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Analysis #43

The Workers’ Revolt Against Labour

Philip Cunliffe

18 December 2019

The working-class voters of the North, Midlands and Wales have rebelled against a complacent Labour Party that no longer represents them. The left should not mourn Labour’s demise but seize the political opportunity it represents.

The North has rose today
And you can stuff your aid!

And you can stuff your aid!

 - “The North Will Rise Again”, The Fall


The crushing majority won by Boris Johnson in Britain’s December general election has prompted widespread dismay and disarray across the left in Britain and even further afield. Even though the Labour Party expected no more than a minority government at best, the scale of the Tories’ electoral victory has rolled back Labour’s parliamentary seats to numbers not seen since the 1930s, when the Labour Party was still only a few decades old. Rather than accepting this as the downfall of the left, however, we should look for the political advantage stemming from the defeat of the Labour Party. The hope here rests in the fact that it is a working-class revolt that has finally prised open the dead hand of Labourism on Britain’s working-class voters. In itself, this thrilling working-class revolt is a tremendous moment in British political history and opens up a new opportunity for the future of radical politics. Will the left seize it?


It is difficult to understate the scale of the Labour Party’s defeat. Although Labour has suffered tremendous electoral defeats before, notably in the 1980s, this most recent defeat is qualitatively different because the party has not just been thrown back; its strongholds have been overrun. Constituencies in which the Miners’ Strike itself was fought have now voted Tory, ousting even working class and Brexit-supporting Labour MPs like Dennis Skinner and Caroline Flint. It was from strongholds such as these that the Labour Party was once able to sally forth to secure middle-class voters in marginal constituencies in the south and thus take back power after the defeats of the 1980s. This was the strategy of triangulation that carried Tony Blair to power in three elections after 1997. Working-class voters have now closed that option off.


As the defeat occurred under Corbyn, it is unsurprising that people have looked to the politics of him and his followers to understand the failure of the Labour Party. Doubtless there is much to criticise in Corbynism, effectively a project of millennials born in the south-east of the country, whose electoral strategy rested on lavishing the rest of the country with promises of state spending while ignoring their demand for real political influence. From this point of view, the problem with the Labour Party was that it had become too middle-class, its membership rooted in graduates rather than trade union members, its new electoral bases in university towns and inner cities rather than smaller working-class towns, coastal communities and exurban Britain, its values too snooty, too liberal and too metropolitan for most voters. Corbyn himself was seen to symbolise this political haughtiness: an Islingtonian, a quintessential north London activist and serial campaigner whose patriotism was always suspect.


While this is an accurate picture of Labour’s current cadre of activists, the real mistake would be to imagine that this was somehow a new departure for the Labour Party. In some respects, the loss of its working-class heartlands returns the Labour Party to its origins. The Labour Party emerged in the radical social liberalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Labour’s evolution began with the Liberal Party endorsing trade union candidates and forming electoral pacts with proto-Labour politicians as a way of diluting the Tory vote, which Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had sought to expand by enfranchising the burgeoning working class through the 1884 Representation of the People Act. Liberal patronage allowed trade union leaders to consolidate themselves in the Independent Labour Party and Labour Representation Committee, in which trade union leaders sought to promote their own influence and power as mediators between employers and workers. However patriotic Corbyn may or may not be, he is the living embodiment of this long tradition of English radical liberalism, ranging from his sympathies for Irish nationalism through his prim vegetarianism and clerical moralising, right down to his jam-making on the local allotment.


Corbynism did not represent a radical break with Labourist traditions because the Labour Party has always been a vehicle for the reigning liberal ideas of the day to dominate the left, a middle-class bridgehead in the working class. The reigning liberal idea of our day – intersectional liberalism, in which the population is fragmented into vulnerable identities, all competing with each other for state protection – has also suffered a blow alongside Corbyn’s defeat. The defeat of the intersectionalists will be compounded as their lurid dystopian promises that Brexit would usher in a new era of fascist autarky will be exposed. While they rage against the prospect of neoliberal austerity and racial nationalism, the Tories have pledged to raise the minimum wage and boost state spending on infrastructure, education and hospitals in a concerted effort to secure their newfound electoral gains – all under the auspices of the most ethnically diverse cabinet in British history and with a parliamentary majority comprising youthful, northern, gay, working-class MPs.


Across the first half of the twentieth century, middle-class intellectuals allied with the trade union leaders to use the Labour Party to draw the working class into the compromise with the employers that reordered Britain after 1945. However, when the business class revolted against the post-war settlement in the 1970s and 1980s, the Labour Party and trade union leaders alike failed to defend working class interests. Working class civic and political life was shredded, leaving workers politically disorganised, demoralised and demobilised. The European Union (EU) became a transnational refuge for defeated trade union leaders and social democrats to retreat into. Its regional development funds and pitiful labour protections were gratefully seized upon as compensation for political defeats at the national level. This retreat into the EU laid the ground for the Third Way technocratic centrism of the Blair era, in which supranational authority was used to entrench the advances of Thatcherism in the form of the Single Market. The Blair era did nothing to reverse these earlier defeats; not a single part of Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws were repealed, for instance. The hypertrophy in party membership under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership since 2015 belies the absence of any organised social base. A cadre of highly-educated, downwardly-mobile millennials, locked out of the property market and passionately attached to the EU as a cosmopolitan hinterland providing refuge from their fellow citizens, was never going to compensate for trade union density and articulated structures of labour organisation.


If the election is a defeat for Corbynism, it is thus no less a defeat for Blairism. The premise of Blairism – that the party had to move to the centre on economic policy in order to win elections – has now been undercut by the Conservative Party itself. In today’s context, Blairites are more conservative than actually-existing Tories, whose economic programme has shifted leftwards, evidenced in Boris Johnson’s immediate pronouncements on boosting state spending and defending the NHS after his electoral win. The centre of economic policy-making is shifting toward state aid, greater public spending and government oversight of the market, leaving the Blairites adrift. Just as Thatcherism made Blairism viable, the Tories’ turn to One Nation Conservatism means that Blairism is finished. The Tories will now lead a working-class revolt to overturn the neoliberal order. Ultimately, the Blairites and intersectionalists are only different wings of neoliberalism, and their commonality is exposed in their joint reverence for the supranational authority of the EU, seen as a foil for the mass democracy at the national level that both the Blairites and intersectionalists dread and despise.


Of all the factions now competing for the future of the Labour Party, the Lexiteers clearly stand to gain the most, as their position appears to have been vindicated by Labour’s electoral wipe-out. It was Lexiteers of Blue Labour and the Leave-Fight-Transform (LeFT) campaign who most consistently warned against the Labour Party’s hostility to Brexit, and its drift towards championing a second referendum. It was also Lexiteers who consistently defended democratic majoritarianism and resisted the persistent disparaging of Labour’s Leave-voting working-class supporters as ignorant, senescent, racist. Although the Lexiteers are vastly outnumbered in the Labour Party by millennial intersectionalists, their moral status is now dramatically enhanced.


The communitarian Lexiteers of Blue Labour correctly saw that the vestigial political structures of the nation remained one of the few means by which workers could hold their cosmopolitan-minded rulers to account, while their families provided havens from the welfare state and the market alike. Nonetheless, for all their support for Brexit and their grasp of mass democracy, the Lexiteers share similarities with the Blairites and the intersectionalists.


On the one hand, the most that the Blue Labour faction can offer is more identity politics, this time an identity politics of the “traditional working class” – “family, faith and flag”– rather than the middle-class multiculturalism and fancy decolonial cultural theory beloved by the intersectionalists. Blue Labour thus reproduce the logic of identity politics in seeking to boost the status of another under-privileged, under-represented, marginalised group, excluded from elite institutions and suffering cultural erasure in a public discourse dominated by intersectionalism. Yet the working-class voters to whom they appeal have already emancipated themselves from one of the most important aspects of their traditional identities; they are no longer Labour voters. Why should they now limit themselves to these other “traditional” identities either?


On the other hand, the Marxist-Lexiteers of the LeFT campaign now stand in the position of the Blairites in the early 1990s, seeking in the aftermath of defeat to re-mould Labour’s electoral strategy around a new Tory political economy – except this will be a nationalist rather than globalist political economy, structured around withdrawing from the EU rather than integrating into the Single Market. Here, they are merely following the Tories as the Blairites once did. Worse, in seeking to restore the Labour Party at this point they are abdicating even the pretence of political leadership, instead trailing far behind those working-class voters who have turned away from Labour. The LeFT campaign’s lack of leadership was already evidenced in their surrender to Remainer demands to commit the Labour Party to a second referendum. They will now be squeezed and eventually crushed altogether between Blue Labour on the one hand and the intersectionalists on the other.


In any case, the working-class voters of England and Wales have already left the Lexiteers behind, having broken through the Lexiteer mirage of reviving social democracy under Labour hegemony. What began as a popular democratic insurrection against neoliberal technocracy with the Brexit vote in 2016 has now been carried forward into a working-class democratic insurrection against the Labour Party itself, which continued to bind itself to the EU. While there has always been a hard, working-class core to the ballot box insurrections of recent years, it has been most pointed and sharp in Britain’s 2019 election, as once-safe Labour constituencies turned blue. Britain’s working class has now not only seen off the yuppie populism embodied in the “People’s Vote” campaign, they have achieved something virtually unprecedented in the political history of the EU – they have disciplined their own ruling class to abide by the outcome of an EU referendum. Not satisfied with this, they have pushed on further still, overthrowing the one-party statelets of the north dominated for generations by Labour’s complacent and high-handed tribunes .


The working-class voters of Wales, northern England and the Midlands have made a bold bid for political independence. Having broken free of Labour domination, working class voters in these regions see that they are biddable and that politicians must compete to represent them with tangible offers of material improvement to their lives: they now live in “swing states”. The polls suggest that voters in the insurrectionist constituencies are – with justice – deeply suspicious of the Tories, whose national policies laid waste to the Welsh valleys and northern towns and cities. The Tories will not loosen their repressive anti-labour legislation, as – with bitter irony – they have now promised to crush the one of the most militantly anti-EU unions of all, the Railway, Maritime and Transport workers’ union. Nonetheless, Boris Johnson has already gone further than the indolent Labour Party when he noted in his victory speech that northern voters had only “lent” him their votes, thereby recognising working class voters as political actors.


Having broken free from Labour hegemony, who could in good conscience seek to shepherd the voters of the rebellious north back to the very same Labour Party that failed them so miserably for so long? To now limit Brexit to restoring social democracy would be to squander its democratic potential – its potential to reunify Ireland, to abolish the House of Lords, to entirely reshape the party-political system, to restructure Britain’s political economy. After all, the point of socialism is not to preserve or respect the working class as a cultural identity group, but to abolish class altogether.


How far this newfound working-class political independence can be sustained therefore depends partly on how far other workers learn the political lesson of the North’s demand that its democratic rights be respected. The intersectional left of the Labour Party led by Paul Mason and Ash Sarkar urged Labour to abandon the allegedly incorrigible racist working class voters of the north, whom they likened to pigs – “gammon” – and to pitch instead to the youthful, more diverse, multi-ethnic, service-sector working class of the inner cities and especially the south east: the cleaners, janitors and security guards who staff the coffee bars, banks, City skyscrapers and university campuses. Unfortunately for Mason and Sarkar, this “new working class” needs self-determination, sovereignty, democracy and political rights just as much as working-class voters in Wales, the Midlands and the North. Even if they don’t openly disparage them as pigs, in urging support for a second referendum to “Remain and Revolt” in the EU, Mason and Sarkar showed that they hold this “new” working class in just as much contempt as they do the North’s working class. If the general election of 2019 teaches any lessons, it is that this complacency, too, will eventually be shattered.


Karl Marx famously said that, above all else, the bourgeoisie produces its own gravediggers: the proletariat. In decimating Labour’s electoral base, the working-class voters of Northern England, the Midlands and Wales have now tumbled the corpse of the bourgeois Labour Party into the grave and started shovelling on the soil. It would be a profound mistake for the left to seek to salvage the corpse from beneath the workers’ shovels.

About the Author

Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent and a co-founder of The Full Brexit.

This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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