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Politics Establishment forces don’t like the new politics of Britain

The latest Brexit manoeuvrings of Farage, Umunna and the Lib Dems show further talk of a ‘Progressive Alliance’ would be misplaced, writes KEVIN OVENDEN

POLITICS has changed and it “isn’t going back into the old box where it was before.” 

That is how Jeremy Corbyn responded six months ago almost to the day as the election showed a historic 10-point surge for the Labour Party.

Among those most desperate to shift politics back to before the Corbyn-Labour advance is Nigel Farage, whose Ukip was annihilated in June last year. 

Confounding the Tories’ entire election strategy, and the assumptions of nearly every mainstream commentator, a large minority of Ukip’s former vote also went to Labour in key seats.

The other big casualty was the Liberal Democrats and those on the Labour benches who had made no secret of their goal of using the election to try to oust the leadership and create a centrist, pro-EU bloc blessed by Tony Blair. 

The face of Stephen Kinnock on election night still tells you everything you need to know.

So it should not come as a surprise that both forces tangoed with each other this week following Farage’s announcement that he was now in favour of a second referendum on the EU. 

The cynicism and showboating were breathtaking, even by Farage’s standards. He quickly “clarified,” as so many Westminster politicians do these days, to say he was merely saying that a second referendum was now more likely and that the Leave side should prepare for it. 

But the purpose had been achieved. Having been becalmed for nearly a year, he was back in the headlines. And the BBC Today programme dutifully had him on yesterday morning in a choreographed joust with Chuka Umunna. 

He too had spent the week trying to promote himself and his fanatical pro-EU position at the expense of the Labour Party’s big push, with unions and campaigners, to force emergency funding to meet the worst crisis in the NHS for decades.

It was politics back in the old, pre-election, pre-referendum box — but a rather small one.

Here we had a man who has never made it to be an MP and one who couldn’t get it together to stand for the Labour leadership — both ostensibly at the centre of the national debate on the premier BBC current affairs radio show. 

Yet as if to demonstrate how remote both are from mass sentiment in Britain, the little referendum duet was wholly overshadowed by the breaking news that Donald Trump had been forced to cancel his visit to Britain by the threat of massive protests and civil disobedience.

Farage was the first British political figure to head over and stroke Trump at the start of last year, before Theresa May’s hand-in-hand meeting. 

Trump and Brexit were supposedly going to boost the fortunes of Farage and the xenophobic right, of May and the Tories.

Look what has happened since. Brexit is happening, but it is a source of repeated crises for the Tory Party as it tries to square the circle of carrying it through while aiming to represent the interests of big business, which wants to stay in the EU. 

Farage and Ukip have been sidelined. That is why they and millionaire Arron Banks, through the hard-right websites he promotes, have lurched to a more explicit anti-leftism and downright racism. 

The model was Steve Bannon, Breitbart and the so-called alt-right in the US, but a look over the pond reveals what has happened to him and to them. The bust-up with Trump was merely brought to the surface with the publication of the incendiary Fire and Fury book last week. 

May and Farage can visit Trump, but the president of the US is unable to visit Brexit Britain. 

That is a sign of the new politics and it flies in the face of where both the right and the liberal centre predicted we would be.
That is not stopping outright denial from some quarters. Denier in chief is Blair. Farage cited killing off his influence as a reason for a second referendum. 

Farage needs Blair as a foil. It was the rupture with working-class voters under Blairism that allowed the Ukip advance. Corbyn is a different proposition. Both Blair and Farage have an interest in talking each other up to try to unwind the Corbyn surge. 

And they both have an interest in smearing all 17 million-plus Leave voters as in some way driven by racism and politically identified with what was Ukip. 

That requires ignoring all the evidence of the multiplicity of factors in the Leave vote, which Diane Abbott at the time called a “howl of rage at the Establishment.”

A brief period of lip service to the underlying anti-Establishment feeling in 2016 has given way to politicians of both the right and pro-EU centre trying to squeeze it along a single axis of attitudes to immigration. 

That Ukip did not represent 17 million voters in Britain was amply demonstrated at the general election, but a second mythology is also being spun about that shock result. 

Umunna claims that 40 per cent of people voted Labour in order to stop Brexit. There is no evidence for that. In fact, the Ashcroft poll on June 9 last year found that Brexit was absent from the top three reasons people gave for voting Labour. 

All studies point to the impact of the radical Labour manifesto, the unconventional campaigning techniques and the stance taken by Corbyn in refusing to concede to a Trumpist response to the terror attacks as critical to the Labour surge. 

It was not only among young people who voted Remain. As the campaign went on, the average age at which people voted Labour over Tory rose to the late forties. 

In the six months since, and despite repeated attempts to talk up tiny and conflicting shifts in polls, there has been no big change in people’s view about Brexit, except that the chaos of the May government leaves more people believing that the Tories are not capable of carrying it through successfully.

The two parties that tried to fight the general election on a Leave-Remain polarisation on Brexit — Ukip and the Lib Dems — are both still floundering in the polls as England demonstrates a two-party electoral system not seen since the late-1960s. 

This week revealed something else they have in common. Former Lib Dem Tim Farron casually admitted that he flatly lied to the electorate last year about his view that gay sex is a sin. 

His cynicism matches Farage, who is prepared to drop the sub-Churchillian rhetoric about sovereignty and democracy to play about with talk of a second referendum in order to put him in the spotlight. 

In their different ways the claims by both the Lib Dems and Farage to represent some anti-Establishment and “honest politics” stand threadbare. 

Perhaps this will help put paid to the chorus who called for a “Progressive Alliance” last year in which Labour should stand aside for the Lib Dems in certain seats. 

Meanwhile, the social crisis in Britain, extending from the universal credit disaster, through housing and transport, to pay, education and health, is actually what is dominating most people’s minds. 

That underlines the political choice for the labour movement — back to the politics of the Farage-Blair, Westminster bubble or building upon the advance of last June and putting the vital issues facing working-class people front and centre. That includes making them central to the Brexit process. 

Growing agitation over the NHS, with a national demonstration in three weeks, makes this a moment to take that new politics into every working-class community.

And if anyone asks whether protest works, look at the failed Trump visit. 

It is also a chance to send a simple message to those who perhaps have been seduced over the years by the siren calls of Farage or his twins among the pro-EU centrists. These people constitute two parts of an Establishment that need each other. 

The radical message from the labour movement is an antidote to both. 

The old politics has failed. It is not just new policies that are on offer. It is a very different way of doing things, which does not play fast and loose with democracy and which puts the interests of the mass of people ahead of petty politicking by yesterday’s men.

 

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