The British far right in crisis


In 2003, I was a member of an anti-racist campaign based in North East England. I worked with a journalist from the BBC as he reported on the story of the British National Party and its growing electoral support in Sunderland.

As the journalist left the city, I remember him saying, “I wish I could come back in a few years when their vote falls. But you and I both know that’s never the story.”

I’ve been thinking about that line over the past few months. Because the mainstream media are continuing to report that the far right is booming even though every sign is that they’re in crisis.

Tommy Robinson has been quoted telling his supporters that he has joined the Conservatives. Britain First claimed that 5,000 of its members have done the same. Even Nigel Farage has cooled his previous criticisms of the Conservatives, and is now is in the press for his support of that party. Apparently Boris Johnson is “singing the right tune” and “saying all the right things“.

For four years we have been seeing a realignment of the global right, in a political space which is more authoritarian and nationalistic even than the generation of Reagan or Thatcher but yet does not go as far as the far right of the 1920s or 1930s.

The new far-right leaders have drawn on the assistance of outliers further to their right: Donald Trump’s first Chief Strategist was Steve Bannon, Vladimir Putin can has the backing of the neo-fascist court philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.

But what is striking about the likes of Nigel Farage or the former supporters of the Brexit Party is actually how little institutional power they have acquired under Boris Johnson’s government.

In 2016, after the referendum result, UKIP supporters called for Nigel Farage to be granted a peerage. The idea was to give him a permanent formal role in British politics. But the peerage never came.

In the run-up to the 2019 election, there was widespread speculation that the Brexit Party was to be offered some formal pact with the Conservatives, where in return for backing Boris Johnson, the Brexit Party would be guaranteed a certain minimum number of uncontested seats in the new Parliament.

But what actually happened was that no such deal ever materialised; and Farage had to construct a one-sided pactof his own – in which his party agreed not to contest Conservative-held seats with no guarantee of anything from Johnson in return.

The arrangement was of enormous benefit to the Conservatives. It ensured that the “leave” side of our post-referendum election system was united behind a single party, while (depending on where you voted) Remainers had the choice of either three or four different parties that could plausibly aim to represent them.

Farage’s one-sided offer guaranteed the present Conservative majority. And yet his reward has been nothing: no seat in the Lords, no supporters in the Commons.

In so far as there was any price of this arrangement it was that the Conservatives would move – for a lengthy period of time – onto the political terrain previously occupied by the Brexit, UKIP and before them other parties of the extreme right.

It was that move which makes the Conservatives interesting to such contemporary types as Dominic Cummings, Andrew Sabisky or Joshua Spencer. The people who in America are called the “alt-lite,” in Britain join the Conservatives.

They are not a faction within that party. They depend on its leaders to support their policies. The far-right has no guarantee that they’ll oblige.

If you see the balance of power in the perspective of the last few years, what is striking is how the right is realigning within a Conservative Party rather than against a previously-dominant mainstream right.

Compare France in 2017, where in the last Presidential election the leading candidate came from the far right rather than a newly-militant centre right. Or Austria, where the same dynamics of convergence on the right led to a centre-and-far-right coalition between 2017 and 2019.

The weakness of the far right is even clearer the further you look away from the mainstream. Tommy Robinson has been chastened by a spell in prison and stripped of his means of communication with his previous mass support.

Far from commanding a secret army of 5,000 people the leaders of Britain First are struggling to avoid following Robinson to jail.

Indeed, this seems to be the general pattern of the last few months: with the most extreme factions of the right in trouble also in Greece and the United States.

“Breakthrough” populism was all about the centre-right moving on to territory occupied by the far right. The populism of the last few months has been much more like standard conservatism. The historical purpose of Claire Fox turns out to be only to win Boris Johnson a slightly larger majority.

So while socialists, radical democrats and anti-fascists have been in no great state after the last election, we can at least take comfort from the reality that – for a key group of our enemies – the immediate prospect is even worse.

The Convergence Election


I wanted to put together some thoughts on why the Conservatives did well in last week’s election. Almost everyone I know has focused on why Labour’s vote shrank, but logically that can’t be more than half the answer. There is an old Eric Hobsbawm quip about histories of the left, that they risk telling you only what radicals did, what their thinking was, but they never look at the other side, until what’s left is like watching a footage of a boxing match in which you see but one of the fighters punching into a vacuum. Which might as well be the story of our past week. The left has produced many accounts of why we lost, hardly any of why the other side won.

As of six months ago, the Conservatives had a series of obstacles to face, each of which made it unlikely that they would win a majority. The most important barrier was incumbency – most voting is negative, and the longer they are in power the greater the anger aimed at incumbents. For seventy years of two-party competition, British politics has followed essentially the same pattern. In general, a party is elected with a certain core idea (build council housing, the white heat of technology, monetarism, education education education…). That idea, in combination with the unpopularity of its exhausted opponents, gives the party a majority. Over successive elections, the governing party generally loses its majority until it is time for a new party to govern.

Absent the Brexit referendum and what “should” have happened by now is that Cameron and Osborne, having won elections narrowly in 2010 and 2015 would still be defending the ideas with which they were most closely associated (i.e. austerity) but they would be intellectually exhausted, mired in corruption. Their majority would have narrowed to the point at which they started losing in parliament, the Labour Party should have chosen an anti-austerity candidate and the 2019 election would be the ideal opportunity for austerity to be consigned forever to …. (you get the picture).

Brexit, obviously, changed that. Among all its many effects, perhaps the most important has been to create a void space, so that 2010 didn’t happen, 2015 didn’t happen, 2017 didn’t happen and politics was reset as if to zero – and Johnson could say in seeming good faith, as he did whenever he was questioned on his government’s track record of cuts to school, hospitals and libraries, “I have only been in office for three months”.

In truth, Brexit’s impact was deeper – it was, and remains, among other things an attempt to reascribe the blame for austerity onto foreigners in general and the EU in particular, so that people who are annoyed about the collapsing state of our social infrastructure can blame it on something outside and distant, not the Tories, definitely not Boris Johnson, not even Labour, but someone outside, so that the clock is always being reset, and the conservatives can face the voters with the eternal sunshine of a spotless record. Don’t think for a second that we on the left are incapable of the same wilful innocence – but Johnson is doing it now, and Brexit allows him to get away with it.

There are other reasons why Johnson was able to win. During the election campaign, I had a much beloved friend who responded to every day’s reports of Johnson’s campaigning by posting a single recurring message to the effect that Johnson was a formidable campaigner, a rare politician to whom ordinary people connect and had real charisms. My friends made the point ironically, and repeated it so many times that in the ends the words collapsed apart and became just a raspberry jelly trifle of utter meaninglessness. Unfortunately, the satire was on all of us.

Johnson, it turns out, is a formidable campaigner. He does have real charisma. Our inability to see it was our weakness, not his.

I am interested in why so many friends didn’t “get it”. Part of the reason, perhaps, is that if you think about our notions of leadership, they do unfortunately operate with an exaggerated literality. So that a good left-wing politician is one who comes up with previously unconsidered policy proposals. And persuades his party to adopt them, and his electorate to vote for them.

This isn’t the only kind of political leadership though, on the right or at all. Sometimes, an effective political leader is one who goes into a hostile situation, and focuses simply on neutralising anyone else’s attack points. Actually, Johnson did this. It is why he made the point of being so repeatedly photographed visiting hospitals. Because he grasped that the mere repetitive image of being seen in that location would be a more effective way of presenting Johnson as a “pro-healthcare” politician than any amount of saying “I will not privatise the NHS” (a promise which in any event, could only operate as a hostage to fortune as soon as the inevitable US trade deal is announced). He chose to make his commitments fuzzy and general, and they were effective.

In the rest of this piece I want to talk about the contemporaneity of Johnson’s politics. To explain that, I want you to think what would have happened if Labour had won a week ago. Corbyn would be praised. We would be writing of the way in which he had moved the Overton window, i.e. changed our mutual understanding of what set of politics are acceptable to the majority of voters.

But one reason why Johnson was able to win is that his politics – his hyper-conservatism – was already within the Overton window, so that it seemed natural and normal, even though any number of Conservatives have spent the last six months insisting that it is different, shocking and offends against what mainstream Conservatism was supposed to be about.

Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum, there will be different parts of this which mean most to you. They might include: his personal deceit to the point of blatant lying (think of the way he pocketed Joe Pike’s phone), his willingness to dump long-term allies who prop up key tenets of Conservatism (the DUP and the union), the appointment of non-Conservatives to key posts (think of Dominic Cummings and the way in which he has been allowed to run Johnson’s private office as a Continuity Vote Leave private fiefdom), his rejection of the normal ties of loyalty to party leadership and to colleagues which make parties possible as vehicles for the promotion of shared interest, his toleration of Conservative candidates with grim records of racism and anti-semitism,  and the encouragement of a kind of far right entryism within the Conservative party, so that even perpetual weathervane Tommy Robinson has applied formembership.

There is a common pattern here, which his of opening up the Conservative Party to people, to ideas, and to money, from those historically outside the Conservatives and to their right, with a view towards reshaping politics. The left used to warn about neoliberalism, but the politics of our present day is to the right of neoliberalism in its diminished toleration of social democracy or indeed democracy itself.

And while Johnson is willing to make noises to the effect that the NHS will continue, in some form, there will still be schools – the greatest risk to our shared social fabric will come not from anything in the manifesto but from the relationships of clientelism with the socially-untethered rich which will undoubtedly characterise Johnson’s future administration.

One reason why no one in Britain was shocked by this is that it seems in global perspective to be frankly, quite a tepid version of the politics that we have seen already in Egypt, in India, in Eastern Europe, and most recently in Brazil. But all these moves had a history. And in accepting them as normal, in tolerating them silently (if that’s we do), we all collectively lose something.

(If you enjoyed this piece, you might like my book The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right, which tries to puit the electoral shocks of 2016-8 in global perspective:

The Labour Party and Anti-Semitism


With two weeks to go to the General Election, the press has resumed its focus on the character of the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, and his suitability to be Prime Minister. Key to this is an allegation that the party is institutionally anti-semitic in that a) a significant proportion of its members are anti-semites, and b) the present Labour Party leadership, on receiving complaints repeatedly frustrates them, with the purpose of keeping people in membership who should be excluded.

People have tried to engage with these allegations, particularly the first one, “sociologically”, i.e. by asking how many complaints there have been, whether there have or should have been a similar volume of complaints in the Conservative Party, etc. These approaches don’t however persuade anyone other than the already persuaded. They feel like a form of “defender’s” reasoning, i.e. that if it was possible to prove that only 1% of the members of the Labour Party were anti-Semites (or 0.1% or 0.0001%) then this would “prove” that the party was above criticism. They are usually backed up by a statement along the lines of “but any anti-semitism would be too much”. If that sentence is to have any meaning – and the intention is to cut out all racism including anti-Jewish racism from all politics – then the sociological explanation can’t wash. Because it concedes into the indefinite future the continuing presence of anti-Jewish racism, and sounds suspiciously like an argument for leaving it in place.

What I want to do here is first of all remind people of the history of membership complaints in the Labour Party, and then write about the complaints individually using case-studies, before coming back in at the end to making some brief comments about the prevalence within the Labour Party of each of the types of behavior to which those particular complaints relate. Be wanted this is long (c1800 words): but the issue requires a certain detail.

When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, he was seen to be taking the party into political positions (eg pacifism, social redistribution) which the party had not held for many years. Labour also had a leadership election system in which it was very easy to join, and hundreds of thousands of people did. Therefore the press ran a large number of stories to the effect that Labour was being taken over by a new kind of ultra-leftwing person. MPs, leaders of Constituency Labour Parties, etc – responded by trying to exclude some off the new members on factional lines. At this stage, ie 2015-6, none of the story was about anti-semitism, but what did happen was that the party set in train tens of thousands of investigations. The most common basis of investigation was that people had expressed on social media a support for a Green or non-Labour left candidate in a previous election. When the complaints of anti-semitism began in any serious number, which was later, this experience was disastrous: it left a legacy in which complaints were over-politicised, and frequently spurious, and a delayed outcome to an investigation was seen as a desirable outcome – since it favoured the then status quo (i.e. excluding potential Corbyn voters).

When complaints of anti-semitism began, they were made in large number. The best-known example is one single MP on the right of the party Margaret Hodge who made two hundred complaints, all of which therefore had to be investigated. Only 20 of her complaints were about members of the Labour Party, and that party on learning that someone was not a member generally stopped investigating at that point. But, on the other hand, it could not stop investigating until someone’s membership status had been confirmed. Delays at this stage contributed to a sense that Labour had something to hide. But we need to be clear: the people who were responsible for the delays were Corbyn’s critics and not the present leadership: the people responsible for investigating complaints were the same as in 2015-6, and they brought to the complaints the old lethargy. Further the people making the complaints prioritised volume, with 673 complaints made between April 2018 and February 2019,a number which was then duly leaked to the press. The result was that investigators had to wade through hundreds of complaints in order to find a relatively small number that might possibly lead to sanction.

The best way to understand the approach of the Labour Party and its present leadership to the complaints is by looking at three typical subjects of complaints.

There exists a class of people who have been members of the Labour Party and who have shared clearly racist messages, either with a historic focus (i.e. claims that the Holocaust did not happen or that the numbers were exaggerated) or a present-day one (i.e. claims that British or European politics is secretly dominated by a cabal of Jews). So in August 2019, the recently retired former chair of South Dorset Labour Party Mollie Collins was found to have shared on social media, in 2016, a link to a website saying, “Rothschilds bankers did 9/11 not Muslims”. At the time of writing, Ms Collins has on her facebook page, a message insisting on her innocence, claiming that she had been targeted by “fifth columnists” defending her “favourite politician” Ken Livingstone, and claiming to have been the victim of a “truly Inquisition style process with not the slightest chance of justice for those falsely accused.” Ms Collins was expelled, and rightly so.

There have also been harder cases eg where the person accused of anti-semitism is Jewish, or where they have a very long history of building the Labour Party, and promoting left-wing values, so that for example the case for a sanction is clear, but the nature of the sanction requires some thought. Take for example, Jackie Walker, who had been a member of the Labour Party for decades, and who was accused amongst other things of having written on social media that Jews were “chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade”. The comments were untrue, they played into racist stereotypes, and they were likely to cause offence. But in any rational investigation system, you do not simply ask what happened (i.e. what the behavior was) you also ask what kind of punishment it should merit.

For Jackie Walker’s defenders, it was significant that she is Jewish. This is in fact a striking feature of the Labour Party complaints in general – many of the accusers are Jewish (quite a number are non-Jewish people presenting themselves as defenders of Jews) – but also many of the accused are Jewish, typically anti-zionist Jews who have long campaigned against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinans. Jews in the latter position are both repeatedly accused of anti-semtism and repeatedly its victims.

It is entirely plausible that such people could be trapped into anti-semitic modes of thinking. Non-Jews rarely understand this, but in fact anti-semitism has all the inward-facing element of every other prejudice. Think of women who pass on sexist values to their daughters. Think of LGBT people who internalise homophobia and repeat it privately in LGBT circles – these things happen – and it is exactly the same with anti-semitism. Being told that the world is secretly run by a nearly-cabal of invisible, hostile people, you can start internalising that logic, and using it when you are criticised.

But conversely, anti-Zionist Jews are also repeatedly the victims of anti-semitic abuse from other Jews. They are told that they are “kapos” i.e. like the Jewish people who were employed in the camps in in-between roles, between the guards and the prisoners. This is the equivalent in Jewish circles of when black people are accused of being “coconuts” (i.e. white on the inside) – it is every bit as unpleasant, because it says to the victims that they are not really Jewish, and if anything it has more specific and nastier historical connotations.

This certainly was the case with Jackie Walker who received a large quantity of abuse, some of it directed against her as Jew and some as a black woman.

The point of any disciplinary process, of any type, is not to punish people but to prevent behavior. In a less-charged atmosphere, any objective investigator would have asked whether her expulsion was appropriate. If her crime was to say that Jews were the perpetrators of the slave trade, then was she willing to acknowledge that this was a myth? To withdraw the statement and to apologise for it? To read, and understand the origins of that statement in a particular kind of right-wing and racist argument (albeit – another complexity – an argument of black nationalist origin)?

In the actual atmosphere of the last two years, with numerous people lobbying for Jackie Walker’s expulsion, she was indeed expelled (albeit for breach of party rules rather than anti-semitism). The Labour Party leadership did what its critics asked it to do.

Another typical case is that of Wirral councilor (and another Jewish woman) Jo Bird who argued at a public meeting for a rigorous system of investigating complaints of anti-semitism. In a flat-footed attempted at humour, she called this “Jew process”. She was suspended for 9 days and reinstated. Anti-Corbyn newspapers used her story as further proof the institutional racism of the Labour Party but bluntly it was nothing of that sort. Ms Bird wasn’t Mel Brooks, she neither enjoyed his genius for comic timing nor (this is the Labour Party) his capacity for bad taste. Above all, she lacked his audience: a generation of people willing to mock their own fears.

In conclusion: do the above case histories prove that Labour is institutionally racist, that its leaders have been sabotaging complaints, making life easy for their friends, etc?

Of the 673 complaints made to the Labour Party up to February 2019, 12 led to expulsions. IE twelve were of the “Mollie Collins” or the “Jackie Walker” sort. The others were of the “Jo Bird” sort – either in that they were not so serious that they justified punishment, or that the person making a serious comment was not a member of the Labour Party and there was nothing Labour could do.

Not one of the 661 complaints which led to no sanction or to a lesser punishment has resulted, as far as I can tell, in a further complaint that the person should actually have been expelled.

I will leave leaders to conclude for themselves whether this is such a pattern of behavior that support for the present leadership of the Labour Party is, as has been argued this week, “incompatible with the British values of which we are so proud – of dignity and respect for all people”.

On being principled when the world falls in


Some tips for people who want to get through a shitstorm with their dignity intact

Don’t post Chomsky. Really *don’t*. If you don’t know why he’s a tainted source try googling Chomsky / Faurisson

Don’t post articles telling me that x percent of British people think Jews are great. Donald Trump is an anti-Semite who thinks Jews are great.

Stop make excuses for people recirculating racist myths; the slave trade was run by Jews? No, it wasn’t.

Stop pretending that the left / Labour / Corbyn has simply not put one foot wrong on this issue in five years. This is our scandal. Start owning it.

Stop being so defensive. We’re living in the biggest upturn in global antisemitism in decades. Of course a left which is being deliberately, and rightly, populist is vulnerable to far-right ideas finding a home in it.

Do *not* stop talking about Palestine.

Learn from the younger generation of British Jews in their 20s (ie much younger than me) who have not invested their whole lives in Labour or the left and are willing to admit when something’s in front of their face

Learn from the things that previous generations got wrong. There were nationalists among the Spanish anarchists, antisemites in the KPD, “left-wing” arguments for the anti-Dreyfusards. We remember these as minorities because people were principled, argued with antisemites, defeated them

Do not think because your mate is Jewish and leftwing they are incapable of getting this issue wrong. All oppressed groups have moments of doubt, moments when we hear the nonsense outside and internalise it and use it against ourselves

Admit it, confront it, defeat it. That’s our only hope.

On wanting “even more than Corbyn” while an election is on…


This is going to be a weird three weeks for people who wouldn’t mind capitalism to be made kinder but really want something else to emerge.

I mean, the temptation is to just fold all yourself into Labour, not just canvassing (is a good thing) but sitting at your TV screen shouting your love for Corbyn, your hatred for the Tories. Until you become not so very different from the Labour friends I had ten years ago for whom the difference between “a post revolutionary state” and “workers control the means of production” could be summarised in the question “yeah, but have the Liberal Democrats still got an elected councillor in Barnsbury? Because, if they do, it’s not my definition of full luxury space communism.”

At this stage of an election there’s always a pressure to negate your revolutionary politics and becomes just Labour. Even under Brown or Miliband there was that pressure. Because if the Great British population of 60 million people wasn’t about to vote for 50p an hour on the minimum wage, introduced at some vague and indefinite state in the future when budgets were balanced, they sure as hell weren’t going to vote for a world run by workers and the poor.

But with Corbyn in charge it’s not so much that reformism is somewhere over there it’s right over here. It’s *your* arguments for socialised health care, it’s *your* vision of pushing back against the workers and the landlords.

And yet Corbyn is actually very different from that socialism in which some of us believe.

In some ways he’s more – he’s much, much, closer to power.

And in other ways he’s less.

If we’re honest with ourselves, one of his biggest weakness is that he takes into the heart of politics (parliament, the harsh glare of the TV screens) the values and people of the British far-left and some of these aren’t so pretty:

The my-enemy’s-enemy calculations of the anti-war left

The anti-migration politics of western Stalinism

The bullying and sexism of the trade union bureaucracy.

The inability to distinguish a business run by the state from one run by its own workers

(and that’s before I get into the anti-semitism which sneaks its way in from other places but all sorts of left subcultures have so tied themselves to Corbyn they can’t admit that it’s there).

Save for the first of these, I’m not talking about Corbyn himself but the people around him, and yet Corbyn has to work with the people who bring into Labour / the NEC those other politics, that’s just the price of his position.

One of the reasons why the first old beardie Karl was so keen on revolutions was that they were supposed to be a great purging fire during which we all collectively burned off the great covering of brown stuff which had crusted over us “the muck of ages”) – long before we came close to power, we were meant to change, new people were supposed to emerge. But that hasn’t happened, or on nothing like the scale that is needed.

So, for the next few weeks I’ll be shouting at the TV screens like everyone else, but I won’t stop thinking of an idea from the workers’ movement a hundred years ago – this isn’t about the loaves, it’s about the bakery.

We Fight Fascists


I read Daniel Sonabend’s new book on the 43 Group this morning in a single sitting.

Of the three full-length books written about this period of anti-fascist history his is easily the best (as the author of the worst of the three – my PhD thesis – this hurts. But it’s true).

The real comparison is with Morris Beckman’s 43 Group, which many friends will have read. Sonabend’s is more interesting and compelling for the following reasons:

Beckman is a participant’s account and it centers everything around him. But, actually, he wasn’t that important in the 43 Group. Yes he was one of the initial core that set it up, yes he was a later founder member. But in the group’s key period 1947-8, he was not part of the inner core of 3-4 decision makers, and the account in his memoir of what the Group did in response to key steps taken by fascists is vague (at key moments, he wasn’t there and didn’t know what they’d done).

You couldn’t say this 20 years ago when he was around, constantly giving talks and visible to the 1990s left (unlike the more important figures in 1945-7 of Gerry Flamberg, Len Sherman, etc). We can admit it now.

Relegating Beckman to a secondary player in the group’s history allows all sorts of different personalities to emerge – the 43 Group spy chiefs, the actual spies, the organisers of the physical attacks on fascists, the people who negotiated to keep the Board of Deputies at arms’ length, etc.

Sonanbend doesn’t make any real attempt to understand the Communist Party’s approach to anti-fascism in this period (or the approach of the Labour left which took its lead from the CP), either the bureaucratic attempts the leadership made to downplay the Mosley threat between about 1944 and 1947, or the revolt within the membership, particularly in Hackney, which made a much more effective mass anti-fascism possible as Mosley achieved a breakthrough in summer 1947 – and anti-fascist organising took on much more the nature of a mass community campaign. The one part of the narrative where I thought more detail could have been given was in this period of summer/autumn 1947 where relationships with the wider left were significant – but aren’t properly explained. Sonanbend keeps his focus on the 43 Group throughout, and that approach has real strengths as well as occasional weaknesses.

Going back though to Morris Beckman’s memoir. Rather like the standard narrative of anti-fascism in the 1980s, which is no doubt modelled on Beckman’s book, Beckman wanted every battle to end in victory, every anti-fascist innovation to succeed. He wrote out moments of boredom, cowardice and failure. His story is compelling but, weirdly, it lowers the stakes – because there were more anti-fascists, because we were stronger and cleverer we were always certain to win.

But fascism was (briefly) a mass presence in east London – able to hold meetings of up to 3000 people at a time in summer and autumn 1947-8 – buoyed by an awful moment in which resentment at Israeli terrorist atrocities during the war combined with ignorance or indifference to the fact of the Holocaust to make anti-semitism a popular cause.

What Sonanbend has done is bring out all the little moments when victory wasn’t assured. So that reading it is like being in a real fight – your heart beats faster as you read – because there just are times when there were more fascists or a clever anti-fascist ruse fell flat on its face,

There’s one passage near the end which really brings out what was at stake in the anti-fascist struggle. Which is where you hear about an anti-fascist mole: Wendy Turner. She wasn’t Jewish (unlike most people in the 43 Group) but agreed to spent a year of her life passing on intelligence on key fascist leaders – getting close to the point of danger, in order to pass back information. Ultimately, Turner suffered a mental health breakdown and was hospitalised – and worse.

I’m not going to give more details about how this happened or what exactly went wrong – turn to Sonanbend’s book for them. But what I do know for sure is that ever 43 Group member of any standing knew about the disaster that befell her. They talked about that horror among themselves, and slowly, cautiously with outsiders.

Sonanbend’s book is full of incidents when prominent members of the 43 Group were struck on the head, or menaced with guns. And where they struck back against the fascists with more than equal force. The people involved in the Group knew how much was at stake – this makes their organising ultimately more compelling, more admirable, and more relevant as we face our own far right with its own path to violence.

Boris Johnson – don’t write the obituaries yet


Most of the analyses I’ve read start from the implausibility of Brexit as a way of doing politics which couldn’t possibly achieve all the wonders which have been promised of it. It is argued that Boris Johnson has so closely associated himself with Brexit that he must fail. They go on to say that he faces an unsolvable crisis: he must agree something with the EU, and whatever the EU offers will be unpalatable to his own party. Therefore, and in particular since Johnson has given himself a deadline of October to resolve the Brexit crisis, he will be out of office relatively soon.

I get where people are coming from. In particular now that we have – at last – a rising movement against the Tories which is able to bring thousands of people to the streets, it is hard not to feel that our strength must connect, somehow, to their weakness. But the above approach risks underestimating Johnson. He brings to his new position certain strengths, which are worth spelling out:

We live in a time which repeatedly rewards amorphous leaders who don’t care about resolving our ecological and social crises, but do care about the people who vote for them, and who indulge the cruellest fantasies of their base. Across the world, people like Johnson are winning elections, and people unlike him are losing them.

To this context, Johnson brings the skills of an illusionist, the ability to say “look over there,” while simultaneously taking the pound coin out of your hand and hiding it in his pocket. This is the purpose of the Johnson gaffes, his jokes. And this is the place at which the comparison with Trump belongs. Indeed Johnson’s method worked for him often enough in the past. If you don’t believe me, try this thought experiment. Ask yourself how many left-wing voters (by which I mean everyone from anarchists to people who’ve deserted Labour for the Liberal Democrats) refer to Jeremy Corbyn, without cringing, as “Jeremy”. Now ask yourself how many right-wing voters are willing to say “Boris” and smile wryly? Prepare to see any number of Boris Johnson speeches making all sorts of policy proposals which ought to appeal to people far from Johnson’s natural base. Their purpose will not be to recruit swing voters, so much as to neutralise opposition, to shove debate to the places where Johnson feels most comfortable, to prevent people from focussing on the policies which hurt him the most.

While Brexit has corroded the support of the Conservatives, it has done equal damage to the Labour vote. In fact, it offers an unequivocally pro-Brexit Tory party at least the possibility of a very quick fix solution (an electoral pact with the Brexit party) that would be much harder for Labour to match (a pact with the Liberal Democrats, anyone?).

Although Johnson is notoriously lazy and uninterested in detail he has survived in less pressured contexts (the London Mayor) by leaving policy to subordinates, and trusting their judgment. Among the likes of Dominic Cummings are people with a sustained political vision. They have been in internal opposition since 2016 and they bring all the ambition and hunger of frustrated people – a virtue which Johnson himself patently lacks.

While Johnson faces all sorts of obstacles over the next three months; should he survive that initial period – any number of institutional arrangements will start pointing in his favour: eg the fixed term parliaments act, which means that he can repeatedly lose votes in parliament without being forced out of power; the success Johnson has had in purging the May ministers and painting his new Cabinet as a new government; the tendency of the electorate to allow a new government a honeymoon period; the general effect that incumbency has in conveying authority on even unpopular leaders.

Although Johnson appears to face the pressures of an unmovable object and unstoppable force, these are not in face equal opposites. The EU has compelling reasons for not agreeing to a free trade agreement in which imported goods from the US could trade in France behind the advantages of US protection and a soft US-UK trade deal. It has all the fixity, in other words of Scylla. But the Tory party has nothing of Charibdis. (If you don’t believe me, think of the last time you read about the Never-Trumpers in Congress revolting against their President Trump).

Fitting all this together, it is possible to imagine the outlines of a Johnson strategy for the next three months which might succeed. He could begin by negotiating with the EU, testing if there is any possibility of a MayDeal2 (i.e. the same as present, but with the backstop watered down by some technological fix to the problem of Irish trade). If Johnson can produce that deal he has a significant advantage over May: the allies in the Cabinet and the DUP to persuade the Brexiteer MPs to vote for it.

If that deal cannot be made, then Johnson could sensibly test the resolve of the Remain Conservatives. He starts from such a low point of comparison (the defeats repeatedly suffered by Theresa May) that even a narrow loss could be packaged as a quasi-victory.

If I am wrong and there are enough Grieves to prevent a No Deal Brexit, Johnson has one last asset which May lacks: the ability to speak to the Brexit party as one comrade to another, and to negotiate with them an election pact which would purge the Remainers from Parliament.

Any number of my friends are reading Johnson’s weakness from an assumption that a group of Tory MPs will be principled and show backbone in the defence of what they believe – but if your hopes for the future depend on them, then you’re starting from the wrong place.