British Election results - Response to Phil Butland
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
by Hari Kumar
This article is a response to the article we first published here.
Thank you Phil - Your comments are very helpful to stimulate an understanding, of ‘what happened here?”
At the outset let me say that like Phil – this was not the outcome I had wanted. What a disaster it is for progressive people, both in what is still called the United Kingdom (for the moment at least!) and the progressives of Europe.
But I hope Phil does not mind a slightly differing perspective?
Anyway, here it is.
Phil rightly says: “The Conservative win in this week’s British election was not surprising”.
However Phil then goes on to say that the margin of victory was surprising.
But is it possible that more deliberate reflection, rather than a hopeful optimism, would have made for less surprise?
It can be seen from my phrasing, that I disagree with Phil that this was all that surprising.
Let me argue, that Phil puts the key analysis in the first two sentences in his first subheading.
Any sober analysis would have provided the left, with at least a clue that a large Conservative victory was imminent.
i) The election revolved around Brexit
Phil B: “Whether we wanted it or not it was a Brexit election. Since 2015, the Brexit discussion has paralysed British politics.”
That wording precisely frames a central key issue.
The Brexit to-be-or-not-to-be question, has paralysed not only parliamentary politics but the whole of British society. In fact the entire British atmosphere, tone, daily life, conversations, plans – I daresay dreams, nightmares and sleeps…. Were all infected.
People were... sick of it. I regret that I see something here that is a bit sinister. For I suggest that the whole parliamentary charade of the last period after Theresa May became PM, was deliberately designed to stall and alienate the public. I believe that the conservative opposition and their financiers are very, very cleverly calculating and strategic. The longer a ‘non-decision’ was left hanging, like some Sword of Damocles – the more alienated people would become - from any ‘normal’ semblance to a political discussion. This merely allowed in…. a liar and manipulator… i.e. the now elected PM Johnson.
And – to put bluntly - Jeremy did not help. Jeremy took at least two combined mis-steps on this matter.
After all, of what help is it to the voter, who watched over some two years of enervating, endless parliamentary manouevering, to hear Jeremy say that he ‘has an open mind on Brexit’?
Such ‘agnosticism’ is not admirable in some one supposed to lead.
For wasn’t agnosticism the only logical implication of urging yet another vote-referendum? There was never a clearly put recommendation to the Labour constituency, one way or another.
What is a Labour ‘leader’ supposed to say as the class enemy (I apologise for old-fashioned terminology) approaches with drawn sabres? “Well the sabres may not actually be sharp”?
How could it be argued, that he did not realise that the election was indeed another ‘referendum’ on Brexit?
Let us accept for the moment, that indeed he did not realize this to be so. Then there were two mis-steps – which in reality formed the combined political equivalent of suicide.
So let us return to whether we should have released the election revolved around Brexit.
In fact the very possible outcome had been clearly signalled by the European elections when Labour came a resounding third. As Daniel Finn says:
“the incessant internal attacks on Corbyn’s policy were damaging in their own right. These pressures told against Labour in the Euro elections. Those who took part—only 37 per cent of eligible voters—mainly seized the opportunity to express their views on Brexit. The election itself symbolized May’s failure to deliver, and Tory voters deserted her in droves, with the Conservatives dropping below 9 per cent. Leave supporters gravitated to Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, which topped the poll with 30.5 per cent. Remain voters lurched in the opposite direction, backing the Liberal Democrats (almost 20 per cent) and the Greens (a little under 12). Corbyn’s soft-Brexit pitch, and his attempt to shift the debate towards domestic political concerns, gained no traction with the electorate: Labour finished in third place, with 13.6 per cent.” [Daniel Finn; “Crosscurrents Corbyn, Labour and the Brexit Crisis”; New Left Rteview; London; 118; July-August 2019.
Now the struggles within the Labour party complicate the picture, and are dealt with in detail by Finn (ibid). However the central issue is that both Jeremy and John McDonnell knew the electoral mood. Yet we should pause – for both Jeremy and John McDonnell are very, very smart cookies. Is it at all conceivable that they truly did not know this was what was happening? Personally, I think they are too smart not to have seen this somewhat obvious fact. I would like to come back to this point at the very end.
ii) The electorate overlook the “real social change” proposed by Labour
Phil goes on to say the Brexit domination of electoral issues occurred: “Just as the Labour Party elected a leader who promised real social change and a Green New Deal financed by taxing the rich, political discussion was diverted to what had started as a private discussion inside the Conservative party.”
But, can we really forget that recent Labour Blair governments continued and escalated the de-nationalisations, that were started by Margaret Thatcher? The infamous North-South divide in wealth inequity was not a new phenomenon of the last 10 years of the Conservative reinvigorated ‘austerity’. Why would the traditional Labour supporting workers believe this 2019 sudden re-discovery of socialist elementary steps?
Such skepticism on the part of Labour voters, is entirely consistent with Phil’s comment:
”For a significant number of people, a vote for Brexit was a protest against the politicians who had systematically ignored them for decades.”
As Phil acknowledges, the ‘protest’ was not just directed at ‘Etonians’ - in fact it does not make sense to argue that.
Actually the Labour electorate voted with their feet. As Phil says: “The problem was that many Labour voters stayed at home.”
The underlying truth is, that the Labour party’s historic role for some time has been to serve as a left mask for a ruling class. Their historic record, finally caught up with them. The working-class electorate could no longer trust their promises.
iii) The Media
Phil goes on to make the point that:
“In the media discussion, the people allowed to make the case for Leave were swivel-eyed racists like Nigel Farage. At the same time, the case for Remain was generally accompanied by a smug assumption that EU membership had benefited “us” - an assumption that was derided by people struggling in the post-industrial wastelands in Northern England and elsewhere. This put Labour and Corbyn in an almost impossible situation..”
There can be absolutely no question that the media was extraordinarily biased, and we agree fully with Phil here. We leave aside one obvious rejoinder, “What do you expect of the capitalist media?”
But let me ask instead, how should a Labour leader respond to attacks? Perhaps not like Jeremy.
For example, when asked whether he was a problem for the election of Labour, Jeremy’s answer was pretty tepid. Does the retort: “Some people like Marmite, others don’t” – cut it? (Interview with Liz Bates Channel4; ‘Corbyn compares himself to Marmite: 'Some people like it, some people don't' – Guardian video clip; Friday 6 December, 2019)
Jeremy here simply devalued political attacks on Labour and himself, by calling these ‘personal attacks’ and making it all about a matter of personal taste.
This ties in with the attacks on the alleged anti-Semitism. Why was there not a robust political defence saying that anti-Semitism is not the same as anti-Zionism or defence of Palestine? Frankly the refusal to ‘apologise’ in interviews, without seizing the didactic moment, simply compounded the whole problem.
Either apologise – or fight back. Honestly, either was preferable to an endless hand-wringing.
Phil takes the charitable view that:
“And yet there was one sense in which Corbyn was a victim of his own humanity. A genuinely decent man, his instinct is to avoid conflict.”
I do not dispute that Corbyn is decent man. But further on, Phil acknowledges the problem, when he concludes this section:
“we needed someone to stick the boot in. Corbyn was not emotionally suited to be that person.”
So this was supposed to be a leader. He should have led, or quit early enough that an alternative ‘booter’ could have done it.
iv) Electoral Analysis
“Over 10 million people voted for Labour. This was the second highest number of votes for Labour in any of the last 5 elections…. Nearly 14 million people voted for the Tories”.
Phil is saying that largely the Labour electorate did come out (notwithstanding the earlier remark about stay-at-home voters).
So electoral analysis here largely supports Phil’s view. Notwithstanding one’s opinion about Lord Ashcroft and his speculative ways, the Ashcroft polls are a useful data source to inform electoral behavior.
Because it does seem that tactical voting played a major role in the vote moving away from Labour.
“Just over a quarter (26%) of all voters said they were trying to stop the party they liked least from winning, including 43% of those who voted Lib Dem and 31% of Labour voters. One in three Remain voters said they were voting to stop their least preferred party compared to 18% of Leave voters.”
By some other estimates, it seems that some “39 seats won by Tories could have been denied to them by tactical voting, almost completely wiping out their majority (80 seats).” (Private communication).
And a generational divide shows up once more, as in other recent elections:
“Labour won more than half the vote among those turning out aged 18-24 (57%) and 25-34 (55%), with the Conservatives second in both groups. The Conservatives were ahead among those aged 45-54 (with 43%), 55-64 (with 49%) and 65+ (with 62%).” (Ashcroft Poll; Ibid).
So there – as always is hope – but these young people who will bring us closer to socialism, need a party vehicle, other than the Labour Party.
As implied by Phil, in Scotland – the flag bearer of progressive causes is undoubtedly now the Scottish national Party. And moves towards a United Ireland seem to be taking hold. But within the rest of the “United” Kingdom… ?
I do not think the Labour Party merits that position. It has been downhill since the glory days of Aneurin Bevan. That name is not just tossed in, as a major fault line will be the legacy of Bevan – the NHS. It is very likely that this is being carved up as we speak, a wing here for the American health care insurers, a leg here for the pharma companies, a very generous slice here for American style management corporations.
All this has happened already in fact, in a steady march since the days of Barbara Castle. A very good short clip of Dr John Puntis (Chairman of “Keep the NHS Public”, speaking on Bradford radio on the matter is illuminating. (Bradford radio - Bradford Community Broadcasting; look for Drive Time, Monday 16th December 5-6pm; Interview runs from 44.15 minutes to 53.00 minutes on the clock,).
In fact the issue of the NHS helps us segue into the major portion of where the discussion needs to go now. Why did the British ruling class get so divided amongst itself? Because the NHS matter leads directly into trading relations with the USA./
v) Profound internal problems within the ruling class of the United Kingdom
Gramsci said: “The modern crisis . . . is related to what is called the “crisis of authority.” If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e., is no longer “leading” but only “dominant,” exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old way is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”(Antonio Gramsci (1973, 275–276); Cited by William I Robinson: “Global Capitalist Crisis and Twenty-First Century Fascism: Beyond the Trump Hype”; Science & Society, Vol. 83, No. 2, April 2019, 481–509 ).
I believe we are in such a nodal point nowadays.
We see all sorts of manner of: ”morbid symptoms”. And in fact the UK ruling class was itself sorely divided about which direction to go. That is why there was such a tensions for such a long time between the industrial sector ruling class (declining) and the trading and speculative financial sector ruling class (dominant). Despite the fact that the UK was in Tony Norfield’s Index of Power – in second place world wide (Tony Norfield’s blogsite; 12 February 2018; at: ) – there has long remained a central problem. After the economic crisis of 2007, the UK never really recovered. Michael Roberts’ data from various sources is compelling in showing a fall in productivity of the UK (at: Michael Roberts,” The productivity puzzle again”; ‘Michael Roberts Blog’ 29 June 2018; ):
If one doubts that the ruling class was divided about what to do, consider the extraordinary spectacle of the fights within the financial sector of British ruling classes. Hence the current Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney was attacked by an ex-Governor Mervyn King. (Richard Partington and Phillip Inman; “Mark Carney backs Theresa May's Brexit deal”; The Guardian; 20 November 2018; and: Richard Partington; “UK should leave EU with no deal, says former Bank of England governor”; The Guardian; 29 March 2019).
As far as industrial capital was concerned the vast majority wanted to remain (Joe Sommerland and Ben Chapman, ‘‘Which companies are leaving UK, downsizing or cutting jobs ahead of Brexit?’ Dozens of companies have cut jobs, beefed up their European operations or issued warnings on the impact of the UK's departure from the EU’; 26 February 2019, The Independent ; and; John Rees; ‘Marxism and the Brexit crisis’; Counter-Fire; February 5, 2019.
It is in these tortuous debates that the USA made its moves over recent years. President Trump’s trade agenda is quite clear now to all. His erst-while emissary John Bolton made matters clear as to who the USA viewed the UK:
“John Bolton... has three main aims. The first is... the UK’s withdrawal from the hard-won, US-trashed 2015 Iran nuclear agreement and the abandonment of fellow signatories France and Germany... Bolton’s second aim is to drive a wedge between the UK and Europe... to disrupt, subvert and weaken the EU, whose very existence offends him... If the UK, ever more beholden to the US for its daily bread, can be used to foil Emmanuel Macron’s ideas about integrated European defence, or undermine EU regulations covering digital multinationals, so much the better... The third Bolton aim: (is) to enlist a radically repurposed and realigned UK in pursuit of his singular vision of American global hegemony, of the truly exceptional nation whose power and dominion know no limits..” (Simon Tisdall; John Bolton doesn’t want a trade deal with the UK – he wants to colonise us”; Guardian; 13 August 2019.)
The Conservative Party was hijacked by the section of the ruling class whose mandate is to tie the apron strings of the UK back onto the USA. A significant part of the Labour Party hierarchy seems to have bought into this. Simply put - for the capitalist class the dilemma of a falling rate of profit is very real, and they have no alternative solution.
Let me simply echo here, Phil Butland’s channeling of Joe Hill:
“Don’t mourn, organize!”
December 17 2019 Hari Kumar,
Hari Kumar is a retired physician, who now is a full-time activist. He was trained in the UK, but with cutbacks under Mrs. Thatcher had to leave. He has worked in 4 countries