The Brexit Election: first reflections

Already the post-mortem has begun. For example, the Guardian was quick off the mark this morning with its five reasons the Tories won the election and five reasons why Labour lost the election. However, the central reason seems to amount to one word: Brexit. As I pointed out in a previous post, ‘Brexit’ seems to function as an empty signifier, which means it can encapsulate a whole range of frustrations and resentments. And a great deal of this frustration and resentment appears to have emanated from one particular group of people, whom in my last post I named as the ‘Disillusioned’. Although these individuals are certainly not only the ‘usual suspects’, i.e. white working class men of a certain age who up until yesterday were life-long Labour voters, it certainly seems the case that large swathes of people did switch from Labour to Conservative, and I suspect that many of them do fit the profile of Workington Man.

Clearly it will take a while (but perhaps not that long) for the implications of Johnson’s ‘stonking mandate’ to sink in, but it already seems clear that the UK now effectively has a right-wing populist government, possibly for the first time in its history. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that Johnson and his team were able to employ a right-wing populist rhetoric in order to mobilise Workington Man to vote for him in large numbers. Personally, I’m not convinced that Johnson is especially right-wing or populist in an ideological sense (insofar as there is such a thing as right-wing populist ideology in the first place), but clearly for him this was the route to power.

Perhaps what’s more telling, though, is the way Johnson was able to employ the signifier ‘Brexit’ in order to get himself back into Downing Street. Essentially, he came to embody this (empty) signifier for many people who in other circumstances would never dream voting Conservative. But herein lies the problem for Johnson: most of these Disillusioned Workington Persons were not voting to leave the EU at all in a literal sense. Rather, this is about being heard, being taken seriously by the ‘elites’ who have chosen to ignore them for decades, both Labour and Conservative. You only have to listen to what some of these ‘new Tories’ were saying to reporters in the immediate aftermath of their decision to vote for Johnson to understand what Brexit is really about.

As I suggested in my previous post, ‘taking back control’, the original mantra of the Leave campaign, is about creating a new kind of politics; one in which the ‘will of people’ is listened to and implemented. The fact that Johnson and many in his government share little or nothing in terms of class, culture, wealth, etc with ‘the people’ they are now representing is to miss the point entirely. Right-wing populism is not about ‘direct democracy’ in the sense of ‘the people’ being in charge; rather it is about those in charge, the governing class, listening to and implementing the ‘will of the people’. This is the essence of right-wing populism, and in this sense perhaps it is fair to argue that the new Johnson administration is right-wing populist.

The problem for Johnson is not that he will not be able to ‘get Brexit done’; in some form or other he most likely will. Rather, ‘getting Brexit done’ is just another form of ‘Brexit’ as empty signifier. In other words, whatever the final form of ‘getting Brexit done’ takes in practical terms, this is unlikely to placate the Disillusioned Workington Persons. Brexit, as empty signifier, is about something else entirely; a promise of something entirely different from the day to day practicalities of negotiating a new trade deal with the EU, etc. It is about what it is to be a political subject, to have influence, to ‘take (back) control’, to be heard and taken seriously.