Why would someone in Texas care how the UK votes? Well, for one, I’m a total nerd for politics of all sorts and I’ve been keeping up with U.K. elections for probably 15 years now at least. I need no more motivation to keep up with their politics than I do with football or boxing ― I like the sport of it.
But this election was different. To put it into context, the United States and the United Kingdom have had a political exchange for decades now. Thatcher gets elected and then Reagan, leading the reactionary charge against the Post War Keynesian consensus. Labour and the Democrats are in the wilderness at this time, and the Dems take some inspiration from their Atlantic counterparts ― remember Biden getting in trouble for cribbing Neil Kinnock’s speeches.
Clinton and the “New Democrats” break through by selling out the party’s historic base, and Blair and “New Labour” do the same. Clinton gives way to Bush and then Blair embraces Bush’s neoconservative foreign policy. Obama wins on a message of amorphous “Change” and then Cameron does the same a couple of years later. Labour goes into a tailspin and a new hard Right nationalist reaction brews through years of austerity, shocking everybody with the Brexit vote. The same happens as the Democrats collapse at every level but the White House and then lose even that in horrifying fashion.
Our countries have essentially united economies and global policies, so that gains in U.S. power benefit the U.K. and vice versa, while hard times in one country typically reflect the same in the other. To be sure, the U.K. has been struggling far more than the U.S. in recent years, but the fact remains that in both countries stagnant economies and stalled recoveries for many middle class families have bred deep resentments and mistrust in public institutions. This has empowered fiends like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, and plunged us both into the darkest timelines.
In the midst of all of this there has been a fierce debate among putative progressives, the eroding opposition in each country. In both countries the center Left party has been dominated by the very neoliberal consensus that produced the crisis, and the scions of that tendency have insisted that anything to the Left of them is doomed to the worst possible failure. That they have failed as much as anybody ever hasn’t seemed to embarrass them in the slightest as they make these claims, probably because they have essentially all of the corporate (and in the U.K., state) media echoing their claims.
Yet in both countries, a revival of their respective pre-neoliberal democratic Left traditions has coalesced and pushed back against these claims. In the U.K., this looks like a classic social democracy, an actually socialist politics from an era before Wilson and Mitterand began the slow decline that culminated in Blairism. In the US it looks like a labor-oriented New Deal/Great Society near-social democracy. In both instances long-term fringe figures have unbelievably become icons of youth-driven mass movements to sack the neoliberal order from the Left. The difference, of course, is that Corbyn has managed to take over his party and Bernie has been unable to do so. Both have been subject to extraordinary treachery ― Corbyn far more than Bernie, for sure ― but Corbyn has weathered his where Bernie has yet to succeed.
Despite their differences ― and Corbyn is probably further to the Left of Bernie than Bernie is to Clinton ― they have the same essential argument: a real commitment to Left economic populism, and a full-throated challenge to corporate power and concentrated wealth, will bring out voters who have given up on the system and even win over some of the frustrated working and middle classes that have given into reactionary politics. This coalition can win, they argue, and frankly this is the argument the Left has been making my entire life: most people agree with us; give us a shot and we can win.
The basic theory of the Left -- give us a chance and we’ll win -- was completely vindicated."
Last week was the first time that a national campaign in either country has actually, really tried that strategy, and it worked. That’s one of the most important political developments of the last 40 years, easily.
Yes, May is still Prime Minister, and Corbyn and Labour technically lost. But remember that this entire election was totally... well, elective, and there was never a real chance that it would have a different outcome. The expectation, however, was that May would add dozens of seats because of Labour’s deep unpopularity. The absolute second that Labour actually got to speak for itself ― the moment that it was no longer a mere subject of pundit derision but an actual campaign with an explicit and detailed agenda ― its fortunes snapped back and they gained more ground in a shorter period of time than possibly any other national election in the history of the English speaking world.
Add to their numbers those of the socialist Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, and Sinn Fein, and this message won an actual majority. The basic theory of the Left ― give us a chance and we’ll win ― was completely vindicated.
May certainly helped by being a terrible candidate, but if we’re looking at this through the lens of U.S. politics, it’s not like the GOP has put forward any non-disasters in recent elections. An even more important fact to examine through this lens is the flat confirmation of the Left argument that alienated voters drawn to xenophobia and nationalism can be won back through socialism. One of the factors that caused pollsters to overestimate the Tories’ performance was that they assumed the party would win over all of the UKIP voters. UKIP existed to pull the country out of the EU ― not much of a reason to vote for them now. Their voters did not go wholly over to the Conservatives, however, and in fact they roughly split down the middle with the other half going to the committed internationalist, anti-racist immigration supporter Jeremy Corbyn.
The very areas where Sanders performed the best in the primaries are the places where Trump won the White House; the only chance to really win these voters back is to break with the neoliberal consensus among national Democrats and to put forward a Left economic program.
So that’s the really important thing that happened this week: the basic Left political hypothesis was put to the test and it performed better than anyone expected. What’s crucial is where we go from here. First and most important is to begin preparing for victory now, and the most important thing to prepare for is the economic sabotage the ruling class will perpetrate as soon as a real Leftist comes to power. This is happening in Venezuela as we speak, it put the gun to SYRIZA’s head and forced it to capitulate, it preceded Allende’s ouster in Chile, and in many many other instances more obscure than these it’s been a fact of life.
This is the basic and probably fatal flaw of social democracy — that it seeks to expropriate substantial resources from the economic elites for its program without making plans for the suppression of this class. The socialists fall into this trap by assuming that they can use the very state the ruling class built for its own purposes to pull off this extraction of previously exploited resources. The fact is that as soon as they try, the elites can twist the implements of this apparatus in such a way as to create instead a swift and immediate existential threat to the Left regime at hand.
The only way that socialism will actually ever be sustainably implemented — the only way it ever has been in the past — is by destroying the state as it’s currently constructed and replacing it with one that empowers the masses to destroy the elite saboteurs before they can strike their blow. A mass movement built now to close the gap between Labour’s performance yesterday and where it needs to be when the unstable and unpopular ruling coalition finally shits itself into another General Election in the coming months or years should also be preparing to take to the streets when they win and the sabotage comes. There can be no socialist change without a mass movement led by the working class, and there can be no revolution without a real, physical confrontation between these masses and their historic oppressors.
The same goes for the United States, but again for all of Bernie’s willingness to use the previously forbidden concept of “socialism,” none of the named successors to his mantle should he decide to step aside — Tulsi Gabbard, Elizabeth Warren, etc. — use the term themselves. Even for Bernie the term is more symbolic than substantive, and his politics would have been fairly comfortable for old lib-lab Democrats of the pre-Carter era — McGovern, even Humphrey before Vietnam. Nonetheless, we can expect the same sort of treachery if Bernie or a compatriot of his wins in 2020, and a mass movement to elect and then defend it might be even more important here than overseas in terms of actually forcing more radical policies.
Ultimately we are not going to vote our way out of our predicaments, and while there’s a great deal of grounds for skepticism that Labour can be the vehicle for this change there is essentially no chance that the Democratic Party can provide that solution at large in the US. The point right now, nonetheless, is that what has been a merely hypothetical claim for generations — that a bold Left wing message can appeal to the masses in a way nothing else can — finally has some concrete evidence to back it up. It’s proof of the basic Leftist postulate: the masses are on our side.
Now to continue developing a mass politics capable of accomplishing the most important task of all: the eradication of their class enemy, and the abolition of the basis for class division altogether. The UK made a step in the right direction this week, and anybody watching anywhere had to be shaken, even here in Texas. Our day will come.