British politics continues to be chaotic and uncertain. This might appear a surprising judgement, considering that: Boris Johnson’s government has a majority of 80 seats, the first time since the 1980s that the Conservatives have been able to rule without serious parliamentary challenge; and Britain left the European Union on January 31, apparently ending a saga that split first the Conservative Party and then the entire country. Yet, beneath the surface, politics remains in flux.
Britain’s exit from the EU has taken nearly four years, with huge conflict between the Remainers, who passionately support the EU, and equally strident Leavers. Yet, beyond symbolism, nothing is really decided. Britain remains bound by EU rules for another year and nobody, including Johnson, knows what will happen then.
The opposition Labour Party is still led by Jeremy Corbyn, but he resigned after a bitter election defeat and a new leader, who could take the party in a new direction, will be chosen in April.
Johnson, paradoxically, enjoys unchallenged power as prime minister, but is constrained by contradictory forces.
The Conservatives suffered a decades-long split on Britain’s approach to the EU that destroyed the political careers of its previous four prime ministers: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May.
This is apparently resolved. The remaining Europhile MPs have been kicked out of the party and Johnson has won a large enough majority to defeat any internal party challenge.
The Remainers, outside of Scotland and the North of Ireland, were humiliated in the December general election. The most fervent Remain party — the Liberal Democrats — picked up just 11 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons.
Labour is currently dejected and divided.
However, Johnson is not going to have it all his own way. His election victory, typically for a politician famed for turning lying into an art form, rests on contradictory promises.
Faced with a united EU, Johnson is in a weak position when it comes to forthcoming trade negotiations.
Johnson won the election, on the one hand, by marching into battle with a Conservative Party that had firmly moved to the right, but on the other, by gaining formerly safe Labour constituencies in the north of England.
Right-wing support for Brexit was built around the promise of cutting environmental and workplace protection, aligning Britain with US President Donald Trump and constructing a low-wage, low-regulation Singapore-on-Thames. However, to maintain Conservative support in newly won northern seats, Johnson has hinted that he will protect wages, redistribute power from the prosperous south-east and end the cuts.
However, he can’t please both his free-market supporters and those who believe his promises to end austerity.
Some things are clear: Johnson will bring in his promised voter suppression, a la Trump, insisting on measures to make it more difficult for young people and those hostile to the Conservatives to vote. In turn, his eccentric technocratic advisor Dominic Cummings will get to reshape the civil service and indulge in other pet projects.
Beyond this, no one, including Johnson, really knows. Johnson is likely to distance his government from previous Conservative administrations, but he heads a cabinet made up of passionate right-wing free marketers in love with the Thatcherite traditions that he hints he is leaving behind.
The contradictions will be deepened by the relationship with the EU. In years to come, leaving may look like the easy bit, compared to establishing a post-exit settlement. The EU is largely a trading block and British capitalism needs a deep trade relationship with the EU to survive, let alone prosper. Johnson wants Britain to be able to make its own rules, but the EU fears that a low-wage, low-regulation competitor will damage its interests.
Ultimately, Johnson will have to accept either continuing EU regulation, despite Brexit, making leaving the EU a pointless exercise, or — in exchange for regulatory freedom — likely face tariffs and other trade restrictions.
Non-EU countries such as Norway and Switzerland are increasingly bound by agreements that maintain EU regulation. Johnson may be forced to accept EU rules or may leave without a deal. Such a No Deal scenario at the end of 2020 could see Britain adopt a trade agreement with the US.
Any failure to get a trade deal with the EU, or alignment with the US (potentially with Trump in a second term), is likely to be chaotic and could promise damaging changes to environmental regulations, protections for workers and food standards.
The British may look divided, but both Remainers and Leavers are likely to be united in opposition to a Trumpian US trade deal that could introduce chlorine-washed chicken and a US corporate takeover of Britain’s beloved National Health Service.
However, Johnson may lack serious opposition from Labour. The election of a strong Labour leader ready to take Johnson on looks increasingly unlikely. The front-runner, Keir Starmer, who in his youth in the 1980s was a member of the ecosocialist network Socialist Self-Management, is being heavily promoted by centrist forces, including The Guardian.
A bruised Labour membership is being sold the notion that to be electable the party has to move to the right.
Starmer has many positive qualities, including forensic debating skills, but, like Johnson, he faces in more than one direction. If Starmer wins, it is unclear the extent to which he will move Labour to the right, however, nobody sees him as an attractive option for former Labour supporters in northern constituencies who must be won back to defeat Johnson.
Unlike Corbyn, Starmer is also unlikely to enthuse younger voters. He may surprise everyone, but it is likely he will be a short-term, caretaker leader who paves the way for a more substantial attempt to move Labour back to the right.
Salford MP Rebecca Long-Bailey could be the first woman Labour leader and is unambiguously the left candidate. However, the entire British media is working to persuade Labour members that as the “continuity Corbyn” candidate she is unelectable.
Yet even if she loses to Starmer, as looks likely, it will be difficult to roll Labour back to the days of former PM Tony Blair. Britain is a different place and Labour has thousands of grassroots socialists who will be difficult to displace.
To defeat Johnson, the left both inside and outside Labour must organise in a thoughtful and disciplined way. The years of Corbyn’s leadership showed that it was possible to move both Labour and Britain in a more left-wing direction. It will be important to work to build on this legacy.
As always, socialist politics is endless struggle and the right will mobilise to defend those with wealth and power. To build a future, the left will have to sink deep roots into the community, through effective local activism.
The British crisis remains unresolved. British politics is on a roller coaster, and the future can be made by those with both imagination and strategic vision.
[Derek Wall is a former international coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales.]