Economics and politics - comment and analysis
20. June 2017 I Will Denayer I Economic Policy, Europe, General, General Politics

Reflections on a failed political system. Part 1: analysis of Labour’s electoral result

“When historians will write about this election – in so far as they can be bothered – they won’t talk about the dementia tax, or fields of wheat, or politicians forgetting their sums. They will marvel at how an advanced democracy could hold a general election without addressing the issue which was about the change it forever” (Ian Dunt (here)).

For the first time ever, Jeremy Corbyn received a standing ovation from the mainly neoliberal social democratic PLP (i.e. parliamentary ‘New Labour’) which, for the last two years, has boycotted him, undermined his position, contested his leadership, complotted against him, openly ridiculed his policies and his person and voted against him on several occasions.

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Figure 1: Result of the 2017 general election (source: Michael Roberts (here)).

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Figure 2: Voting behaviour of adults at the GE2017 by age (Source: YouGov).

The dominant view is now that the future lo0ks bright for Labour. The Labour Party won the vote of the 18-25 years old. Within the 35-44 years cohort, 50% voted Labour (see also here). There is no question that Corbyn did well. Given the circumstances, he did extremely well. Now there is even euphoria in the air. Look, for example, at what Jonathan Cook, a keen, competent and honest author has to say (his excellent site can be found here). Cook compares Corbyn’s result with those of Tony Blair, at one time New Labours wunderkind and Corbyn’s staunchest critic.

Blair got a 36 per cent share of the vote in 2005 – much less than Corbyn. He received a 41 per cent of the vote in 2001 – about the same as Corbyn. Blair’s landslide victory in 1997 was secured on 43 per cent of the vote, just two percentage points ahead of Corbyn.

In conclusion, Cook writes,

“Corbyn has proved himself the most popular Labour leader with the electorate in more than 40 years, apart from Blair’s landslide victory (…) Let’s recall the price Blair paid (…) Behind the scenes, he sold Labour’s soul to the City, the corporations and their lobbyists. (…) The corporations mobilised their entire propaganda machine to get Blair into power. And yet he managed it with only 2 percentage points more than Corbyn, who had that same propaganda machine railing against him.”

Blair’s 1997 landslide was the peak of his success. As Labour members realised what he had done, support ebbed away until he was forced to step down and hand over a profoundly damaged party to Gordon Brown. However Cook writes, “Unlike Blair, who turned Labour into a Thatcher-lite party, Corbyn is rebuilding Labour into a social movement for progressive politics.”

Georges Monbiot also sees positive change. The problem he addresses is one of extreme relevance: the pernicious role of the press. The billionaire press, Monbiot writes, threw everything it had at Corbyn and failed to knock him over. In doing so, he opines, it broke its own power. It is far from only the tabloids that are the problem. “There is no point in trying to hide or minimise this” Monbiot writes, “this election has been a disaster for all mainstream outlets. Press prizes are awarded to those who reflect the consensus, and denied to those who think differently. People won’t step outside the circle for fear of ridicule and exclusion. The media as a whole has succumbed to a new treason of the intellectuals, first absorbing dominant ideologies, then persuading each other that these are the only views worth holding.”

Monbiot is absolutely right, but why does he think that the situation will improve? Cook is also absolutely right, but why does he think that it is possible for Labour to rebuild itself into a social movement for progressive politics as long as it support Brexit? These are the cardinal questions. To begin with the press, is it not obvious that the readers of the tabloids do not read the news and that they have no interest in it? The “liberal media” is a misnomer. If anything, it is likely that the attacks on Corbyn and left Labour will increase. Indeed, why would they stop, now that enemy has become stronger?

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Figure 3: The British “press” in full glory (Source: Google Images).

Take the Telegraph this weekend. It first posted an article with the title “Don’t be fooled, Corbyn’s land grab is the first step towards tyranny.” Stephen Pollard writes that:

“Even voters aware of his backing for causes pushed by terrorists and his failure to deal with anti-Semitism in his party seem not to care. They think of Mr Corbyn as a man whose errors are borne of innate decency – as a fundamentally good man who occasionally errs, but only ever out of the best of intentions. The reality is very different” (see here).

This piece of wonderful insight was followed by an article by Michael Spicer about the capitalist parasites that Corbyn does not want to control Britain. As he writes:

“Mr Corbyn has spent thirty years pushing a brand of hard left ideological extremism and, like his fellow revolutionaries, is prepared to push at and break the very limits of decency to further his ends. His behaviour over the Grenfell Tower disaster and, two weeks ago, the London Bridge terrorist attack is revealing” (see here).

Finally, it was Andrew Lilico’s turn about Corbyn’s plan to “seize” (sic) rich people’s houses for the Grenfell victims:

“I have the impression younger voters think of Corbyn’s far left sympathies as ancient history irrelevant to his policy positioning today — some kind of youth dalliance. “What happened in the Eighties should stay in the Eighties”, as it were” (see here).

The article goes on to explain that this is a fateful fallacy: Corbyn never changed. He remains a dangerous far left radical. What else?

Or read Evans-Pritchard contributions, also in the Telegraph: “Theresa May’s Britain will become Europe’s haven of order and calm” (see here). To ask the plainly obvious: a haven of order and calm for who? For the homeless, the users of food banks (such as NHS nurses – employed people), those thrown off social welfare, the elderly who cannot heat their house in the winter so that some hundreds to death in the winter, the unemployed and those on zero hours, workers whose wages stagnate, while the rot in the country continues to spread literally everywhere? Is it a haven of order and calm for the inhabitants of the Grenfell tower who burned to death last week because the neoliberal parasites were too cheap to put sprinklers in the building, used the wrong materials and now have the scandalous temerity to say that this was a good decision? (“I think we should be proud of the way we cleared out a lot of unnecessary regulation to make life easier,” Philip Hammond said. Anyway “Sprinklers may not always be the best technical way of ensuring fire safety,” Hammond said (see here for another great example of Tory fairness and humanity)). For all those on the short end of austerity, Britain is not a haven but a dysfunctional neoliberal hell. That was after an article by the same author on the left in France during the presidential elections: ‘Europe risks nightmare as anti-euro ‘Bolshevik’ storms France’ (see here). One quote will suffice:

“The meteoric rise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon on a Proudhonist – if not Bolshevik – platform has changed the equation. He is just as nationalist and radical as the Front National’s Marine Le Pen (…) Both candidates are anti-German, anti-American, anti-globalist, anti-NATO, and pro-Putin. Both want to rip up the EU Treaties” (see here).

Mind you, this is the same Evans-Pritchard who let the world know last year that he would vote for the Brexit.

Silence has been the weapon of some of those who should have been on Corbyn’s side. Social Europe, a social democratic portal which posts two articles every working day, posted (if I am not mistaken) only a couple of articles on Corbyn for the last two years. There was one article last year about the terrible problem of anti-Semitism within Left Labour (I wrote two articles on it, see here and here – the terrible problem does not exist) and a follow-up article on the same subject some months later (repeating the nonsense). To Social Europe, Corbyn did and does not exist. Do these social democrats prefer a Conservative government above a left wing Labour government? It is a very important problem. If there would have been an honest and intellectual discussion, some gains could have been made, for example with regards to the Brexit. Recently, there were some contributions about austerity in the UK and the Brexit, for example from Wren-Lewis (see here). But the problem persisted: Corbyn quis est?

The essence of the problem is that we live in a bubble where we consider such people to be “journalists”, newspapers such as the Telegraph to be part of the decent mainstream press and Social Europe a site which provides impartial information. We choose to live in this bubble, because the alternative explanation – that we live in some sort of soft dictatorship – is too hard to come to terms with. If we do not live in some sort of dictatorship, there are things I do not understand. If a terrorist kills some people on the street, we all agree that this is terrible and unacceptable. And so we should. We all agree that measures should be taken so that such senseless cruelty does not happen again. There is no discussion about it. Of course, there isn’t.

But when the University of Oxford publishes a study that says that, during the reign of the Tories, there have been some 30.000 excess deaths due to work capability assessments and austerity (see here, here and here) one is called a “disability advocate” when he writes about it or a “radical” or otherwise just a “troublemaker”. In dictatorships the truth is always being treated as it is the plague. Limits are put in place about what can be said and how and where. That doesn’t take away from the fact that people are dying – “ordinary” people, as they are called. This already makes it a bit less dramatic. It creates distance, because who of us thinks of himself as “ordinary”? There was some ordinary guy, who, in Cameron’s haven of calm and order, was being sanctioned by the DWP and could no longer pay the electricity bill, so his insulin rotted away in his fridge until he died from diabetic ketoacidosis – with a pile of CVs lying on the table (his name was Mister David Clapson). There are some 30.000 of such “cases.” For some completely illogical and utterly despicable reason, we do not call this terrorism. Of course not, because where do we get the idea from that social welfare is there to protect people? Of course not, because, after all, it was us who did it. We always find a word for everything, an explanation for all our sadism and dysfunction and a solution for nothing. So, let’s be civic and social(ised) (!) and not talk about it. What is wrong with you?

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Figure 4: Households benefits received by the poorest and richest 20% in 2012/13. This undoubtedly became worse in the meantime (Source: Ons.Gov).

Labour too lives in a bubble. Against all odds, and to his extreme credit, Jeremy Corbyn managed to obtain a very good result (although, to state the obvious, not good enough). Many are happy within Labour and it is well understandable. Indeed, Corbyn has to be sincerely congratulated for this campaign. Well done, comrade, but you too will end up on the wrong side of history if you do not change your stance on the Brexit, one way or the other. Labour’s strategy during the campaign was very clear. Labour has been careful to talk as little as possible about Brexit during the campaign. Instead, they focused on domestic issues, such as the NHS, university tuition, tax evasion and social benefits. In this way, it was possible to kill two birds with one stone: their pro-Brexit stance made sure they did not alienate Leave voters. And by not talking about Brexit, they kept Remain voters by making it less salient. As Keir Starmer said

“the strategy we were adopting was a strategy that neither appealed to the 52% nor the 48%, and Labour would be the party of the 0% (…) I do feel vindicated: and it wasn’t just a clever lawyer’s answer; it was politically astute”.

But this answer is a strictly one time only strategy. Next time, the Tories will not wallow in their hubris. They will not be led by an arrogant woman who cannot give a clear answer to any question, a woman who’s charisma and empathy are such that people compare her to a machine, a woman so strong and stable that she refused any public debate.

There is evidence that many Remainers voted for Labour because they assume that a Labour Brexit will be less destructive than a Tory Brexit. Even if Labour did not want to talk about the Brexit, the fact remains that it is a hard Brexit party. A hard Brexit (end to freedom of movement, and therefore, an end to unfettered access to the single market) is in the Labour manifesto. Labour has been consistently pro-Brexit, even pro-hard Brexit. At ‘Peston on Sunday’, McDonnell proposed a hard Brexit outside the single market – radically against the views of the younger cohorts who have been driving’s Labour electoral surge.

Days later, on the same program, Corbyn explained that Labour wants a Brexit, that it is about “protecting jobs,” “protecting investment,” “protecting trade,” “protecting EU rights for foreign EU nationals to remain in Britain,” “protecting the rights we have achieved through EU membership,” that the Brexit is not about “threatening to walk away” or about “organising a low tax economy at the shores of Europe” but, instead, that the Brexit is about “building up an investment-led economy and to achieve “greater (sic) social justice in the UK.”

Corbyn and Left Labour and the Labour strategists are mistaken if they think that this incoherent rubbish is going to fly. A “job first economy” and an “investment-led Brexit” are empty words. Many Remainers flocked to Labour because it exemplifies their ideals: a kinder, less unequal society, with functioning public services. But the Brexit is a lethal danger to such a society. According to research by Helen De Cruz, 56% of the respondents that voted for Labour offered ending hard Brexit as a top choice. This reason to vote for Labour was among the top-3 for 76% of Labour voters (granted, her sample is not representative and YouGov presented other figures in the meantime. According to YouGov, of the 35% of Labour voters who said the Brexit motivated their vote, 4% wants a hard Brexit, while 27% are oppose leaving).

The Remainers who voted for Labour did this mainly at the expense of the Conservatives, although the Greens also lost votes to Labour. The Liberal Democrats won – they appealed those who refused to vote for a pro Brexit party. They won 4 seats (12 in total). The danger is that the Liberal Democrats Tory lites – that is what they are – will win more. Corbyn and the Labour strategists want to make the Brexit non-discussable. Their strategy is to propose policies for which there is widespread support. This election vindicated this strategy. But the Brexit is not non-discussable. The opposition to it is alive and growing. Evidently, the moment the middle classes realise the bite of the Brexit, the Remainers will be gone. And so will be Labour.

Because what is Corbyn really talking about? According to May, the UK is the fastest growing economy in Europe, while, in fact, in the first quarter of 2017, the UK’s real GDP grew more slowly than any other G7 economy. Inflation is likely to rise further, driving down real incomes and that is after British households have suffered the longest stagnation in real incomes in the last 166 years (see here). The UK trade deficit with the rest of the world keeps widening as British exporters fail to take advantage of a weaker pound and import prices rise. The reason that British capital is not gaining from the devaluation is that British manufacturing and services are still not competitive because productivity growth is virtually zero (see here). It is true that, if official figures can be believed, that unemployment in the UK has decreased. But so what if working people still need to turn to food banks? Apart from this, employment growth will slow and national output will falter unless productivity rises (see here).

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Figure 5: Real Wage growth in the UK since 1850 (Source: Bank of England).

The Brexit, if not reversed, is guaranteed to make things worse. Only now are people beginning to realise the consequences of the decision made last year that Britain had, in effect, voted to become poorer. It was Philip Hammond, Osborne’s successor and today’s expert on sprinklers, who, in challenging May’s obsession with a hard Brexit, reminded her that the people who voted for Brexit did not vote to become poorer. That is what the 51.9% of those who voted in effect did (see here).

Harvard University released a highly relevant report written by Ed Balls and Peter Sands, former chief executive of Standard Chartered. The report delivers a simple message: British business would rather not have to cope with Brexit at all. Thus, “contrary to much of the media and political commentary, the majority of businesses (…) were broadly satisfied with current regulatory approaches in their sectors”, and “many spoke to the overall quality of EU regulations and rule-making processes” (see here).

Doesn’t Corbyn realise that the Brexit has already failed on every promise it made? Corbyn just refuses to see that there are no known benefits to Brexit, only social, political and economic damage. Until this very day, there exists not one serious analysis, made by a serious researcher, which cites real benefits of the Brexit for the British population.

To get to the heart of Brexit, it suffices to ask one simple question: cui bono? The only possible conclusion is that Brexit will shrink the economy, but that the plutocrats, who govern the country, will have a larger slice of a smaller pie. They will get richer still and increase their influence. The state of the economy or the fate of the country means nothing to these creatures that Veblen despised so much and with all reason in the world (see here).

The plutocrats managed to lower living standards. They introduced acidic austerity. Their obsessions with “the deficit” hoodwinked people who do not understand that a nation is not a household and that cuts in public expenditure are the reverse of what is required in a time of depression. And what are a lot of people talking about? They have been absolutely conned and lied to. The federation of British Truckers, the car makers of Sunderland are not opposing austerity, they want their country back. It is all about the sick nonsense about sovereignty and immigration (see here). What would have happened if Labour would have stood up against these lies that protect the plutocrats? Most likely they would have lost this election, because common sense does not survive where the truth is being treated like an infectious disease. But so what? They lost anyway. But perhaps they would have won. It would have been the greatest electoral victory in modern times. The stuff of history books. The proof that, sometimes, politics is about principles and rational insight. But Corbyn did not want to wage this war.

How will Corbyn get his ‘investment-led Britain’ together? From where will all these post-Brexit jobs magically appear? The answer is not one of ideology or preference but of logic: if the divorce comes through Britain will be on its way to become a super-privatised, low tax, low-regulation economy. This is the only way left to attract inward investment. And even then the sorry state of British industry might frighten off investors, regardless of minimal social laws, the misery of zero hour contracts and contracting or stagnating wages. In the meantime, imports will become more expensive. This is not a strategy to “achieve more social justice in Britain.” Labours social agenda cannot be reconciled with its stance on the Brexit. The Brexit will not disappear. Labour will be on the right or on the wrong side of it (see the petition ‘My vote for Labour was not a vote for the Brexit here).

No, Corbyn cannot stand up today and declare that Labour is ditching the Brexit. This is ridiculous. The incoherent messages that Labour sends – “we need to leave, but we want to retain most (if not all) of the advantages of membership” – are pure word salad. It makes sense to believe that they are designed to give the party enough wriggle room to turn – and turn sharply – when public opinion moves against leaving. Let’s hope so. The secret talks between Labour and the Tories about a “soft” (?) Brexit point in that direction. But Corbyn’s convictions point against it. Corbyn’s stance has been based on a life-long ideological aversion of EU membership. This is not right wing propaganda. It is simply true. Alan Johnson of the Labour In campaign recalls that “For months, Corbyn and his office resisted (my) and calls from the Labour In campaign to declare his personal support for staying in Europe.” When it is was proposed to film fortnightly Facebook videos, telling Corbyn’s supporters what he was doing, which would have been natural in the midst of such a historical election campaign, he refused. Will Straw, who was at the time director the Stronger In campaign and 2015 Labour MP candidate, says that it took him six months to get a single meeting with Corbyn’s team and that was the only meeting. It was in March. “It was basically hopeless,” Straw says. “He (Corbyn) did not want to engage.”

De Cruz ends her article with the following words: “Several years down the line, the divisions between Leave and Remain will be less salient than they are now. By this time, appeal to the “will of the people” as living standards plunge will not be as politically expedient as it is now. Labour, take heed.”

You can read in the second part about the ongoing negotiations between the Tories and the DUP. Or, to end with a “humorous” note, as Frankie Boyle said, in order to have a modern government, May is now negotiating a coalition with the political wing of the Old Testament. Such are the desperate times in which we live. In order to safeguard democracy, we will govern with some of the biggest fanatics of the whole of Europe.

The most imposing and effective mystification of all lies in the presupposition of harmony at the still point of the turning capitalist world. It is precisely this mystification that needs to be destroyed.  A long time ago, Marx wrote that:

“The final stages of capitalism would be marked by developed that are intimately familiar to most of us. Unable to expand and generate profits at past levels, the capitalist system would begin to consume the structures that sustained it (…) It would, as it has, increasingly relocated jobs, including both manufacturing and professional positions with cheap pools of labourers. Industries would mechanise their workplaces (…) Politics would in the late stage of capitalism become subordinate to economics, leading to political parties hollowed out of any real political content and abjectly subservient to the dictates and money of global capitalism.”

If he is right, he is right. The message is clear: Labour stand up!