Understanding the British Election: An Interview with Neil Davidson
With both the Labour Party and the Conservatives having launched their manifestos in recent days, Britain’s snap general election is gathering momentum. Jeremy Corbyn’s program has been widely described as Labour’s most radical and left-wing for decades; meanwhile, the Tories continue their sharp shift to the right under Theresa May. Added to this, Brexit and renewed calls for Scottish independence mean that the election is taking place in a context of profound change and uncertainty. Haymarket Books' Duncan Thomas interviewed Neil Davidson, British socialist and author of How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?, to glean some meaning from the madness.
Credit: Loz Pycock
Duncan Thomas: To start off, let’s give some background for readers outside the UK. Theresa May insisted that she wouldn’t call an election before 2020, which is when her parliamentary term was set to end. Her change of heart has been widely hailed as demonstrating a ruthless political savvy. What does she hope to achieve with a snap election, and do you think she’ll be as successful as many people assume?
Neil Davidson: First and most clearly, May wants an endorsement in advance for whatever happens with Brexit—for whatever deal there might be with Brussels, or indeed if there’s no deal at all. However, she must know that Brexit is going to be a disaster for a lot of the people who voted for it. By calling an early election, she hopes to win a strong majority before those effects begin to kick in or negotiations unravel.
All of this is happening in a context in which Labour is seen to be in deep disarray. Despite making some gains, they are still far behind in the polls, which also show very low approval ratings for Jeremy Corbyn as a leader. This is why people think that it’s an advantageous time for the Tories to call an election.
Most importantly though is what May herself said about strengthening her hand in Brexit negotiations. Everyone thought that meant this in relation to facing down the EU, but I think it’s actually intended to bolster her against the Brexit ultras in her own party. The EU doesn’t care about the size of her mandate—there’s no need for them to be generous, or make concessions, or anything like that.
I think she’s probably hoping to pad out the number of MPs and gain enough popular support to increase her room for maneuver against the extreme Tory Brexiteers. However, that seems quite futile—if she does get the huge majority predicted, it’s likely to produce a parliament more extreme on Brexit. And of course, if she doesn’t get that huge majority, it will be seen as a failure—a disaster even, given all the talk of her matching Thatcher’s landslide in 1983.
So the Tories have real problems, and the left has to understand that. In some ways, the election is a desperate move from them. Far from having a coherent plan, they haven’t a clue what they’re doing. They’re deeply divided, and they’re carrying out a policy which is opposed by the majority of the class they are supposed to represent.
That’s not a good situation for a party to be in, even one as historically successful as the Conservatives. This should be our starting point: not our own weakness, but theirs.
I want to come back to some of these bigger themes later, but staying with the two main parties for now, I don’t think I’ve ever seen two more contrasting approaches to electoral campaigning. Labour’s only hope is surely to have an unprecedented ground game, while the Tories seem to be doing and saying as little as possible.
There are two sides to the Tory campaign. The first is Lynton Crosby’s [the Conservatives’ chief campaign manager] strategy of shutting up, saying “strong and stable” over and over again, and avoiding the public as much as possible to reduce their chances of making a mistake. That isn’t a strategy of a strong party that knows exactly what it’s doing. Notably, a lot of the hardcore Brexiteers have been kind of hidden away. Boris Johnson is nowhere to be seen, and for good reason.
The other side is their attempt to appeal to working-class voters, with their proposal for a years’ (unpaid) leave from work to care for a sick relative, or the pledge to have workers on company boards. Of course, it’s a sham, but their need to appear to be acting in favor of workers indicates that they recognized that this constituency won’t be won over exclusively through banging on about leaving the EU.
So while the Conservatives are picking up right-wing support from UKIP [the right-populist United Kingdom Independence Party, whose major purpose is to take Britain out of the EU] voters—with UKIP looking dead electorally as a result—their recent announcements are signs that Labour is making an impression on the terms of the election.
Regarding Labour itself, a lot of the liberal media—never mind the right-wing media—is extremely hostile to Corbyn and his project. You can almost hear the sniggering of Guardian journalists as they talk about the impossibility of Corbyn winning.
But they do have hundreds of thousands of new activists, making them the biggest social-democratic party in Europe. That this is still a recent influx probably makes it more likely that these people will actually go around knocking on doors and handing out leaflets. And as we’ve seen from the huge meetings across the country, Corbyn does have considerable support.
And then there’s the manifesto. Taxing the rich, renationalizing the railways. . . these are all very popular policies. I don’t think they’ve got enough momentum for Corbyn to become prime minister, but the campaign has certainly energized left-wing politics in England.
In Scotland, things are very different. Labour is in a perilous condition there, and probably won’t take any seats from the Scottish National Party (SNP). They’ve also lost sections of the working class who support the (British) union to the Tories. But certainly in England, there is a revival of left politics and a genuine argument over the politics of austerity, nationalization of key industries, and so on, which hasn’t really been heard since Blair’s New Labour became dominant.
There’s a mountain to climb for Labour, as everyone knows, but I don’t think the picture is as bleak for them as parts of the media would have you believe, or as rosy for the Tories.
Something you touched on then was the degree to which both of the main parties are undergoing quite serious political realignments. That these tensions are playing out within existing institutions is in large part due to Britain’s electoral system, which makes it far harder for new political formations to emerge, as we’ve seen elsewhere. How much instability does that create within the major parties and in the overall political context?
The first thing to say about the party situation in Britain is that currently no single party can represent capital across the whole country. In Northern Ireland now the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] and Sinn Féin have pretty equal support; in Scotland the SNP is totally dominant; in England we’re told that the Conservatives are in control, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily true; and in Wales, Labour [traditionally the major party] is being challenged by the Tories and Plaid Cymru [the Welsh nationalist party]. So there isn’t one party that can govern the whole of Britain and easily represent capital on that scale.
In terms of Labour, there is a deep antagonism between the parliamentary wing and the mass membership, which has existed more or less acutely throughout the party’s history. However, we are not simply seeing a repeat of that—due, as you say, to the difficulty in creating a new political formation. Many of the people in Labour’s recent influx would otherwise have been attracted to a new party like Podemos. As such, this support base is not really like the old Labour left, which makes the dynamic at play now quite different from the 1980s, for example, when Corbyn himself was part of the Bennite wing of the party.
Transforming Labour remains a big challenge. And while we are seeing something unprecedented, there have been endless attempts by the left to turn Labour into a proper socialist party, and the structural blocks in the way of that have not disappeared.
But as I’ve said, this doesn’t mean the Tories’ rightward shift is stable either. The fact that the main party of capital is falling into positions (primarily their support of Brexit) associated with the petit bourgeoisie or very small sections of capital creates great tension, especially with the City of London which, alas, is central to the British economy.
I think there are people in the Tory Party who are genuinely deluded about Brexit. It’s quite clear that the likes of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Minister for Brexit David Davis haven’t got a clue what they’re doing, as they stumble from one blunder to another. They are totally incompetent, and it’s a serious problem for British capital that these are the people meant to be negotiating on its behalf. The Conservatives might be able to pick up working-class and petit-bourgeois votes with a very right-wing program, but that’s in tension with the overall interests they represent.
Just as it’s hard to create a new party of the left, it’s difficult to imagine a new party of big capital forming in the British context. So these tensions will continue to play out in the party, and managing them will be difficult now that the Tories are ideologically wedded to leaving the EU.
Let’s talk more in-depth about Scotland. The SNP, as you’ve said, is very dominant today, and they’re broadly seen as quite progressive. Yet they used to be known as the “Tartan Tories.” How would you account for their transformation?
The SNP, as you say, has changed their politics quite significantly. The “Tartan Tory” label was once pretty much accurate. It was quite a right-wing, heavily Presbyterian, small-town party with a petit-bourgeois base, rather hostile to Irish Catholic workers in Scotland, and very hostile to the EU. Gradually, it became a much more mainstream, centrist nationalist organization.
The peculiarities of Scottish politics explain its transformation. When Scotland voted massively against Thatcher, the Labour Party was the first to benefit, and enjoyed a long period of dominance. But this split with the rest of the country also gave rise to the idea that if Scotland votes differently, it should be represented differently and follow different policies. Clearly, this logic leads pretty directly to demands for a separate parliament, and ultimately for many people to independence.
Labour accepted the premise of this logic by granting devolution just as it moved into its Blairite phase. The SNP quite cleverly repositioned itself as the inheritors of some of the social-democratic traditions that Labour was distancing itself from under Blair.
But it’s important to understand that it didn’t do so in a way that really broke with neoliberalism. Alex Salmond [the former leader of the SNP] used to say that he agreed with Thatcher's economic policies, for example, but disagreed with her social policies. As such, the SNP should be seen as one of the classic parties of social neoliberalism—not that far, in fact, from Blair’s Labour, but with a more effective left patina over a fundamentally neoliberal framework. This explains why the SNP is now so thoroughly attached to the EU, as the latter embodies a similar kind of social neoliberalism.
While the SNP has passed some positive policies, the impression of its progressive credentials is enhanced as long as it is able to counterpose itself to a right-wing Westminster government. This image was also boosted during the 2014 independence referendum campaign, when the SNP was quite adept in associating itself with some of the more radical grassroots campaigns without actually concretely adopting much of their ideas.
All this means that the SNP is an odd formation. Many socialists are members, and they see it as a social-democratic party and the best vehicle currently available, but its policies remain very moderate and are certainly not anticapitalist. The party is something of a battleground, and whatever else we might say about, it can’t be ignored. It has to be taken on in a way that is not simply denunciatory, but that recognizes its influence in Scottish society and talks about its actual politics.
This election, and the decision to leave the EU, has spurred talk of another Scottish independence referendum. If this happened, do you think the radical, grassroots politics we saw last time would be able to exert the same influence?
The last referendum ran for about two years before any of the grassroots stuff around the Radical Independence Campaign got going. The left often denigrates itself as a failure, but this was an undoubted success, as the entire debate shifted in a way that the SNP certainly did not intend.
That obviously can’t be sustained without an actual campaign, and currently we’re nowhere near the level of engagement we saw then. We’d have to re-create a lot of the structures and groups that we had before, and that would take time. It’s possible, but I don’t think we should obsess over immediately having another independence referendum.
Interestingly, the SNP has also rowed back a bit on claims that this election is a proxy vote for another referendum. While there may be a small majority in favor of holding another referendum, this doesn’t tell us how those people would actually vote. In addition, Brexit is not as clear cut an issue as was first assumed. The SNP initially pushed back very strongly against the Brexit vote. Scotland of course largely voted in favor of staying in the EU, but it has since transpired that quite a large minority of SNP supporters, around 30 percent, voted to leave the EU, as did some of their own MSPs [Members of the Scottish Parliament].
This has meant they haven’t been so vocal about calling another independence referendum, which I think is probably a good thing. It would have been an absolute disaster if another campaign was called on the basis of rejoining the EU. It’s an enormously divisive issue. Recent polling by John Curtice at Strathclyde University suggests that 25 percent of people in Scotland want to leave the EU, and another 40 percent or so are very suspicious of it and think it should be less powerful, so the situation is not as clear cut as we’re led to believe. Making EU membership the basis of a campaign would be counterproductive and might actually see it lose, which is why I think it's essential for the left to separate these issues out into two questions: “Should Scotland be independent?” and “should Scotland be part of the EU?”
The leadership of the SNP are fairly sharp, and they probably realized that this might not be the most opportune moment to hold a referendum after all, despite what was initially thought.
The fact that no single party can represent capital across the territory of Britain, as you mentioned, indicates that the 2008 crash is finally having major repercussions in the field of politics. Of course, Britain is not unique in this regard. Do you think, as some do, that we’re seeing an “end of neoliberalism?” If so, what might come next? If not, how might a still fundamentally neoliberal order adapt itself to new circumstances?
This is a very interesting question. I spent many years trying to convince people that neoliberalism even existed; now people seem to think it will go on forever.
But every major crisis of capitalism has led to a new phase of development. After 1873, we saw imperialism and the rise of finance capital; after 1929, state capitalism and embedded liberalism; after 1973, neoliberalism. So you would expect the 2007–2008 crash to herald another major transformation, allowing for an inevitable period of lag.
That this hasn’t really happened yet might indicate that capitalism is running out of tricks to overcome what David Harvey calls its “limits,” and so the countervailing tendencies to the falling rate of profit seem rather weak. There are still populations around the world who can be sucked into capitalist labor processes, but there’s no reserve on the scale of China, and I think returns from this will be diminishing. The other major option for restoring profitability would be the writing off of large sections of capital, which for various political, social, and economic reasons is not going to happen.
In the absence of a new paradigm, people are going back to older ones, with talk of protectionism, tariffs, industrial strategies and so on. People like Martin Wolf in the Financial Times, who was a big cheerleader of globalization for many years, has moved with apparent ease into arguing for developmental strategies carried out by the state. This is significant: if people like Martin Wolf are saying it, then there are probably some people within the capitalist class who support this turn as well. Perhaps there’s a recognition that, although neoliberalism has massively enriched members of the ruling class, as an actual strategy of accumulation it’s becoming less effective.
Another retrograde development has been the return of the racist discourse characteristic of the earlier “vanguard” phase of neoliberalism under Thatcher and Reagan. This has fed into the rise of alt-right or far-right figures like Trump and Le Pen, and given force to their supposed alternatives to neoliberalism. Of course, such politicians are dangerous for workers and migrants, but also to a degree to the capitalist class itself due to the instability and unpredictability they bring. The rational strategy for the trusted representatives of capital would be to work out a post-neoliberal strategy that didn’t depend on such right-wing mavericks. I don’t know what that alternative would be though, or who would be capable of formulating it.
In any case, while we shouldn’t predict some kind of inevitable “end of capitalism,” capitalism obviously ages. With this, there is a diminishing effectiveness and range to the various countervailing tendencies to the falling rate of profit. As capitalism has aged, it has become more difficult for it to find a new regime of accumulation to overcome crises, and it may be that it is not able to overcome certain features of the present crisis.
This all underlines how the British elections are taking place in a wider context of instability and flux. Concretely though, what do you think socialists should be doing in the run-up to the election, and what should we prepare to be doing afterwards?
Well, answering this question in full would bring us back to the old question of organization. As everyone knows, it’s the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. We urgently need to think through what we should keep and what we have to abandon from our own historical tradition.
In the short term, people in England should work for the biggest Labour vote with, as we say, “no illusions.” It's possible to do that now in a way that it wasn’t, say, under Blair. Clearly, Corbyn is a socialist standing on a left-wing program that we would all support, and we need to do everything to minimize the Tory vote.
In Scotland, it’s more complex. I don’t think you can call for a vote for the SNP in the same way that you can for Labour, but RISE is arguing for an anti-Tory vote to keep them out of as many seats as possible. Practically, this means working with people both in the SNP and the Labour Party.
But as I said, there is longer-term organizational work to be done. We need to create forms of organization that are habitable for people and don’t simply reproduce the old Trotskyist models of one sort or another, despite the contributions these made. We need to think of how we can relate to large groups of people in a way that is principled, that has a program—dare I say it, a “transitional program,” not of purposefully impossible demands formulated to “expose” the true nature of the system, but of demands that if implemented would strengthen the working class and therefore the possibility of socialism.