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Abstract

After Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the British Labour Party in 2015, the party for the first time took a stance against austerity. The new leadership proposed to raise investment and productivity; nationalise some utilities; end privatisations; improve trade union rights, wages and conditions; a Green New Deal creating a million jobs; a rise in taxation of capital and the rich, to fund a 10% rise in spending on public services and benefits; consequent expansion and improvements of services, better wages and conditions, some services made free; large scale council house building, and re-regulation of private renting. This programme goes no further than governments in the postwar boom; but after forty years of neoliberalism it is a radical turn to the left. The party, however, came up against an offensive by the far right to engineer Britain’s exit from the EU and thus deepen neoliberalism, using xenophobia to gain popular support; the Conservative win in the 2019 election marked a victory for this project and a severe defeat for Labour and the working class. This article seeks to explain this outcome by considering the dialectics of long-standing structures of British political economy, the inheritance of neoliberalism, and the strategies and tactics of the Conservative and Labour Parties. It examines the aims of the far right in Britain in relation to capital, and the campaigns of Labour on its economic and Brexit policies. The article focuses particularly on popular consciousness: the rise of individualism and xenophobia arising from daily life under neoliberalism; poor understanding of the economics of austerity and Brexit; variation of these by age and geography; and consequent votes in the referendum and two general elections. It concludes with some reflections on strategies for social democratic parties in the present period.

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