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Paul Mason: Brexit Party’s Success in EU Elections Shows Failure of Conservatives & Labour

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On the heels of Prime Minister Theresa May’s resignation, the Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage came in first place in Britain’s European parliamentary elections with 31% of the vote. The ruling Tory Party placed fifth. We speak with journalist Paul Mason about what the election means for the Labour Party and the future of Brexit. We also speak with David Adler, the policy coordinator for the Democracy in Europe Movement, or DiEM25.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As we continue to look at the EU elections, we turn to the results in the United Kingdom, where the Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, came in first with 31% of the vote. The ruling Tory Party placed fifth. The elections came soon after Prime Minister Theresa May announced her resignation. Farage spoke to reporters after the elections.

NIGEL FARAGE: This is a vote that says put no-deal Brexit back on the table, make it part of our negotiations, because, without that, you’ve got no chance of getting a sensible free trade deal. And I want us, as the Brexit Party, to be engaged in that. But it’s also a vote that says the 31st of October is the next really big day in this process. If we don’t leave on that day, then you can expect the Brexit Party to repeat this kind of surprise in the next general election.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re joined now by Paul Mason, a contributing writer for the New Statesman, author and filmmaker. Mason’s most recent book is titled Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being.

Welcome to Democracy Now! I wanted to ask you—

PAUL MASON: It’s great to be here.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The conservatives not only came in fifth, but the Labour Party came in fourth in these elections. And you had the phenomena of a relatively new party winning such a huge portion of the vote for representation in the European Union. Your sense of what happened here to both the Conservatives and to Labour?

PAUL MASON: OK. I mean, following on from what was said earlier in the program, the first thing we have to recognize is that the general phenomenon in Europe of the right wing not making—the far right not making a surge, but the center right, so our Conservatives, the equivalent of your Republicans, are losing their ideological defenses against the far right’s ideology. So they’re switching their policies and their rhetoric towards exactly the terrain that the far right has been setting for the last 10 years.

So, in Britain, the local version of that happening was all exacerbated by the failure of Brexit to happen. So, we had a referendum three years ago. People voted, narrowly, to leave the European Union. But it didn’t happen, because no form of leaving was acceptable to the people who want it to happen. Now, as result, our prime minister, in the building behind me, has resigned on Friday. And in this sense, the Brexit Party was able to come from nowhere in six weeks and take 30% of the vote, because so many Conservative members and activists and voters in Britain, really all they want is this xenophobic, right-wing project of Brexit.

Now, the Brexit Party itself has no policies. It has no membership structure. It’s controlled by one man as a private company. But many of the candidates were the classic cast of characters. They are climate deniers, hostile to gay sexuality. Some of them believe it is disgusting. They are, of course, anti-abortion. They are pro-fossil fuel. Many of them work in the fossil fuel industry. So it is a tragedy that 30% of the people in my country who bothered to turn out—it was 17% of the electorate as a whole—30% of the turnout voted for Farage and his party, because, in a way, centrist—sort of liberal-centrist conservatism no longer has the answers to a country like this, which is wracked with what you already have. We’re just in the middle of an unannounced culture war.

AMY GOODMAN: This is British Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn addressing reporters shortly after the election.

JEREMY CORBYN: The priority at the moment, I think, is for this government to call for a general election and actually have a general election so we can decide the future. There’s no majority in Parliament. There’s no legislative program. And Parliament has basically been given nothing to do by the government. I think that is a demand that should be made and made as strongly as possible. John [McDonnell] has also pointed out—and I support this—that any final deal has to be put to a public vote. And that, we’re prepared to do. And he did support it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, that was Jeremy Corbyn. So, Paul Mason, what happened to Labour then, which I think registered in the single digits in this vote?

PAUL MASON: Well, they got 14%. And its vote at the start, six weeks ago, at the start of the campaign, was on 34%. So, what happened is that about half of its vote went to the Liberal Democrats, bout almost another half went to the Green Party, and about one in four voters went to the Brexit Party. So, these are working-class, white communities where they’re attracted by this new right phenomenon.

So, the problem that Corbyn had was that he had been trying to make a pitch to voters that we’re all sick of Brexit. There are working-class people, there are progressive people on both sides. Let’s come together around a program about everything except Brexit—you know, the economic transformation of this country, climate change, democracy. But the voters just didn’t want to hear that. Progressive voters in this country know they are in a culture war. They wanted a party that was prepared to speak as, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does in your Congress, from the heart about the values. And Corbyn couldn’t bring himself to do that. And as a result, the activists in—I’m a member of that party. We have half a million members. The activists just didn’t turn out. They were confused. They were discouraged. And the real problem for Corbyn is, you know, this is a multiparty election. Our general election for the Parliament is a two-party election. It would be—Corbyn’s real problem is: What if the Greens end up, as they are in the rest of Europe, as a permanent alternative-left force?

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think that the left, that Labour should do now? Corbyn is saying that he supports a second referendum on any Brexit deal.

PAUL MASON: Yes, but he’s not saying how the party would vote in that referendum. And to me and to many of my left-wing colleagues in the Labour Party, it is urgent that Corbyn, like many of his team, is prepared to commit overtly to Labour having the policy of stopping Brexit. You know, Brexit is the project of the right. It is a project of xenophobia. It will collapse our economy. And what is more, it will—all the problems, all the grievances against Muslims, against black people, against gays, don’t go away just because Brexit happens, because as the failure mounts, as the economy slides, then these same right-wing forces will be saying, “Now we know who’s the problem. We now know who’s at fault because Brexit didn’t work.” They’ll be targeting the minorities again. So we have to stop it.

Jeremy Corbyn, I’m afraid—I’m a supporter of his. I remain his supporter. He doesn’t get it. He didn’t get it for six weeks. He’s getting it now, because large numbers of the Labour Party are saying, “Look, we’re not just losing votes; we’re losing activists to an alternative-left force.” And, let’s face it—you just heard it from our German colleague—the wind is in the sails of the Green parties. They have a utopia. And it’s a good utopia, of a Green New Deal and a Europe of tolerance. And we, in part, in the Labour movement, we are clinging to our industrial heartlands. There, it is very tough to convince people, for example, where the coal mines were closed down, that environmental politics are the right thing. It’s just the same as, for example, in West Virginia in the States. But we have to have that argument. And I am currently engaged in a fight to bring Labour back to that core position of a tolerant society, of an internationalist outlook and, of course, the Green New Deal, which I think is where we could agree with the Green parties, both here in the U.K. and in the European Parliament, should Britain, of course, be staying in Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: David Adler, in Athens, Greece, you’re policy coordinator for Democracy in Europe Movement, DiEM25, working with Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece. You’re a little less optimistic about what’s happening with the Green Party. Can you talk about that? And also, how did Yanis Varoufakis himself fare? Didn’t he run twice, in Germany with the Greens and in Greece, in the European Parliament elections?

DAVID ADLER: So, I’ll take each one of those questions in turn. The first question, you know, this has been described as a “green wave.” And I think, you know, all the activism that has been done around Fridays for Future and demanding that climate get on the agenda is extremely important, and all this work is extremely admirable, because it signals the arrival of climate politics to Europe. I mean, this is—there is no party now who can claim not to have a plan around the climate. Even Marine Le Pen is speaking about environmentalism as patriotism, as a way of fulfilling the French nationalist dream. And I think that suggests a real danger here. You know, in the United States, we’re so used to a polarization of the climate debate. You’re right-wing and you’re a climate denier, or you’re left-wing and you accept the climate but you also accept various elements of the justice agenda that go along with it. In Europe, there’s a much broader scope of what’s possible under the umbrella of green politics. And this is very, very dangerous, because it means that there’s a lot of room for co-optation. I think that there’s been a lot of optimism around the constructive ambiguity of a Green New Deal, right? We can throw many of our dreams and many of our best policies inside of that big idea, but there’s a real danger there. When you’ve got people like Michel Barnier, who are, you know, chief eurocrats and members of the center right, who are speaking about the need for an EU Green New Deal, that’s fantastic. But it cannot be just about carbon taxes. It cannot be just about coal divestment. It has to be part of a broader transformative vision. And I think that, you know, here, the onus is on the Green Party. If they’re going to be the primary beneficiaries of this swing towards climate politics, they’ve got to lead in demanding a Green New Deal for Europe. This is precisely what was at the core of DiEM25’s program, of our coalition, called European Spring. We were trying to hack this to build a transnational movement for a Green New Deal for Europe, because the worst thing that could happen is that the Green New Deal ends up as a series of small technocratic fixes instead of a real transformative vision that brings people together. You know, in the same way that when the left betrays its principles and implements things like austerity, as Syriza has done here and is now reaping the bitter harvest of its failures with the Greek people, so, if the Greens fail to deliver a proper transformative vision for a green politics that brings along working-class people, I promise you it will take the sails out of the green agenda, as well, and put further fuel into the far right.

Now, you asked me how Yanis and I and our movement fared. I think it’s crucial to contextualize that in a broader light of sort of how did the left fare, putting the Labour Party also into context. You mentioned in the intro these really tragic narrow losses for Ada Colau and Manuela Carmena in Spain. I think it’s crucial to kind of get a grip on what really is happening with the left. There’s a really—you know, there’s reasons to be cheerful in this election and reasons to be depressed. Now, when I speak about our transnational movement, we tried something a bit crazy, which was to forgo traditional party structures, forgo their traditional party bases and all the resources that flow from the public coffers, and try to build something new and transnational. And we’re very proud of the progress we were able to make with that, even if we fell short in the case here, in the case of Greece. They’re telling us now that we fell 0.01% below the threshold to enter European Parliament. So, we’re still working through it.

But let’s talk for a second about the broader sort of annihilation of the left. I mean, this applies to us. It applies to the Labour Party. It applies to Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France. It applies to Die Linke in Germany. What happened here? I think what happened here is two crucial things. One is, the left failed to ground the climate question in the social justice one. We failed to grip that climate question and say, “There will be no green transition without an economic transition that ends austerity.” I mean, you look at the way that Bas Eickhout is talking about climate, does he mention austerity? Does he mention the suffering sweeping through southern Europe at the hands of the troika? No, he doesn’t. So that was failure number one.

Failure number two, though, that we have to grapple with, is the problem of fragmentation. You know, I think in the U.S. we’ve gotten used to a two-party system, a Democratic Party that builds this—necessarily builds a broad church and forces liberals to fight with leftists, to fight with all sorts of other types, and they have to arrive at some consensus, or they don’t, but they will usually stand behind one candidate. Europe’s party structures means there’s basically infinite room for fragmentation, infinite room for egos on the left to split up between each other, and infinite room for the left to pick up on minor differences and let itself lose its place as speaking with one voice on behalf of workers and their families across Europe. So this is really our challenge. I mean, the far right have shown, time and again, that when it comes down to the crunch time, they’re willing to band together, put forward a single vision, put aside their differences and say, “You know what? Let’s speak together on behalf of an all-white, anti-Islam, anti-immigrant Europe.” And the left simply was not able to do that and was not able to capitalize on the, you know, waves of activism emerging across Europe around the climate question.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30—

DAVID ADLER: So, we’re going to have to do some serious soul searching.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds. But I wanted to ask Paul Mason—

DAVID ADLER: I’m done. That’s all. Soul searching.

AMY GOODMAN: Is milkshaking the new form of resistance, the milkshaking of, throwing milkshakes at people like Nigel Farage and other right-wing leaders?

PAUL MASON: In my day, it was a harder form of resistance, but now the rule of law must prevail. So, milkshaking is—and the good thing is, of course, that the single overt, American dollar-funded fascist who did try to stand, Tommy Robinson—he has a massive following all over the world among the real “alt-right”—he got milkshaked, but, more importantly, he completely failed. He lost his electoral deposit. The people of North West England rejected him en masse.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Trump is coming for a state visit, the entire Trump family, going to be meeting supposedly with Prince Charles, who has said that climate change is his number one issue. What do you expect to come out of this? And will there be mass protests in the streets?

PAUL MASON: There will be, of course, mass protest. But the important thing is if we don’t have a government. The prime minister is a zombie—not an electoral zombie, she’s zombified. The government is—the Conservative government is tearing itself apart. Any idea that this is a kind of victory lap for Trump in Britain is wrong. Of course, his political allies—the Brexit Party, Nigel Farage—will be there to welcome him. But, you know, we are a progressive country, have a progressive majority even now in the United Kingdom, anti-racist, many, many of our cities very, very culturally integrated. And London, if he comes, when he comes, will certainly turn out to protest him. And the message will be the same as last time: He is not welcome. He is seen through. Everything he says stirs the distaste and division that we just don’t want, I think, in the United Kingdom, nor in the rest of Europe. So, yep, you are not welcome, President Trump. Go away.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there, but, of course, we’ll continue to follow this issue. Paul Mason, New Statesman contributing writer, author, filmmaker. His most recent book, Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being. And, David Adler, thanks for joining us from Athens, Greece, policy coordinator for DiEM25—that’s Democracy in Europe Movement.

When we come back, a billionaire announces he’ll pay the student debt of the entire graduating class, almost 400 students, of the historically black college Morehouse in Atlanta. We’ll speak with one of those students, and we’ll talk to the former head of the NAACP, Ben Jealous. Stay with us.

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