"Brexit signalled the comprehensive victory of the worst side in this fight, and ensured the reunification of the right-wing vote under a leadership sounding the disgrace notes of the British far right in its bid to canalise UKIP’s base back into the Conservative fold. It was a victory for petty bourgeois reaction, but the initiative – or momentum, as we may prefer to call it – fell to the skilled ruling class pugilists who run the Conservative Party, and orchestrated Theresa May’s coronation while Labour combusted. ... the breakdown of the Union and the related crises of the EU have ensured that class questions are being worked out in large part through the containers of contending nationalisms."
At the outset of the election, I expected Labour to lose Wales, make no inroads in Scotland, and shrink in England. To be sure, I adjusted my expectations as the election went on, but at my most optimistic I expected 36-37% of the vote with a loss of seats.
The more pessimistic analysis was, in my slight defence, consistent with all the available evidence at the time. It wasn't just a question of Labour's very bad polling since May assumed the leadership of the Conservative Party. The British Election Study found a sharp re-drawing of the political map in the aftermath of Brexit. I can also say that I was far from alone in making this prognosis.
But we're not in the business of crystal ball-gazing. The point of political hypotheses is to guide practice. They need to be tested in practice, and it would be useless to call on excuses if they fail: if a hypothesis is disproved in struggle, then it should be sharply re-evaluated. And if the situation changed as radically and quickly as it did, then clearly the original analysis at least over-estimated the tendencies that I was describing.
And, like it or not, the general election outcome stands as a compelling refutation of the analysis quoted above, on several counts. Labour did not lose Wales, it won it handsomely. It did not fail to make inroads in Scotland, although its gains there were modest compared to the rest of the country. Today, the SNP is much weaker, and the majority in Scotland don't want another referendum and would not vote for independence if they could. The Liberals, having shown some signs of making gains around the time of Article 50, were nowhere in the election, their share of the vote actually lower than in 2015. The Brexit vote still helped the Tories, driving their vote share up to its highest level since the Eighties. And had the turnout remained low as in 2015, especially among younger and poorer people, that would have had disastrous effects. But overall, the national question was far less decisive in re-organising the electorate than I had expected.
I am glad that this is the case. I don't think the British constitutional settlement is viable in the long run. I would welcome the break up of the Union, and the rupture with the political organisation sustaining the power of the City, and the military, that would come with it. I would be glad to see the back of Trident, since it seems England and Wales don't have an abundance of sites where the weapons could be situated. But the basis on which I expected the national question to be salient was far from the radical tone of the 2014 Scottish independence campaign. A struggle over nationalisms defined by the EU would tend to be soft-neoliberal on one side, and hard-right neoliberal on the other. Worse, it would leave English politics defined overwhelmingly by reaction in the short-term. The fact that the Labour Party, led from the Left, and enlivened by a left-wing activist base, completely changed the nature of the electoral conversation, is the most welcome refutation I can think of.
What happened, clearly, has to do with class. An electorate organised around the national question, on which Labour was struggling to define itself, would have been one showing a degree of class dealignment. Some of the analyses of the results have invoked the National Readership Survey's 'social grades'. Surveys show that, broadly, there wasn't much difference between the voting behaviour of ABC1 (taken to be middle class) and C2DE voters (taken to be working class), thus indicating class dealignment even more advanced than in previous elections.
But 'social grades' are not the same as social class, and they aren't even a good proxy for it. They are predicated on a mental-manual division of labour, wherein we're supposed to assume that any 'white collar' work is 'middle class'. They also make no room for the existence of a capitalist class, which raises the obvious question: what is the 'middle class' in the middle of? We will have to wait for the British Election Study to carry out better analysis, using a more sophisticated occupational grading system (NS-SEC social classes), but in the meantime I suggest that what is called class dealignment is actually generational change. The growth in ABC1s in NRS measurements over recent years, and the rise of Labour voting in that bloc, simply demonstrates the changing patterns of employment and labour, and the rise of a low-wage, low-autonomy, precarious 'white collar' labour force.
If the analysis of Mellon and Evans regarding 'the new face of class politics' is correct, there was a degree of class dealignment in the Blair era, but this was largely a matter of representation. That is, since the Blairites decided to emphatically de-emphasise class, fewer people voted on a class basis. That tendency was never complete, but it was there. What is more, the growing salience of that national question partly reflects that, as Plaid Cymru and to a greater extent the SNP were able to exploit Labour's failure to address working class aspirations to eat into its base. And what I would suggest is likely is that in this election, with the explicitly class-based manifesto that Labour ran on, there was a marked increase in class-aligned voting.
To put it another way, the Brexit dog didn't bark not because Remain voters suddenly stopped worrying about Brexit, but because a) they had largely reconciled themselves to the idea that it would happen and had moved on to the question of how, and b) Labour addressed the concerns they had about Brexit (in terms of living standards, workers' rights, and the rise of a nationalist, racist right) in other terms. The fact that they could do so, in such a short period of time, is in some respects easy to explain. The Labour Party has a long history in the British working class, and retains organic roots in the trade union movement. It has money, materiel and institutional clout. It was never successfully challenged by a radical left split. And the big gains made by the SNP, based on a successful defence of certain social democratic ideas in the Scottish Assembly, were relatively recent and contingent on Labour's evacuation of the terrain. Still, this is a thumbnail sketch, and more work is needed.
Now, in a way, we are all 'Lexiters' by default. Since Brexit is happening, the question is how it can be managed in a way best designed to advance workers' rights, wages, and equality. I wrote, well before the Brexit vote, of how the Right had managed to articulate a language of 'justice' predicated on racist resentment. Farage kept saying, 'you Europhiles and technocrats think this argument is all about money -- but we have shown that it's about fairness. Even if we are poorer as a result of leaving the EU, it isn't fair that migrants undercut British jobs and British wages, and bureaucrats make 70% of our laws'. He was spinning an elaborate racist-nationalist mythology, but mobilising elements of real experience and real grudges to make it effective.
With a big step forward for the Left in the general election, and a real chance of electing a radical Labour government, there is now the possibility -- which there wasn't during the referendum campaign -- of addressing the question in another language, that of justice predicated on equality. Indeed, formulating such a language is exactly what Labour's election campaign was about. YouGov polling shows that, when asked, 56 per cent of people in the UK say they'd much rather "a more equal distribution of wealth, even if the amount of wealth was reduced," whereas only 17 per cent of people favour "increasing the total amount of wealth, even if the distribution is less equal". That's just a poll finding, a snapshot of some material, and it doesn't guarantee any political results. And I am not suggesting that the Left should campaign on the basis of lower economic growth; that's a possible contingent outcome of challenging the concentrations of wealth and power, not a goal. But it suggests, at least, that an argument for an egalitarian, radical Brexit can be won.
The only question is, what on earth would that look like? You might tell me, it looks like Labour's manifesto. But there are lurking problems here. Labour's commitment is to what is loosely called, "soft Brexit". It wants to negotiate access to the single market, and has committed to negotiating a deal with the EU -- Corbyn was very clear, "no deal" would be the worst possible deal. This is how Labour distinguished itself from Theresa May on this question. Now, that's an easy enough position to take when one is in opposition and trying to limit the damage of a right-wing government. But this is where the problems begin.
Of course, it is well known that the logic, law and letter of the European Union is fixed against precisely the policies that Labour wants to implement. Its legislation on competition and its fiscal rules in particular, would represent a problem for Labour's plans for renationalisation, and borrowing to invest. But the single market is not exempt from that: it is, as Nick Clegg rightly noted after the Brexit vote, a Thatcherite achievement. There are complex arguments about whether new laws designed to create a unified internal market in the railways effectively prohibit rail nationalisation. It seems to me that while they don't exclude it altogether, because there is a degree of room for interpretation of the law, they are clearly pushing in the direction of liberalisation, market competition, and the break up of state monopolies. And that is, of course, a stupid policy as far as railways are concerned, only good for rent-seeking capital. It would likely return us to days when major rail catastrophes happened regularly, killing dozens of passengers, because rail operating companies were more interested in protecting profit margins than investing in safety.
Now, if Keir Starmer is sent over to negotiate with the same EU bureaucrats who dealt so sadistically with Greece, and if they already have a motive to make an example of Britain, what are the chances that they will apply pressure on Labour regarding its opposition to liberalisation in the NHS, its renationalisation of the railways, utilities and mail, and perhaps even its borrowing/investment policies? I am not claiming that the outcome of these negotiations is pre-determined. I am not claiming that Britain is Greece, or that it would be forced to buckle as quickly and catastrophically as the Syriza government did. The EU does not have Britain over a barrel in the same way, because Britain remains a large economy with its own currency, and isn't undergoing a sovereign debt crisis. I also think that, economically, it would make sense of the EU to come to an arrangement with the UK on trade, and put up with some policy mitigations.
However, that is ultimately contingent on politics, and the pressures on EU negotiators. They would fear allowing Corbyn to make a success of a left-wing Brexit. They would fear the example that would set, even more than the example of a successful right-wing Brexit. They would worry about others getting ideas. They would be concerned that French voters might turn to La France insoumise, for example, thus threatening the whole Franco-German axis of power upon which the EU is forged. How likely are they to have the far-sightedness to realise that pursuing along the same path, runs a very high risk of unravelling the entire political basis of the EU? The collapse of the centre in country after country doesn't seem to have chastened them yet.
The point is, the potential for a problem is there. And of course it isn't the only problem, and nor is the EU the only post-democratic institution using market control to hem in representative systems. There will be plenty of pressure from Britain's business owners, landlords, bankers, investors, and so on, also backed up with market control. What can we do about it? It seems to me that the stronger Labour's mandate is, the more sweeping its gains, the bigger and more active its membership, the stronger the pull to the Left in society, the stronger will be Corbyn's hand in negotiations. The pressure from the EU and some of his cabinet colleagues to relent on his agenda, which would be political suicide if acceded to, would be that much weaker.
What would be needed as a start, and what is surprisingly not impossible -- the usual caveats about obstacles apply -- would be for the Labour vote to be a 1945-style sweep, almost tantamount to a British 'Oxi'. No to a Britain where living standards freeze for a decade, where food banks are a norm, where landlords let children burn to death, where healthcare is privatised and school budgets are cut, where working class students have to do precarious, low-wage labour to get through University, where wages are kept so low because the unions are so weak, and where corporate taxes just keep on plummeting and the Treasury guarantees the profits of the banks at all costs.