Brexit, the ruling class and prospects for a left Labour government

Neil Davidson warns of dangers past, present and future for Corbyn, Labour and socialists

For over 200 years after 1688 political governance in England, then Britain, was a relatively simple matter for British capitalism. Two parties representing different wings of the ruling class, Tories and Whigs, would alternate in office, with different emphasis reflecting their respective agricultural and industrial bases, but united in exercising hegemony over the emerging working class. The crisis of the Liberals and emergence of Labour at the beginning of the twentieth century complicated the picture, in two ways.

First, although Labour in office has always been committed to maintaining capitalism, albeit in a more humane form (above all between 1945 and 1951), it has also always contained a left, with historically varying degrees of strength and coherence, which has sought to transcend capitalism rather than ameliorate its worst effects. Second, the links between Labour and the unions and wider labour movement means that there were limits to how far Labour governments could go in responding to capitalist demands: the neoliberal era began in the mid-1970s, but the Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974-79, anti-working class though it undoubtedly was, could not have imposed the new order; for that Thatcher and the Tories were required.

Consequently, Labour governments, usually from the moment of taking office, have been subjected to disciplinary actions, from business itself (particularly in the form of investment strikes and capital flight), international markets (‘runs on the pound’), the state apparatus (notably the Treasury but, in extremis, the security services), geopolitical pressure from the USA and attacks in the predominantly right-wing press. The advent of ‘new’ Labour made it seem as if these tactics would no longer be necessary; such was Blair and Brown’s willingness to appease capital it appeared that a modern alternative to the old Tory/Whig alternative government might have been established.

The ascendancy of Corbyn and Labour’s massive membership growth, overwhelmingly from the left, has put paid to that particular illusion, but Labour has been brought to heel many times before the advent of ‘new’ Labour; what is different on this occasion is the extent of the Tory crisis.

David Cameron hoped to sideline UKIP and the Tories’ Europhobes by calling a referendum – which he assumed ‘remain’ would win. To an even greater extent than the Scottish Independence referendum, this was a gamble. The majority of British capitalists do not want to leave the EU, but are now saddled with Brexit because of the ineptitude of the politicians who are supposed to represent them. In other words, the Tories, main political representative of British capital for over 300 years is, temporarily at least, no longer capable of playing that role, not least because of unresolvable internal divisions and the incompetence of its leading figures.

It is precisely at moments like this that a suitably disciplined Labour Party would be expected to step into the breach and restore some kind of order ‘in the [British] national interest’. The leadership and mass membership of Corbyn’s Labour are obviously unwilling to play this role, and many of the usual pressures will be brought to bear, yet there are four specific dangers facing a potential left Labour government, all stemming from weaknesses in party’s own political positions.

First, attempts to remove Corbyn himself following the smears about his entirely imaginary anti-Semite. While this may well have been assisted by elements in the British (and Israeli) security services, the main driver has been an alliance of Zionists wanting to make fundamental criticism of Israel effectively illegal and Labour right-wingers prepared to do make any accusation to get rid of Corbyn, such is their horror at an actual left winger coming to power with mass support inside the party. Corbyn and Momentum’s capitulation over the IHRA definition of anti-semitism will come back to haunt them in future, given, for example, any Israeli repression of a future Palestinian uprising. But this is essentially aimed at Corbyn himself. The biggest threats to his programme lie elsewhere.

Second, while a calculated ambiguity over Brexit may have allowed Labour to avoid alienating ‘leave’ voters in particular, capitulating over the issue of freedom of movement, accepting that migration is a problem is to concede the right-wing populist case and make it more difficult to resist. Third, what has been remarkable about the response of the CBI, and those sections of the media where the ruling class conduct serious exchanges of views (Financial Times not Daily Mail), is how prepared they are to take seriously Corbyn and McDonnell’s economic proposals. The danger here is that the novelty of this situation will lead a government trying to avoid economic dislocation to compromise with a business sector looking for a realistic alternative to the Tories.

Finally, Labour’s refusal to take the national question seriously in either Scotland or Ireland (at a time when unification is beginning to look like a feasible option) is to needlessly deprive itself of allies. Scottish Labour’s unhinged sectarian hatred of the SNP is partly to blame here, but no-one expects Labout to necessarily support Scottish Independence or Irish Unification – just that the Scots and the Irish should be able to take that decision. Here, as always, democracy would be an aid to radicalism.

Neil Davidson lectures in sociology at the University of Glasgow and is the author of numerous books like ‘Nation-States: Consciousness and Competition’ (2016); ‘We Cannot Escape History: States and Revolution’ (2015); and’ Holding Fast to an Image of the Past: Explorations on Marxism and History’ (2014).

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