The general election on 8 June gave the UK a hung parliament. The Conservative Party were 8 seats short of the majority Theresa May had hoped to increase. This meant the possibility of a new election before the end of Brexit negotiations and further instability. This is a failure for Mrs May, and leaves her in office as Prime Minister only on sufferance until the Tory Party grandees feel it is opportune to oust her.
More seriously, it reopens the question of what sort of exit from the EU Britain will try to negotiate, which could prove useful for the bourgeoisie. The fact that the government looks likely to be dependent on the 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs from Northern Ireland could undermine the power-sharing agreement there which relies on the government’s apparent “rigorous impartiality”. However, definitely on the plus side for the ruling class, the ‘Corbyn factor’ has really increased illusions in democracy among young people and particularly among young workers. Turnout among the 18-24 age group rose from 43% to 58% since the 2015 election, a significant leap in participation in the electoral circus.
The background to the 2017 election: Brexit
This election cannot be understood without seeing it in the context of the 2015 general election and last year’s Brexit referendum. Like many other countries, Britain faced the growth of populism in the form of the UK Independence Party which offers a simplistic answer to much of the discontent in the population, including parts of the working class, based on opposition to immigration, and the illusion the country could regain its former economic and imperialist power if only it took control back from the EU. In doing this it disparaged elites and experts – particularly economists who warned against the effect of Brexit on growth. On a totally bourgeois terrain of nationalism and xenophobia, without any pretence of humanitarian values, it appeals particularly to those with least hope for the future looking for someone to blame.
But UKIP does not offer a consistent or rational policy to run the state in the interests of the central factions of the ruling class and so is a problem for the bourgeoisie as a whole. While UKIP had been taking votes from both Tories and Labour, its anti-EU policies chimed with the Eurosceptic views that have existed in both major parties, particularly the Conservatives, for decades. In response to this pressure from both UKIP and Eurosceptics in his own party, David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership in the election manifesto for 2015, with the aim of settling the issue for a generation. This was a huge miscalculation, a loss of control of the electoral game, which resulted in the vote for Brexit which they had not prepared for.
Cameron resigned to be replaced by May, who did much to try and stabilise the situation. She interpreted the referendum result as meaning that immigration had to be cut, and the country leave the European Court of Justice, hence leaving the single market and customs union, a ‘hard’ Brexit; and the government wanted to keep parliament out of any role in the negotiations. Saying that “no deal is better than a bad deal” for Britain in advance of negotiations made her look like a poker player with nothing in her hand trying to convince an opponent to fold. That was the hand she had been dealt. It was in these circumstances, with negotiations imminent and opinion polls strongly in her favour, that she called the snap election to try and strengthen her hand.
Although Brexit was the key to understanding why this election was called, it is not surprising that it hardly featured in the campaign beyond Mrs May telling us she would provide “strong and stable” leadership for the negotiation. With both main parties divided on the issue any discussion during the campaign could only risk severely weakening either or both of them.
Problems facing the British ruling class before the election
The British ruling class has tried to deal with populism in the form of UKIP by taking on a major plank of its policies, leaving the EU, as part of the policy of the government and main opposition party. The government had gone as far as insisting that this meant leaving the single market and customs union in order to limit immigration, whereas this was weakening it on both the economic and imperialist levels. The decision caused a fall in the value of the pound, and strict immigration control would deprive many businesses of either skilled or seasonal labour power. On the imperialist level, outside the EU, Britain will have far less influence. Merkel’s recent statement that the USA and Britain are unreliable partners is a small indication of this. Relying on the ‘special relationship’ with the USA is no compensation since the relationship is more of a fiction based on a huge imbalance in power to the UK’s disadvantage.
Brexit had reopened the question of Scottish independence since Scotland had voted clearly in favour of remaining in the EU, despite a clear vote against independence in the 2014 referendum. To this has been added the problem of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The open border, with both countries in the EU, was an important factor in the Good Friday Agreement which established power sharing between Catholic Republican and Protestant Unionist politicians. Power sharing has been called into question by Sinn Féin walking out of the government, the current sticking point appearing to be the demand for parity for the Gaelic language which has nothing to do with the pretext for the original walk out. So there is also the problem of tendencies towards the disaggregation of the UK.
The British bourgeoisie is also aware of the considerable discontent within the population, and particularly within the working class, after decades of austerity, particularly since the subprime crisis 10 years ago that have left workers worse off. In 2014 wages were almost 10 per cent lower than seven years before. In addition there are the cuts to funding in health and social services, to education, along with public sector pay restraint. Although this is not being expressed in working class struggle, and there is at present no strong feeling of being part of a working class that can struggle effectively – as there was in the period from 1968 to the late 1980s – which is the only really effective way to fight for a future society, the bourgeoisie still need to deal with this discontent. Some of this discontent was expressed in votes for Brexit, more to give the government a bloody nose than out of any conviction. However, the political apparatus has also provided another avenue for expressing discontent with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, which produced a large influx of new members into the party. Despite all the efforts to portray him as incompetent, unwilling to defend the country, going back to the 1970s, this promotion of a left-wing figure is the bourgeoisie’s tried and tested way of absorbing discontent and diverting it back into support for democracy and parliament, that is, for the very state that is imposing austerity.
Problems facing the British ruling class after the election
There is now a new problem with the instability of a minority government, that we might be expecting a new election sooner rather than later, and that the prime minister is much weakened and unlikely to last long. Theresa May did not strengthen her mandate for a hard Brexit, so much as lost it. She told the Tory 1922 Committee of backbenchers “I’m the person who got us into this mess and I’m the one who will get us out of it”. The change in the situation has strengthened the hand of those wanting to argue for a different Brexit that retains access to the single market or at least the customs union. Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Ken Clarke have both proposed that there is now cross party debate about Brexit. While this holds the promise of the possibility of a Brexit less damaging to the national capital, it also creates difficulties for negotiations starting only 11 days after the election! The EU negotiators are ready, Michel Barnier has a mandate from the other 27 countries, but no-one knows what Britain wants with only 21 months left on the clock. The EU is insisting on a programme of negotiation starting with the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, which might cause great controversy, despite everyone’s benevolent stated intentions. If there are what The Economist (17/6/17) called “silver linings” Britain remains in a very weakened position.
With the Scottish National Party losing 21 seats, although retaining a majority of Scottish seats, to unionist parties, ie the Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats, a new independence referendum is now off the table. But the Tory reliance on the DUP for a majority only adds to Britain’s problems there. It is not only Republicans from Northern Ireland who have warned that the government may be in breach of the Good Friday Agreement to remain “rigorously impartial” between them and the Unionists (even if this could only ever be a fiction). Former PM John Major has also warned that the “men of violence” are still there and that it would be far better to run a minority government, however difficult, than to risk the Agreement with this alliance with the DUP.
Corbyn comes through – for the bourgeoisie
When it comes to the question of dealing with discontent, the election has clearly marked a step forward for the bourgeoisie, thanks to Corbyn. Being dismissed as weak and unelectable, and demonised as far left, soft on terrorists such as Hamas, no doubt improved his image as a radical socialist politician, although he is a long term supporter of state capitalism. In much the same way as Bernie Sanders in the USA, Syriza in Greece, or Podemos in Spain, he was able to mobilise young people, particularly young workers, behind the idea that they can change things through the democratic process, encouraging them to register and turn out to vote. For those totally disgusted by the xenophobia of populism he offers the illusion of fighting against it within the democratic system, and he offers the hope of change based on ‘social justice’ – within capitalism. During the election campaign the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London gave him the opportunity to underline his support for the state as the only means to protect the population through the call for more police officers.
Before the election he was regarded as a pariah in the Parliamentary Labour Party, with many refusing to serve in his shadow cabinet after an attempt to get rid of him with a vote of no confidence among Labour MPs. This has all changed with his very successful election campaign and an increase of nearly 10% in Labour’s share of the vote to 40% and an increase of 30 seats. This result makes it appear that he has a credible alternative government, without the loss of credibility that would soon follow if he were to find himself in office and responsible for imposing austerity.
It is not surprising that moderate Labour MPs now recognise the important role Corbyn is playing in soaking up discontent and mobilising it for the election, overcoming much of the cynicism about Labour that is left over from the Blair and Brown governments. Particularly, if they consider how he is playing this role within the Labour Party, as opposed to what has happened in Spain where the growth of Podemos is largely at the expense of the Socialist Party, or in France where the opposition to the populism of Marine Le Pen through Macron’s new party has also come at the expense of the French Socialist Party.
Different ways of responding to populism
The Trump election, coming hard on the heels of the Brexit referendum, was an important warning for the bourgeoisie of the danger of the disruptive political force of populism. We have already seen how Britain has been weakened by the referendum result, and we can see the difficulties faced by the USA in trying to cope with and control a president who is something of a loose cannon with various investigations and even talk of impeachment. There has clearly been a loss of control of the political apparatus by the most powerful bourgeoisie, in the USA, and the most experienced, in Britain, a clear indication of the difficulties faced by them in the period of the decomposition of the capitalist order.
In the UK, the mainstream bourgeois parties have really limited the UKIP influence in the latest election (the UKIP vote went from nearly 3.9million to less than 600,000) but only by taking on much of its policy and rhetoric – on leaving the EU and on the limitation of immigration.
This has reinforced the political system of two main political parties but at the cost of the self-inflicted wound in the referendum, with the Brexit negotiations still ahead. In the Netherlands, the centre right Prime Minister, Rutte, also used the tactic of undermining support for Geert Wilders by showing he could also stand up to Islamic countries, in this case by refusing to allow Turkish ministers to speak at meetings in the country ahead of their constitutional referendum, and by this means limited the populist party to 20 seats in a chamber of 150. The French bourgeoisie has been more determined in creating a new centre party, La Republique en Marche, behind the new president Macron, who plays at being an outsider. Even his predecessor Hollande, has backed this new party despite the fact it comes at the expense of a huge loss of deputies for his own party.
Our rulers are having difficulties in controlling their political game and their elections to get the results they need. That this is one more piece of evidence that the capitalist system is now obsolete is of no advantage to the working class. The bourgeoisie can no longer provide any sane perspective for society, but the working class has to a large extent lost not only any sense that it can offer the perspective of a new society but even the confidence that it is a class that can struggle against the effects of capitalism and its crisis as a class.
In this situation, while the ruling class has suffered the disruption caused by populism, the working class faces the danger of being caught up in the conflict between populism and anti-populism. And the greatest danger is from the anti-populists, especially those on the left such as Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, who appear to give an answer to xenophobia and hatred, and offer hope for the future within this decaying capitalist system, rather than a perspective for its destruction.
. See https://en.internationalism.org/international-review/201608/14086/questi... for a discussion of this phenomenon.
. See https://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201607/14011/growing-difficult... for analysis of the referendum vote.