Who will survive Britain’s political shake-up?

July 14, 2016

British socialist Jonny Jones explains the dramatic conflicts that have upended both the Conservatives (or Tories) and the Labour Party following the vote for "Brexit."

NOTHING IS going according to the script in British politics at the moment, and the ruling class and their hangers on have had to quickly brush up on their improvisational skills.

The referendum on European Union (EU) membership resulted in a narrow victory for the "leave" vote, despite the overwhelming opposition of the political and financial establishment. The loathsome right-wing Leave campaigns, fronted by top Tory MPs Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and the UK Independence Party's (UKIP) Nigel Farage, dragged the debate through the sewers of toxic anti-migrant racism. In return, the Remain camp made concessions--no surprise from a prime minister who describes migrants as a "swarm"--but free movement was also questioned on the Labour Party side of the campaign.

This atmosphere led some opponents of the EU, an organization committed to neoliberalism, austerity and a murderous external border policy, to back a Remain position. Paul Mason, the radical journalist and Jeremy Corbyn supporter, "outlined the reasons to oppose the EU, but not now, arguing that "If Britain votes Brexit, then Johnson and Gove stand ready to seize control of the Tory party and turn Britain into a neoliberal fantasy island." After the Leave vote, and Cameron's resignation as prime minister, things seemed to be falling into place for the right-wing Brexiteers.

Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a protest outside parliament
Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a protest outside parliament (RevolutionBahrainMC)

BORIS WAS the first to go. Long-feted as a challenger to David Cameron, some suggested that he actually supported EU membership and only campaigned to leave to boost his chances of becoming Tory leader and prime minister. Just two hours before Boris launched his campaign for leadership, Michael Gove, who was to be his running mate on a dream ticket for the Tory leadership, told Boris's campaign manager that he intended to stand himself. A number of Boris's backers jumped ship with Gove, and the campaign was at an end before it had even begun. Farage soon followed, announcing he was stepping down as leader of UKIP, having achieved his political goals.

In the words of former Tory Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine, who himself was betrayed by his parliamentary colleagues after challenging Thatcher for power, "He who wields the knife seldom wears the crown". So perhaps it was Gove's dirty hands that did for him: his showing in the leadership ballot of Tory MPs was derisory--he attracted just 46 votes out of 330, ejecting him from the race in the second round.

Tory party members were set to choose between Home Secretary Theresa May and Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom. May had officially backed Remain but had kept a low profile during the election, while Leadsom had campaigned to Leave. However, at the last minute, Leadsom dramatically withdrew from the race after a barrage of criticism for comments suggesting May was unfit to lead as she had no children and hence no stake in the future. The Tory backbench 1922 committee quickly confirmed that Theresa May would automatically assume leadership of the party, and become prime minister.

Instead of running a neoliberal fantasy island, Boris and Gove dutifully backed May, who outlined a decidedly centrist platform that pledged to "get tough on irresponsible behavior in big business" and the "irrational, unhealthy and growing gap between what these companies pay their workers and what they pay their bosses." The language is striking--the Tories have long been trying to pose as a party for the working class, and May's language and policies appear to have been lifted straight out of Labour leader Ed Miliband's 2015 Labour manifesto. In the midst of this crisis, one would have thought that Britain's traditional party of the working class would be making hay. Of course, they had one of their own to deal with.

WHEN THE Blairites in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) launched their coup against Jeremy Corbyn, they must have thought they were on to a sure thing, that he was a goner. Weeks before the EU referendum, the plot was laid out in the Telegraph: "By fanning the flames with front bench resignations and public criticism they think the signatures needed to trigger a leadership race can be gathered within a day."

Hilary Benn, who has opposed Corbyn at every turn from the front benches, undermining his antiwar stance by arguing as shadow foreign secretary for airstrikes on Syria, told Corbyn that MPs had "no confidence in his ability to win next election." Benn was promptly sacked, and the "blitz" of resignations revealed in the Telegraph began, with shadow ministers resigning every hour, on the hour, for maximum media impact. "It's been an agonising decision," said shadow business secretary Angela Eagle as she resigned, weeping crocodile tears live on the radio for a leader she had been plotting to remove for weeks.

The next step was to propose a vote of "no confidence" in Corbyn. The vote was conducted in secret, making a mockery of any democratic accountability to the membership of the party. The result of 172-40 against Corbyn was a blow, and in normal times, the leader would almost certainly have stepped down. Indeed there was an urgency in the whole affair, as the long delayed Chilcot Report into the Iraq War was about to be published, with its damning criticisms of the plotter's political godfather, Tony Blair.

The plan ran up against a slight problem: Corbyn felt that the mandate of a quarter of a million votes he had received nine months previously was somewhat more weighty than the protestations of the PLP. The coup was initiated by members who had always been implacably ideologically opposed to his leadership. The media blitz and the secret ballot led many on the soft-left of the PLP to vote against Corbyn in the hope that he might be replaced with a more palatable centrist candidate. But Corbyn's refusal to resign posed a serious challenge to the plotters.

Thousands of protesters mobilized across the country to defend Corbyn, as the Momentum group that grew out of Corbyn's leadership campaign last year put out the call through social media, and groups of activists across the country called on networks of support to call out people sickened by the attacks. Around 130,000 new members joined the party in the two weeks after the coup was launched. It's a safe bet to assume that the vast majority of these were motivated to support Corbyn. Attempts at a union-brokered peace deal fell apart, and the trade unions backed Corbyn much more vehemently than might have been imagined, with Len McCluskey, the leader of the biggest union, Unite, condemning the "squalid coup" and saying the plotters would be "branded forever with the mark of infamy for betraying their party."

The final throw of the dice was the hope that a candidate could challenge Corbyn and ambiguities around the wording of the rulebook might allow for him to be excluded from the ballot. Angela Eagle launched her candidacy (in a somewhat disastrous fashion), and everything rested on the decision of the National Executive Committee (NEC). A meeting was convened quickly in order to prevent Corbyn supporting members from attending, but it wasn't enough. Corbyn won the vote 18-14 and was confirmed on the ballot.

AFTER TWO weeks of disarray, the Tory party seemed to have achieved a degree of stability. It's no surprise that, in the face of such an enormous political and economic challenge, the first party of British capitalism would try quickly to regain its balance. But the divisions in the party are deep, and Theresa May's premiership faces significant challenges.

While the party will attempt to negotiate Brexit on the best terms possible for British capital, it does so while divided on what those terms are, and it seems unlikely that incorporating key Leave campaigners into her cabinet will be able to paper over the cracks indefinitely. Some Tories will be desperate to maintain membership of the European Economic Area and access to the single market; but that entails free movement of EU citizens, which is anathema to the hard right. May will feel confident to attempt to renegotiate, but EU leaders who may face their own referendums in countries such as Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, and potentially France, will not be keen to give ground on these positions. Comparisons with Thatcher are lazy and misplaced. Thatcher's lowest majority was 43 (in 1979), with 144 in 1984 and 102 in 1987. May will have a working majority of 16, and that to deliver a centrist platform that might end up depending on a section of the Labour "rebel" MPs.

Meanwhile, the weeks ahead will provide a challenge and an opportunity for the Corbyn camp. Restrictions on who can vote were passed at the end of the NEC meeting, meaning the hundreds of thousands of members who have joined labour since January will be disenfranchised. This gerrymandering is likely to be challenged vociferously, and provides yet another avenue for campaigning. John McDonnell, Corbyn's ally and shadow chancellor, said, "We will use leadership election to sign up even more members and to prepare ground for a possible General Election."

Owen Smith, of Labour's soft-left, has come forward as a second challenger--who knows how many unity candidates will come forward in the days ahead, pledging to unite the party, the country, and who knows, maybe even ABBA, or general relativity with quantum theory. What we do know is that Corbyn goes into this election the clear favorite. Indeed, right-wing Labour MPs are already talking to Tories about a potential split to form a centrist formation.

Against the background of the Brexit vote, Corbyn's campaign is well placed to both oppose the racism whipped up the Leave campaign--which has led to an increase of 42 percent in reported hate crimes during the week before and after the referendum, the worst on record--but also to relate to the anti-establishment sentiment that formed a central part of people's opposition to the status quo. Corbyn will be under pressure to concede on freedom of movement, from figures as diverse as Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey and Paul Mason. But Corbyn's instinct to defend free movement by rooting it in the need for stronger worker's organization and union recruitment among migrants can enthuse his base far more than any accommodation to a perceived new realism can. This base includes many of the junior doctors who led an inspiring wave of strikes and have rejected the government's new contracts, and many teachers who went on strike saying that austerity, not immigration, was to blame for rising class sizes.

The crisis over Brexit and renegotiations, of when to trigger Article 50 to leave the EU, or whether to do so at all, is a crisis for the ruling class that is not going away. The coup against Corbyn is more than just an attack on the left; it is an attempt by the right of the party to reassert the credibility Labour as a reliable party of capitalist stability in the midst of that crisis. The volatility of the situation means that the crystal balls that predicted victories for Boris or the Blairites are best left to gather dust in the cupboard.

The radical left was divided over the question of the referendum for understandable and principled reasons, and we will continue to be a relatively small player in events in the months ahead. But by building initiatives like the migrant solidarity demo in London on the day after the referendum and the march against austerity and racism on Saturday July 16, and by connecting the campaign in defense of Corbyn up with solidarity with migrants, and opposition to austerity and the political establishment, we can find common purpose around class issues that can at least begin to chart a new direction for struggles in Britain.

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