The Brexit election – from revenge to resistance

Both sides of the establishment want to bury the legacies of struggle in the communities that abandoned Labour in the 2019 General Election. Ray M, Unite Rep, Aerospace and Shipbuilding Sector, argues that the left cannot afford to do the same.

Redcar blast furnace
Redcar lost its steelworks and 3,000 jobs the October before the EU referendum.

This essay follows on from two recent articles. The first was written before polling day and defined the election as the ‘Revenge Election’. It argued that Labour needed to articulate the desire for revenge felt by working-class people who have suffered years of neoliberalism, austerity and injustice. The second article, written after the election, drew on Mark Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism to explain the failure of the Corbyn-led Labour Party to present an alternative that convinced enough working-class people to vote for them in 2019; Labour’s manoeuvring over Brexit between 2017 and 2019 made Corbyn seem more like another establishment politician. This piece builds on these, drawing on Enzo Traverso’s reflections on ‘militancy coming from mourning’ to outline a framework for how we understand the defeat with suggestions about how we begin to rebuild. We need a strategy that transcends the current culture war and unites our class against both the radical right-wing Tory government and the metropolitan liberals from the ‘extreme centre’.[1]

What’s the matter with the UK?

A warning from the U.S.

The situation we face in Britain is not new or unique. In the US, a ‘culture war’ dominated politics long before Trump became president. The culture war prioritises values, morality and lifestyle over class. Writing in 2005, Mike Davis challenged liberal commentators who treated the election of G.W. Bush as, ‘the French Revolution in reverse—one in which the sansculottes pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy.’ Following their defeat in 2004, many liberals and so-called progressives were simply in denial over the Democrats’ abdication of the interests of core voters in declining industrial sectors and regions. Davis pointed out that Democrats offered ‘little more than aspirin and a pat on the back for terminal cancer’ to workers who had suffered decades of decline at the hands of both Democrats and Republicans. Many traditional blue-collar Democrats no longer saw a home in the party and as one West Virginia voter pointed out: ‘we didn’t leave the Democrats, they left us.’[2]

In Britain, the left is at risk of further isolating itself from working class support as we try to come to terms with this latest defeat. Culture war positions from ‘extreme centre’ liberals are already finding an echo in the left. The radical left has a responsibility to develop an analysis and strategy that can unite our class against a triumphant and brutal Tory government.

How Labour lost its ‘heartlands’

Early on Monday morning, when it was still dark, more than 100 Conservative MPs began a new weekly commute. From the north of England, Wales and the Midlands, freshly minted members, many of whom never imagined they’d be elected last week, descended on Westminster. The arrival en masse of these ‘Teesside Tories’ — named after a region in the north-east of England that is emblematic of the new cohort — is proof of how British politics has shifted.

This is how the Financial Times described the breaking down of Labour’s ‘red wall’.[3]

The scale and nature of Tory gains in this election has shocked the left in Britain to its core. Many of us anticipated at worst a small Tory majority or more likely a hung parliament that would present opportunities for Corbyn and the radical left. Instead we now face an unprecedented situation where the Tory victory is being celebrated by the radical right internationally as a model of how to reach into and break down working class strongholds. This radical right government is triumphant with an agenda that in the first few days has organised labour, the low paid and disabled working class people in its sights.

This essay doesn’t claim to offer a full analysis of the general election defeat which will come in time through further debate and discussion. It does however seek to identify the principal reasons behind the defeat and points to lessons we need to learn. Before we can begin to come to terms with the general election result we will need to get to grips with the drivers behind the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum.

Neoliberalism, the ‘traditional working class’ and the EU referendum

In a recent study on Brexit and the working class, Luke Telford and Jonathan Wistow provide a vivid description of how a Labour supporting working class community were driven to vote Leave in the EU referendum.[4] Teesside was home to shipbuilding, mining, steel, petrochemicals, heavy engineering and was central to capital accumulation in Britain throughout the 20th century. Industrial work provided stable jobs, economic security and a framework which allowed working class life to flourish. In these communities there was a high degree of community identification with the industry and workplace as a source of employment and culture. Communities often grew around industrial conurbations that linked together pits, steel, heavy engineering and shipbuilding. These were often located in close proximity to each other. Meaning that communities often had family members and friends working in the same factory, pit or yard where cultures of solidarity and resistance were given sustenance in both the workplace and community.

Teesside experienced a shift from an economy oriented around production to one comprising mainly of leisure and retail. Between 1971 and 2008, the area suffered from a loss of 100,000 manufacturing jobs. These well-organised industrial jobs were eventually replaced by 92,000 jobs in services with poor pay and benefits with little employment rights and no union organisation or collective voice. The introduction of flexible, mobile and more precarious work has eroded solidarity and traditional bonds in the community with a dramatic impact on the economic security of the workforce and their families. In working-class communities, work is central to working class life as it anchors people in a community with a sense of collectivity, respectability and common purpose. As Aditya Chakrabortty argued in The Guardian, with this loss:

…went the culture of Labourism: the bolshy union stewards, the self-organised societies, most of the local newspapers. Practically any institution that might incubate a working-class provincial political identity was bulldozed.[5]

As these changes bedded in, the global financial crash of 2008 became a defining moment. While New Labour politicians had done nothing to reverse the changes in the North East, they threw billions at the banks responsible for the crash to ensure that the status quo prevailed. They failed to offer an alternative social project and instead agreed with the political right that the state should provide public subsidies to the banks and that wider society should shoulder the burden for the bailout. New Labour’s reward for helping prop up this discredited economic model was a swift exit from government. The Tory-Lib Dem coalition accelerated economic and social decline with an austerity plan that targeted an already enfeebled public sector with severe cuts to public services and local authorities. Welfare, which provided a degree of security following the disappearance of traditional jobs, was cut, hitting the poorest areas hardest in what can only be described as further punishment. Not only had the political class thrown everything at saving a system that was clearly damaging these working-class communities but they then set about forcing them to pick up the tab with cuts to services that further undermined their way of life. This made survival a daily struggle for the most vulnerable.

The politics of revenge

Political abandonment and the Leave vote.

After World War Two, workers in the major industries in Britain had built powerful trade union organisation with effective workplace representation, giving workers economic power and political influence. They would also have a degree of influence in the Labour Party through their trade union structures and would often have people from these industries and communities sitting in parliament to afford working class people some degree of political representation. However, New Labour sought to cleanse the party of its historic roots in the labour movement alongside its commitments to full employment, state ownership, wealth redistribution and solidarity. Following the hollowing out of these industries and communities, MPs increasingly came through the political machine with little relationship with the communities and workplaces they claimed to represent. For New Labour, these people – the urban poor – had nowhere to go: they were, as Mike Davis has put it, ‘a surplus humanity’.[6]

Blair internalised neoliberalism in New Labour and naturalised it in the left and civil society – reinforcing what Mark Fisher called ‘capitalist realism’. This is the notion that there is no alternative to capitalism and that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism itself. In the working-class communities,  Tory cuts delegated to Labour councils were implemented sometimes with sorrow where representatives of the community remained in elected positions but increasingly without much thought about the impact by careerists with no connection with these communities. Not only did New Labour in government do nothing to reverse the changes that had done so much damage to these communities – the decline in manufacturing accelerated under Blair and Brown, as did much of the deregulation, privatisation and retreat of the welfare state. Blair’s ‘third way’ of integrating the provision, financing and management of public services to a ‘social market’ model, prioritised internal market disciplines. This made for out-sourcing, competitive tendering and a race to the bottom based on a ‘value for money’ principle. It transformed local authorities into the champions of neoliberalism – often under New Labour management.

After the economic crash, people increasingly came to regard politicians of all shades as liars. The political class and the interests of big business were seen as one and the same. They looked after each other but not working people: they were viewed as ‘being on the take’. The expenses scandal, which implicated Labour MPs alongside Tories, reinforced the view ‘that they’re all the same’. People felt that it didn’t matter who was in power because nothing changed for them. New Labour had defended the system that undermined working class communities and presided over the massive transfers of wealth from the poor to the rich. Blair’s leadership had destroyed the relationship between them and the Labour Party. In particular, his lies about the Iraq war symbolised an era in which politicians could get quite literally get away with murder. Millions of working-class voters withdrew their support from New Labour.

In many working-class communities a deep and widespread estrangement from politics combined with a sense of fatalism. As neoliberalism became the consensus, ‘capitalist realism’ generated a culture of cynicism and disaffection. While other communities across Britain were also subjected to neoliberalism, the impact was extreme in communities that had been hardest hit by de-industrialisation. It wasn’t just the scale of cuts but the way the new consensus affected the social and cultural fabric of these communities. Historically, social clubs associated with work, the workplace and the labour movement in shipbuilding, mining, steel and other major industries played a central role in shaping working class people’s social life. These clubs had also begun to disappear alongside the declining industries. This meant that the spaces for working-class leisure, collective social experiences and cultural affirmation were also in retreat.

With trade unions weakened, the working classes ability to organise and defend itself suffered. Working class consciousness was eroded, alongside other expressions of collectivity in an increasingly fragmented community. Parliamentary elections offered nothing but differing variations of the existing order. The actions of New Labour fed the belief that this entitled political class of all shades had at best forgotten about the interests of ordinary workers or even worse – they simply didn’t care. However, to paraphrase Mike Davis again, the urban poor were not about to ‘go gently into this dark night’.[7] New Labour’s abandonment of these communities became one of the principal reasons driving people to vote leave. It should come as no surprise that many working-class and poor people in these communities began to look for political representation elsewhere.

The EU referendum – enacting vengeance?

Between 2014 and 2016, UKIP presented itself as the anti-establishment voice with an anti-migrant agenda that found sizeable support in Teesside. Throughout the referendum campaign Nigel Farage tried with some success to position himself as the leader of a ‘people’s army’ standing against the establishment who backed Remain. Leaving the EU was popular in Teesside. The common view in left and liberal circles is that Leave was a racist vote. While there is no doubt that racism featured in both Leave and Remain campaigns, it was weaponised in the Leave campaign and had some traction with people desperately looking for an alternative vision. Sometimes in distressed communities, hope can be replaced with despair.

However, to see the racism inherent in the leave campaigns as being the prime motivating factor behind the leave vote fails to understand the principal dynamics behind it. In their study in Teesside, Telford and Wistow found that racism was a factor amongst a minority supporting Leave who wrongly believed that immigration was the source of their problems. Some wanted to stop migrants entering the country. Concerns with migration were often linked to these peoples’ own struggles. Migrant workers were viewed as economic competitors for housing and for scarce and poorly paid jobs, and were regarded as putting pressure on already underfunded public services. A minority also believed that migrants were favoured by politicians who had forgotten about them. However, the majority in the survey expressed deeper concerns rooted in the changes their community had undergone following changes to political economy and these feelings were widely held in other areas that had suffered like them.[8]

Brexit’s margin of victory was 56 to 44 across northern England. As Tom Hazeldine pointed out, writing in the New Left Review:

The strongest Out vote in the North West came in the deprived seaside resort of Blackpool, which has suffered the greatest financial loss from government welfare cuts of any local-authority district. Leave swept through the Pennine mill towns—at either extreme: Burnley 67 percent; Bradford and Bury both 54 percent—and the former heavy-industrial and coal-mining communities of west Lancashire and south Yorkshire (Wigan 64 percent, Doncaster 69 percent). The Tyne, Wear and Tees also registered strong protest votes, particularly the former shipbuilding town of Hartlepool (70 percent) and Redcar–Cleveland (66 percent) Redcar had lost its steelworks—including the second largest blast furnace in Europe—and 3,000 jobs the previous October, when Thai multinational SSI pulled out and the Cameron government refused to renationalize it.

Towns where EU migration had risen quickly were also more inclined to vote Leave—for example, Boston in the East Midlands, which posted the strongest ‘Out’ vote in the country (76:24). But many others that leant heavily towards Brexit have seen few arrivals from the Continent. Only 2 per cent of residents in Hartlepool were born elsewhere in the EU; in Stoke-on-Trent, centre of the decimated Staffordshire ceramics industry, 3 per cent. Yet these depressed localities […] voted about 70:30 for Leave.[9]

It is true that often anti-migrant racism can feature in areas that have experienced little migration. However, decline and abandonment were the key drivers.

People felt abandoned both socially and politically. Many had given up any hope that things could change or get better for them, their children or grandchildren. Arguments from representatives of the political class that Brexit would cause further economic damage to these communities fell on deaf ears. People who were already living in a state of crisis felt they had nothing to lose. They had lost hope and stopped believing fundamental change was possible. The referendum provided these working-class communities with a unique opportunity for political recognition. In the referendum every vote would count – not like in parliamentary elections where first past the post meant your vote often made no difference. It was a chance to vote for the possibility of changing how the economy and society were organised. A chance to hit back against the establishment. So, they were prepared to gamble. It was shit or bust anyway.

For many such people it seemed that the future had been cancelled; life continues but time had stopped. Enzo Traverso describes this abandonment of hope in the future as ‘presentism’: where people live in a ‘suspended time between an unmasterable past and a denied future, between a “past that won’t go away” and a future that cannot be invented or predicted (except in terms of catastrophe).’[10] Up until the referendum these people couldn’t imagine a world beyond the present condition. How could things really get any worse? The narrative of ‘taking back control’ appealed to those who had no voice, who had lost their way of life.

When looked at this way, the vote for Brexit had little association with the EU or its influence on British society and more to do with the changing situation of working-class life and rejecting a system responsible for decades of decline. Hazeldine concludes: ‘The rhetoric of Leave was anti-immigrant; the anger that powered it to victory came from decline.’[11]  Corbyn’s acceptance of the referendum verdict in 2016 drew widespread hostility from the pro-Remain media. But it also prevented a potential outpouring of aggrieved Leave voters. This meant that in 2017 Brexit fell behind the health service and spending cuts as priorities for Labour voters and the Labour Party was able to hold onto most of its support.

The second referendum and the ‘revenge election’

As the third anniversary of the EU referendum approached, Ann Widdecombe addressed a Brexit Party meeting in a Miners club in Featherstone. Featherstone is a traditional, ex-pit town near Pontefract where 70 % of residents voted to leave the EU. Featherstone is also hugely symbolic. It was at the centre of the 1893 strike in the pits of Lord Acton. Miners were locked out, shot at and two were killed by soldiers of the Royal Staffordshire regiment. The event became known as the ‘Featherstone massacre’. More recently, during the Great Strike of 1984-85, a miner from Acton Hall colliery in Featherstone, David Jones, was killed at a Nottinghamshire pit at the beginning of the strike. He was buried with the inscription ‘David Jones, flying picket NUM’ on his headstone.[12] For several years, commemoration marches marking his death attracted thousands. Featherstone is a town that is rooted in mining and working-class history.

The Brexit Party meeting drew people from all walks of life. There were lorry drivers, labourers, hairdressers, pensioners, small-business owners and retired miners at the meeting. They came from Featherstone, Wakefield, Doncaster, Brigg, Castleford, Hemsworth, South Elmsall, Bradford, East Harwick and beyond. The majority were angry ex-Labour voters. Many were veterans of the Great Strike. They didn’t hide their disgust with Labour. When the names of Labour MPs were mentioned they were booed and Widdecombe received a standing ovation as she spoke of ‘sweeping the traitors from parliament’. This Brexit Party meeting in a miners’ club in Featherstone with Ann Widdecome receiving a standing ovation is testimony to how alienated these working-class people now were from the labour movement and how desperate they were for change. As argued above, the Brexit vote was above all a rejection of the status quo. This fed the growing demand to have the vote implemented and placed those who seemed to be blocking it in the sights of those who wanted revenge on the establishment in this election.

Many principled socialists had campaigned for Remain in the original EU referendum with concerns about a growing racist environment developing with Brexit. They were now agitating for Labour to adopt a second referendum. However, the main drive for the second referendum was coming from sections of British capital and the ‘extreme centre’. Under pressure from sections of its own membership and some of the radical left, Labour pivoted towards a second referendum with many on the front bench coming out and publicly supporting Remain. This decision sealed Labour’s fate with voters in towns and villages across England and Wales who had voted to leave; they felt that their democratic wishes were being ignored and frustrated by the ‘political class’. Former Labour voters from these communities, who had suffered decades of betrayal under Blair, Brown and Miliband, now saw Corbyn and the left as betraying their democratic wishes. This was catastrophic for Labour and became the final straw for many of their supporters. The change in position also couldn’t guarantee the support of all those who had voted Remain as many of them were sick of Brexit and wanted to see the democratic decision implemented.

A cursory glance at the list of seats lost by Labour should settle any doubts as to the devastating consequences of the pivot. Labour lost seats where previously it was thought that ‘you could stick a red rosette on the arse of a donkey’ and people would vote for them.  Labour fared significantly worse in Leave-supporting areas. Of the seats lost during the 2019 general election, 52 voted to leave the EU in 2016. The party lost eight Remain constituencies – of those, six were Scottish seats. The fact that around two-thirds of Labour MPs were Remainers who represented Leave-voting seats helped ensure the rout.

In the buildup to the election, many Remainers emphasised the Liberal Democrats’ success in the European election. These contests have historically been taken far less seriously than national elections. The Lib Dems came second to the Brexit Party, defeating Labour — yet their 3.3 million votes, a small proportion of the electorate, represented nothing but a minority obsessed by European identity. While a majority of Labour members, young and BAME voters backed Remain in the referendum, Corbyn could have used his leadership to argue again that the referendum result should have been respected. This was the position that successfully united working-class voters in 2017. The capitulation meant that Labour entrenched the divisions and portrayed Labour as the establishment party on Brexit allied to the ‘extreme centre’ who had done so much to ruin working class communities.

It wasn’t just the decision to back the second referendum that proved fateful. The four-year campaign of vilification against Corbyn had a significant impact. An audit of media coverage has revealed that hostility in newspapers towards Jeremy Corbyn was twice as bad during this election than in 2017. This audit also included The Guardian and The Mirror. People often couldn’t work out why they couldn’t support Corbyn – a telling sign that the campaign had been successful. However, failing to control an openly divided parliamentary Labour Party was clearly not a sign of ‘strong leadership’. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the frustration with the referendum delay and switch in policy was the driving factor in turning Labour voters away from voting Labour. The Tories under Johnson and his advisors understood this.

Once elected leader, Johnson had a clearout. It didn’t matter who they were or how prestigious their careers, MPs who backed Remain lost the Tory whip. No-one was allowed to deviate from the line. Within a few days, the Tory Party looked decisive while Labour was divided. The Tories said Labour was a muddle and voters agreed. While Labour were trying to popularise the most radical manifesto in generations, Cummings and his team were touring Leave voting constituencies. Their aim was to harden up their support as the real ‘Brexit Party’ and undermine the Labour vote. Not heeding the lessons of the EU referendum and the 2017 election opened up Labour strongholds to the Tories and the Brexit Party. The result was significant falls in Labour turnout with a small minority of former Labour supporters voting for the Tory vision of Brexit. This was a disaster that could have been avoided. It’s not as if the signs weren’t already there. In 2017, Labour lost Mansfield and four similar seats.

Revenge against the left?

People in these communities already believed that the political left failed to look after their interests. The crash of 2008 provided the left with an opportunity reengage with its traditional working-class base by fighting for an alternative social model. It was resisted by New Labour. In many of these working-class communities, where a socialist left doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense, the failures of New Labour are widely associated with the left as a whole. The attachment to the Brexit vote highlights the strength of feeling about political abandonment and social dislocation amongst sections of the working class. So when sections of the radical left agitated for a second referendum and joined the Peoples’ Vote marches this only confirmed the mistaken notion that the left doesn’t care about ‘people like us’. This situation allowed Johnson to appear as though the Tories were the only people who understood the concerns of these abandoned communities.

The 2019 Labour manifesto was the most radical in generations. However, most people in these communities didn’t care how radical the Labour manifesto was. The manifesto fell on the arid terrain of ‘capitalist realism’, where communities have had four decades of scorched earth policies. It wasn’t that the manifesto lacked vision or hope, it’s just these communities had lost all hope and it had no connection with their experiences. This is one reason why they didn’t believe the promises. Ultimately, if Labour couldn’t honour the Brexit referendum result then why would they trust them to deliver free broadband or any of the other pledges?

For the manifesto commitments to connect with working-class voters, Labour had to make the promises feel real. It was a strategic mistake for Corbyn and McDonnell to back away from taking on the cuts in local councils. Had they mobilised in councils where the left had local councillors or an MP, they could have led local campaigns with council workers and communities. This approach would have transformed the perception and experience of working-class voters who believed that the Labour Party had left them behind or was responsible for the decline. As Labour was seen to be consumed by battles in Westminster, it was easy to portray Labour as part of the Remain-supporting establishment. Postponing the fight in the councils missed an opportunity to develop an insurgent strategy in a way that could have touched people’s lives and involved them in action. Without a strategy that generated conflict against the cuts and disruption of the parliamentary narrative, voters and supporters were passive onlookers unless they were part of the minority involved in the election campaign.

In this situation, the Tories were able to connect with the mood of passive voters in these communities over Brexit. No matter how ridiculous and disingenuous ‘Get Brexit Done’ was as a slogan, it was perfect. The combination of Labour’s pivot to support for the second referendum and its inability to break through the sense of ‘capitalist realism’ helps us understand how a politically incontinent, lying, cheating, racist, misogynistic buffoon like Johnson could succeed. If he was going to ‘Get Brexit Done’, then he might not be as bad as the rest of them. For these people that’s all that mattered.

The failure however raises deeper questions. It’s not just that the pivot towards Remain was disastrous. Labour’s defeat has called into question the ability of a social democratic Party to deliver a radical manifesto today in a way it might have done in the heyday of Keynesianism. What does it mean that the biggest political party in Western Europe has failed to persuade communities that have been ravaged by neoliberalism that it can deliver ‘on their behalf’?

From revenge to resistance

This essay has highlighted people’s lack of self-worth, their loss of pride, a sense of political abandonment, lost hope and an inability to imagine a better world. It’s this sense of abandonment by Labour that drove the Brexit vote and the Tory success last week. However, it’s worth contrasting the political situation in Scotland with that of the North, Wales or the Midlands.

Scotland has experienced a similar hollowing out of heavy traditional industry and the influence of neoliberalism over economic policy but voted to Remain in the EU. However, working class people in Scotland have another vehicle to voice their disgust or discontent with Labour. The SNP has, despite its commitment to a neoliberal economic model been able to supplant the Labour Party as the opposition to the Tories in Scotland. It has achieved this with a vision of change, and hope. Whatever its limitations, the SNP agenda of independence with a desire for sovereignty, democracy and empowerment has captured the aspirations of working-class people desperate for change. The SNP didn’t arrive at this position of its own free will. A radical campaign for real change driven in the main by the Radical Independence Campaign was responsible for changing the form and content of the independence referendum in 2014. This meant engaging with the working-class communities who had been ‘left behind’ by a political establishment that included the SNP. With voter registration drives and radical collective initiatives to build support for independence in towns and cities across the country, we came close to breaking up the British state.

Following the election, the Tories have moved swiftly to push their Brexit Withdrawal Bill through parliament. Their version of Brexit will be used to undermine labour, welfare, consumer and environmental standards as the Tories try to pivot closer to the U.S. No-one yet knows in detail what their Brexit agenda is but it’s unlikely to offer any relief or salvation for those in Leave voting working class communities. Only a Brexit led from the left could have provided a deal with free movement, protection for EU migrants and freedom from the anti-working class diktats of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and EU Commission. ECJ judgements such as Viking Line and Laval, undermined the right to strike by making unions liable for damages to employers and were used to undermine strike action by British Airways pilots in 2008. A left-led Brexit could have defended and expanded rights for all workers, migrants and non-migrants. For the moment that vision of Brexit has gone.

Remain is now dead. The cynics from the ‘extreme centre’ who led the drive for the second referendum to primarily undermine Corbyn have achieved their main objective. They admitted as much when Tony Blair announced that the pivot towards a second referendum was a mistake! The people feeling abandoned now are those who marched on ‘Peoples Vote’ demonstrations for a second referendum. They have been cynically manipulated and betrayed by the ‘extreme centre’. However, while working class communities who voted Leave may feel vindicated as the Tories enact the Brexit bill, there will be no respite from the decades of political, economic and spiritual impoverishment. A Tory Brexit will not free these communities from ‘capitalist realism’.

If we are to recover, then the left has to rebuild relationships with communities fractured by four decades of neoliberal restructuring. We shouldn’t see these people as victims with individual sufferings but as potential collective subjects striving for their redemption – beyond Brexit. The establishment – which includes the radical right – wants to brush these people’s decades of suffering under the carpet. The establishment want these legacies to stay in the past as ‘dead matter’ to be kept there never to disturb the present or the future. But, as Enzo Traverso puts it, for our class  the previous lost battles are ‘a burden and a debt’. The past never abandons the present, it haunts it and remains with us to be reactivated in the fight to change the present with the possibility of redemption and hope for future generations. What Walter Benjamin called ‘now-time’ (Jetztzeit) is the dialectical link between the unaccomplished past and the future we fight for. It is the sudden irruption of the past into the present, which can break up the presentism of ‘capitalist realism’.[13] So Brexit became the political medium through which decades of suffering found expression. The problem for the left shouldn’t have been Brexit itself but the way the political right were able to shape it.

Brexit will on the one hand be an event with unexpected and disruptive characteristics, opening up new scenarios, projecting the peoples of these islands onto unpredictable political and economic terrain. On the other hand, Brexit is not just for Christmas. This year or next. It will be a process that drags on for years with unintended consequences. The Johnson Brexit deal opens up the very real possibility of the breakup of the United Kingdom. The claims from the SNP for Scottish self-determination are the first salvo in the main fault-line for the Tories and the British state. In Ireland the Irish question will also be posed in starker terms as support for Irish independence draws in people who now feel abandoned by the British. However, it will be in Scotland where the immediate question of opposition to British rule will be posed. The radical left here has an opportunity to lead the opposition to the Johnson government beyond the constitutional routes that will be posed by the SNP. If we can transform the huge demonstrations for independence into a mass campaign of civil disobedience, we can develop a strategy that aims to make Scotland ungovernable for the Tories.

As recessionary pressures grow in Europe, the economic slowdown will likely spread across Europe. Economic retrenchment in Britain is already a major worry, which could deepen the economic woes and close down options economically for Johnson. While it may be difficult for Johnson to throw carrots at working class people who ‘lent’ him their vote, it would be foolish to underestimate the capacity for this hard right Tory government to accelerate the culture war to try and further divide our class as they seek to build a hegemonic alliance. It’s also important to remember that liberals from the ‘extreme centre’ are active participants in fuelling the culture war. They will look to stoke division by caricaturing working class people who voted Leave as stupid, ignorant, racist people who don’t understand what’s good for them. This is despite overwhelming evidence that the working class in Britain is more socially liberal now than it has ever been.

As we resist the Tories we should consciously aim to unite Leave voting working-class people who will be betrayed again by the Tories with those who supported Remain and have been betrayed by the ‘extreme centre’. The left has an opportunity to resist the culture war and rebuild an alliance of workers across the Brexit divide. There will be pressure on all sides for the Labour Party to tack to the right from Corbyn’s principled stances on racism and imperialism. Racism wasn’t the primary driver for Brexit nor for Labour losing the election. The recent pronouncement from Rebecca Long-Bailey about ‘progressive patriotism’ is a worrying indication of retreats on this from the Labour left. The radical left has to take a firm and principled position of opposition to such concessions to bigotry.

Instead, we should find common ground in struggles against racism by defending those still targeted by the Windrush scandal, by protecting EU migrants, by participating in tenants’ campaigns, helping organise precarious workers and by defending the right to strike. The climate emergency will make it imperative for the left to link action against climate change with action to defend our jobs and communities. While the renewed drive to war will pose starkly questions about how we stop western imperialism and the kind of world we want to live in.

In communities  where the left have influence, we can  bring together left wing MPs and councillors with the local labour movement and community to resist further cuts, privatisations and campaign against any drive towards war . The disruptive tactics from Extinction Rebellion should be brought into these struggles. With a militant and combative strategy we can begin to plan how we avenge the defeats we have suffered from both wings of the establishment who equally support austerity, privatisation and war Only a disruptive strategy can break up the presentism of ‘capitalist realism’ and help the radical left rebuild. A campaign to turn Labour activists into union reps and community campaigners would be an important step towards laying the basis for future victories and restoring hope in our communities.

The Brexit vote was framed as a racist vote. However, it’s clear that decline and political abandonment were key drivers in both the Brexit vote and election result. To date the left has failed to heed the warnings from these votes with some foolishly backing the pro establishment Remain alliance. If we don’t take note of these repeated mistakes, we will be preparing the ground for yet more serious failures. The hard-right Tory government are trying to build bases in former Labour heartlands in England and Wales. The fascists have instructed their members to join the Tories, who have been received so far without any complaint. With mass strikes in France, and mass movements for democracy, against austerity and oppression spreading across the world, people are increasingly looking for radical solutions to their problems. If the left and labour movement don’t provide them, then the Tories and the far right will try and fill the vacuum. Once again, we have been warned!


[1] Jonny Jones, ‘Winning the Revenge Election’, [online] (9 December 2019); Proltariato_Papi, ‘Wading through the mud’, [online] (16 Decewmber 2019); Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (London: Zero, 2009); Enzo Traverso, Left-Wing Melancholia. Marxism, History, and Memory (New York: Columbia UP, 2016), p. 20.

[2] Mike Davis, ‘What’s wrong with America? A debate with Thomas Frank’ (2005), reprinted in: In Praise of Barbarians: Essays Against Empire (Chicago, IL.: Haymarket, 2007), pp. 42, 47, 48.

[3] Sebastian Payne, ‘“Teeside Tories” have promises to keep’, Financial Times (17 December 2019).

[4] Luke Telford and Jonthan Wistow, ‘Brexit and the working class on Teeside: Moving beyond reductionism’, Capital & Class [online] (16 September 2019): 1–20.

[5] Aditya Chakrabortty, ‘This Labour meltdown has been building for decades’, The Guardian [online] (14 December 2019).

[6] Mike Davis, ‘The urbanization of empire’, in: In Praise of Barbarians, p. 128.

[7] Davis, ‘Urbanization of empire’, p. 129.

[8] See note 4.

[9] Tom Hazeldine, ‘Revolt of the rustbelt’, New Left Review 105 [online] (May-June 2017) 69.

[10] Traverso, Left-Wing Melancholia, p. 8.

[11] Hazeldine, ‘Revolt’, 69.

[12] Based upon recollections from Brian Parkin

[13] Traverso, Left-Wing Melancholia, pp. xv and 10, quoting Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, No. 14, in: Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973), p. 263.


  1. A very powerful and thought provoking piece. Yet the prescription to a form of recovery for the left is still hazy and patchy.
    Look towards left-Labour MP’s/Councillors & activists? Great, where? And with what?
    In this period of history, as Thomas Paine once said, “a time that try’s the souls of men”. We know the numerous reasons as to defeat, we now live in a place in how to resist and the future faith in our political and philosophical leadership is lying on a cloth in the gutter of despair.
    Let us be brutal. The Labour Party has engineered the most amazing trick in political history. A Party of Work, where most workers and participants in work do not vote for it. A section do but this is diminishing. Yet the secret in Labour’s recovery will reside in work and the worker. The Tories for over a decade have been extremely successful, in painting the Party as the ‘Party of the poor’. The Labour Party – as-per-usual, can be relied upon to promise and pledge this n that and that n this. Meanwhile losing credibility (and votes )as they do.
    By the tone of people here, we will be stuck in the crevasse of perceived/real and imagined ‘culture wars’. Complaining (Howling at the moon) that the 5th estate (media) is so, so unfair. One day, when the Labour Party and ‘left’, start treating the media in a way that it should be treated, we might get somewhere.
    I have seriously come to the painful conclusion that people on the left….and I am suggesting the brightest, best, reliable and truly committed socialists amongst us, will have to introduce the notion of the ‘shadow campaign’.
    Face it….The biggest tragedy of the Labour Party, is that its membership is either too old, too nice and too stupid.
    The leadership insist at every election in turning up to a gun fight with feather-dusters, with the usual painful results.
    The Tories can promise, lie and exaggerate – that’s what they do….and all the Labour Party ever do, is appeal to the dormant angels they mistakenly believe, lies within the electorate. They do not. For too long, good Labour Party members have had to waste good shoe leather and endure breezy watery nights, with leaflets that have all the penetration of a blancmange.
    Labour leaflets/literature/news sheets have all the aggression of a quilt making club. Then, members turn up – like a ritual…to wonder how and why they lost an election – AGAIN!
    As stated, Labour lost the election due to an incoherent and fudged up Brexit policy. which PLEASED NO-ONE.
    Corbyn – Should’ve walked in 2017.
    Manifesto – A Socialist manifesto …….beaten by a slogan.
    Out thought and out-fought
    Tories lay bear-traps – The Labour Party can be relied upon to jump into them.
    Labour Party structure – Not fit-for-purpose
    Branches – antiquated and archaic.
    Trade Union input minimal and tame.
    Campaign techniques, style and organisation – Laughable.

    Face it – The Party needs reform from top-to-bottom.
    Can we introduce meritocracy please? No more quotas/gender-rules or special treatment for minor groups who need a cuddle club. We are a Political Party. We seek to get elected to govern a Nation not an archipelago of minorities and special interests.
    It is time to unleash the true cadres within the Labour movement, the people who look like, sound like and talk like the people we hope to represent. Its not brain science, its not rocket physics. Can we please get back to what we are supposed to be. The political expression of work and its workers.

    • White, straight, able bodied men are a minority of workers. If Labour wanted its MPs to “look like, sound like and talk like” the people it seeks to represent it would need to make them more diverse, not less.

      An important part of that would be more MPs from the (diverse) working class rather than so many political careerists, people from PR, law and the media.

      • The Labour Party should look like the membership it is.
        As for MP’s – your forgetting an essential flaw in your suggestion. You somehow think that the Labour Party does talent? It does not, as the election and our MP’s illustrate so well. Don’t get me wrong, when I see Jess Phillips, Diane Abbott, John Mann and the like, they give hope to everybody and anyone, that you to, can be an MP.
        Whereas, if the Labour MP’s were filled to the rafters with quality, like Stella Creasy, Jon Cruddas, Dan Jarvis, Keir Starmer, Andy Burnham, Luke Pollard, Hilary Benn, David Milliband & the like it would be a case of calling them – Her Majesties Government.
        We need philosophers/campaigners/intellectuals and people who strike genuine fear into the political opposition..
        To think, we had the likes of Robin Cook, John Smith, Tony Benn, Gordon Brown etc……
        True Titans.
        The Tories hate & loathe clever people and we should be promoting that talent, rearing that talent and manufacturing that talent, through our movement. But hey…………….

      • I think we have totally different ideas of what talent looks like. You seem to think what matters is ‘looking the part’ of Her Majesty’s Government, which in reality means being acceptable to the Tory press, which means being no threat to them at all. Let’s not forget that the press loathed Tony Benn until they saw him as harmless. I think what matters is supporting working class people effectively, and most of the people you see as ‘quality’ don’t do that at all – they stand for the status quo.

  2. A interesting view point and one which I have some sympathy, I agree supporting the outcome of the referendum regardless of personal views was important, you cannot second guess the electorate. Even if Brexit turns out to be a complete disaster people voted for it as they have in the past to close the schools, libraries and hospitals. The attacks on Labour and Corbyn did not help but every Labour leader is attacked, even Blair. The manifesto may have been radical it may have offered opportunity but that got lost in the delivery and back ground noise. The simple message of Get Brexit Done was all people needed, even people opposed to Brexit wanted it out of the way. What should have been done is a message of five or six things About would do for communities, rebuilding services, increasing minimum wage but importantly explaining what this would do for your community and you. I have always supported re-nationalising the services and always will, but I would not have had a long list, it would have been one perhaps the railways and then said it will improve services, cut costs and tickets. The other main point is the left has to be united, regardless of position, no more I am more socialist than you. If the next five years is one of cuts and further disasters there Tories will blame everyone but themselves, supported by the media unless we can offer an alternative which is optimistic and realistic then we might repeat 1992 and win some seats but not enough.

  3. A really good analysis Ray that situates the outcome within a longer period of class and political relations than most other attempts.

  4. This article is one-dimensional.
    If post industrial misery were the cause of the Tory gains you have to explain how the Tories won only 2 of the 40 most deprived seats in the Uk. It isnt due to austerity either – the city which got hit worst was Liverpool – a remain stronghold. Austerity hit equally hard in remain London or Leicester
    There is no discussion of the absolutely central issue that the working class is divided over Brexit. Retired, white people in small towns generally voted Brexit, younger workers, especially in London and the big cities, voted remain and stayed loyal to Corbyn.
    Brits of ethnic minority background voted overwhelmingly to remain and stayed loyal to Labour.
    Look more closely the kind of Labour seats the Tories gained. The vast majority had an older population than average and many hit 98% white. A good number had shown support for the BNP in the 2005 and 2010 elections, evidence of how racism is driging a lot of this
    The Tories amazngly only made one gain in a big city constituency.
    Without grasping the issue of division, talk of the working class can easily mean adapting to reactionary older voters who will play little if any role in future class struggles, and ignoring those younger workers in new industries who will

    • You seem to be arguing that because the class is divided that we decide what side to take and you seem to be arguing that in this divide we take the side of young urban workers. I would fundamentally disagree if the class is divided we find issues in which we can show how the class has a common interest. This means campaigning on a number of lines including migrant rights, anti-racism, green new deal, NHS.

  5. This essay suggests at one point that “The left has an opportunity to resist the culture war and rebuild an alliance of workers across the Brexit divide.”
    That would presuppose a balanced analysis on Brexit. What does this essay argue? Not that at all.
    Instead, it tells us that Brexit was an uprising of the Northern working class. That the “Labour supporting working class community were driven to vote Leave in the EU referendum. … “Brexit became the political medium through which decades of suffering found expression.” That “Brexit’s margin of victory was 56 to 44 across northern England.” The places the essay takes us to are “Blackpool, Burnley; Bradford and Bury.”
    What this essay occludes:
    Most people who voted Leave in fact lived in the South of England. Of all those who voted Leave, 59% were in the A, B or C1 categories. (These are not Marxist categories, but they’re all we have.) The proportion of Leave voters who were of the lowest two social classes was just 24%.
    As Danny Dorling has argued, “The Leave voters among the middle class were crucial to the final result. This was because the middle class constituted two thirds of all those who voted.” This should not be hugely surprising for socialists, given that we know that Brexit was, for decades, a campaign driven by the hard right of the Tory Party (another blank spot in the essay).
    I’m not disputing much of the case that is put in this essay. If Britain consisted only of working class people in small towns in the north of England, its analysis would be spot on. But in focusing on this one aspect of Brexit, to the exclusion of all others, the analysis is misleading.

    • The essay doesn’t propose ‘a balanced analysis on Brexit.’ It doesn’t mention composition of the vote. That’s not in dispute. Nor does it mention the fact that the Brexit campaign was driven by the radical right as you point out. But then it also doesn’t mention that Leave used to be the property of much of the left. You’d have to look at my earlier essay for information on how much of the British left ended up embracing the EU. What this essay does argue – is that in abandoning these communities the labour movement helped deliver them into the arms of UKIP and the Brexit Party. Part of that process of abandoning working class communities occurred as much of the left embraced the EU as a benign or even worse ‘progressive’ institution. Embracing the EU institutions and abandoning these communities are part of the same process of the shift to the right in the labour movement. Whatever you may think about this shift, it has allowed the radical right to take up the anti establishment position of opposing the EU. That is a tragedy and it lost Labour the election.

      The essay is attempting to explain how Labour lost these seats. At no point is the essay suggesting that Brexit was a working class revolt. It is however, suggesting that it was these communities chance to revolt against the establishment and wether we like it or not much of the left is viewed today in these communities as being part of that establishment because of political positions it has adopted – one of those was campaigning to Remain in the EU. I think this needs to be acknowledged.

      In my view you have to start here if you hope to begin the difficult process of rebuilding working class unity.

  6. I think the conclusions of this are absolutely right, but I don’t think this puts enough emphasis on developments in state racism over the last few years. For one thing, the ‘decline thesis’ doesn’t actually undermine the ‘racism thesis’ because both can be true (and they are even superficially related insofar as the common right-wing narrative is that migrants and people of colour are being prioritised over ‘left-behind [white] communities’). But either way, whether or not the Leave vote or the Tory vote was driven by individual voters’ racist opinions isn’t really the most important question. It is borders and racism (not ‘culture wars’) that produce the real divisions in the working class. You rightly highlight the importance of anti-racism and migrant solidarity, but if confronting the rise of racism and nationalism is a strategic priority, then we shouldn’t start by underestimating its ideological role.

    • The essay is arguing that decline, loss of hope and political abandonment are the drivers for the Brexit vote in these communities. Racism is also prevalent but not the major force.

      So to use your terms both the ‘decline thesis’ and the ‘racism thesis’ coexist. What I’m arguing is that starting from racism is to misunderstand the causal effects for the Leave vote in these towns. This for me is one of the major problems with the way much of the left have come to understand the Leave vote in these communities. If we start with racism where do you go with trying to engage with these people? Probably nowhere and it feeds the narrative that they are stupid and should be written off. This is the approach that makes it impossible to build class unity and guarantees the isolation of the left.

      On the question of borders and state racism being the biggest problem as a pose to ‘culture wars’, we agree. My discussion around culture wars is about how the elites (both sides) will use this as a strategy to try and divide our class. The main focus wasn’t racism so the ideological role of the state wasn’t discussed here. My focus was on why we lost these seats and the conditions leading to the defeat with ideas for rebuilding unity.


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