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The UK’s Epochal Election

Photo by Garry Knight | CC BY 2.0

We are not here in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress. No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves. That is our only certain good and great purpose on earth, and if you ask me about those insoluble economic problems that may arise if the top is deprived of their initiative, I would answer ‘To hell with them.’ The top is greedy and mean and will always find a way to take care of themselves. They always do.

— Michael Foot, Leader of the Labour Party 1980-1983

In parliamentary democracies, it is a platitude, largely self-regarding, that all general elections matter somehow and in some way.  Some, however, clearly matter more than others.

In the UK, since World War 2, we can think of the Labour victory in 1945 which led to the foundation of its welfare state.  The victory of Thatcher in 1979 led to the installation of neoliberalism in the UK.  Every election victor since then, Blair’s Labour included, has upheld the essentials of Thatcherite dogma.

It is no overstatement to say the UK has another epochal general election in June 2017.

A victory, against the current odds, for a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour will, if it adheres to positions he promoted when he won the party leadership by a margin even greater than Blair’s when the latter became leader, ensue in the promise of an overturning of neoliberalism.

Labour’s election manifesto confirms that Corbyn is campaigning on a repudiation of Thatcherism and neoliberalism (to which the Blairites see no alternative).

By contrast, a victory for the Conservatives will culminate in the burial of the welfare state, and the Brexit sponsored by the Tories will prompt an unavoidable independence referendum in Scotland.  This time it is almost certain the Scots will vote for independence from a post-EU UK, which will of course signal the latter’s demise (and hopefully, in the longer term, the end of the monarchy).

The overturning of neoliberalism is certainly to be welcomed, as is the demise of the long-decrepit Ukania (to use Tom Nairn’s adaptation of Robert Musil’s fictitious Kakania, a broken-down component of the already dilapidated pre-war World War 1 Austro-Hungarian empire).

So, there will be solace of whatever kind in both eventualities, though having the wheels come off the Ukanian boneshaker, however welcome, will in no way compensate for the calamitous end of the welfare state.

These therefore are bracing and momentous times for Ukanians– a Tory victory will be a catastrophe for ordinary people, while a Tory defeat could be the beginning of a reprieve for the less well-off who have had a neoliberal boot on their collective throats, more or less without reprieve, since 1979.

Theresa “the woman without qualities” (to riff on the title of Musil’s great unfinished novel A Man without Qualities/ Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften) May, called this snap election for reasons that are as yet not entirely clear.

Everything therefore is in the realm of speculation where May’s motives are concerned.

Did she want to take advantage of the desperate plight of Labour, riven with potentially fatal infighting caused by its Blairite faction since Corbyn became leader?

May was not the leader of the Tories when it won the last election in 2015 (David Cameron won it), so is she now seeking her own mandate by calling a snap election?

Was May trying (at least in the eyes of Ukanian voters) to give herself a few bargaining chips in Brexit negotiations with the EU, as these are about to begin, by securing the media-predicted landslide election victory?

Was May trying to “stay ahead of the game”, preemptively, since approximately 20 sitting MPs from her party were likely to face prosecution for electoral-expenses fraud in the 2015 election?  This was the view of Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party.

Alas, it has just been announced that there will now be no legal proceedings regarding this electoral fraud (the Conservative party had already been fined for it by the Electoral Commission) — the Director of Public Prosecutions declared that any fraud involved had been committed by the Conservative party, and not by the individual MPs who benefitted from it, so the MPs should not be prosecuted.

Umm, so if a criminal act is deemed to be committed by an organization or group per se, its members who benefit from this crime are insusceptible to prosecution?

There must be a considerable number of hugely wealthy managers and directors of malfeasant UK banks and financial houses licking their chops at this possible legal precedent!

We will therefore never really know what May’s motives were in calling an early election, perhaps until one (or more) of her colleagues or subordinates publishes, or contributes to, the inevitable tell-all book in a few years’ time.

In the Rumsfeld-speak of yore all the above are “known unknowns”.

Let us leave to one side the second Rumsfeldian category of “unknown unknowns”.

Also to be left to one side here is Slavoj Žižek’s famous addition to Rumsfeld’s triptych (namely, known unknowns, known knowns, unknown unknowns), of Žižek’s psychoanalytically-inflected “unknown knowns”, that is, that which is known but at the same time banished from consciousness by a repressive psychic mechanism.

Žižek will in due course doubtless provide an account of Theresa May’s “unknown knowns” — in fact he is probably working on it as I write.

As I’ve noted before in CounterPunch, the most apparent of the obvious “known knowns” in the forthcoming UK general election is the predominantly rightwing media’s implacable bias against Labour.  Labour can do nothing about this, short of someone (not overtly!) connected with Labour stringing-up Rupert Murdoch and his fellow media barons from the nearest lamppost, which of course won’t happen.

Even the supposedly neutral BBC won’t do Labour any justice, so cowed has it been by barely veiled Tory threats it might be better-off in Murdoch’s hands.

No wonder the Reporters without Borders 2017 World Press Freedom Index ranked the UK 40th out of 180 countries (the US ranks 43rd) when it comes to press freedom– according to the Index, “Journalists working in the UK are less free to hold power to account than those in Namibia, Slovenia, Chile, South Africa, Samoa and Germany”.

Labour’s only option here is to command social media, and wage an all-out war against the official media through credible proxies.

Another “known known” will be the reaction of the so-called “markets” at the merest prospect of a Labour victory.  History shows there is usually a predicted and then actual run on sterling, a dip in stock-market prices, a decline in investor “confidence” produced like a rabbit out of a conjurer’s hat, etc, whenever Labour stands a chance of winning, or does win, an election.

A Tory victory or its prospect always produces the opposite result, even though the historical data show clearly that, in comparison to the Tories, Labour borrows less and pays back more when it is in power.

This time should be no different—as Michael Foot acknowledged decades ago, the UK’s capitalists always know how to look after themselves and protect their interests, unlike many of their poorer counterparts.

Also in the category of “known knowns” is the continued attempt by Labour’s Blairites to sabotage the party’s leftwing.  The multimillionaire Tony Blair recently said voters in the forthcoming election should prefer the sturdiest anti-Brexit candidates to those of his own party who were not its passionate opponents, which basically amounts to a pitch for the strongly Europhile but minuscule Lib Dems, who formed a disastrous sell-out coalition with the Tories in 2010 and got wiped out in the 2015 election as a result.

Another “known known” will be the Tory’s repeated mantra that the UK “can’t live beyond it means”.

The truth of course is that it is the UK’s wealthy elites which live beyond the UK’s means, while those on the lower economic tiers have for decades sacrificed for this by making wealth-transfers upwards to the economic elites.  Labour has no alternative but to hammer home this particular “known known” to the electorate.

Since Thatcher a palpable class war has been waged in the UK, and Labour must be up to the task of saying this loudly and clearly, as it defends the interests of those who are the victims of this class war.

Labour’s strategy since it ceased being a socialist party has however been to placate the filthy rich, hoping the bastards will relent a little and let the disadvantaged and underprivileged have a crumb or two.

As is the case in the US, this “trickle down” has never materialized, and there has been a dramatic increase in inequality in both countries.

Corbyn and his supporters are starting to say this in increasingly straightforward terms.  Corbyn’s Labour has looked like a lost cause in the weeks leading up to the election, but if they don’t speak out about the appalling iniquities visited upon the less well-off by the Tories, and Blair and Brown’s New Labour, they will be toast burnt to cinders in June.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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