The past two years have seen not one, not two, but three seismic upheavals in British politics. They are separate and distinct, but have a powerful common feature.
The first earthquake was the near-total annihilation of the Labour party in Scotland. The Scottish people might have rejected independence in 2014, but they simultaneously rejected Westminster and the political traditions to which they had offered decades of devotion.
The second earthquake was the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership. Hundreds of thousands of members and affiliates sent a clear message to the party: sacrificing principles to attain electability is precisely what has made you unelectable, and the time has come for a profound change of direction. It’s easy to forget just how overwhelmingly strong that message was. Corbyn didn’t just win, he destroyed his opponents. He won 50% more votes than the other four candidates put together, and won clear majorities among all sections of the party electorate, old members, new members, affiliates, unions and of course the ‘three quidders’ who signed up to vote for him in their droves.
Finally, the third and most devastating earthquake has of course been the EU referendum result which has plunged Britain into an unfathomable clusterfuck, a monstrous medusa of crises.
The common factor shared by all three of these political convulsions is the disintegration of the relationship between the political establishment and large swathes of the population. Everything necessary to keep such a relationship intact– faith, trust, confidence, respect – is degraded or destroyed. The story of contemporary British politics is that when the people are given a choice between the Westminster parties, they will reluctantly choose one of them. But when given the choice of the Westminster parties or something else – anything else – they will choose something else. Anything else.
All of the above has been spectacular, profound, unsettling for the established order. What we are seeing this week is absolutely terrifying. With scarcely a blink, the political establishment is preparing to abandon any pretence of respecting the will of the people.
The chaos in the Labour party is bad. Very bad. As I write it seems inevitable that there will be a vote of no confidence from the PLP, triggering a leadership election. Corbyn will certainly feel mandated, almost certainly obliged to stand again and represent the wishes of those who chose him less than a year ago. It is highly likely he will win again. The only possible scenario after that would be that virtually the entire parliamentary Labour party resigns the party whip, presumably forming a new independent party. We will then have a parliamentary party with no support base or funding (excepting the generosity of a few billionaires who might fancy buying themselves a new political party) and a grassroots Labour party with numbers, anger, energy, union affiliations, but hardly any MPs at least this side of an election. All this will make the political catastrophe of the SDP’s Gang of Four look like an OAPs sewing circle.
The travails of Labour and the left, however are rendered near irrelevant by what is happening to the referendum result. Almost as soon as the results were announced we began to see petitions calling for a second referendum, and blogs by constitutional or legal experts explaining that the result might not be binding, it was only ‘advisory’ we are told. Four days later, we are being told that there might not be a single elected politician, even within the Tory party, willing to sign Article 50 and take Britain out of the EU. We hear there might have to be a devil’s compromise which involves Britain formally leaving the EU’s democratic structures while retaining the EU’s free trade agreement and accompanying free movement of people. Both Labour and Conservative voices are saying that a general election could now be fought and won on a campaign to disregard the referendum result and stay in the EU.
The vote to leave the EU was a calamitous mistake by the British people which is likely to cause economic havoc and disasters for social policy and quality of life in this country. However, the decision has been made. If the Westminster parliament fails to properly implement its outcome then it will be (rightly) seen as the most almighty Fuck You from the political establishment to the electorate ever seen, certainly in this country and quite possibly anywhere in the nominally democratic world. It would be the kind of thing that we expect to see in Pinochet’s Chile or Zimbabwe under Mugabe. It would be a betrayal of a democratic process exactly akin to a government losing an election but refusing to leave office.
For a few weeks now I have been muttering to friends that Britain stands closer to a collapse into neo-fascism than we have at any time since Mosley marched in the 1930s. Today I think it is worse than that, these are quite treacherously dangerous times. For many years, Labour apparatchiks told themselves they could comfortably ignore the needs and wishes of their traditional working class base because their votes were secure and those people had nowhere else to go. The past couple of years have confirmed how spectacularly wrong they were.
Now the Tory party threatens to make the precise same mistake. Nearly 70 percent of Tory voters ignored the wishes of their leadership and voted to leave the EU. Where do we think they will go next? Sure, a few million of them might have sober regrets and be happy to relent on the EU but many millions more will feel entirely disenfranchised, utterly betrayed and livid with fury. Honestly, where does anyone think they will turn?
All of these current woes are a direct or indirect consequence of the alienation of people from politicians. Much of that can be blamed upon New Labour and the Mandelsonian triangulation that left so many working class people behind, but in truth it goes deeper, to the cultural impacts of neoliberalism and globalised corporate power (there are undoubtedly similar processes happening with the US primaries and the rise of the new left and the old right in Europe). This, however, is on a different order of magnitude altogether. The political establishment is like a cirrhotic alcoholic dying in the gutter while insisting that just one more bottle of whisky and everything will be OK again.
Perhaps the worst bit of all this is that I, as one unaligned British citizen, simply do not know what to do about it but sit and gawp at the sudden fatal car crash of British democracy. There will of course be better days, brighter prospects for our children but for now it feels as if all we can do is watch as our parliamentarians sow, water and harvest the seeds of fascism.