right. Policy is reduced to lowest-common-denominator ‘same old, same old’.

Then there is the dismal mess around Brexit. Abstract commitment to ‘anti-racism’ is not sufficient: socialists have to be actively opposed to the dominant expression of racism at any particular moment. The spectacle of Corbyn whipping his MPs into giving May a thumping Commons majority for triggering Article 50 and launching the Hard Brexit project – using the fantasy of ‘People’s Brexit’ as a smokescreen – was pretty soul-destroying to watch. Most young people, most trade unionists, and most Labour supporters voted Remain. Some are now tempted by the siren call of Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats, posturing as ‘progressives’ largely on the basis of their anti-Brexit position. As for Leave voters – gulled by the anti-migrant racism of Farage, Johnson, and Gove during the EU referendum campaign – the job of any serious ‘people’s party’ is to confront the racism head-on, arguing that immigrants are not to blame, migrants are welcome here, and breaking up the EU and retreating into a national-racist enclave will weaken the labour movement, not strengthen it.

Had the Labour Party adopted an alternative economic strategy and come out fighting on Brexit racism, perhaps it would also have found the will to form an alliance with other anti-austerity forces: the Greens and the Nationalists in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Just how ludicrous is it that the Labour Party – in the face of the mountain it is attempting to climb – is campaigning to unseat Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion and Mhairi Black in Paisley and Renfrewshire South?

Whatever the outcome of the general election – and we want and will work for a Corbyn victory – we need to be realistic about the prospects, clear about the political context, and prepared for what is to come. If Corbyn wins it will be a historic victory but he will be hamstrung by a House of Commons with a large neoliberal majority of Tory, Liberal Democrat, and New Labour MPs.  If he loses he will have done much good if he has sustained a socialist campaign that rekindles enthusiasm for a radical alternative and helps us towards building the mass movements of resistance we are going to need after 8 June to fight the racism and ramped-up austerity of the Tory Right and ‘second phase’ neoliberalism.

Neil Faulkner is the author, with Samir Dathi, of Creeping Fascism: Brexit, Trump, and the Rise of the Far Right

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3 responses to “The Tories, the General Election, and Neoliberalism’s Second Phase”

  1. Thaddeus Greenland says:

    A bit patronising to assume that all who voted for Brexit were “gulled by anti migrant racism ” i can remember when most of the left were very sceptical of the EU and most of the very people who are now cannonised such as Tony Benn were very critical citing its undemocratic tendencys and centralisation , also lots if not the majority of traditional labour voters are sceptical of the celebrated free movement of labour as it’s used in the same way as free movement of capital – in order to create a race to the bottom as far as wages and working conditions go , simple stuff really .

    • Brendan Casey says:

      Well said. It is simple stuff, so simple in fact one wonders why so called socialists continue to try and dupe the working class regarding the bosses club that is the EU. Corbyn would have been well advised to stick to his views on the EU that he has held since 1983 and given the working class of this country something to vote for and not surrendered the anti EU argument to the racist tory right. Lexit should have been his and the Labour party’s triumph instead he bottled it.

  2. Clive says:

    I would vote for Jeremy Corbyn if someone could tell me how I could do so, without also voting for Clive Lewis.

    If I lived in Islington I could vote for Jeremy Corbyn. If I lived in Hackney, I could vote for Diane Abbott, who may be the only sitting Labour MP who genuinely supports Corbyn, including Corbyn’s peace agenda. But, I live in Norwich South, which is Clive Lewis’ constituency.

    Clive Lewis has failed to vote against Trident renewal, despite being a prominent member of Labour CND. He has (like much of the Labour Party) been funded by the GMB union and, to a lesser extent, by the ‘Unite’ union. ‘Unite’ are also affiliated to CND.

    Kate Hudson (CND General Secretary) personally assured me, several months before the Trident Renewal vote, that Clive Lewis would vote against Trident renewal and that ‘Unite’ policy is anti-Trident. I have been sceptical about this, all along, because Unite’s own website clearly states that they are pro-Trident and in favour of “patriotic” warmongering, with all of the weapons being manufactured in Britain. When I asked Clive Lewis whether he intended to vote against Trident renewal, he refused to give me a straight answer. The more I pressed him about it, the more evasive he became. That was how I was able to predict that Clive Lewis would abstain, several months before he did abstain. Meanwhile, Clive Lewis told Norwich CND (through his local trade unionist/Labour Party supporters, who attended local CND meetings) not to campaign against Trident until after last year’s local council elections, which was most of the time before the Commons Trident Renewal vote. Some of us, then, wondered what the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament could do, if we are not allowed to campaign against the only nuclear weapons based in Britain. This situation has probably led to the demise of Norwich CND.

    I took part in demonstrations against the launches, at Barrow-in-Furness, and the arrival at their bases, Faslane and Coulport, of all four of the Trident submarines. Then I was a Trident Ploughshares activist for several subsequent years. I was not going to stop campaigning against Trident, just because a Labour MP (who is also a CND member and was, at the time, a ‘shadow defence secretary’ told me to do so)

    Len McCluskey has also given a speech to workers at the British Aerospace factory at Warton, Lancs, in which he promised to support their alleged right to work’ to kill millions of people. Twenty years ago, I was given an injunction by a high court judge and BAe’s expensive lawyers, after I cut a fence at BAe Warton in support off four women who were on trial, in Liverpool, for damaging a Hawk jet fighter aircraft that was to have been sold to the Indonesian government, who had, previously, murdered a third of the population of East Timor. (The four women were found ‘not guilty’ by a jury, but they were also given injunctions by BAe).

    I have tried to work for peace throughout all of my adult life. In 1964 (age 14), I stood in the street in Newport, Isle of Wight, selling CND’s newspaper, which was called ‘Sanity’, shouting “get your Sanity ‘ere and vote for Harold Wilson ‘cos ‘ees going to ban the bomb”. The Labour Party have been consistently betraying us, ever since.

    Labour will not win this general election, anyway. Partly because the Labour vote in Scotland has collapsed, due to Labour betraying Scottish aspirations too often and partly because the Tories are now so right-wing that they have captured most of the UKIP votes. Theresa May wouldn’t have called the election if she thought there was any chance that they might lose it.

    We will just have to hope that the unaccountable psychopaths who run the US-UK-NATO establishment don’t start a nuclear war. Meanwhile, if we don’t have a nuclear war in the near future, we will need to rebuild the peace movement, from scratch, independently of Labour and the warmongering trade unions, to organise massive, popular, anti-war protest. We need an independent, anti-war, left, to oppose Labour and trade union warmongering, based around the anti-wage-slavery economic ideas of Andre Gorz and ideas such as Mike Cooley’s Lucas Aerospace plan (a worker’s co-op, intended to enable aerospace workers to use their engineering skills to produce socially useful products)

    I suggest supporting syndicalist unionism, along the lines of the IWW or the CNT, whose aim is to abolish wage-slavery (in preference to ‘fighting for the right to work’ for the repressive, warmongering, ruling class) as an alternative to the divisive craft unions. But these unions also need to retain their independence from political parties to be effective.

    We should have done these things years ago. Some of us have tried. I also registered as a ‘Labour Supporter’ to vote for Jeremy Corbyn as alleged ‘party leader’. Subsequent events have shown, even more clearly, how hopeless it is for us to support the Labour Party.

    If we don’t all, soon, get wiped out in a nuclear holocaust, there will be no alternative for us, other than doing the hard work of building a left alternative to oppose the Labour Party. That is why I am a member of ‘Left Unity’ (I did not join ‘Left Unity’ to support the Labour Party!).

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