British politics in turmoil as right-wing surge fuels Brexit chaos


Members of the trade union Unite march in London to support Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by Andrew Burgin.

The victory of the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union (“Brexit”) in the June 23 referendum was the result of — and is intensifying — a huge right-wing anti-immigration campaign.

It has set in motion a bewildering tumult of quick-fire political changes that have blindsided lots of the key players and confused many political radicals.

It has also unleashed a wave of anti-immigrant attacks as racist thugs have become emboldened. Just 10 days before the vote, pro-remain Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a fascist sympathiser, who gave his name in court as “Britain First — Death to Traitors”.

The defeated “Remain” campaign was backed by the decisive sections of British capitalism. These included the ultra-powerful banks and finance houses, as well as nearly all the major manufacturing and retail companies.

It was supported by both the Labour and Conservative leaderships, as well as the Liberal Democrats and the Greens — although most Conservative supporters back leaving the EU.

It was supported by a galaxy of movie and music stars, as well as President Barack Obama and most well-known European political leaders. The City of London, the world's most important financial centre, was confident the Leave camp would lose. The result's shock crashed the value of the pound and British shares.

Political chaos

In the immediate wake of the 51%–49% vote to leave, political chaos ensued. Pro-remain Tory Prime Minister David Cameron resigned.

The key figure on the Leave side, flamboyant ex-London Mayor Boris Johnson, was expected to take over from Cameron — yet suddenly announced he would not stand for Conservative leader. Vicious factional infighting has deepened among the Tories.

In Scotland, 60% of voters opted for “Remain”. Scottish National Party First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would do everything possible to allow Scotland to remain in the EU — and said the Scottish government would start working on a new referendum for independence.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness immediately demanded the abolition of the border with the Irish Republic — which remains an EU member — so the present situation of open trading and movement of people could be maintained.

Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) whose electoral surge in some working class areas is an important backdrop to the referendum outcome, astonishingly announced his resignation as party leader — although he has done that twice before.

And left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn came under huge attack from the right-wing majority of Labour MPs, 172 of whom (out of 212) voted for a motion of no-confidence against him.

Bizarrely, the Labour Right blame Corbyn for Remain's defeat. They accuse him of running a “lacklustre” campaign against Brexit — despite the fact that 67% of Labour voters voted to remain.

In the middle of this turmoil on July 6, the long-awaited Chilcot Commission report into the 2003 Iraq War delivered a calmly worded but savage critique of ex-Labour PM Tony Blair's support for the war.

Corbyn's dignified anti-war speech in parliament that day was heckled by right-wing Labour MPs, forcing the Speaker to tell them to be quiet.

And we can hrow into this mix the fact that the British radical left is badly split over the Brexit vote and its impact.

Immigration

So what does this really signify? Most important, it was really a referendum about immigration. Farage and leading Tory anti-EU campaigners decided about six weeks before the vote to stop arguing about whether British capitalism would be economically better off outside the EU (obviously it won't) and to shift the debate entirely to the issue of immigration.

“Take back control” became the key slogan, meaning mostly take back control of our borders.

EU states have to give free movement of capital and labour to all other EU states. The Leave campaign highlighted the alleged issue of EU migrants in Britain and the hugely exaggerated “threat” that millions of refugees from Syria and migrants from Turkey could find their way to Britain through the EU.

There are about three million citizens of other EU countries living in Britain. Nearly 900,000 EU migrants come from Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and the Baltic states, and many of them do badly-paid manual labour.

In the main, they want to earn money and then return home. Many of them are super-exploited, for example as agricultural labourers in the rural areas of eastern England, undercutting the national minimum wage (a problem that could be solved if the law was enforced).

Anti-immigration sentiment has been key to building support for UKIP. The Leave vote was high in its electoral stronghold.

Of course, anti-immigrant sentiment has been an important aspect of British politics since the late 1970s. What has changed is that a xenophobic, anti-immigrant discourse has — partly under the pressure of UKIP — become dominant in the Conservative Party.

But the second, and perhaps more decisive, factor has been the rise of support for UKIP in some industrial heartlands that were formerly Labour strongholds. Behind this is the economic collapse of these regions. The decline of mining, steel and engineering industries, among others, was a conscious policy of Margaret Thatcher's Tory government in the 1980s.

Millions in these areas are in hopeless poverty on run-down “sink estates”, hundreds of thousands are unemployed or have been forced into “zero hours” work contracts and low paid, part-time jobs. They have been further crushed by austerity.

Economic depression in these areas contrasts sharply with the apparent affluence of London and the country's south-east — although there are many poor working class areas there as well.

Most of all, people in these areas feel abandoned by the “elite”, and especially by the Labour Party under Blair, seen as being concerned only with courting the rich. Cynicism about the Iraq War only further evaporated support for Labour.

Nationalism and Thatcherism

There are deep reserves of nationalism and racism in all classes in British society, including the working class. It will have to be defeated for any radical change to come about.

Inside the Conservative Party, there is a rush to ultra-Thatcherism. The Tory right, led by people like Ian Duncan-Smith and Michael Gove, want a more definitive neoliberal break with the post-war settlement — wrecking what remains of the welfare state and mixed economy.

They want a more authoritarian and socially conservative Britain. Their vision would see nationalism and xenophobia at rampant levels, the National Health Service and social services destroyed, trade unions crushed and civil liberties and human rights in the bin. This matches UKIP's objectives.

There are important counter-currents to the right-wing racist surge. Just a week after the referendum, 100,000 mainly young people demonstrated in London against the referendum outcome. It was an extraordinary mobilisation organised by previously unknown people on social media.

It reflected the vote: among 18-25 year-olds, 73% voted to stay in the EU. In fact, the Remain camp won a majority of voters under 45.

With the exception of “globalisation” and “capitalism” (viewed negatively by half of both Remain and Leave voters), every other significant category like immigration, feminism, the green movement and multiculturalism was viewed negatively by Leave voters. Multiculturalism was viewed negatively by 71% of Leave voters.

Labour struggle

The politicisation of young people is also seen in the fight over Corbyn's leadership of Labour. Since Labour MPs began their anti-Corbyn coup, nearly 100,000 people have joined the Labour Party — with pro-Corbyn joiners likely outnumbering opponents by ten to one.

Including the £3 “supporter” category, Labour now has more than 500,000 members, way more than any other party. The Conservative Party has about 150,000 members.

This is the problem for Labour's right wing: the mass of Labour members — maybe two thirds — support Corbyn. The Labour Right has sought a new leadership election that excluded Corbyn from the ballot — a manoeuvre unlikely to work.

A huge pro-Corbyn campaign is being organised nationally by the left Labour current Momentum. Neither the Labour right wing, nor the British capitalist class, can accept long-term socialist leadership of the Labour Party. If they cannot overthrow Corbyn, a historic split in the Labour Party looms.

Most Labour supporters and youth voted to remain in the EU. However, the two biggest radical left groups, the Socialist Party (SP) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), argued for a Leave vote, as did some prominent left personalities such as Tariq Ali and John Pilger. The SWP and SP presented the outcome as a working class victory — the SWP website proclaimed: “A victory against austerity and neoliberalism.”

Left Unity, the radical left group launched by filmmaker Ken Loach in 2013, supported the Remain camp, but not due to any illusions in the EU, which has always been a “bosses' club”.

Rather, Left Unity fought for Remain because the dynamic of the referendum was for or against immigration, for or against xenophobia, for or against multiculturalism.

Given the huge power of the right-wing British media — especially the Daily Mail and Rupert Murdoch's Sun newspaper — no other meaning could have been given to the Leave campaign. A left-wing Leave campaign ('Lexit') was a non-starter. In most city centres, which are very multi-ethnic, the Remain camp won big victories.

Whichever of the two remaining right-wing Tory candidates — Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom — becomes prime minister, their dilemma is British capitalism needs maximum access to the European single market.

Some Tory Brexiters argued for a “Norwegian” solution — out of the EU, but in the single market. But Norway has had to accept freedom of movement for EU citizens. That, of course, is what most Brexiters cannot accept.

If major concessions are made to the EU on this, the right wing of the Conservative Party and UKIP are waiting to launch their campaign against “betrayal” and capitulation.

The political turmoil will continue.

[Phil Hearse is a member of Socialist Resistance in England.]

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