When Boris Johnson said this time last year that he had an “oven ready” deal with the EU, he neglected to point out that the oven was broken.
He is now breezily assuring us that an “Australian style” deal won’t be too bad; as retailers warn of price rises and supply shortages of everything from food to medicine.
An Australia style deal is no deal at all. Mongolia and Afghanistan have the same “deal” with the EU as Australia does. But, Australia has a certain “White Dominion” atavistic “kith and kin” resonance with a certain kind of Tory voter, all positive associations of Barbecues and beer on Bondi Beach, aspirational Neighbours style suburbia and just a little bit of “common sense” casual racism. Johnson could say “Mongolian style deal” or “Afghan style deal” instead, but that would go down as well as yak milk with these people, so he doesn’t.
Of course, Australia is currently trying to negotiate a closer trade deal with the EU, while the UK is pulling away. Total Australian trade with the EU is significantly smaller than that of the UK.
When considering the percentage of imports and exports, the difference weight of EU trade is even more stark.
What also has to be factored in here is that just under half of Australian trade with the EU is actually with the UK – for historic colonial reasons – so the proportion with the rest of Europe is even smaller than appears here. It is therefore less of a problem for Australia to be trading with the EU without a deal than it will be for the UK in three weeks time.
No deal means World Trade Organisation terms. That means tariffs, costs, hold ups. The cost of that will be borne by all of us and it will hit the worst off hardest and will form part of the austerity offensive already being carried through; as the costs of COVID are pushed downwards in lost jobs and cut or frozen wages while the government pulls patriotic poses, ramps up the hostile environment, lines up organisations like the EHRC to pursue culture wars, forbids any teaching that encourages “victim narratives” and pursues a rightward shift in the media environment – because they don’t want a institutionally conservative commentator that passively reflects their line, as the BBC does, they want a cheerleader generating zealous enthusiasm for the traitor hunt that is already well under way; and will be ramped up to shrieking pitch as the “easiest deal in History” fails and lorry drivers stuck in Kent queue up to piss in bottles.
The UK economy has been hit worse by the Coronaviris crisis than any other in the developed world. (1) The OECD projects an 11.5% drop in economic activity.
Under the impact of this economic pressure, the government is compounding its problems by trying to unlock the economy before the virus is contained and without adequate systems for containing it; which sets us up for chaos.
The measures announced by the Chancellor on July 8th are hopelessly tactical, lack any strategic vision capable of mobilising people behind it; and amount to little more than a set of minor bungs to Conservative supporting sectors – the stamp duty holiday primarily benefiting private landlords, the £1000 retention bonus just a top up for firms that are secure enough to retain their workers until January.
The decisive question for any economic recovery is investment. If the government and/or companies invest, the economy is stimulated, work is done, goods are made and services provided, income is generated, tax revenue comes in, workers are hired and so on, in a virtuous cycle.
The problem we have is that we have a government which believes that the purpose of economic activity is not “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”, nor the most efficient use of available resources to enrich the lives of the people, or address deep rooted threats to our civilisation like poverty or ignorance, let alone the degradation of the environment we live in and the breakdown of the climactic conditions we need to survive. They believe that the purpose of the economy, and society come to that, is to produce profits. All else flows from that.
That’s why they are not committed to state led investment to put as many solar panels as possible on as many roofs as we can find and wind farms in all the potential places, to retrofit our housing and public building stock to reduce energy demand and bills, to strategically invest in urban mini forests and rewild swathes of the countryside, to electrify our remaining railways – to mention just four initiatives that could generate jobs while cutting carbon emissions as drastically as we need to. Instead, they are giving tiny nudges to the private sector in the hope that they will invest – in anything, they are not fussed about what – instead.
The problem with that is that they won’t. The private sector is risk averse and will only invest if it thinks a profit can be turned on the investment. If the experience of ten years of austerity – in which this approach was tried to death – isn’t enough to convince, a recent survey of company finance directors by Deloitte should be enough to administer the coup de grace. Sixty five percent of the companies surveyed said that they will be cutting investment in the next three years.
That is because eighty percent of them expect their revenues to decrease in the next year.
This is underlined by the latest projection from the Office for Budget Responsibility. And what a reassuringly anal retentive title that is; conjuring images of mean spirited accountants in their counting house, counting out their money, and taking care of the pennies so the pounds can take care of themselves. They project that – left to itself – the economy will not recover until the end of 2022 and unemployment will rise rapidly to 10% in the meantime. One in ten workers having to claim and scrape by on Universal Benefit.
For the government’s approach, there is an even more serious problem. Investment from the private sector is contingent on profitability, and most of the companies in the survey are cutting dividends to share holders and cutting down on share buybacks, which inflate the salaries of top executives. No profits, no “animal spirits”, no investment. Boris Johnson can wave all the Union Jacks he likes; his patriotic verbal bluster does not affect the hard nosed financial calculations currently being made, except, perhaps negatively as the gap between his “global Britain” rhetoric and the reality of what we are heading for at the end of the year is clearly understood in business circles.
This is overwhelmingly the case for manufacturing, in which 90% cut payments. The Manufacturing and Engineering employers organisation MAKE UK reported on 20 July that only 15% of companies are back to full time working and begged for an extension of the furlough scheme for another six months to help prevent the worst loss of skilled jobs since the 1980s. (2) With the cut off point for the scheme in October, firms are already starting redundancy processes so they can carry out the legally required consultation period before the axes fall. This is on a very large scale in manufacturing, with just over a half of them planning redundancies in the next 6 months. Other hard hit sectors, like hospitality and retail, are not going to be saved by a few half price pizza vouchers for slow days in half of August.
The Chancellor’s statement that “this is not a time for orthodoxy and ideology” is about to be exposed. Without drastic government action, and direct investment, thousands and thousands of workers are about to lose their jobs, which will prevent any recovery taking place at all and put people all over the country into desperate straits. The ending of the eviction ban this week just as this kicks in adds a whole extra layer of insecurity and threat.
No doubt the government considers this bracing and character building because, instead of investing, they are planning to cut regulation and launch twenty Free Ports, which will suck such investment as there is to zones that don’t pay tax and blight everywhere else. As if what is holding these companies back from the scale of investment that is needed is the “red tape” that holds them to minimally acceptable standards of behavior towards their employees and the environment.
Crucially, this is not what the company finance directors told Deloitte. They did not say they were primarily concerned with regulation. They were very clear about the three factors which inhibited any investment plans.
1. The Coronavirus pandemic.
2. The prospect of a No Deal Brexit.
3. Worsening Geo-political conflicts (for which read Trump’s trade war with China and the fear that worse could follow). (3)
So, the three big issues preventing the private sector from investing are the central plank of the government’s agenda – “get Brexit done”- their willingness to be dragooned into a fight with China by the USA and their failure to get on top of the virus.
The paradox of this is that had a Corbyn Labour government been elected in December neither a supine response to pressure from the USA to engage in a trade war, nor a no deal Brexit would have been on the agenda. Nor is it possible to imagine that such a government would have handled the Coronavirus crisis worse than this one has. Almost without exception, the countries that have performed most catastrophically have been wedded to neo-liberalism. The allegiance of the business class to Conservative rule therefore comes across as a form of self harm, but underlines the essential perception that, for them, economic well being, even of their own firms, comes second to continued control of the economy by their class. If they are prepared to hammer themselves in this way, the harm done to the rest of us is collateral damage that barely registers on their radar.
Faced with the scale of this crisis, the response to all these issues from the Labour opposition should be clearer, louder and sharper and demonstrate the vision that the Conservatives lack.
The Coronavirus pandemic. Its clear from this that squashing the virus down to nothing is a precondition for a serious economic recovery. That’s what was done and is happening in China. And New Zealand. That should be Labour policy. Not hinting that the UK will be “left behind” if it tries to do so. Particularly because the government here is instead hoping that the number of cases will continue to decline, even as they remove the conditions that enabled it to do so. Scientific advice, including from SAGE, is that this is rash and unlikely to come off. Countries in Europe that reopened when their level of infections was lower than the UK are now facing a rebound. While the UK is as yet nowhere near being in the sort of mess the USA is in, with exponentially rising infections and a daily death rate double what it was last month, there’s a sense that Johnson is looking down the barrel of the threat is crossing his fingers, touching wood and feels lucky. Labour has called for the furlough scheme to be maintained in specific sectors, which is a sensible bottom line and the least that could be expected from a half competent government, but to retain jobs we need a far stronger commitment to a jobs guarantee that involves retraining and redeployment from sectors that are going belly up and to actually put the vision and plans for a green transformation right up front as an alternative to the collapse that the Conservatives are about to preside over. A Green Jobs campaign is imperative. The UK commitment to this – £3 billion -is excruciatingly small.
No Deal Brexit. 65% of companies have made no preparation for conditions after 31 December because they don’t know what they are going to be. Here we go, over the cliff. What the wreckage will look like on the beach next year is anyone’s guess. Labour made a mistake in not pushing for a transition extension. We should argue for a unilateral declaration of continuity with existing arrangements until a deal can be made and ask the EU to reciprocate.
Connivance in the growing US Cold War with China. This is already impacting on inward investment. Tik Tok has already shelved plans to build its HQ outside of China in London – losing a potential 5 000 jobs. The removal of Huawei from the 5G network, and proposals to extend this to 4 and 3 G, will both cost directly and cut the efficiency of the broad band service available (because Huawei technology is in advance of any of its competitors). The increasingly aggressive campaign from Ian Duncan Smith and his allies on the right of the Conservative Party to join with the US in breaking the world economy into two spheres of influence will be very damaging for all concerned – even if, as too often happens, trade war does not lead to the real thing as it escalates. A nervousness about this on the part of the government, who have given quite a slow time scale to strip out Huawei technology and hinted to the company that they are doing so under duress and might back off once no longer under Donald Trump’s heel (so much for taking back control), has not been matched by any doubts from Labour’s foriegn policy team, who are trying to prove to the US that they are back to being Atlanticist true believers and have been urging the government on. This is a disastrous policy that should be reversed.
Anneliese Dodd’s comment “If people felt Labour was only criticising and not suggesting solutions, they would question what on earth we’re doing” is quite right, but requires some solutions to actually be put. That would mean
Argue for whatever action is necessary to protect public health and eliminate the virus as the fastest way to be able to regenerate social activity (not just the “economy”).
Put forward a plan for massive state led investment in green transition both as an end in itself and a way of generating the employment we need to avoid economic collapse.
Resist the demands from Trump for the world economy to be broken in two and for the UK to tie itself to the less dynamic half – with the USA projected to account for 3.3% of world growth in the next two years to China’s 51%, according to the IMF, and developing countries, most of which will align with China, accounting for over 40% of the rest.
Argue against a No Deal Brexit and for an extension of current arrangements to prevent even further economic disruption as we go into 2021.
Sun Tsu wrote “In the absence of strategy, an argument about tactics is the noise before defeat.” He might have gone on to note that after a defeat, there is a tendency for people to hunker down back into default tactics and console themselves with self soothing myths. These set a course for future defeats. Here are some of the most potent and popular.
Myth 1. Boris Johnson won an overwhelming mandate for a hard Brexit.
No he didn’t. Winning a majority of seats in parliament is not the same as having majority support in society. A majority of seats in parliament means a government can ram through whatever legislation it likes, but, without majority support in the country that cannot be done with impunity – or sparking resistance. Given this government and who its leading figures are, there aren’t enough fridges in the country for them to hide in when the going gets tough – as it is bound to do. Here are the figures.
The total votes in the UK cast for the Conservatives and Brexit Parties in favour of a hard Brexit was 47%.
The total votes cast for parties opposed to hard Brexit was 52%. Essentially, this is the 2016 referendum in reverse, but, as with the last US Presidential election, the side with the lower popular vote winning.
However you look at this, the blue slice isn’t even a majority, let alone an overwhelming one.
This matters because the end of 2020 is crunch time to decide if the UK stays in regulatory alignment with the EU or not. Johnson is already signalling that it won’t. The EU will not agree to this. So we are looking again at no deal and the rapid implementation of deal with Trump that has been being negotiated quietly behind our backs – and remains mostly redacted – for the last couple of years while the charade in Brussels has played itself out and occupied everyone’s attention. Resisting this from day 1 and getting the truth out as it unfolds is an imperative. Whatever the theoretical merits of a “Left Exit” from the EU in the eyes of those who support it – the Brexit we’re going to get has nothing in common with that and should be resisted by the whole Labour movement.
Myth 2. “The British Lion Roars for Boris and Brexit” Daily Express Headline 13 December 2019.
Not in Scotland, Ireland or Wales it didn’t. For the Express and a lot of its readers, “Britain” is basically Greater Little England. Given the figures, perhaps it was the idea of “Britain” that was roaring. But if that was the case, that idea is revealed to be only alive and well in small town England.
In Scotland the combined Conservative, Brexit Party, UKIP vote in favour of a hard Brexit was 26.6%, while the combined vote of the SNP Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens – opposed to hard Brexit – was 74.4%. Pretty overwhelming. The Scottish Lion was roaring “no”.
In Wales they did better, but were still a minority. The combined Conservative, Brexit Party, UKIP vote in favour of a hard Brexit was 41.4%, while the combined vote of Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid and Greens – opposed to hard Brexit – was 58.8%.
In the North of Ireland the combined DUP, Northern Ireland Conservative and UKIP vote favouring hard Brexit was 30.8% while the combined vote of Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance, UUP, Aontu, People Before Profit and the Greens was 68.5%. This overstates the support for Johnson’s deal, because the DUP, although in favour of a hard Brexit in principle, are opposed to this one and any other that would lead to a border between North and South or in the Irish sea – i.e. any deal that might actually exist in the real world.
I was going to make a joke about Johnson being “a one nation Conservative” in that he only represents one of the nations in the UK; but he doesn’t even do that. Even in England, hard Brexit did not win a majority. A damned close run thing, but the combined vote for the Conservatives, Brexit Party and UKIP was 49.3% while the combined votes for Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens was 49.4%.
So, Johnson’s huge majority in Parliament represents a minority in every country in the UK.
This matters because the attempt to implement his Trump Brexit will exacerbate the national tensions within the country and accelerate centrifugal tendencies.
At the moment there is no majority for independence in Scotland – because separation from the rest of the UK would be even more of a wrench than separation of the UK from the EU – but support for IndyRef2 is likely to be one form of resistance as Johnson tries to drive his deal through: in the same way that support for devolution reached tipping point when the Conservatives used the Scots as the guinea pigs for the Poll Tax in the 1980’s. Depending on how much this grows and how stiff necked and effortlessly offensive Johnson is – and he is, after all, a man who can’t resist making provocative “jokes” to see how much he can get away with – we could be seeing a dynamic like the one in Catalonia and “the British Lion” might find itself biting its own tail off.
Similarly in the North of Ireland. The current deal would see a tax border of sorts in the Irish Sea – with an inevitable depressing effect on the Northern Irish economy and letting it remain in orbit around Brussels even as the rest of the UK disengages. The geo-political logic of this is obvious. Going out with no deal would reopen the issue of the border in Ireland and there would be stronger support for a border poll to unite the country. In this election, for the first time ever, there are more nationalist MPs (Sinn Fein and SDLP) than Unionist. Johnson might find himself having to take the St Patrick’s cross out of the Union Flag quicker than he thinks.
The break up of the country is a worst case scenario from the point of view of anyone who wants to keep it together, but it follows the logic of taking back control at smaller and smaller levels. Whatever happens, it means trouble, not a return to calm or “normality”.
Myth 3. Johnson’s majority means that he can “face down the ERG”.
This piece of wishful thinking appeared in a number of places in the immediate aftermath of the election, not least the Guardian. The fraction of the ruling class opposed to Brexit but more worried that the only viable vehicle to stop it was a left Labour government, and poured more money into the Liberal Democrats than they knew what to do with, churned out some articles, possibly to keep their own hope alive and console themselves for the damage that’s coming. The measures in the Queen’s speech should have put paid to these delusions. Here they are in case anyone was in any doubt about where Johnson is heading.
The pledge to keep workers entitlements and rights up to at least EU standards has been discarded.
All out strikes in public transport and other services are to be banned.
The pledge to raise the minimum wage was dropped.
Britain is to be given the power to strike down EU protection on working hours.
Britain is to be given the power to strike down EU protection on holiday entitlements.
British judges are to be given the power to strike down EU protection on sick leave.
British judges are to be given the power to strike down EU protection on working hours.
Ways are to be sought to limit the right of the courts to limit government actions.
Even Lord Dubs amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill to continue to give refugee children sanctuary post-Brexit has been dumped.
Clear enough I think. This matters because Brexit is not “done”. The UK will leave the political structures of the EU at the end of January but still be inside the economic arrangements until the end of the transition period. The damage that will be done by a no deal exit is real; so this argument will continue. The extent to which it spills out from behind closed doors will indicate the extent to which any fraction of the ruling class is prepared to make a stand on the question of regulatory alignment. I wouldn’t hold my breath, but these articles are a sign that they haven’t entirely given up the ghost.
Myth 4: This was an unprecedented defeat for Labour and this is all Corbyn’s fault.
If we look at the results for the six General elections we’ve had this century, the graph looks like this.
Its quite clear from this that Corbyn led Labour to its best (2017) and third best (2019) result this century. More than Blair in 2005, Brown in 2010 and Miliband in 2015. In 2005 far fewer Labour votes led to a majority government.
This matters because Labour’s stance in the next five years will determine whether it has any chance of toppling Johnson in 2025 – or possibly before then if things get bad enough – which they might. Corbyn’s politics – against austerity and for significant state investment to regenerate the economy, create an inclusive and more equal society, make the green transition we need and distance ourselves from wars of intervention – are all needed if we are to resist and organise against the impact of Johnson’s Brexit.
Myth 5: the defeat is entirely down to what Labour did or did not do.
This is not usually stated as such, but seems to be a premise for a lot of the soul searching that has gone on since Friday the 13th, which has tended to look inwards at the Party, its leadership, policies and campaign. This is missing the bigger part of the picture; which is not just about how Labour lost but how the Conservatives won. Its a bit like if Napoleon’s Marshals sat down for a post mortem on Waterloo and paid no attention to anything the Duke of Wellington or Marshal Blucher had done.
it is a truth universally acknowledged that Theresa May’s 2017 election campaign was a bit of a car crash. But this judgement needs nuance. May increased the Tory vote over Cameron’s 2015 score more than Johnson did over hers this year. See graph.
However, what May’s campaign failed to do was neutralise the threat from Labour – which put on a spectacular increase in support during the election campaign which destroyed her majority. In 2017 the Conservatives were over confident. They believed that their initial 20 point lead was unassailable. They thought that they could get away with saying some of the unpopular things they would actually do before they did them – like the punitive social care policy which blew up in their faces. They hadn’t quite reached their current state of shamelessness and had the decency to look awkward when they ducked debates. They also thought that Corbyn’s “old fashioned socialist” ideas were sufficiently discredited that all they had to do was give him enough rope. which just shows how wrong you can be,
This time, knowing that their own vote was not going to go up much beyond the hard leave tribe, they played a cannier game to hold back a Labour surge.
They adjusted spending policy just enough to be able to talk about what looks like significant sums of money going into areas that they have been running down to destruction for the last ten years – while claiming that the previous policy had nothing to do with them guv – even though they were in Parliament (and sometimes the cabinet) voting for it. That these sums of money would still leave these services underfunded (and in the case of the NHS are a pre-emptive move to cover the costs of the increased drug bills it will be paying as a result of their pending and half negotiated deal with the US) passed most people by. This had a significant impact on people who previously might have come out to vote Labour to get any increase in funding for the health service. or their children’s school. In 2017, the NUT (now the NEU) waged a huge school gate campaign – without endorsing any party – on the impact of school spending cuts, which is credited with shifting 700 000 votes in Labour’s direction. In 2019 a similar campaign was waged by the NEU – with even more people taking part – but had nothing like the same impact. The Tories did just enough to innoculate themselves against this issue.
They were vague and bland about what their plans are. Beyond the mantra of “get Brexit done”, there was little concrete in their manifesto and they sold themselves on a false prospectus.
They fully embraced “post truth”politics. Having had Labour run rings round them online in 2017, they bought up space on websites so that whenever anyone searched for a Labour related item they were directed first to Conservative supporting sites attacking them. They were controlling the gateways to any narrative anyone wanted to find online as well as in most of the established mass media. Its amazing what money can do. They have picked up lying rebuttal techniques from sites with fake ids characteristic of the US Republican Party. So, the story about the little boy waiting on the floor in hospital – which was completely substantiated and documented by the Yorkshire Post and Daily Mirror, was rubbished online by anonymous sites claiming to be or know a nurse in the hospital who said it wasn’t true and then put around as fact by Tory supporters, or dupes. Moreover, 88% of Conservative online advertising was found to be at least “misleading”. The comparable figure for Labour was 0%.
They ran a tag team operation with other Parties. Most obvious was the role of “the Brexit Party” which withdrew from Tory marginals after being effectively instructed to by Donald Trump on a phone in to Nigel Farages’s LBC show. Farage blustered about second order issues as a bit of face saving but followed his master’s voice and did the deed.
The role of the Liberal Democrats bears deeper examination and they were essential to the Conservative win. They were dragged kicking and screaming into the alliance to stop no deal because it was being led by Corbyn. They blocked a transitional Corbyn government to block no deal, renegotiate with the EU to stay in the customs union and single market then put that back to the people, because keeping Corbyn out of No 10 was more important to them than stopping Brexit. At a ppoint that Johnson’s deal was about to be subject to scrutiny that would tear it apart, they and the SNP went behind Labour’s back to give Johnson the election he wanted, on the issue he wanted at the time he wanted it. One interpretation is that, lush with cash and the hubris of their rapid revival during the EU election campaign, they actually believed that they could win up to 100 seats and be in a position to hold the balance on a hung parliament or even provide a coalition Prime Minister. Another is that they were playing the role the ruling class – even their fraction of it – needed them to play; which was to split the vote against no deal Brexit and damage Labour in remain leaning marginals. This was built up throughout the campaign by “tactical voting” sites that initially advised voting Lib Dem in seats in which they’d been a distant third in 2017. Candidates who stood down to try to stave off a Tory win in Labour Tory marginals were slapped down and replaced by Jo Swinson. On polling day in London, the Evening Standard was covered in a wrap round advert calling for “Remainers” to vote Lib Dem – even though by this stage they were a busted flush almost everywhere and the effect of a Lib Dem vote would let in a hard Brexit supporting Tory. This was also behind the split in the People’s Vote campaign between those who saw it as a vehicle to stop Brexit and those – like Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell – who saw it as a vehicle to damage Corbyn. The logic of this was spelled out during the campaign by Lib Dem Deputy Leader Ed Davey, who said that in a choice between Corbyn and a hard Brexit, it would be a hard Brexit every time.
Myth 6. The leave vote is the voice of the working class.
Only if you believe
that there are no working class people in Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, London or any other big city.
The leave vote is a vote from small town England. Ashcroft’s poll after the referendum concluded that a typical leave voter was an ageing middle class white man who lived in the South of England and voted Tory.
Myth 7: Labour lost because it pledged to allow a second referendum on any deal negotiated with the EU.
There are a number of problems with this argument.
It only looks at the seats Labour lost; which were all in regions in which there was an overall shift in votes to leave, not at the whole picture – including the marginal seats that Labour would have to gain to win an election in every other region – in which the overall shift to remain parties was substantially greater than the shift to Brexit supporting parties.
It discounts any shift in voting intentions between 2017 and 2019 to make the false assertion that the primary potential damage to Labour was by leaking leave votes to the Conservatives. This is to turn Maths on its head. The Labour vote in the referendum was 37 leave to 63 remain. The damage done by losing remain votes was always going to be greater. And so it came to pass at the time of the EU election. Up to that point Labour had been level pegging with the Conservatives in voting intention polls. At the election there was a colossal hemorrhage of votes to the Lib Dems and- to a lesser extent – the Greens. Labour polled 14% and went down in national voting intention to the low 20s and didn’t recover.
This matters because a shift towards “winning back traditional voters” has led to the nostrums of “Blue Labour” rising like a zombie waving a “controls on immigration” mug. Maurice Glassman’s slogan of “family, faith and flag” has some horrifying echoes that we could do without and would destroy Labour as any kind of progressive force.
To sum this up in one paragraph, the disagreements within the ruling class – nationally and internationally -over Brexit, while serious, were tactical, while their objection to a Corbyn government was strategic. So every single establishment institution and every single political current that – when it comes to the crunch – favours continued dominance by capital, whatever their view on Brexit, threw the kitchen sink at stopping Corbyn as an over riding priority. And they did.
The Daily Telegraph used to be a reassuring newspaper in its way. I once had a mind numbingly mechanical job on the night shift in a chocolate factory; and one of the ways to keep awake was to read the Telegraph every night to keep my blood pressure up from indignation.
Though the Peter Simple column – with its fabulously nostalgic stock cast of grim booted, iron chained Northern Aldermen, and disclaimers of annexationist demands on the letters page – is long gone; the letters page itself is still full of carefully crafted missives from retired Commodores living in Surrey with double barreled names and strong views – not blustery as they were in the immediate fallout from Empire, but quietly, thoughtfully defensive of an order that is setting us up for a fall out that will prove far greater – if we don’t stop it.
Alongside these are increasingly shrill columnists painting that fall out as an inevitability, not a matter of choice. One – Sherelle Jacobs -writing about Brexit (of course) – argued recently that “as the world turns Medieval” we are facing “a new global dark age” in which the only way forward is a renewed nationalism. British of course, not Scottish, Irish or Welsh.
There are limits old chap.
She recognises that the crisis of the world economic order is a crisis of the dominance of the United States but – in the age of “America First” manages to recast an abject subordination of the UK to the falling American star – by leaving the EU and integrating ever more closely with the US economic model
as careless of the environment as it is of its workers
with its horrendous health care,
convoluted and gerrymandered politics and brutal racist prison system,
alongside even closer subordination of military and intelligence
and abandoning any pretence to an independent foreign policy
as a buccaneering piece of national self assertion. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are trying to pull the same stunt. We will see in the next couple of months how far – and how long – people can be fooled by this. And what the fall out is if they get away with it on October 31st and the roller coaster ride begins in earnest.
She also manages to ignore the genuine threat of a new dark age as a result of social breakdown resulting form the degradation of the climate conditions that make it possible for us to – among other things – grow food. The Syrian drought between 2006 and 2011 that drove 2 – 3 million people off land they could no longer live on into cities that could not cope with them leading straight into civil war and everything else that has followed is – among many other recent events – a stark warning.
One of the most disturbing pieces in This is not a Drill – theExtinction Rebellion Handbook* is Douglas Rushkoff’s account of being paid a huge sum (half his annual professor’s salary) to brief five super wealthy hedge fund bosses about “the future of technology”.
It turned out that what they were most concerned about was how to escape the impact of climate breakdown as individuals. They were not in denial about it. They know it is happening. They are not concerned about how to use their wealth to try to avert or mitigate it. They are like passengers in first class on the Titanic less concerned about avoiding the iceberg than looking for lifeboats just for them.
They wanted to know whether Alaska or New Zealand would be less affected by climate change, and which would provide a better bolt hole. One admitted that he had already nearly completed building an underground bunker complex to move into when society breaks down, and wanted to know “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?” Money, of course, would have no value.
How could they stop the armed guards just bumping them off and taking over?
How could they make sure they could control a supply of food – with locks to which only they knew the combination?
Could they make the guards wear control collars?
Could they use robot guards instead?
Could the technology could be developed in time?
The future as zombie apocalypse movie, with most of the rest of us as the zombies.
These people are not isolated individuals. Steve Bannon, who acts as a guru for the whole international alt right, commented while he was an adviser to Donald Trump – “Half the world is going to burn and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”
Actually there’s plenty we could do. We are already (globally) doing about a quarter of what we need to. We just need to step up the pace and work together to do it. But to do so we need to change the economic and political systems that give people like those hedge fund managers the power and wealth that they have. This is becoming a matter of life or death.
Bannon’s answer to this is to try to build walls around the world’s wealthier countries so the burning takes place elsewhere – as it has already began to do. A necessary part of this is the dehumanisation of anyone who lives in the “shithole countries” (D. Trump) that are going to burn; so the citizens of the US can watch them do so with equanimity. If that means describing desperate refugees fleeing social breakdown as criminals and terrorists, interning them indefinitely, separating children from parents, depriving them of the most basic care and amenities (bedding, toothpaste, soap) – or, in the European case – letting thousands of them drown in the Mediterranean, then so be it.
This was put in a more anodyne form by Wells Griffith, Trump’s energy and climate adviser, who said this at the Katowice summit in November 2018. “We strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability.” This extraordinary sentence recognises that the current engines of “economic prosperity” and “energy security” in the United States are not environmentally sustainable – and are undermining the conditions for human survival – but strongly believes that that this can be ignored until everything collapses.
This is in the context of the current challenge to the Pax Americana posed by the rise of China. Sherrelle Jacobs argues that China is a “stillborn superpower” due an economic collapse. People in the West have been saying that for twenty years, not grasping that a country dominated by state led investment does not operate on the same lines as those for which the imperatives of private sector dominance trump other considerations.
Whatever critique people may wish to make of China, the current trade war
in which the US is doubling down on fossil fuels while China is investing massively in renewable energy generation,
Donald Trump prohibits mention of Climate Change in US government publications and sabotages scientific research into it, while Xi Xinping is talking about building an “ecological society”,
the US is planning to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and stands against international co-operation, while the Chinese favour “win win” solutions and are set to achieve their 2030 targets between 5 and 9 years early
is a dramatic illustration that there is more than one engine of prosperity and energy security. The dominant western global elite are sticking with the wrong one because they can do no other – they would cease to be an elite if they were to embrace state led investment as a way forward. Even as they are staring at total panic and terrible consequences for the majority of humanity in the medium term.
The popularity of evangelical rapture Christianity among these people – in which we are living in the “end times” waiting for the second coming and sudden miraculous escape from all our problems to those who believe hard enough – and the increasingly delirious and irrational mode of political debate has its roots in the same fears.
This is a cry of despair from a class that can no longer claim to represent humanity as a whole – in the way they have tried to do since 1789. Every day that passes produces more evidence like this that the people who rule us are unfit to do so.
Variations on this theme are fantasies of living “off world” in space stations or – even – Mars – though Antarctica is a more benign environment -with Elon Musk’s electric car in space as a symbolic gesture in this direction. If it weren’t for the resources required to get them there it would be tempting just to let them go – in an inverted version of Ursula Le Guin’s novel “The Dispossessed” – in which a political conflict was resolved by exiling all the anarchists to the nearest moon.
*Just published by Penguin. Essential reading, but don’t order it on Amazon; ask your local library to stock it instead.
As an intelligent man and seasoned journalist, as well as one who was as close to the centre of political power in the UK as anyone ever gets – and indeed as a specialist in the management of news – you will have weighed every word of your open letter to Jeremy Corbyn very carefully.
You end it with a plea for him to consider the message rather than dismiss it because of the identity of the messenger. This is a common theme of late, but you will know that the identity of messengers is a relevant aspect of responding to the message. Who are they, what is their overall view, and what axes do they tend to grind, whose interests are they representing, why are they choosing to send this particular message at this time and what effect is it likely to have, are just six questions that come to mind. So, the message and the messenger tend to be inextricably linked; as I’m sure you would concede, if you reflect on your own practice as a spin doctor for Tony Blair.
But, for the sake of utmost clarity, lets look at the message you sent. I will take your points in order.
“Britain is in a moment of peril” facing the prospect of a no deal Brexit, with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, but “I see no sign that you…have grasped the seriousness of what is happening, let alone devised a strategy to respond and defeat it.” This is very odd. Labour has always opposed no deal. It has voted against it in Parliament consistently. Jeremy Corbyn is currently on the stump around the country holding rallies opposing it. He says he opposes it in every TV interview. Labour stands for a people’s vote on no deal or any deal Johnson can get – though – with his current provocations on the Irish backstop – its obvious he isn’t trying to get one. Labour, uniquely, seeks to unite all those who oppose no deal, both those who favour remaining in the EU and those who favour leaving the political structures but retaining membership of the customs union and single market. The reason for this is that Labour’s position is based on defending the living standards of the majority of the UK population – not limited and polarising notions of “identity” . Labour is not just about the 48% versus the 50%, it is about the 99% vs the 1%. If the country is facing an “existential crisis” it is clearly in the interests of the 1% to try to define all politics in relation to the 48:52, however paralysing that turns out to be.*
Labour’s stance has the advantage of not lumping people who favour a soft Brexit in with the no dealers as an undifferentiated mass of “leavers”; which allows the latter to increasingly hoover them up as a tribal hinterland who just haven’t become full true believers yet. You seem to disregard this risk, which is helping the no dealers towards a majority. Most people in this country want to get on with their lives, do not live in a political bubble, do not write or read letters like this, and could live with any number of political variations as long as their lives are not thrown into chaos by adventurist politicians.
This position is quite clear to me. I can only conclude that you can’t see it because you either haven’t looked, or don’t want to see. It also strikes me as very odd indeed that your response to an existential crisis for the country caused because its government has been captured by a dangerous faction, is to launch an attack on the only political party that could possibly form an alternative government. It is, of course, par for the course for every institution that supports the status quo to drown out any policies that appeal to people on the basis of their class interest; thereby making the identity discourse the only show in town. Although I take you at your word that you have only discussed this issue with close family and friends, it is consistent with articles in the Guardian at the weekend by Jonathan Freedland and Jonathan Powell, arguing for Corbyn to go and Labour to join some sort of “centre” regroupment with no political definition other than remaining in the EU. This is essentially pickling the politics and economics of the 2010 – 15 coalition in aspic and presenting it as a solution; when it helped set up the “left behind” component of the leave vote in the first place.
You argue that if Johnson were to hold a recall referendum between No deal and Remain, Remain would win. Labour agrees and would campaign for Remain were that to happen – as you know. Remaining concerned about Labour’s position on this must take a real act of will.
You then say that Johnson is likely to opt for an early general election because he thinks he can win. If that is indeed your view, isn’t the logical thing to do to support and back up the only Party able to form an alternative government rather than attack it? Taking a fatalistic attitude that current opinion polls are the last word on possible results did not work out too well for Theresa May in 2017 did it?
As a journalist who learned his trade in the pre-digital era, you will be familiar with the phrase “today’s news is tomorrow’s chip paper.” The same applies to conventional political wisdoms. Given how quickly the bad news is already piling up – bad receptions for Johnson in his tours of Wales and Scotland – described by the BBC as “bumpy” – a sharp drop, already, in the value of the pound, the CBI warning against no deal and commenting that preparations for it are as desperate as filling sandbags in a flood – you might save the bedroom but you’ll lose the kitchen – and even that Johnson’s poll bounce is entirely at the expense of the Brexit Party – its quite possible that one of the only things that might save the government and their hard Brexit project are these gratuitous attacks on the opposition from people who should be concentrating all their fire on the government.
It as if the existential crisis of the country takes a back seat to overthrowing the Labour leadership. Fatalistic phrases (“the country may have decided…” on any current analysis..”) – especially when used to obscure a preference – could be fatal here; not so much for Labour but for the prospect of actually stopping no deal.
You say that you have spent “several weeks trying without success to have explained to me the process under which I was expelled for voting Liberal Democrat in the European elections.” I think most of the readers of that sentence will be able to work that one out; and it wouldn’t take them several weeks to do so.
LBJ once remarked that he kept J Edgar Hoover on as Director of the FBI because he preferred to have him “in the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent pissing in.” Labour is a big tent, but I’m sure you recognise that being inside it pissing in is not a reasonable or acceptable position.
You say that the Party no longer represents your “values”. Quite a number of people will read that with a sigh of relief. The sort of values that allowed you to distort reality to sell participation the war in Iraq, in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed, is not something that sits comfortably with Party members today. Praise be for that. But you say you want a Party and leadership that stands up for the many not the few and for that to be clearly spelled out. These are Labour’s campaigning pledges. Which of these can you not accept? Which do not represent your “hopes for Britain”?
Increased funding for the NHS with more nurses and doctors to give patients the care they need.
A Real Living Wage of £10 an hour and no increase in Income Tax or National Insurance for 95% of people.
A Green Industrial Revolution creating 400,000 jobs.
Free school meals for all primary school children and reduced class sizes for all 5, 6 and 7 year olds.
Keep the Winter Fuel Allowance, free TV licences and bus passes for pensioners.
A public vote on any Brexit deal. Labour will campaign to Remain against No Deal or a bad Tory deal.
We will be fighting Boris Johnson – and Nigel Farage – tooth and nail – in Parliament and out. We will put a motion of no confidence when we can win it, not play games with it like the Liberal Democrats. You say that you are unsure who you are going to vote for in the next General Election, but you know that the only practical governmental alternative to Boris Johnson is Labour. Choosing this moment to try to engender a split must be music to his ears.
*For a fuller exploration of this argument see Mike Wongsam – Brexit and the progress of Jeremy Corbyn in Transform 6.
The real divisions in a society in crisis are often obscured by the form of the apparent political rift. When Polly Toynbee (Guardian 26/3/19) argues from opinion poll results that the divide between leavers and remainers is now more strongly felt than prior allegiance to political party she underlines a disjunct between a passing sense of identity and a longer term set of alliances based on material interests that are more fundamental.
These interests cross borders. A paradox of globalisation is that the ethno-nationalist reaction against it is being encouraged, assisted and funded by the policy of the Trump administration in the United States, and some of the right wing media outfits associated with him. Some US businesses are doing this directly – looking forward to serious pickings as big polities are broken up into weaker fragments. They are working on the EU. They would like to do it to China.
The most fundamental division in Britain is between those who have wealth and power and those who do not – however they voted in June 2016. It is in the interests of the former to coral as many of the latter as possible behind them and the most potent way to do so has always been “patriotism” – the assumption that being born in a place should put you at the front of the queue for whatever is going and – that your particular “identity” somehow makes you both better than other people and gives you a wider significance- as a compensation for your very real subordination and obscurity in everyday life. In countries that are no longer as powerful and influential as they were, this often becomes toxic.
A division within the wealthy – in which one faction breaks with the established way of doing things- leads to all sorts of weird developments in which all that is solid turns into air – old Etonians claim to be anti-elitist, a leadership contender for the Conservative Party says “Fuck business”, the Daily Express, Sun and Mail denounce the House of Lords and the judiciary; and hedge fund managers short sell UK stocks and bonds to cash in on the economic consequences of their “patriotic” campaign – in which the lower orders are urged to “believe in the country” – taking as their motto an inversion of JFK – “ask not what you can do for your country” – ask only what your country can do for you.” and go laughing all the way to the tax haven. Because the country is set up for their benefit and only functions in order to do so, they wrap themselves in the Union flag while deftly stashing their assets in Dublin or Belize or Singapore, and preparing to burn “traitors” on bonfires made of red tape, as a distraction from the grand opening of
Free Trade Ports and Enterprise zones (in which they and their friends will be bribed and subsidised to invest, while paying no tax back)
the take over of the Health Service by US insurance firms (and probably Virgin) -so check the wallet before the pulse
and the spread of chlorinated fried chicken stands- finger lickin cheap and nasty.
disguising their venality in the name of “The People.”
So, who are “The People”?
When Michael Howard went on the radio on Sunday (24 March) to argue for the hardest available Brexit, he talked about honouring the wishes of the 17.4 million people who vote to leave in the referendum, without troubling himself to question whether his own preference was indeed what they were voting for. He had a point as far as it went. 17.4 million is a lot of people and their views have to be taken into account. But, beyond the 17.4 million, what about the rest of us?
In a country with over 66 million people, that’s just under 50 million who’s views – in Howard’s world – are simply to be excluded from having any say or influence in the future direction of the country.
One of his Conservative colleagues commented today that “the British people” had “voted overwhelmingly” to leave the EU. Thinking that a ratio of 52:48 of those voting is “overwhelming”is sufficiently odd to require some investigation as to who he thinks “the British people” are.
Of a population of 65.5 million in 2016:
17.4 million voted leave.
16 million voted remain.
13 million were under 18 and ineligible to vote.
3 million were EU citizens not entitled to vote despite working and contributing.
16 million didn’t vote at all.
As a graph, this looks like this.
For this Conservative MP, the bloc represented in dark blue is an “overwhelming majority.” For Michael Howard these are “the people”, or at least the people that count – in whose image the nation must be recast. This is also about the control of the 17.4 million. Their views were and are far more diverse than they have been presented, but for people like Howard they are a useful statistic forever frozen in 2016 – the time of The One True Vote.
This sets us up for continuing crisis and polarisation. A political project that seeks to slash and burn regulations and protections for workers rights and the environment, that favours the replacement of the civil service with ad hoc committees of businessmen, that is prepared to see social security, farming and manufacturing go to the wall by slashing tariffs, and the re-ignition of the Irish troubles over a reimposed border, cannot afford to have a consensual approach. The sheep must be separated from the goats and the goats must be slaughtered. The cultural revolution style shrillness of the headlines – CRUSH THE SABOTEURS – ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE – matches the disruptive scale of the project and also the impossibility of it being carried through without a breakdown in an agreed political framework in which differences can be resolved without violence. It is in this context that a reviving UKIP is seeking to build an effective street fighting movement led by Tommy Robinson, pulling firms of football hooligans into some very large and aggressive mobilisations which have attacked trade unionists and the police.
If Brexit is averted the crisis will continue because everything that then goes wrong will be attributed to “the great betrayal” – in the same way that Germany was only defeated in World War 1 because the army was “stabbed in the back.” Untrue myths are often the most potent – because they cannot be tested. The scale of this remains to be seen, but anyone who thinks that just remaining in the EU as it currently is will solve all our problems has not noticed the economic stagnation of the euro zone, the impasse of Macron, the backsliding of Germany on its climate change commitments and the continent wide spread of US backed ethno-nationalist currents likely to make the next European parliament the most right wing in its history.
If Brexit is not averted – especially if we get a hard version – the grim realities are likely to turbo charge a hunt for further “saboteurs” and “enemies if the people”.
Although the weariness at all this is often expressed in the infantile injunction to “just get on with it” – as if “it” was something that you could “just get on with” – most people want to be able to get on with their lives without massive upheaval and disruption. Remaining, or the softest possible Brexit, like Labour’s deal or Norway plus, offers the best chance of relative stability in which “The People” can realign around more fundamental questions.