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The British elections leave an unsteady ship lurching rightwards in turbulent waters
16 June 2017. A World to Win News Service. By Robert Borba.
The national elections held in the United Kingdom on 8 June came at a critical time in the world and the country, with little consensus among the ruling class about how to handle the increasingly acute contradictions that are shaking up the existing world order – from Brexit, with Britain to leave the European Union, to the establishment of the fascist Trump regime in the US, the sweeping away of the traditional governing parties in France in the recent Presidential elections there, and more.
Rather than settling the matter, the Brexit vote left the British ruling class deeply divided on how to handle its relations with the European imperialist powers (especially Germany, now bidding to lead the EU), and the US, with which the UK’s “special relationship” is not so much a matter of language and culture as interwoven investment and close partnership in global exploitation. Powerful global currents are hammering at the long-standing political order in Britain: surging migration, driven by war and imperialist plunder of the countries of the third world; ripping social and economic inequality in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis (with food banks and homelessness proliferating in the inner cities); strident attempts to reassert traditional values, and in particular a war on women to put them “back in their place”; intensifying contradictions among the major powers; and not least, the ongoing contradiction between outmoded and reactionary Western imperialism and forces associated with it, and outmoded and reactionary Islamic jihadism – which both fuel and fight each other. This last conflict erupted in blood in the streets of London and Manchester during the election itself.
In the face of this global turbulence, Theresa May, Prime Minister and head of the Conservative (Tory) Party, adopted the mantra the what the UK needs is a “strong and stable” hand – a strong woman for hard times. As Europe’s loudest voice in opposing rescue operations for migrants in the Mediterranean Sea when she was Home Minister, May began demonstrating what that means even before becoming the head of her party and prime minister. Her unapologetic opposition to letting in people from other countries underlies both her current immigration policies and plans for negotiating Brexit. In contrast to the phony “compassionate conservatism” previously espoused by the Tories, a proud cruelty marks her approach to other social issues. This was once again spotlighted a week after the elections by her initial refusal to talk to survivors of the Grenfell tower block inferno, where the deaths of as yet uncounted public housing residents due to a lack of elementary fire precautions is itself emblematic of official indifference to the lives of vast sections of the population.
When Trump surprisingly won the US presidency, and in the face of his fascist moves and particularly his trumpeting “America First”, uncertainty mounted among the British ruling class, May took decisive action and was the first head of state to visit Trump. She invited him with unprecedented haste for a state visit. She touted what she called “patriotic conservatism”. She pledged what was called a “hard Brexit” – “Brexit means Brexit!”, she proclaimed – and promised to “take back control of our borders”, echoing Trump’s “build that wall!” She said she called these snap elections three years early because she needed a mandate as Britain entered into negotiations with the other 27 EU countries over Brexit. But instead, the Tories’ slim majority in Parliament evaporated in a humiliating setback for her personally. May is now struggling to weld together some form of governing majority. Uncertainty and volatility are more than ever the order of the day.
May and the Tories lost their parliamentary majority, but still being the largest party, are currently attempting to form a governing majority by allying with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. The DUP, a creation of the notorious Ian Paisley, is a set of misogynist Bible-beating reactionaries who have fought for decades to keep Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. They have historic connections with the Orange Order and Protestant militias who carried out vicious terror attacks against Catholic civilians in the interests of British domination of the province. Their MPs are infamous for their diehard opposition to evolution, to manmade climate change, to same sex marriage and to abortion under almost all circumstances. Making the DUP the main strut for a parliamentary coalition introduces a whiff of fascism into the political atmosphere and would surely encourage and build up forces quite ready to help install a regime that abandons hypocritical discourse about tolerance and inclusiveness and instead sanctifies and relies on violent repression. Even before the election May responded to jihadi terror attacks by declaring, gangster-like, that protection from such violence would require the country’s people to surrender basic democratic rights.
Unlike in France, however, where neither of the two traditional parties that have governed since World War 2 made it to the final round of the recent presidential elections, in the UK both of the two main traditional parties saw their share of the vote increase. In part this reflected serious shifts by the parties to adjust to the Brexit decision: Corbyn moved “left” and distanced Labour from the now discredited “centrist” “Third Way” policies of former PM Tony Blair’s New Labour and adopted an implicitly “soft Brexit” stance, while May shifted rightwards with calls for a “hard Brexit”, greater austerity and stepped-up repression. Despite the electoral setback, May did have some success in winning over many who had earlier supported Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (UKIP). With Britain now headed out the door from Europe, UKIP’s very reason for being was over, and many of its supporters switched back to the Tories, leaving it without a single MP.
The setback suffered by the Tories is being attributed in part to an outpouring of youth on behalf of Corbyn’s Labour. After seven years of Tory governance, Corbyn undoubtedly offered a fresh look. He openly proclaimed his “socialism” and lashed out at the banks and the rich – Labour’s main campaign slogan was “For the Many, Not the Few”. The Labour election manifesto called for re-nationalizing the railways and utilities, eliminating the university tuition fees that have saddled a generation of students with huge debts (originally implemented by Blair’s New Labour), extra funding for social services, in particular the National Health Service, and guaranteeing pensions. All of this was to be funded by raising corporate and income tax on the wealthy. Internationally, Corbyn promised to rein in British military intervention abroad. He has a long record of voting against the various British military adventures alongside the US in the last 30 years, including the invasion of Iraq in both 1991 and 2003.
Most of the mainstream media denounced Corbyn as “unelectable”. The Murdoch-owned Sun said his election would “make Britain a global laughing stock” and screamed about his “jihadi comrades”, while the right-wing tabloid Daily Mail called his team “Apologists for Terrorism”. But for many of Corbyn’s volunteers, this was proof they were hitting a nerve. As with Sanders in the US and Melenchon in France, virtually the entirety of the organized “Left” supported his campaign to one degree or another.
One reason Corbyn’s programme might appear radical these days is that this kind of social-democracy has been ruled off the agenda in the Western countries for years now. Intensifying global competition in recent decades has seen social welfare programmes slashed throughout the Western countries. Subject to the compulsion of expand or die, capital everywhere is cutting costs to compete. In this environment, and especially as this global competition intensifies and self-proclaimed “my country first” policies are stepped up, dreams of reviving the glory days of Western social democracy have gone up in smoke, one after another – or worse. The dire fate of Greece’s Syriza speaks volumes in this respect. It’s one thing to tell the British people that their fate depends on the success of British capital when they can feel that capital is keeping its part of the social bargain. It’s another when “austerity” – which is not a question of anyone’s will but of the requirements for profit and capital accumulation that the workings of capitalism itself imposes on capitalists and blocs of capital – leads many people to feel that the social compact is being broken.
May clearly felt that it was essential to deal a sharp blow at the kind of opposition Corbyn represented to ensure it does not further undermine the political stability she rightly believes is so vital and so endangered. The potential for this infighting within the ruling forces to erupt into something much more difficult to control could be felt in the justified, explosive and widely supported anger of the Grenfell Tower survivors May dared not meet with, and which in fact seems to be aimed at all the authorities, including London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. Given the constraints of the situation, there is, in fact, no good option for the British ruling class.
Despite this, Corbyn’s campaign has played a powerful enabling role in keeping the increasingly sharp question of how to resolve these contradictions within the confines of what is good for British imperialism. Britain is the leading financial power in Europe, one of the first colonial nations and a major imperialist predator today whose wealth has been accumulated on the backs of hundreds of millions of people worldwide for generations – from the days when the “sun never set on the British empire” down to today. It is in this context that, despite his opposition to some British military intervention, we must situate Corbyn’s declaration that he “wants to make Britain stronger in the world”.
Seeking to redistribute the wealth within the country while maintaining its position at the top of the global imperialist food chain can only mean advocating a slightly revamped redistribution of this historically accumulated plunder within the framework of the existing world system. Despite Corbyn’s self-proclaimed “socialism”, Labour’s programme ultimately amounts to a reactionary and impossible effort to make society in the capitalist-imperialist UK more “fair” rather than working for the overthrow of a system of exploitation that thrives on the destruction of bodies and souls, and moving toward the elimination of all the antagonistic social divisions and inequalities that hold back humanity’s potential throughout the world – a project that would link the fundamental interests of the vast majority of people in the UK with those of the vast majority of the world’s people.
This is why Corbyn has been so wishy-washy on the issue of Brexit – having opposed the EU for many years as a parliamentary backbencher, he now promised to “respect the referendum” and carry out a “softer” form of Brexit than the Tories, preserving some form of UK’s inclusion in the European common market. What Labour could not do was to oppose both the European Union – an alliance of imperialist states whose history is one of domination and plunder of most of the world’s peoples – while simultaneously denouncing the nostalgia for the British Empire and the dreams of recovering lost imperial glory that fuelled the vote for Brexit.
This too is why, although Corbyn has opposed the more blatant cases of British intervention alongside US imperialism in recent decades, the Labour Party election manifesto makes a firm commitment to NATO – the main military alliance enforcing Western imperialist interests in the world, including through the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Corbyn also pledges to continue British participation in United Nations military “peacekeeping” efforts, likewise a key part of the overall way the US-led imperialist powers have enforced their global domination at gunpoint. And although Corbyn spent years as a backbencher MP denouncing Britain’s nuclear arsenal and in particular the nuke-armed Trident submarine force, now to ensure his own “electability” he has agreed to go along with the Labour Party as a whole in maintaining Trident if elected.
Many Corbynistas want to avoid all this and limit discussion of Labour to its support for public services like the National Health Service, pointing out proudly how it was Labour that founded the NHS back under the Clement Atlee government in the late 1940s. What this argument ignores is that it was also Atlee’s Labour government that initiated Britain’s nuclear weapons programme and was a key architect of NATO. In a major capitalist-imperialist country like Britain, one does not come without the other.
And what of the dire threat to humanity posed by the rise of the fascist Trump-Pence regime in the US? While criticizing Trump here and there, Labour has made it abundantly clear that in power it would continue the “special relationship” with the US – anything else would of course make the party “unelectable” in the eyes of the British rulers. While opposing the upcoming state visit scheduled in early autumn, with its extraordinary pomp and circumstances involving the Queen, Labour will not oppose an “official visit”. How does this help the struggle to drive out this fascist Trump/Pence regime, the greatest danger to humanity in history? How does this stand up to May’s right-wing course, since it legitimates the claim that the basic interests of the masses of people in the UK lie in an alliance between British and US imperialism?
All this should be of great concern to those who support Corbyn but are seriously trying to figure out how to transform the world in a liberating way. But there’s more. The election campaign was twice put on hold following murderous jihadist attacks, first in Manchester and then in London, with over 30 people killed and dozens seriously wounded. The Labour election manifesto had already promised to put an extra 10,000 police on the street, but in the wake of the attacks Corbyn dramatically stepped up the campaign to show that Labour would be tougher than the Tories on terrorism. What ensued was a fiery public fight between Corbyn and May over who supports the police more, with Labour blasting Tory austerity policies that had led to cuts of 10,000 police, which Corbyn said “left the British people unsafe”. In the last week of campaigning, the main banner on Labour’s election “battle bus” proclaimed “More police for safer communities”. May and the Tories seized on these jihadist attacks to demand the stripping away of democratic rights, including the restoration of the kind of internment that was used against the Irish nationalist struggle 20 and 30 years ago, with people jailed without trial simply for their beliefs. While Labour has opposed this, if the terms of debate are framed narrowly over how best to protect “us Brits”, then Labour is already on a slippery slope to accommodation – yet again.
What a lesson this should be in the poisonous character of bourgeois parliamentary politics! Only a year or two ago, Labour politicians, including Corbyn himself, featured prominently at protests against brutal attacks by the police on especially Black youth in Britain’s inner cities, and in solidarity with the movement in the US following the Ferguson rebellion there. Corbyn and Labour were now corralling many of these same anti-police protesters and convincing them to take to the streets, this time urging people not to protest against the police but to beef up their ranks at the polls! Worse, some organisers in Momentum, Socialist Workers Party and other “Left” groups were doing all this in the name of “opening political space” and even advancing the cause of “revolution” – when all this actually helping to strengthen the armed enforcers of the capitalist system and its oppressive state.
However different Labour may look from the Tories, and however different their social bases, ultimately both parties function as two pillars of an ongoing parliamentary democracy that has concealed and legitimated the dictatorship of capital in the UK for over a century now. At the same time, these elections, if analysed scientifically, reveal the degree to which the British ruling class is facing and fighting over how to deal with potentially life-or-death challenges thrown up by the workings of the capitalist-imperialist system itself. Both parties offer solutions for solving these contradictions in the interests of the preservation of the system. The rapidly intensifying contradictions churning up the ground beneath the political arrangements that have ensured several generations of relative stability in the Western imperialist powers since World War 2 will lead to further polarization and sharper clashes within Britain’s ruling order. This should be taken as an urgent moment to start talking about, analysing and acting on how these openings can be seized on to resolve these contradictions in the interests of humanity through a genuine revolution, in opposition to those of the ruling class, and not be pulled into serving one wing or the other of the ruling class.
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