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6 July 2024

The not quite moving right show

How the left can reverse Britain’s rightward drift.

By Oliver Eagleton

There is good reason to believe that Britain is moving right. The general election saw a redoubtable Reform UK win 14 per cent of the vote and five parliamentary seats on a hard-line anti-immigrant platform; it paved the way for the Conservatives to be cannibalised by Faragism; and it exposed much of the legacy media as purveyors of sensationalist reaction, fuelling hysteria about “small boats” while keeping shtum about child poverty.

The new governing party has helped to legitimise this trend. Some commentators still profess their ignorance about Labour’s programme, describing it as “elusive” and “enigmatic”, while others delude themselves that it’s “transformative” and “progressive”. The truth, however, is that Starmerism signifies the repression of any hopeful or imaginative social vision. It means the adoption of Tory spending rules and the continuation of austerity, doubling down on the UK’s murderous foreign policy and preserving its undemocratic electoral system, neglecting the climate crisis and locking up environmental campaigners. The new Prime Minister laments how “people coming from countries like Bangladesh are not being removed” and says that he is open to “offshoring” asylum seekers. His ascent to high office proves that the British establishment, as vicious and racist as ever, has reconsolidated its power after the intermezzo of the Corbyn years.

The victory of the official opposition, then, would seem to reveal the absence of a real one. The rump of nominally socialist MPs who vowed to “stay and fight” under Keir Starmer have done the first but not the second. Each time his leadership has drawn a red line they have refused to cross it: abandoning their principles on the pretence that they might pick them up again sometime in the distant future. Their cravenness has enabled the eradication of Jeremy Corbyn’s legacy within the party: a space where joining picket lines is verboten, criticism of Nato is impermissible, objections to Israeli genocide are tightly circumscribed, and even the mildest social-democratic policies are out of the question. The Labour left was once a major cultural force. Now it no longer exists.  

Nor can one count on the labour movement to offer much resistance to the Starmer project in its early stages. The incoming government has promised to repeal the latest anti-strike laws (though not the bulk of Conservative restrictions on union activity) and pass a few piecemeal reforms to workers’ rights (though it has already begun to water them down). Grateful for these scraps, the unions will be reluctant to force major confrontations over spending cuts or public-sector pay over the next year. The militancy they displayed at various points under the Tories is likely to evaporate, at least for the time being.

Yet this is hardly the whole story. Despite Labour taking 412 seats, the UK has not fallen prey to Starmermania. The leader is disliked by 60 per cent of the public. The number of people who cast their ballots for his party was 9.7 million: down from 10.3 million in 2019 and 12.9 million in 2017. The turnout rate is estimated to be among the lowest of the past century. Having secured only 34 per cent of the vote, the new government starts off with a striking lack of credibility. The result has been described as “a majority without a mandate”: a hollow triumph, produced by the collapse of the incumbent and the deep irrationality of first-past-the-post.

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Resistance to this fragile structure is inchoate, yet it was already visible on election night. Five independent candidates running on pro-Palestine platforms beat the Labour Party in seats where it has historically faced no serious opposition. The frontbencher Jonathan Ashworth, who has demanded the deportation of Bangladeshis, was ejected by the multi-ethnic electorate of Leicester South, who opted for an anti-racist challenger instead. Other high-profile Labour politicians including Wes Streeting and Jess Phillips nearly met a similar fate. The most symbolically significant contest was in Islington North, where Jeremy Corbyn, expelled and anathematised by his successor, was nonetheless re-elected by a crushing margin against a private healthcare profiteer.

These successes, combined with an unprecedented four seats for the Greens, give the left a larger parliamentary bloc than the hard right. They can use it to channel the demands of social movements – for climate action, public ownership, Palestinian liberation – and build a genuine electoral alternative to the two main parties, rather than the simulacrum of opposition offered by Reform.

The most sensible strategy for this new political project would be to claim the cause of democratisation. With Labour promising to wield authoritarian powers against peaceful protesters, and with the distorted logic of our electoral system on full display, the emerging opposition could advocate a thoroughgoing transformation of the British state, to render it responsive to the people. Naturally, this would also mean breaking it up. While the Scottish independence movement has stalled, Sinn Féin’s historic advance – becoming Northern Ireland’s largest Westminster party – indicates the persistence of the UK’s peripheral nationalisms, which deserve the left’s full support.

Heading into the late 2020s, there is no doubt that Corbynism has been defeated and the extreme centre is ascendant, with far-right forces biding their time. That being the case, most socialist organising over the coming years will likely be defensive, aimed at slowing the pace of elite predation. But Starmer’s mottled victory discloses a deeper insight: that when the left breaks with Labour and goes on the offensive, it can reverse the country’s rightward drift.

[See also: Election night should have been jubilant. Why did it feel flat?]


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