The European election in Britain – which was never meant to have taken place – saw the two main parties take a battering as voters largely used the poll to voice their opinion on Brexit. The Tories were punished for the ongoing chaos and the deep divisions within the party which finally forced Theresa May from office. They were pushed into fifth place with only 9.1% of the vote. Labour, too, suffered because of its lack of a clear message on the way forward, ending up in third position.
Voters opted instead for parties with clear positions on Brexit. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party were the winners, topping the poll in Wales and in every English region except London. Between the Brexit Party and UKIP, over a third of voters backed parties who favour leaving the EU without a trade deal. On the other side of the debate, the Liberal Democrats saw a surge in their support, finishing second. In total, the parties which back a second referendum and remaining in the EU took over 40% of the vote. Such a result would not necessarily translate directly into a general election, where the question of national government is posed, but it clearly poses a stark warning for the two main parties.
Splits and realignments posed
The divisions within the Conservatives are only going to deepen with May’s departure and the leadership contest. May was only able to cling on as Tory leader for so long because of fears of a Corbyn-led government and recognition that no other leading figure could do a better (or less bad) job of holding together the party’s warring factions. Her successor is likely to be a ‘hard’ Brexiteer, with Boris Johnson the current favourite. Regardless of who emerges as the new leader, there is real potential for splits within the party.
Labour, however, is also in turmoil. In the wake of the election, Jeremy Corbyn has come under renewed pressure from the pro-capitalist Blairites within Labour – including Deputy Leader Tom Watson – to commit clearly to a referendum on a final withdrawal deal with the EU, with the option of remaining in the EU on the ballot paper. They want to stay in the EU as this reflects the interests of the dominant wing of the capitalist class which they represent, but they also seek to use the issue as a way to undermine support for Corbyn’s left, anti-austerity policies.
The pro-‘remain’ Change UK group – launched by defectors from both Labour and the Tories – failed to make a major impact in the election, winning only 3.4% of the vote and no MEPs. However, further defections from the two main parties are highly likely and could lead to a regrouping of the pro-EU, neo-liberal ‘centre ground’, potentially involving the Liberal Democrats.
Corbyn must give clear, socialist message
Historically, Corbyn has correctly opposed the EU as an inherently pro-capitalist and undemocratic bosses’ club. Unfortunately, under pressure from the right of the party, he backed a ‘remain and reform’ position in the EU referendum. Since then, he has rightly focused on demanding a general election to negotiate a withdrawal deal in the interests of the working class, but has allowed pro-EU Blairites like Keir Starmer to make much of the running on the issue, leading to confusion on the party’s position.
While a large majority of Labour members and current voters backed remaining in the EU, Corbyn is correct in recognising that the party must also reach out to working-class ‘leave’ voters if it is to be able to form a government. The potential to achieve this was seen when a third of former UKIP voters switched to Labour in the 2017 general election because of Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies.
The Brexit vote, in large part, represented working-class opposition to the impact of decades of de-industrialisation, privatisation and austerity. By hiding their viciously anti-working-class policies, the billionaire-backed Brexit Party was able to tap into this anger and the perception of being betrayed by the establishment once again.
Corbyn must put forward a clear vision for a socialist exit from the EU, removing restrictions on state intervention into the economy while also extending workers’ rights, environmental safeguards and defending the rights of migrants. Combined with a socialist programme to end austerity, raise living standards and tackle the climate crisis by taking on the super-rich and bringing the key sectors of the economy into democratic public ownership, this could pave the way for a Corbyn-led government.
Such a programme will be viciously resisted by the Blairites, who continue to dominate the Parliamentary Labour Party. Corbyn and his supporters should move immediately to give Labour members an automatic right to democratically deselect these ‘Tories with red ties’ ahead of a general election, to head off the threat of them undermining a future government under his leadership. Trade union activists should campaign in support of this demand but also for the movement to lead industrial action and mass demonstrations to force the weak, divided and discredited Tories from power.
By Daniel Waldron