UK election autopsy: Zombie democracy shambling towards fascism

Sam Lawton-Westerland articulates the two routes that lie ahead for Labour in preventing a far-right takeover at the next UK general election, and why Starmer will choose the stupid option.

by Sam Lawton-Westerland

The UK general election has brought catharsis to some after 14 years of Tory rule. The darling boffin of the UK's political system agrees that the Tories lost the election, rather than Starmer winning it; the Tory vote splitting between Reform and the Liberal Democrats. Voter turnout was very low: hardly inspiring stuff from the Labour leader. There were some glimmers of hope, with Corbyn and other pro-Palestine independents winning seats locally. The Greens gaining seats. Transphobes losing seats and deposits. The most concerning result of the election was the rise of Reform. Who could have seen this coming?

Starmer has two avenues to combat the rise of the far-right: a smart option, and a stupid one. The Tories have overseen the largest wealth transfer to the rich for decades. The smart option is to simply tax the rich. This will inject much needed money into decimated public services. This needs to be done quickly, so that council budgets can be increased and people can see a material difference in their lives. It will help to regenerate areas which have been destroyed by austerity. These were the areas that voted for Brexit, and where Reform UK took seats.

This should be coupled with voter enfranchisement. One of the reasons that Brexit was so transformative was that many people who had been shut out of politics suddenly saw their vote count. These were people that had never bothered voting before because first past the post is an unfair system in which roughly two thirds of votes don’t count. Replacing this system with some kind of proportional representation would mean that ordinary people at least feel that their views are reflected in seats in parliament, even if some of these views are unpalatable for the Left. This would also have the effect of freeing larger parties from having to forever pander to the far right. The Tories and Labour have increasingly played the fascists' games of transphobia and xenophobia, to attempt to mould the electorate in their image through media manipulation. Transphobic content is ubiquitous in the UK press, as is vile, dehumanising language deployed against migrants.

Proportional representation would free larger parties from having to pander to right-wing ghouls; if the larger parties didn’t feel the need to be everything to everyone, we might have less normalisation of racism. At the moment, extra-parliamentary forces have had a huge sway over the political agenda: Nigel Farage has only just been elected as an MP; he was not a parliamentary figure during, nor after, Brexit. There is a huge religious lobby in Europe to repeal any kind of social liberalism, who fund the far-right. I realise that voting reform is hardly the most radical idea to be presented; however, there was a time when it was, and this has been the most unrepresentative election ever in the UK. I don’t place any of my faith in Westminster, but enfranchisement can’t hurt.

The lag that the UK is experiencing behind European democracies is frankly depressing; what is common sense there is unthinkable here. Many European parties govern through pluralism, whereas the UK’s majoritarian system means that we will always have the tyranny of the majority. Little wonder that our politics is characterised by an increasingly authoritarian streak. First past the post and massive economic inequality have created swathes of the UK that are disenfranchised and depressed. Austerity has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the UK, and millions globally.

This is a seedbed for the far-right. They blame immigration for problems caused by the transfer of wealth, facilitated by Rishi Sunak, from the poor to the rich. The political elite – not migrant workers – are responsible for making working class people poor. The ultra rich are nameless, whereas working class people born in the UK can only see what the market wants them to see: migrant competitors for what little wages they have left.

Farage is a former stockbroker, and he is essentially doing the same job now: using his magic powers to keep rich people rich. His rhetoric, however, is the only one that is actually addressing the people of the UK. I can't blame people voting for Reform when all they see is Labour and the Conservatives squabbling, while Farage seems to directly speak to their concerns. He offers false solutions, is cynically populist, but does address the people of the country. Labour essentially is offering a rebranding of the same policies that have driven the UK in to a doomspiral. Starmer offers politics as usual, which is not going to cut it in a country hollowed out of wealth and public services. The vacuum of a populist left spokesperson is all too apparent, and was highlighted when Mick Lynch was doing the media rounds, making mincemeat of Piers Morgan to everyone’s delight. It is easy for Farage to cast politicians as the elite when they are so detached from the bankrupt, moribund places that they have created. Farage is simply a wolf in sheep's clothing. He is boldly lying because his campaign went better than expected. He clearly has some rich and powerful friends, not just Donald Trump, but in the UK media: someone keeps inviting him on the BBC. So confident was he in this election that he showed his true master's voice by batting for Vladimir Putin.

The stupid option, which is inevitable, is for Labour to pander increasingly to the far-right. It is inevitable because Labour will not address inequality or the real problems associated with migration. This means that we will have an increasingly bonkers immigration policy that doesn't fix the root of one of the main migration concerns in the media: that migrants and refugees turn to smuggler middlemen because they have no other option. The current system offers few legal options for migration due to excessive income requirements for visas, forcing much labour underground and into informality by design. How the UK is supposed to support an aging population with closed borders is a recipe for disaster: the outcome is a lot of grandparents will be supported by so-called 'illegal' migrants. The new Justice Secretary utters transphobic dogwhistles and doesn’t want LGBTQ education in schools, so we are well on the way to far-right pandering already.

Starmer won't tax the rich. He's selected a string of oil and gas lobbyists to stand for Parliament. The new chancellor has previously said she won’t introduce a wealth tax. Neoclassical economic orthodoxy, which the Bank of England agrees with, still adheres to the balanced budget doctrine, meaning that countries shouldn't be borrowing more than they can pay back. This is stupid because economies don't function like households: they can afford to run budget deficits. The Bank of England believes in a single, narrow type of economics. Austerity was part of that twisted economic 'school of thought', or more aptly put, brain death. This form of economics only works for the ultra-wealthy. Starmer has appointed former Bank of England economist Rachel Reeves as Chancellor. Austerity continues if it will not be remedied, and Labour won't remedy austerity.

In other words: we're fucked. Labour shortsightedly won't reform an electoral system that it has seemingly profited from. If this is the outcome, the UK will continue as a zombie democracy, and there is a necromancer waiting in the wings.

I don't naively presume that the smart option will 'fix Britain'; it simply consists of two pragmatic things that the current wielders of the state apparatus could do to salt the kind of earth in which fascism thrives. Those levers will not be pulled, because the hands resting on them are bought by the ultra-wealthy. What the political left must do now is organise against the far-right. We cannot be in a situation like France, scrabbling around to try and stop a power grab, and at the last minute pulling off a lucky win. At least France has an institutional leftwing: that has been virtually eliminated in the UK, mostly by Starmer. The media, which is owned by billionaires, will no doubt clamp down on the Greens in the coming years.

We must go out into communities, listen, and not preach. Stop ideological pamphleteering, create meaningful connections with the people that the Left presume they are always acting in the interests of. Everyone hates the rich, who are so often invisible. Let the people know their true enemy: the vampire billionaires who have drained them of their wealth. Offer people something, even if it is simply human connection in an increasingly lonely online world – another predatory sphere for fascists. Mutual aid is the most British of traditions, one that was revived during the pandemic. The far-right is monied and globally organised, but they can be beaten. You have five years.

Further reading:

– A paper by Jonathan Hopkin and Ben Rosamund Post-truth politics, bullshit and bad ideas: ‘Deficit fetishism’ in the UK gets in to the nitty gritty of several ideas that I’ve covered here, linking austerity policy with populist rhetoric.

– For a broader, accessible critique of current economic thinking, I strongly recommend Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics: the Users’ Guide.

– Judith Butler’s most recent book Who’s Afraid of Gender? exposes some of the tactics of the global right wing conspiracy which has recently seen its effects in the European elections. Abigail Thorn of Philosophy Tube has a usefully summarised the book. Credit to David Paternotte and Roman Kuhar, whose work has been sounding the alarm on this for at least five years.

– I would also recommend Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality by Professor Imogen Tyler. The book articulates how stigma is weaponised by political elites to justify austerity in particular and inequalities generally. You can find Interregnum’s interview with her here about the book.

– A profile of the pro-Palestine bloc of newly-elected independent MPs.

Sam Lawton-Westerland is a writer, researcher, and lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at The University of Glasgow.