Reading the Tea Leaves on Ukania’s Local Quasi-Referendum on Brexit

Last week elections were held for town, city, and county councils in England (London apart) and the north of Ireland. No local elections took place in Scotland and Wales.

More than 8,400 seats in 248 councils, part of a 4-year election cycle, were contested in England, and 462 seats in Northern Ireland.

The elections were perceived to be important because they were deemed by the media to be a quasi-referendum on the current Brexit negotiations.

The election result was a setback for both main parties, and especially disastrous for the Tories.

The Tories received a drubbing, losing control of nearly a third of the councils they had after the 2015 election, and losing 1334 seats in the process.

Labour had hoped to gain at the expense of the hugely unpopular Tories, but failed to advance. Labour lost 82 seats and 6 councils—not an absolute failure, but very far from being the success it had wished for in the face of the Tory party’s staggering record of incompetence and sheer nastiness since it took over from Labour in 2010.

The biggest winner this time round was the Lib Dems, who managed to gain 676 councillors. The Lib Dems had been coalition partners with the austerity-imposing Tories from 2010 to 2015, and, deservedly, were wiped-out electorally in the 2015 general election.

The Tories lost their overall majority in the 2017 snap general election, called by May in yet another of her miscalculations, and remained in power only because she paid a massive bribe to the Ulster Unionist party (DUP) to secure their support for her party in parliament.

Such are the ways of “the mother of all parliaments”!

The Lib Dems are Remainers on Brexit, but owe their current resurgence just as much to a protest vote from disaffected Tory voters fed-up with May’s ineptitude, but with no stomach for the social democracy (aka “Marxism” in the tabloid press) embodied by Labour.

The Lib Dems present voters with a stereotypical chimera—in times when both Labour and the Tories are perceived to be weak or disadvantaged electorally, they gain strength for no real reason other than their being, situationally and thus most conveniently, neither Tory nor Labour.

TheGreens, the other Remain party on Brexit,were also a relative success in these elections, making net gains of 185 seats across England, albeit without controlling any councils.

Ukip, the strongly post-Brexit party, saw a net loss of 145 seats (82% of the seats it held).

Several other parties, including candidates standing as independents, ended-up controlling 6 councils between them (an increase of 4), and gaining 285 seats.

71 of the 248 councils ended-up with no party managing to secure overall control; an increase of 36 over the 2015 election result.

In the north of Ireland a similar situation prevailed. The Alliance and Green parties, as well as other small parties and independents gained, while May’s allies the DUP won 24.1% of first preference votes, a slight increase from the last local election, and the nationalist Sinn Fein won 23.3%, a modest drop, indicating that both parties still dominate the party-political landscape, even if a tiny loosening of the traditional unionist-nationalist grip on Northern Irish politics seemed to occur.

May and Jeremy Corbyn said in postelection statements that the message received from these results was that of an electorate deeply frustrated by the lack of progress on Brexit, and wanting to punish the two major parties for this failure.

May and Corbyn seemingly overlooked the possibility that many voters preferred to remain in the EU, as opposed to wanting the major parties to deliver on Brexit, and abandoned the Tory and Labour parties for precisely this reason.

Certainly frustration over the botched Brexit negotiations was a factor in determining the election’s outcome, but to single this out as the sole, or even main factor, is too simple– Ukip’s steep decline, when it should have gained seats from voters favouring Brexit, shows that a more complex analysis is required.

It has been obvious for decades, if not centuries, that the UK’s archaic parliamentary system is not up to the task of upholding anything like a substantive democracy.

The Tories have followed the US Republicans in giving-up on the idea of adequate and competent governance, especially where the economy is concerned. The economy for these politicians is no longer to be managed for the common good, but is simply to be treated as a font of plunder, whose looting is therefore one of the fruits to be gained by getting elected.

A lootocracy (to use Rob Urie’s term) has thus supplanted democracy.

Historically, the Labour party has been more honest and competent than the Tories, but this changed with Tony Blair, who gave himself the task of upholding a version of “Thatcherism lite”, thereby consolidating what the old witch started.

Labour is now an uneasy and fragile coalition between a metropolitan and largely university-educated elite, and poorer and less well-educated voters, mainly white, in what used to the UK’s industrial and mining heartlands. As in the US, globalization and neoliberalism have devastated the latter.

Thatcher got the ball rolling on this casting-off of the industrial working-class, and Blair’s New Labour, without the smidgen of a policy involving concerted and coherent economic redevelopment, remained bystanders as entire areas of the UK were consigned to high unemployment or low-waged and precarious employment, a shredded social safety net, and post-industrial blight—the “no future” of punk rock.

New Labour was happy to dish out government grants to convert abandoned factories into museums dedicated to Ukania’s “glorious” industrial past, but this post-industrial Disneyfication did nothing for huge numbers of people now leading distressed lives.

What use was such a museum to unemployed males whose fathers and grandfathers had toiled for decent wages in this very factory-turned-museum with its nice café, located where the old workers’ canteen used to be, but now serving overpriced cappuccino and croissants?

This election result is yet another symptom of what is increasingly evident, namely, a collective loss of confidence on the part of many Brits in a political establishment increasingly incapable of representing them effectively.

Labour under Corbyn, with the largest membership of any political party in Europe, has tried to reverse this long-term decline in confidence by breaking-out of its Blairite shackles. Corbyn and his supporters have been thwarted up to now by a significant Blairite remnant who know their days as Labour politicians will be numbered once Corbyn heads a Labour government.

The unrelenting efforts of this remnant to undermine Corbyn take place in public, abetted daily by Ukania’s rightwing tabloids, and the supposedly “objective” but nonetheless Tory-supporting BBC.

Corbyn has been called a Soviet-bloc agent of yore; a traitor for meeting Sinn Fein politicians during the “Troubles” (when Thatcher’s emissaries were negotiating with them in secret!); a “peacenik” for saying that since all wars end in peace talks, it might be more rational to have the peace talks before resorting to war; and of course an “anti-Semite” for his support of the Palestinian cause.

Even the purportedly “liberal” Guardian newspaper takes a Likudist line in weaponizing “anti-Semitism” against Corbyn.

At the same time, Brexit is without doubt a stumbling block for Labour.

61% of those who voted “Leave” in the 2016 Brexit referendum belonged to Labour constituencies in predominantly non-metropolitan areas, while Labour’s metropolitan supporters voted decisively for “Remain”.

This division quickly became apparent last week when Corbyn said that Labour would only give conditional support for a second referendum on Brexit.

Labour MPs in “Leave” constituencies, for whom a second referendum represents an attempt to reverse the “Leave” decision of the first referendum, called Corbyn’s qualified support for a second referendum a capitulation to the Remainers; while Labour Remainers (Blairites in the main), wanting an unconditional referendum in the hope of reversing the result of the first referendum, denounced him for a pussy-footing capitulation to the Brexiters.

This deadlock, and Corbyn’s perceived inability to resolve it, cost Labour votes in last week’s election.

Labour under Corbyn, far from being the perceived upholders of a new and more substantive democracy, just seemed to Corbyn’s critics to be stuck in the “same-old, same-old” of the old politics.

There is a kind of media-driven osmosis in such matters—by being drawn into negotiations with the hapless and clueless May on a possible Brexit deal, Corbyn was somehow perceived to have been sucked into her own quagmire.

Rightly or wrongly, it appears that Corbyn had fallen into a trap.

May has long been looking in desperation for someone to take the fall for her inability to manage Brexit.

Her first try in this game was with the EU, but the crafty Eurocrats saw what was coming a mile away, and turned the “blame” tables on her at every opportunity. The ruthless bastards in Brussels never missed a chance to show her to be an out-of-depth hack.

May’s next try has been with Labour, who entered into negotiations with the Tories because a refusal to do so would be spun as Labour’s sabotaging a possible Brexit deal.

Rather than stipulating clearly and in advance strict terms for their negotiations with May, Labour’s negotiating team simply went for “desired outcomes”, that is, a Brexit involving a customs union with the EU, and a hoped-for resolution of the so-far intractable “hard” border issue between the UK’s north of Ireland and its EU-member neighbour to the south.

Labour, having fallen into May’s trap, run the risk of be pressured into settling for a Brexit deal loathed by Leavers and Remainers alike.

However, Corbyn’s key ally, the astute John McDonnell, is aware of this danger and said on Sunday that a deal will be struck only if Labour’s conditions are met. And just to put the boot in, he also said that May could not be trusted.

May will soon be dumped by the Tories—deal or no deal– but Labour led by Corbyn has several possible steps to take.

The first of these will be to pull-out of negotiations with May (using the disastrous local election results as an alibi to claim she now lacks anything like a mandate from her own party), and to call, in unqualified terms, for a second referendum.

The first referendum was merely aspirational in its vague terms of reference, so any approximation of whatever deal with the EU standing a chance of being set in concrete needs to be ratified by Ukania’s voters in a second referendum.

The first referendum opened a can of worms, and there is alas no guarantee that the outcome of a second referendum will not go the same way.

Nonetheless, Labour needs to accept this risk, and say to hell to nay-sayers on whichever side.

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