This article appears in the Winter 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Never in postwar British history has there been such a weak, divided, and poorly run Conservative government. Prime Minister Theresa May inherited the disaster of her predecessor David Cameron’s 2016 referendum to have Britain exit the European Union, whose results she embraced with unseemly haste. But she has been utterly unable to find a Brexit path that will not devastate the British economy.
Since U.K. voters opted, by a 52–48 margin, to leave the European Union, the result has been agonizing interregnum, in which the terms of a post-EU British economy are in limbo, retarding confidence and investment. May has presided over the lowest growth in the G7, with Britain enduring austerity cuts that have seen cuts in police, teachers, health care, and local government services.
Britain’s role in the world has also suffered. While leaders of Germany, France, Turkey, and Russia meet to discuss a cease-fire in Syria, no one bothers to invite the British prime minister, as the geopolitical isolationism of Brexit reduces the Tory government’s status as a foreign policy player.
Several senior cabinet and other ministers have walked out of May’s government. Every weekend, Britain’s influential Sunday press describes a Tory party utterly divided, with MPs predicting May’s imminent demise.
Boris Johnson, the darling of the right-wing, Europe-hating Tory rank and file, openly mocks May and offers himself as a replacement, but can’t quite manage a coup. Other cabinet ministers would like to replace her, and are out on maneuvers.
In early December, the European Court of Justice issued an important ruling that if Britain wanted a do-over, they could still reject Brexit, and revert to the status quo. This removes a major barrier to holding a new referendum. And on December 10, May suffered the humiliating defeat of having to put off the long-awaited vote in the House of Commons, knowing that she faced an overwhelming defeat.
Prime Minister Theresa May has proven utterly unable to find a path for Brexit that will not devastate the British economy.
On December 12, a group of Tory MPs demanded a vote of no-confidence. After her Conservative colleagues considered the consequences of deposing May—with the party badly split and no logical successor—she won it by a vote of 200-117. But the win, if anything, left her even weaker in her effort to get the House to approve her Brexit pact, with 117 of her own party members now prepared to join the roughly 300 opposition MPs in voting down the deal.
THIS SHOULD BE THE BEST of times for the Labour opposition. But the opposite is the case. Labour is bitterly divided on Europe, almost as badly split as the Tories, and offers no credible opposition to May. Most opinion polls since the Labour Party convention in September 2018 show the Tories ahead.
Jeremy Corbyn, who propelled Labour to a better-than-expected showing in the 2017 general election, now in his third year of leadership, has failed to make a breakthrough that might establish himself as the next prime minister. His true views of Brexit are impossible to discern. Even some Labour MPs have told journalists they are not sure they will vote Labour as long as Corbyn is leader.
At a time when Britain is yearning for a plausible alternative to May and the Tories, and a way out of the Brexit stalemate, the British democratic left is tired, demoralized, and far away from forming an opposition vision, much less a government. How did this come to pass?
The short answer is that Labour is caught between two different pasts and a viable future. Following a turning-away from the long era of New Labour under centrist globalists Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the Labour Party has reverted to a mélange of old-left nostalgia and postmodern cultural radicalism under Corbyn. Neither past is helpful in pointing to a way out of Britain’s Brexit mess.
The story begins with Britain’s 1983 election, a triumphant win for Margaret Thatcher. In that year, which was generally bleak for Labour, three future Labour leaders in their early thirties were elected to parliament. Blair, Brown, and Corbyn all became MPs on the same day. It took 14 more years for Labour to win back power after the biggest makeover of the party since its founding in 1906.
Labour’s long period in the political wilderness began in 1979, the so-called Winter of Discontent, when the government of Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan failed to deal with the combination of inflation, a weak pound, and trade union militancy in the face of falling real wages. Giant mountains of black rubbish bags piled up in London squares as strikes crippled the economy. Wildcat walkouts included ambulance drivers and gravediggers. The resulting Rupert Murdoch tabloid headlines blared, “Unions Won’t Even Let You Bury the Dead.”
The Tories under Margaret Thatcher won that election as the middle class deserted Labour, and they hung onto power for two decades. But still the Labour left fought on with eloquent support from the leftist party leader Tony Benn, who denounced capitalism, the European Community, and the United States with rare eloquence. Labour lost four successive elections between 1979 and 1992.
Once in the Commons, Blair and Brown were edgy revisionists, wanting to move Labour from the 1970s-style statist socialism—anti-Europe, anti-NATO, anti–market economics, pro–trade union militancy. Corbyn, by contrast, remained true to that model, and has remained thus committed ever since.
Brown and Blair created policy commissions and tried to modernize Labour and bring it closer to a new post-industrial, post-collectivist, post-white electorate. Corbyn supported traditional left causes, while his fellow members of the Class of ’83 followed the traditional road of progressives who want to win power.
Like the Italian or Japanese left, Labour seemed unable ever to win power again. And then came the Clinton shock, when a 1968--generation Rhodes Scholar, who had worked for George McGovern and who borrowed from the progressive thesaurus he knew by heart, won power.
In January 1993, I organized a conference in London called “Clintonomics.” Clinton had just won the presidency, while Labour had just lost its fourth successive election in May 1992.
Clinton’s New Democrats became role models for Blair’s New Labour. We brought over the best and the brightest of Clinton-generation politicians to advise Labour on how power might be won even under condition of early globalization, de-unionization, and the arrival of new social forces demanding rights for women, non-white, non-Christian citizens, and the LGBTcommunity. These were precisely the groups and forces in society which late-20th-century leftism—pale, male, stale, and distrustful of open frontiers to trade, capital, or immigrants—had ignored.
Blair became leader in 1994, while Corbyn was left on the margins. Yet with hindsight, it’s fair to say that many of Corbyn’s critiques were on target. Under Blair, Labour won decisively in 1997. With his massive majority in 1997 and the Tories flat on their back for a decade, Blair could have initiated a major makeover of how Britain was run. But he walked in fear of the markets and Murdoch. Brown, his finance minister, boasted of “light-touch regulation” to international speculators in the City (London’s counterpart to Wall Street), and helped seed the conditions for the 2008 collapse.
I was Labour’s representative at the Party of European Socialists (the bloc of democratic-left parties in the European Union), and Brown ordered me via his minions to block any efforts to increase labor rights. In 2000, 12 of the 15 EU governments were headed by social democrats, socialists, or Labour leaders or had socialists in a coalition. It was a golden moment to organize a serious Europe-wide political campaign for a real social market economy based on re-leveraging power out of the hands of finance capital.
Blair had the stature and support to lead a 21st-century moment of European social democratic reformism. But orthodox neoliberal ideologues were running the Treasury, and soon Blair was sucked into the vortex of George W. Bush’s Iraq folly and never recovered.
The Blair-Brown tandem put together an economic program that sought support from unionized workers, professional public-sector managers, mobile individualized capital, and post-national Davos capitalism. Neither had confidence to try and go for a full social democratic makeover in the Northern European fashion.
The Nordic-Teutonic social partnership economics was based on total class collaboration; unions negotiating wages at a national, not plant, level; works councils, not shop stewards or external union representation; unconditional support for free trade, open borders, and offshoring if that were necessary to allow firms to survive.
Blair was right to reject the national protectionist policy of Benn and Corbyn, which was incompatible with EU membership. But he was unable to see that untrammeled, unregulated, uncontrolled globalized capitalism would in due course produce the ugly backlash of nationalist, xenophobic closed-border ideology that reached its apogee in 2016 with wins for Brexit and Trump, and which is now gaining ground in Europe.
CORBYN BECAME PARTY LEADER in 2015 after Labour lost a second time to David Cameron. The Labour leader from 2010 to 2015, Ed Miliband, wanting to modernize and democratize his party, had changed the party rules to allow anyone to become a party member for 3 pounds ($4), the price of a small glass of beer.
Seldom has such an attempted reform backfired so completely. The move brought back to power the old left. Party membership surged from 200,000 to 540,000 in 2018. Many were young millennials or students angry at the tripling of student tuition fees that the Conservative–Liberal Democratic coalition government had imposed. Others had been activists in different social movements—green, Occupy, environmental, anti-war, LGBT—who, for a token 3 pounds, could join Labour online.
A large number of white-bearded, bald-pate old leftists—who had given up keeping their Labour Party card as Blair and Brown shifted the party to its embrace of business and support for Bush in the Iraq war—now rejoined Labour, as did former Trotskyists or communists from the 1968 generation enjoying having their last outing in a political party.
The second win in 2015 for the smug Old Etonian David Cameron and his government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich created an emotional feeling that the 25-year hegemony of New Labour had run its course. Blair and Brown had been commanding political leaders. Their political children, including Ed and David Miliband, and other protégés were the successor generation, which in varying degrees continued to argue for a return to New Labour verities. But they were Hillary Clinton when Labour Party activists wanted Bernie Sanders.
Corbyn became leader almost by accident. On the day the small hard-left caucus of about 30 Labour MPs—the Campaign Group—were meeting in the Commons to nominate their candidate to be party leader, a TV reporter, Jon Craig, bumped into Corbyn, who was scurrying to get to the meeting.
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s New Democrats became role models for Tony Blair’s New Labour.
“Who are Campaign Group going to nominate?” asked Craig.
“Search me,” replied Corbyn. “I’m going to find out,” and off he went. He emerged as the candidate because it was felt it was his turn. No one had quite realized that letting anyone and everyone join the Labour Party was going to produce a revolutionary change, and Corbyn was easily voted in under the new party rules that gave the mass membership a decisive say, over the objection of MPs.
The New Labour establishment was outraged. Many senior ex-ministers of the Blair-Brown generation refused to serve on Corbyn’s team. A majority of Labour MPs were fairly clear in their own minds that a Corbyn-led Labour Party was unelectable. They organized a vote of no confidence in their new leader and all Blair-Brown–generation MPs in the shadow cabinet resigned. Corbyn faced down this attempt by MPs to oust him. He held a second leadership election in September 2016 and defeated the Blairite candidate 2 to 1.
So Corbyn is now unchallengeable. He has turned from Labour MPs in the Commons to insist that the only authentic voice of the party is the mass-membership rank and file. Within Labour, a well-organized left group called Momentum has been set up. It supports left policies and seeks to oust local MPs who do not obey the Corbyn line.
Corbyn commits strongly to many causes. The Palestinian cause. The cause of a nuclear-free world. The Irish nationalist cause. The cause of Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chavez, now Nicolas Maduro. Corbyn has been married three times; his second ex-wife and current spouse are Latin American, and he speaks some Spanish. It is said he has visited most countries in the world, but few in Europe.
He voted against every EU treaty that came to the House of Commons for ratification. His participation in the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign was half-hearted and listless.
ONE OF THE MOST PROBLEMATIC aspects of Corbyn’s leadership on its third anniversary were the relentless and well-documented accusations of anti-Semitism. Dave Rich, the author of The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel, and Anti-Semitism, writes that in 2016, when these allegations first surfaced, “most opinion columns about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party stressed that nobody accused Mr Corbyn of being anti-Semitic; his flaw was that he just did not recognize it, he did not think left-wing people were capable of it, or he had taken the necessary action to deal with it.”
That is right. I have known Corbyn for decades, and the idea he has a single line of anti-Semitism or other racisms in his political DNA is absurd. But he is utterly tone-deaf to the fears of many Jews when they are confronted with the raw, racist hate of Israel’s right to exist now commonplace on the left.
When Corbyn started in politics, the cause of Palestinian rights was one of a long list he and the left would have supported. But most of these causes have disappeared. The Vietnam and Iraq wars were a disaster. Apartheid, Pinochet, South Korean generals, fascist dictators in Spain and Portugal, and communist tyrannies in Eastern Europe have all been vanquished. But the Palestinian issue is still with us. The Labour Party banned anyone waving European flags at its 2018 conference. But it allowed Palestinian flags to be waved by delegates.
The hatred of Israel from some Labour Party activists, especially those younger militant ones who have very little idea of the history and complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and almost none about the ideology of modern Islamism, has reached a peak and Corbyn has not known how to calm it down. Jewish Labour MPs have been hounded by foul anti-Jewish social media abuse or harangued by Corbyn militants at local party meetings. A few Labour councillors and candidates have posted overtly anti-Jewish Facebook or Twitter insults.
Labour under Corbyn refused until September 2018 even to accept the European-wide definition of anti-Semitism promulgated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, set up in 1998 by social democratic Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson.
Unfortunately for Corbyn, the era of mobile phones recording events or just throwaway lines that in early times would have been mercifully left unrecorded and forgotten, meant that his wreath-laying where the organizers of the murder of Jewish Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics are commemorated in Tunis, or saying that British Jews did not understand “irony” in defense of an ugly anti-Semite, or any number of his appearances at rallies or protests dating back years have surfaced and allowed newspapers to front-page Corbyn as a man friendly to Jew-hating ideologues and terrorists.
All three main Jewish papers in Britain denounced Corbyn’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism. For the Conservatives—both politicians and commentators—it was a gift from heaven. May devoted part of her keynote speech at the Conservative Party conference in October 2018 to attacking Corbyn’s handling of anti-Semitism.
In October, Scotland Yard opened an investigation into anti-Semitic statements by Labour Party members. The Metropolitan Police made clear the party was not being accused of anti-Semitism. But the announcement of a formal criminal inquiry into Labour members dominated the TV news, with clips of Corbyn biking out of his North London home, turning his back curtly on reporters, or losing his temper in TV interviews when asked about his previous statements describing Hamas and Hezbollah as his “friends.”
All previous Labour leaders and prime ministers since 1950 had been close to British Jewry, and Corbyn’s enthusiastic embrace for the Palestinian cause dismayed the liberal-left Jewish intelligentsia. For uncritical Corbyn supporters, raising the question of anti-Semitism was just a smear tactic. But women Jewish Labour MPs had to have police protection and suffered unacceptable abuse by newly joined Labour Party members, many of whom seemed fueled by obsessive anti-Israel hate. To any outside observer, it seemed a self-inflicted wound that would be hard to heal.
THUS LABOUR CONTINUES to be marginalized by a combination of its fringe views on hot issues like anti-Semitism and its failure to offer a credible alternative to Brexit. Labour failed to gain key marginal seats in both the parliamentary election in 2017 and the municipal elections in 2018 where strong Jewish communities existed.
But what of Corbyn’s economic policies? They are regularly denounced as Marxist, ultra-left socialism by the right-wing press. In fact, compared with Labour programs from 1950 to 2000, they are milk-and-water conventional if old-fashioned, soft-left ideas.
One suggestion that roiled up right-wing commentators was for workers to sit on boards of companies. That has been official policy of the center-right German Christian Democrats in government since 1950. Another was to encourage employee share-ownership and profit-sharing, which have long been endorsed by pro-business, pro-capitalism advocates. A hike in the legal minimum wage is routine, and, in many European countries, having the railways, postal service, or water utilities in national or municipal public ownership would be uncontroversial.
Critics of Corbyn, like the former Labour MP Tom Harris, have urged May to adopt Corbyn policies like allowing town councils to borrow money to build more social or project housing. May has already announced a 3 percent sales tax that foreigners will have to pay if they buy a house or apartment mainly for investment purposes in London.
No university student in Europe has to pay the very high tuition fees demanded in England, so Corbyn’s pledge to abolish them is just the European norm, not some lurch toward Maduro-type socialism.
Of course, all these promises will have to be costed out and paid for. At this stage, much of Labour policy is aspirational, not a serious worked-out program of government.
For now, Corbyn is not much interested in formulating a new progressive left policy to handle the artificial intelligence, gig, startup, Airbnb, or Uber economy. He preaches in a solemn and serious manner about the defects of modern global capitalism, and his denunciations have captured a moment. But while he attracts large audiences as a new-left Messiah, it is not clear if it reaches middle, let alone Tory, England. In TV interviews, he becomes prickly and defensive about taking money from an Iranian TV channel that pumped out Tehran ideological propaganda, and he still has not found convincing words on the problems Labour has with anti-Semitism.
Visitors to the 2018 Labour Party conference in September were struck at how either very young or quite old the delegates were and how white they were. Labour’s 26-strong shadow cabinet has 22 members who will be sexagenarians, septuagenarians, and even one 80-year-old at the next election. Corbyn and his chief lieutenants will all be over 70. This is a Bernie Sanders party that has been carrying the torch for the socialism of the 1968 generation that turned politically active in the McGovern 1970s.
Corbyn is placing all his bets on the Tories imploding over Brexit, voting down May, and a collapse of her government, with a subsequent early election in 2019. But that requires an awful lot of Conservative MPs to be turkeys voting for Christmas, by siding with a Labour leader they despise, to destroy their own prime minister and risk a third general election in four years.
It is true that Brexit votes in the Commons are unpredictable. But the Tories have been around for 300 years, spending more time governing Britain than fretting over ideology or principle, and have well-developed survival instincts.
Corbyn might have put himself at the head of the anti-Brexit forces in Britain which opinion polls show are now in a majority, especially amongst young voters, in Scotland and Wales, and in all big cities and university towns. Alas, his own 1970s dislike of European integration has held him back, plus the genuine sense that most Labour working-class seats in the North and the Midlands had majorities for leaving the EU.
But with big companies like Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover announcing they will have to leave the U.K. if they lose current market access to Europe, many trade unions and Labour voters are now prepared to rethink Brexit. London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, Labour MPs on all wings of the party, and some big industrial unions have called for a new vote on Brexit. This move is supported by 86 percent of Labour Party members. All that’s missing is a leader.
In one of the biggest postwar demonstrations ever seen, 700,000 marched in London in October with posters attacking the Tories over their anti-European Brexit policies. But Corbyn refused to take part and ordered his shadow cabinet members not to attend. The crowds chanted, “Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?”
Unfortunately for the wider anti-Brexit left in Britain, those Labour MPs most prominent in calling for a reversal of Brexit since the plebiscite in June 2016 tend to be those associated with Blairism and were among those who tried to topple Corbyn early in 2016.
Tony Blair himself has been the most articulate of former senior politicians who have spoken out against Brexit. Corbyn’s personal instincts and his detestation of Blair-era personalities means he does not want to line up behind the anti-Brexit campaign. But it leaves Labour seriously behind the political curve on Brexit and opens Corbyn to tailing behind May and the government, without any clear alternative except to demand she is replaced by a Labour administration.
There are no electoral tests anytime soon. The next general election is not until 2022. Although Labour gained 30 seats in the 2017 general election under Corbyn, he also lost four presumed safe Labour seats and had a smaller share of the vote than Theresa May’s Conservative Party.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
Labour still has 55 seats fewer than the Conservatives. If the latter proceed with their plans to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, that will cost Labour another 20 to 30 seats. In short, there is a very big electoral mountain for Labour to climb.
Labour MPs complain that Momentum can mobilize big turnouts for visits by Corbyn, where everyone sways to the chant “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” or wears T-shirts with his face on them—personality cult traits previously unknown in Labour. And while Momentum can pack a local party meeting to put pressure on a Labour MP who does not 100 percent follow the Corbyn line, the new members are not turning out to do the grassroots, door-to-door, street stall, leaflet delivery, or phone-bank activity that connects a party to its voters.
Corbyn’s advisers are men of his age, with a similar private school background, who have been doing hard-left politics for decades and were marginalized in the New Labour quarter-century, and they are telling him that only social media matters. Corbyn has attacked the press, which, given the cruel treatment he has suffered at tabloid and BBChands, is understandable. But the politician who attacks the media is like the ship captain who attacks the weather. It changes nothing, and British journalists of all political persuasions don’t like party leaders telling them they’re bad people.
There is a danger that Corbyn, who has participated in just about every left social movement in Britain as they have come and gone over his 50 years in political activism, may see Labour as a social movement of opposition and not a party aiming for power.
He invited to Labour’s conference Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the 67-year-old leader of a demagogic French social movement–type party whose latest name is La France Insoumise(literally, “Unsubmissive France”). Mélenchon is anti-capitalist, anti-European, anti-establishment—but his party is as far away from power as ever.
Is that Labour’s fate under Corbyn? He has survived some brutal political efforts to remove him as leader and the worst media battering any opposition leader has ever faced. The Labour Party is back in business and its morale is high. But if May doesn’t collapse over Brexit, there are four long years before another general election, which gives the Tories a chance to find a new leader without May’s negatives—what then has Jeremy got to offer?
Six months after the 1992 win for the Tories, Labour had established a 20-point lead it never lost. At the end of 2018 after eight years of Tory government and three years of Corbyn leadership, most polls in fall showed a Tory lead.
For now, Corbyn is unchallenged as Labour Party leader and there is no doubt he speaks for the progressive spirit of the age that wants more fairness, social justice, and a politics that tackles inequality, climate change, and entrenched poverty both domestically and globally. But he seems unable to connect those concerns to the impending catastrophe of the day—how to resolve Brexit. If Labour is defeated under Corbyn in 2022, that will mean another 17-year run of Tory prime ministers, presiding over an economic decline that might have been prevented by political leadership.