Austerity, Brexit and the Corbyn challenge

March 8, 2018
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at an anti-Brexit rally in 2016.

In the middle of the harshest winter for more than a decade, Britain finds itself still gripped by the icy fingers of neoliberal austerity.

This particularly affects the health service and local government services that the poor, sick and elderly depend on. These have been cut to the bone by Prime Minister Theresa May’s Tory government and are in a state of collapse.

This grotesque saga is only possible because of the outcome of Britain’s general election last June. May called it three years ahead of schedule, expecting substantial Labour losses and a major increase in the Conservative parliamentary majority.

But opinion polls were spectacularly wrong. Election night revealed a substantial 9.6% swing to Labour, based largely on the votes of youth and students who rallied behind Labour’s most left-wing leader ever — the veteran socialist MP Jeremy Corbyn.

The Conservative Party was dramatically denied a majority. It remained the largest party in parliament, but had to rely on the votes of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party —hard-right Loyalists and Christian fundamentalists — to secure a shaky and uncertain Commons majority.

The result was also a substantial blow to the centrist Liberal Democrats, reduced to a mere 12 MPs, and the extreme-right UK Independence Party (UKIP), which lost its only MP.

The election results weakened May’s authority in the Conservative Party and her ability to control her rebellious nationalistic right wing. These demand a “hard Brexit” — saying Britain should leave the European Union with a maximum break of trade regulations and other links with the 27 other EU members.

This Brexiteer trend is led from within the cabinet by foreign minister Boris Johnson and environment secretary Michael Gove.

Labour conflicts

It was not only the Tories whose internal conflicts were reshaped by the election result. A substantial number of right-wing Labour MPs hardly concealed their hope that Corbyn would suffer an electoral debacle, and should thus be replaced by someone well to his right.

But hopes of an early end to left-wing leadership of Labour were dashed by the far stronger than expected result.

In a sign of why, just two weeks after the election, Corbyn appeared on the main stage of the internationally renowned Glastonbury music festival and was given a rapturous reception by tens of thousands of young people.

Surveys showed that more than 60% of people under the age of 25 had voted Labour. The results also showed Labour had achieved some remarkable results where there were large numbers of students.

In fact, young people had delivered Corbyn his leadership of the party in the first place. He became Labour leader in 2015 when the party decided to a offer cut-price party “supporter” category online, with the chance to vote in the leadership contest.

With Corbyn at the helm, Labour Party membership has gone up from about 120,000 under Tony Blair to more than 600,000 today. It is now the biggest political party in western Europe.

A key factor in this growth, and Labour’s electoral success while pitching left, is the dire economic situation that many British millennials find themselves in.

Because of the lack of social housing and an absurdly expensive housing market, many young people find themselves paying 50% of their income on housing — either for sky-high rents in private accommodation or a steep mortgage.

Jobs are poorly paid and often based on zero-hour contracts, with no guaranteed hours or pay levels. Because of the privatisation of utilities, charges for gas, water and electricity are also high.

Factor in some of the highest transport prices in the world, and expensive restaurants, pubs and other places of entertainment, and the result is huge levels of debt as young people rely on credit cards for everyday spending. Many young people are fed up.

There has been sharp conflict across the Labour Party on a number of fronts. The right wing fought a failed rearguard action to keep control of the National Executive Committee (NEC), Labour’s governing body. In January, three vacant seats on the NEC were all won by supporters of the left-wing, Corbyn-supporting group Momentum.

Among the victors was Jon Lansman, Momentum’s secretary and a veteran of the “Bennite” movement (named for Labour left leader Tony Benn) of the 1970s and ’80s.

Labour right has also lost control over the national disciplinary committee, which had been used to purge thousands of left-wing members in a bid to undermine Corbyn. It suffered a further loss with the resignation of Iain McNichol, the Blairite-leaning general secretary.

But the right wing is hanging on tenaciously at the local level. It is seeking to prevent left-wingers being selected as local council candidates and any attempt to implement “re-selection” of sitting candidates, a means by which they might be replaced by more left-wing figures.


Labour’s internal fights are paralleled by acute tensions in the Conservative Party and UKIP’s catastrophic crisis.

Although some on the left did not see it this way, the 2016 vote to leave the European Union was a political disaster. The referendum was used by the Conservatives’ hard right, aided by UKIP, to take control of the party and impose its own anti-immigrant, anti-welfare state agenda.

In particular, the Brexiteers want to pull Britain out of compliance with the European Court of Human Rights and make a bonfire of the workers’ and environmental rights enshrined in EU regulations.

Anti-Europeanism has always been the Tory right’s calling card — a badge of its extreme nationalism. The problem is that it does not correspond to the objective interests of most sections of the British capitalist class. Both the powerful financial sector and large-scale manufacturers want access to the European single market and customs union.

As a result, a big majority of Conservative MPs were against leaving the EU. But their base took a different stance — only 38% of Conservative voters cast their ballot to remain in the EU.

How did the pro-Brexiteers win the 2016 referendum, when a coalition of Labour, Liberals, Greens, Irish republicans Sinn Fein, Scottish nationalists and most Tory MPs opposed it?

The core of the vote was the 62% of Tory voters in the suburbs and shires that voted for Brexit to “take back control” of “our” borders – that is, to radically cut immigration. The vote also represented a rejection of mainstream politics by a significant number of working-class voters, especially in poor working-class northern and Midlands towns.

Ironically, many of these voters agree with Labour on properly funding the health service and local government, and re-nationalising utilities such as gas, electricity and railways. But they do not agree with Labour on immigration. Racism and xenophobia are the Achilles heel of the more backward sections of Britain’s working class.

UKIP has suffered catastrophically from the Brexit vote, seeing its vote slip from 12.9% in 2015 to just 2.1% in 2017. The reason is that its right-wing, xenophobic politics now dominate the Conservative Party. What is the point of UKIP when the governing party adopts its policies?

The EU is turning up the heat on May, demanding major concessions in return for a transition period and a new favourable relationship with the EU after Brexit. This is making the conflict inside the Tories more intense.

At the same time, the Tory feral right is launching multiple slanderous attacks on Corbyn; for example, the absurd and false claim he leaked state secrets to Czechoslovakia’s regime in the 1980s.

Anti-immigrant attacks

Britain’s Home Office has utilised anti-immigrant sentiment to step up its deportation campaign against “illegal” residents — including people who have lived in Britain for decades. Some people who came to Britain from the Caribbean as children in the 1950s have been told to leave.

A consequence of this is that sectors that depend on immigrant workers — for example the health service, care homes for the elderly and agriculture — are running short of staff. It is estimated that up to 40,000 European nurses who would otherwise have worked in Britain have left or decided not to come after the referendum.

Despite myths of some leftists, working-class disillusionment was not the core of the Brexit vote. About 65% of Labour voters voted to remain in the EU. The core of the Brexit vote was older voters and middle-class voters in the shires and affluent suburbs, which parallels the core support for the Conservatives.

A big majority of people under 45 voted against leaving the EU. Among under-25s it was nearly 70% — similar to the proportion of that sector who voted for Corbyn’s Labour. There was a large majority against leaving the EU in multi-racial London.

The central problem for May and her Brexit minister David Davis is they want at least a transition period during which Britain will have full access to the single market. But the price demanded by the EU for this is free access to Britain for EU workers, and the right for these workers to stay in Britain after Brexit.

This is anathema to the Conservative right wing, for whom stopping immigration was the key point of the referendum.

Perhaps May’s most intractable post-Brexit dilemma is the border between Northern Ireland, made up of the six Irish counties still claimed by Britain, and the Irish Republic. For 20 years there has effectively been no border as far as trade and travel are concerned.

Nobody on the island of Ireland, not even hard-line Loyalists in the north, want to see a new policed border and customs posts in place. This would damage the economy of both north and south.

But how can a hard border be avoided if Britain, of which Northern Ireland is part, is outside the EU, while the rest of the island remains inside? If there is no hard border, then goods, services and people can come into Northern Ireland from the EU. Once there, it will be very difficult stopping them getting into the rest of Britain.

Left hopes

Other factors in British politics include the fact that the level of strikes remains at a historic low. However, there is still a rash of struggles among teachers, transport workers, university lecturers and others. There are a huge number of local campaigns against cuts in local and national services.

In this situation, immense hopes have been invested in the possibility of a Corbyn-led left Labour government. Just as the Brexiteer Tories have marginalised UKIP, so the Corbynistas have for the moment marginalised the left that remains outside the Labour Party.

British politics has entered a period of intense turbulence — and for the first time in decades the radical left is a key player at a national political level.

[A longer version of this article can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Phil Hearse is a member of the Transform! editorial board.]

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