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LABOUR lost the last election in England.
The Brexit drama — Labour’s capitulation to the second referendum con-trick, and the party’s consequent alienation of much of its working-class electoral base, north and south, allowed Britain’s undemocratic election system to gift a purged and repurposed Tories a seemingly impregnable 80-seat majority.
Jeremy Corbyn’s near miss in 2017 saw the steepest and most substantial rise in Labour support and produced the second highest Labour vote ever. Two years later, a 2.4 per cent Tory majority in votes saw Labour lose a fifth of its seats. In both cases the decisive shift was in England while Labour’s position in Scotland was long gone and shows little sign of renewal despite the dent Corbyn made in the SNP position in 2017.
The loss of Labour’s “Red Wall” seats is rooted more in the deindustrialisation and austerity economics of the neoliberal decades than any more recent sleight of hand by Johnson. Cameron’s coalition of the two main bourgeois parties imitated New Labour in completing the decisive shift to a financialised and parasitic economy. But it was the Brexit vote that dramatised Labour’s loss.
Part of Johnson’s success in England lay in his carefully contrived — and for Tories innovative — appeal to the sense that the English regions are neglected. This he was able to do without disturbing too much the suburban and shire electorates who return a great part of the Tory Party in Parliament.
Nevertheless, land use changes planned by the Tory government alarm a good part of the Tories’ base in the shires and led to the Chesham and Amersham by-election defeat. HS2 upsets Tory MPs whose constituents are affected by construction work.
Johnson’s innovations, a mask for his toxic combination of populism and neoliberalism, are losing their northern appeal while his abandonment of the northern leg of HS2 and the growing awareness that the social care plans announced last week will disadvantage people where houses are less expensive are deeply damaging. This and the deconstruction of his public persona are at the centre of the Tories’ present difficulties.
The “north” in this context stands for everyone living in a cheaper house whose main capital asset will be most eroded by the plans to fund social care by a charge on housing equity.
Both these policies throw a revealing light on the runaway centralisation that is the natural consequence of the drive to financialise Britain’s economy.
An obscenely rich billionaire in the Treasury favours the reimposition of neoliberal austerity measures and reduced public spending. Maintaining a relatively strong pound is the priority.
Strip away Boris’s bullshit and the main purpose of government policy is to stabilise the City of London as a financial centre. On this goal key elements of Britain’s bourgeoisie are united. This lies at the centre of the renegotiated agreement with the EU and the internal realignment that saw the Tory purge and the defeat of Theresa May’s leadership and it changes Britain’s contradictory relationship with the US.
In the domestic sphere the UK Internal Market Act gives the Westminster government the ability recoup to the centre economic powers that were previously delegated to the Scottish and Welsh governments.
The possibility now technically exists for a government unencumbered by EU treaty obligations, free of the EU’s budgetary controls on borrowing and deficits, mostly free of the European Court of Justice rulings, and outside the provisions of the EU’s constitutional treaties which privilege commercial property rights.
But the moment which offered the prospect of a left-led Labour government that might leverage sovereignty to challenge neoliberalism has passed.
We have a Tory Brexit gifted us by Alastair Campbell with Starmer revealed as the most mendacious member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.
The withdrawal agreement provides for a review within four years. Starmer is signed up to the ruling-class compromise with the EU while the misled millions who backed a second referendum are adrift with neoliberalism the only policy on offer.
The moment in which all social contradictions in Britain’s class-ridden society were collapsed into the Brexit controversy has also passed.
While the European federalist project is mortally wounded by Britain’s exit and the tendencies that might collapse it completely are at work in many member states, the monomaniac idea that the EU was the exclusive root of Britain’s problems seems quaint.
Every day in post-Brexit Britain — with factory closures, housing crisis, benefit cuts and fire-and-rehire — demonstrates that the pursuit of profit is the problem irrespective of the state and superstructures in which it operates.
In Scotland a slice of nationalist sentiment lives in a dreamworld where membership of the EU and the eurozone is possible without the austerity effects of meeting the EU’s convergence criteria.
That EU membership would gift the Scottish people a neoliberal economic regime more rigorous than that which Rishi Sunak plans for Brexit Britain is the dirty secret the SNP leadership must hide. But most Scottish voters desire a traditional welfare social democracy with full employment that is impossible to deliver without a challenge to capital that the Sturgeon clique could never contemplate.
A measure of Labour’s difficulty in Scotland is that — even with the SNP’s economic policy holed below the waterline by the collapse of the oil and gas bonanza — it has no more compelling a story to tell.
In Wales, in contrast, a quietly innovative Labour administration — with the agreement of Plaid Cymru — is consolidating a path quite distinct from Starmer’s Labour.
We shouldn’t discount the electoral presence the Tories have in Scotland — where it presently outguns Labour — or Wales, but the numbers make Toryism an essentially English phenomenon.
Most Tory votes are in the English shires, among the more privileged sections of the middle class, with regional variations among sections of the working class and particularly in the commercial and professional petty bourgeoisie and the finance sector.
With the two policy switches — on HS2 and social care — a clutch of the new Tory MPs see their fragile majorities slipping away. Suddenly Johnson’s parliamentary majority looks less impregnable. And with it Johnson’s premiership.
Without setting aside Johnson’s personal failings — highlighted by his shambolic Pippa Pig moment — part of Johnson’s problem is seen by a growing number of Tory MPs as a failure of staff work and of leadership.
The defenestration of Dominic Cummings removed one rogue element from the line-up but divisions in the Number 10 operation reflect real conflicts where the machinery of government encounters pressure from the key centres of bourgeois power.
Johnson’s brio, coupled with an indolent inconsistency and indifference to policy detail, is allied to a policy promiscuity that no longer does the trick.
So long as Labour offered nothing substantial in the way of parliamentary opposition Johnson faced few threats. But the present levelling in the public opinion polls — despite the electorate’s profound indifference to Keir Starmer — stirs anxiety among Tory MPs.
Johnson must feel insecure with the perennially treacherous Michael Gove in charge of the critical “levelling up” pitch, but still the proximate centre of support for his leadership. As ever, the Treasury is the main force for neoliberal economics while Rishi Sunak, if a leadership contest looks likely, is the most likely rival.
For Labour Scotland remains a big problem. Unless and until Labour finds a new language to talk to its lost electorate the party’s chance of winning a parliamentary majority under first-past-the-post are no better than they would be under proportional representation. And this is true even as Scottish opinion edges further away from a breach.
To pose Labour’s problem in another way, until again it inspires fear and loathing in the ruling class with a radical programme it is not going to win a popular mandate.
And to do so it needs to fashion a new appeal to 5.5 million in Scotland, consolidate its leadership among the three million plus in Wales and win a decisive majority among the 56 million in England.
The fusion of a progressive federalism with popular sovereignty can only be grounded in a politics of decentralised power which offers the English regions real opportunities to shape investment and development to social need rather than private profit.
This is not the same as the Tory preference for directly elected metro mayors which author Peter Latham (The State and Local Government, www.manifestopress.org.uk) describes as “the optimum internal management arrangement for privatised local state services.”
The effects of the Starmer offensive and the present composition of Westminster Labour mean the chances of a leadership-led revival of left-wing Labour are unlikely.
All recent experience is that an effective challenge to the neoliberal consensus hinges on a mass extra-parliamentary movement modelled on the anti-war and anti-austerity movements of the last decade. But much bigger.
Public opinion already supports the public ownership of utilities, is against NHS privatisation and for a massive public housing programme.
The devolved powers won in Scotland, Wales and London have given a new meaning to the idea that all politics is local. The existing, if unsatisfactory, English regional governments — already Labour strongholds — are one opportunity for framing the issue of local economic development and jobs in terms of democracy.
There lies the basis — in a progressive federalism based on popular sovereignty — of unity between the peoples of Britain aiming for the decentralisation of powers over economic and industrial development and grounded in the collective power of working people and their organisations.
Nick Wright blogs at 21centurymanifesto.wordpress.com.
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