As British right flourishes, Labour Party does little
Figures on the British right: David Cameron and Nigel Farage. | Photo via Morning Star

Voters across Europe head to the polls June 6 to 9 for elections to the European Parliament. In countries around the continent, the parties of the far right are expected to make major gains.

This article is part of a series, “Rise of the Right in Europe.” It is a collaborative project of three newspapers, Junge Welt in Germany, Arbejderen in Denmark, and Morning Star in Britain. Each installment in the series will examine the far-right threat in a different country.

In this article, Morning Star editor Ben Chacko says that it’s not necessary to peer into shadowy, secretive corners to find extremist politics in Britain because they’re easy to find right out in the open in the mainstream of the Conservative Party. While Britain is no longer part of the EU, the collaboration and coordination between the Tories and the hard-right on the continent continue, as Chacko points out.

Read other installments in the series: Rise of the Right in Europe.

LONDON—Britain’s Home Secretary James Cleverly went to Italy the day the government’s notorious plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda passed in the House of Commons.

He cleverly compared Britain’s “stop the boats” policy to that of the Italian government, which has been instrumental in getting the European Union to abandon search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean with the abolition of Operation Sophia in 2019 and has led the way in seeking to criminalize civil search-and-rescue missions, charging the crews of rescue vessels like the Iuventa (who were acquitted last month) with human-trafficking offenses when they save lives at sea.

Last autumn, the same alliance was underlined by a joint article by British and Italian Prime Ministers Rishi Sunak and Giorgia Meloni in the Times, pledging to work together to stop immigration into Europe.

The Conservative Party’s alignment with the European far right is nothing new. It was under David Cameron in 2009 that the Conservatives left the main right-wing bloc in the European Parliament—the European People’s Party—and teamed up with more extreme nationalist forces to create the European Conservatives & Reformists bloc, which includes fascistic parties like the Sweden Democrats, Latvian National Alliance, and Bulgarian National Movement.

Liberal opinion in Britain associates right-wing nationalism with Brexit, but Cameron was a Remain supporter and as the current Tory hook-up with Meloni shows, the Conservatives continue to play a role in promoting hard-right and anti-immigrant politics in continental Europe, where far-right parties like Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, or indeed Viktor Orban’s Fidesz do not propose leaving the EU but rather cementing its “Fortress Europe” character and reshaping it along white nationalist lines (the theme of the “renaissance” of Christian Europe called for by Orban and Italian and Polish nationalists Matteo Salvini and Mateusz Morawiecki at a Budapest summit in 2021).

Britain’s electoral system makes breakthroughs for minor parties extremely hard. Political movements left and right which elsewhere in Europe thrust new, or formerly marginal, parties to the fore like Syriza or France Insoumise on the left or Vox or AfD on the right have played out in Britain within the two big Westminster parties. So, a socialist resurgence from 2015 was expressed inside the Labour Party through Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and today the main political home of extreme anti-immigrant nationalism is not in a fascist party as we see in France, Italy, or Germany, but in the Conservative Party itself.

That doesn’t mean the role of “insurgent” right forces is irrelevant. Today, the largest is Reform UK, a party descended from the Brexit Party and before that the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Regularly polling at 12-13% in the polls, Reform UK has an MP (Lee Anderson) via defection from the Tories and threatens to slice off a huge chunk of the Conservative vote at a general election.

It combines hysterical anti-immigrant politics with racism directed at established non-white communities. Anderson himself quit the Tories after being suspended for claiming that Palestine solidarity marches showed London had been taken over by Islamists, something he characterized as the London-born Muslim Mayor of London Sadiq Khan having handed the city to “his mates.”

Reform UK has imported some conspiracy theories from the U.S. right, such as hostility to the COVID vaccination program or so-called “15-minute cities,” but neither has much traction with the public, and immigration is its main focus.

Few believe Reform UK will become a parliamentary force of any size: Its danger lies entirely in the close links leading figures have with senior Conservatives, and the visible effort by the Conservative Party to compete with it for racist votes. Labour regards the rise of Reform UK with complacency since the most likely effect it will have on the election is to shrink the Conservative vote, but serious socialists must be alert to the role it plays in emboldening the hard right of the Conservative Party, already mutinous under a weak prime minister and very likely to seize the leadership should the Tories lose the election.

The hard right feeds on the anxieties created by Britain’s failing economic model to attract votes to “anti-system” politics. Living standards in Britain are declining. Real-term wages have shrunk for 15 years; the share of the national product paid in wages has been declining for over 40 years, as the share taken in profits and rents has risen.

This is a direct consequence of the neoliberal political direction of all governments since Margaret Thatcher’s, as are the deterioration of public services, now visible in crumbling schools, an NHS with a treatment waiting list of over seven million, transport and postal networks breaking down, and the collapse of services provided by local authorities through mass closures of libraries, swimming pools, and so on.

Brexit was sold to the public as a means to “take back control,” which, had it been embraced and delivered by a left-wing government, it could have been by reversing the privatizing policies of the last 40 years (something harder to do within the rules of the EU single market). However, since we have retained a neoliberal Conservative government, all the policies driving down living standards have continued and even been accelerated.

The Tories are in power, so they cannot blame the government for problems. Instead, they argue government’s hands are tied by various international agreements, which is why we see hostility to the European Convention on Human Rights, and to British courts which try to enforce our adherence to international law on the treatment of refugees.

But again, this must be seen as the international right-wing project it is: Alongside other European states, they are working to demolish rules established following the defeat of fascism and the creation of the United Nations, to develop a new, crueler world order fitted to the era of international conflict that ministers say is now upon us.

The hard-right Tories aren’t just ripping up the rulebook on refugees. They are working to establish a new normal at home. The government has passed a whole string of authoritarian laws to increase unaccountable police power and restrict protest (the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, the National Security Act, and the Public Order Act), and have attempted to ban effective strike action. The bankrupting of public services is designed both to pave the way for further privatization and to lower citizens’ expectations of government in an era in which capitalism can no longer provide rising living standards.

Much of that project is shared across political parties in Britain: Labour says it will retain recent authoritarian policing laws and refuses to consider the investment necessary to pull public services back from the brink. Since this guarantees that living standards will continue to fall, scapegoats will be required and hateful politics directed at immigrants and other vulnerable people such as disabled people will continue to grow.

There is an alternative, which the socialist politics of our newspaper fights for every day. But as we saw in the way Corbyn’s socialist project came off the rails over Brexit, it will only get a hearing as an insurgent, anti-system politics: Accommodation to the status quo (in that case by supporting the EU) is crippling for the left since it can no longer channel the real rage felt by communities under attack.

This is why the election of a right-wing Labour government will do nothing to halt the rise of the far right: Only a militant, class-conscious socialist movement, one that identifies the real cause of people’s problems in capitalism and the real enemy in the rich, can do that.

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Ben Chacko
Ben Chacko

Ben Chacko is Editor of Morning Star, the socialist daily newspaper published in Great Britain.