Firstly, the thing isn't to pretend that everything was fine and dandy before the Brexit vote. Or, for that matter, Jeremy's election as Labour leader last year. Or before the general election. Or the Scottish referendum. The rapid, bewildering change we're now experiencing is amplified by recent events, but have their roots far deeper in the changes to Britain's political economy. To get close to understanding what's going on, a standpoint informed by the sociological imagination is required. The only alternatives are the realms of conspiracy theorising, or the fixation with personalities as per professional punditry.
It is now generally known and widely accepted that the 1980s saw deep and far reaching change to British capitalism and the class structure underpinning it. On the one hand you had the transition away from manufacturing as the bedrock of Britain's economic strength to an economy dominated by service provision (and hence mass consumption) and the production of immaterial commodities. Examples of this aren't just the aforementioned availability of services, but also knowledge, financial "products", and digital goods. The post-industrial trend wasn't just confined to Britain - it is the lot of all the advanced capitalist nations, though the way this transition was handled and the depth to which it was carried through varies from state to state. Bound up with this, at least in the UK, was the destruction of the institutional props of the post-war economic order - casualties of an unsparing, ruthless class war waged by Thatcher and her governments. The common sense that full employment was the objective of economic and social policy got junked. All that mattered was keeping inflation low, public spending down, and letting the market run amok. That the Conservatives and the interests they represent happened to benefit materially from tearing up the social contract was more than coincidental.
To reach this destination the state had to take on the organised labour movement, which Thatcher did in set-piece battles. Closing nationalised industries in the early 80s weakened the bargaining position of labour by flooding the market with millions of unemployed workers. Attacking the miners - the big batallion of the organised working class - and defeating them after a year-long struggle was the pivotal moment. Other struggles coincident with it, such as the dockers' strike and the collision between the government and Militant-led Liverpool City Council were paid off at the time and were clobbered once Thatcher dealt with her main enemy. That put trade unionism permanently on the back foot and we haven't recovered since. The labour movement has sat largely powerless as public services and state enterprises were sold off, broken up, or gutted by market forces. Neoliberalism, the common sense that markets were best at everything didn't come into being because it was "what worked", it's a philosophy justifying exploitation and the continued seizure of the greater part of social wealth by a tiny, powerful minority. It became the commonsense because they won.
Nothing lasts forever though, not even defeat. Because capitalism is a class system that carries within it the seeds of its own demise, seeing off challenges and challengers from within is a constant, ceaseless accomplishment. And the present political turbulence reminds us of this fact. The defeat of the miners and the full bore market fundamentalism Thatcher unleashed trashed the institutions that suppressed inequality, the communities that produced a "work ready" working class, the trade unions that fought for our share of the social wealth that we produced. It paved the way for New Labour's market-embracing approach, locked down social mobility, and made insecurity and anxiety the lot of millions. Our culture became schizophrenic and disjointed - at once atomised, powerless, and at the employer's mercy while flattered, seduced, and kowtowed to by the blandishments of consumption. Affluent lifestyles paraded as its trappings became less affordable, especially for the young.
The defeat of the post-war social order changed politics more profoundly than the turn to market fundamentalism and the (temporary) death of socialism. It weakened the relationship between the two main political parties and their constituencies, and was expressed in declining membership and joint vote share. While never actually total, in the Labour Party's case falling numbers and less input from the trade unions enabled moves to insulate the parliamentary party from the base and create a more authoritarian party in which power was concentrated in the leader's office and an iron grip exerted. As, under Blair, Labour made its neoliberal turn the constituency the party traditionally represented had a more passive relationship to its party. The transmission belt that would take shop stewards from the factory floor and into politics ceased, replaced by an over-preponderance of graduates from the party's middle class wing. Exacerbated by a strategy that ignored working class support to concentrate on the marginals of the leafy suburbs and (relatively) affluent towns, the atomisation of our class enabled the autonomy Blair's office and the party apparatus under his control. The continued pursuit of neoliberal policy by Labour in power ensured that, in its fundamentals, this relationship carried through into the Brown era and opposition under Ed Miliband.
Something similar afflicted the Tories too. Their deindustrialisation impacted negatively on whole sections of capital, small and large, and enriched some at the expense of others. Their market fundamentalism promoted selfish individualism at the expense of the family, of community, and of what they're supposed to represent at a values level - conservation. Under Blair, for the first time in their history the Tories went from preferred party of government to British capital's second eleven. For a brief period Blair's success in rebranding Labour as the party of business broke the Tories' claim to being its natural home. The consequence was the triple debacle of Hague, IDS, and Howard, and the pre-eminence of those business interests that did stick around: the socially useless but superficially dynamic city slickers, and the most backward, least competitive sections of capital. Hence under Dave, his and Osborne's economic and political programme was wedded to these interests, which were counterproductive from the standpoint of business as a whole, and ran the most sectional government in modern times in the hope of rewinning what was lost to New Labour. But as they did so, traditionally anti-Labour working class people, its petit bourgeois support, and the core Tory shire supporters were isolated, atomised, and ignored. They too had nowhere to go.
Constituencies were cut off from their traditional parties did not mean grievance and anger didn't stop accumulating. Sooner or later large numbers of ostensibly powerless people realise that strength of numbers does give them power and influence, and eventually find their way into politics. In other words, the disconnect prepares the ground for an eventual reconnect. There were two early signs the autonomy of politics couldn't carry on indefinitely. There was the rise of the LibDems throughout the 90s to the point they went into coalition. They represented something new and fresh, especially as they took a superficial social democratic turn under Ashdown and Kennedy. Even before the Iraq War, there were plenty of people in my age group happy to give them a punt against the bland managerialism of Blair and the repulsive conservatism of the Tories. For others, especially the most down trodden and semi-lumpenised section of our class, the BNP took off in a number of areas as a protest vote against established politics. In both these cases though, the protest was sporadic, inchoate, and passive. Matters moved up a notch as the LibDems collapsed and the BNP folded. First, UKIP, which was also a recipient of increased levels of passive support during the 00s, hit the big time after Dave alienated a good number of toxic "traditional" Tories over his equal marriage stance. The significance here was that it affected a split within the party itself as activists decamped to UKIP and it started wracking up impressive parliamentary by-election votes and became the go-to party of protest. UKIP then represented a partial reconnection to politics by those on the right alienated by the official right.
The next big earthquake was Scotland. Treated like a fiefdom by the Labour Party for too long, what happened was decades in the making. Rotten boroughs with tiny, barely functioning constituency parties, this was the part of Labour's apparatus that had intentionally been allowed to decay so the dominance of the PLP and the machine could continue unhindered. As it became more remote from its core support and promulgated policies opposite to the aspirations of its voters, the Scottish referendum and the catalyst of mass politicisation saw the party collapse as newly energised, active voters flocked to the SNP. In an incredibly short space of time, the SNP has cohered a solid rock of support that would take Labour decades to shift - if it can at all. The raw ingredient, again, was people who were atomised and ignored by established politics, and who rushed in once the possibility of making a difference was perceived.
And now the same process is working its way through the Labour Party. To have more than doubled in size in less than a year is incredible, and for a mass audience for radical, socialist politics to appear more or less overnight is breathtaking. It too is a product of mass alienation, of people in large numbers feeling angry and ignored for years. Their charging onto the political stage is entirely welcome and should be encouraged, despite the crudity, anger, and naivete that often accompanies it. Those cut off from Labour for the best part of 20 years, including those for whom Labour has always been just another establishment outfit, are cohering collectively around our party. The Corbyn moment last year, and the monstering that has taken place since is politicising and driving even more people into the party, transforming it from a party centered around Westminster constitutionalism into something that could do that and more. This means the leadership election is about more than who's the most competent, it is the site of a battle between an old order (understandably) wedded to previous realities and a new just beginning to become aware of itself. The potential danger is if this is successfully blocked then this new wave would find expression elsewhere, either through the Greens, or an evolving anti-political strand in the trade unions (yes, I think this movement of people will start working its way through the unions in time), or - very unlikely - a strengthening of the hitherto entirely marginal far left. The election then is a choice between a Jeremy-led Labour Party with all the problems it entails, or a party on the road to ruin. It's a matter more serious than winning or losing the next general election, it's whether the party survives as a going concern.
What's happening, then? Change is happening, and it's been a long time coming. Masses of people excluded for decades by broad social trends and deliberate political choices have, in spite of those processes, seized an opening and are remaking politics. And not before time - for apathy and anti-politics to melt before active political engagement is something that should have every democrat in this country rejoicing. Our party cannot avoid this and go back to the way things were. We either embrace the change and find ourselves strengthened in the long-run, or oppose it and invite our ruin.