Sir Vince Cable could not afford to strike a pessimistic note at his party’s conference. He must hope that Brexit is an unmitigated disaster and that his proposals for wealth taxes receive a fair hearing. Further, he has to rely on the volatility of the public mood.
However, the Liberal Democrats have damaged their appeal with three key social groups. The poor were alienated by the austerity of the 2010-2015 coalition government. The young resented the Liberal Democrat betrayal over tuition fees. And the affluent are unlikely to support wealth taxes. Supporting another referendum on Brexit is unlikely to be sufficient to mend these broken fences.
It should be remembered that there is nothing certain in politics. A significant Liberal Democrat revival is improbable before the next general election. But it cannot be ruled out a priori. This is because political science has not got the predictive capacity of a ‘genuine’ science. Labour Party supporters cannot afford to be complacent. Professor Colin Hay confirmed:
“the predictions… [political] science is capable of generating are likely to have a limited shelf-life…Yet for critical political analysts in particular, this is a wonderfully liberating thought. Things, in the end, can be different.”
Interest rates have been kept at historically low levels for years by the Bank of England. Monetary policy has been used to keep the engine of the UK economy from stalling while austerity has impacted significantly on demand. If the Bank of England wants to fight inflation it may now nudge interest rates up. The new policy will affect different parts of the UK in various ways.
In the lagging regions, a hike in interest rates may not be welcome. It could be too soon for struggling regional economies. It may widen regional disparities and undermine initiatives like the Northern Powerhouse. If Brexit talks go badly, the economic chill may be hard for people in these regions to cope with. The type of jobs created in these peripheral areas has not facilitated saving among the young.
The resilience of prosperous parts of the country should put them in an enviable position. Overheating tendencies may be dampened and many households will find that a gradual rise in interest rates is appropriate for them. Savers could be cheered and interest in tax-free saving accounts might revive.
One problem for the project of austerity is that it threatens to create massive social opposition to its economic (il)logic. Classes which lose benefits or which suffer from low wages could coalesce in victorious anti-austerity alliances. Organized labour or political parties might decisively challenge the ‘common sense’ of environmental destruction, public sector cuts and privatization. Of course, austerity in the UK has had political and economic critics, but the working class has not yet come together to reject its cruelty.
It is important to recall that people can be situated in contradictory class positions. Other social cleavages may be seen to weaken class unity further. Differences within the working class clearly have a really long history. However, Brexit can be viewed as a button which can be repeatedly pressed. The working class and the labour movement are not always closely connected and every single stage of the Brexit process permits nationalism to raise its ugly head.
Working class Tories may be much more common in some regions than others, but the reactionary appeal of Brexit transcends the Conservative vote. The implementation of austerity is now being made easier by the tribalism created by the anti-European agenda. Those opposed to austerity must not forget the wisdom of E.P. Thompson who argued:
“we cannot understand class unless we see it as a social and cultural formation, arising from processes which can only be studied as they work themselves out over a considerable historical period.”
Lord Hailsham suggested the UK was an elective dictatorship in 1976. While the concept might have seemed unusual in that decade of working class assertiveness, it now seems to fit with reality more closely. The Brexit referendum has allowed the executive to debate the use of ‘Henry VIII powers’ in Parliament and a small coalition majority may facilitate the use of this authority. This could diminish future democratic scrutiny and would underline precisely who has gained from the ‘take back control’ slogan.
The experience of the United States shows that voters who want to kick the status quo can end up with an alarming outcome. The fuzziness of Brexit is enabling the Conservative Party to take the country into a dangerous place. The idea that low skilled British workers will benefit from restricting immigration from the European Union is risible. Limiting immigration excessively is likely to undermine the efficiency of British capitalism, while departing from the single market could have other negative consequences.
It would appear that a general election is more democratic than a referendum in the British context. This is primarily because the public is accustomed to regular general elections. As the UK lacks a proper written constitution, holding a referendum on a constitutional matter can be highly problematic. The elite set the terms of the debate and then interpret the outcome. In the case of the EU referendum, the failure of successive governments to clarify the economic importance of immigration was disastrous. For the Conservative Party to continue to put authoritarian populism ahead of economic prudence is irresponsible.
“Our fundamental delusion today is not believing in what is only a fiction, to take fictions too seriously – on the contrary, it is not taking fictions seriously enough.”
Ever since Slavoj Žižek demanded his third pill, the potential link between modern socialism and drugs has been emerging from the haze. With Acid Corbynism now a live debate within Momentum, the minds of the people are going to be expanded once more. As has been noted by Jeremy Gilbert, the New Left dabbled in mysticism back in the day. Now, nobody is suggesting that day tripping is going to be the start of a Great Leap Forward, but it is fascinating that the discourse of drugs is being pushed at the present time.
While Russell Brand has recently penned a book on how to deal with addiction, he may well be swimming against the colourful tide. Without sufficient socially useful work, the generation betrayed by Brexit may be about to party like there is no future. So what should socialists do in this moment of peak alienation?
Austerity has forced many people to reduce their discretionary spending. More affluent types have been tempted into conspicuous consumption. It seems that people should refrain from making easy judgements. If others want to escape from the paranoia of reality, the least that one can say is good luck.
“Well, I have a message for the Scots: Be afraid, be very afraid. The risks of going it alone are huge.”
Economist Paul Krugman, prior to the referendum on Scottish independence, was clear that the SNP was advocating a leap in the dark. His argument was that Scotland might lack the economic levers to sustain a prosperous future, given the raging controversies about the future currency.
Since his intervention, the fluctuating oil price has underlined the potential vulnerability of an autonomous Scotland. An independent Scotland would need a diverse economy, good fortune and excellent external relations to thrive.
The revival of the Scottish Conservative Party has arguably been something of a surprise. It has flowed in part from resistance to the stuttering independence movement. However, Scottish Labour has become ineffective due to weak leadership, poor strategy and internal divisions. This may change with the departure of another leader. If Scottish Labour can become coherent again, it might be able to win over those sections of the electorate who are aware of the economic problems with the case for independence.
Brexit is continuing to be awkward for the Labour Party. This is not because of the leadership or the trade unions. Both of these groups recognise the economic benefits of the single market, whilst acknowledging the result of the referendum. Problems have been coming from discontented MPs who have used the summer to deviate from the party line. Neoliberals are reluctant to accept the referendum result, while there are Blue Labour figures who want to clamp down on immigration swiftly. Members of Momentum should probably remember the delicacy of the European issue and focus on campaigning against austerity.
The liberal media likes to depict the Shadow Chancellor as profoundly sceptical of the European Union. The truth is that John McDonnell MP is pragmatic. He wants to preserve the living standards of the working class and is prepared to compromise to achieve his goals. He knows that many young people are pro-European and respects the pluralism within the socialist tradition.
Vowing to remain in the single market for an unspecified time could have a negative impact on the poll ratings of Labour. Nevertheless, it is essential to have a dividing line from the Tory policy. Leaving the European Union hurriedly or clumsily may have serious economic consequences. It was a Conservative referendum and the Conservative Party should be made to pay an electoral price for their juvenile nationalism. Hence Labour would do well to be as pro-European as its leadership desires. Socialists should recall the opinion of Rosa Luxemburg:
“Strength lies not in numbers, but in the spirit, in the clarity, in the energy that inspires us.”