I’ve wavered on this for ages, and frankly this is more a hypothesis than a solid position (I’ll conclude with a heavy dose of pessimism along those lines) but here goes. Forget the cautious amendments and the desperate attempts at ‘populist’ (English nationalist) triangulation against a ‘Tory Brexit’: Jeremy Corbyn should whip Labour MPs to vote against triggering article 50, and he should be very clear that he’s doing it on behalf of Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Labour left’s strategy on Brexit has emerged from a lethal combination of resignation, hubris and outright fantasy. There are a few half-hearted Remainers who know that the EU is a bosses’ club, but have little time for the thinly-veiled British nationalism of the ‘Lexit’ crowd and refuse to sacrifice the meagre rights of migrants in the name of a hypothetical restoration of popular sovereignty. Having had little serious commitment to the EU (fair enough), they have largely accepted Brexit, and are now driven by what they view as wise electoral calculation: working-class Leavers must be placated, lest Labour be seen to be collaborating with a supposedly anti-democratic, metropolitan and Europhile British establishment.
There are also many who quietly believe that Brexit will be both the Tories’ undoing and the making of socialism in Britain, as the economic and social calamity of a ‘hard’ withdrawal gives way to a ‘Labour Brexit’ government finally free from the EU’s neoliberal grasp and ready to nationalise everything.
None of this will work, of course. The Europhile liberal media will not give the idea of a ‘Labour Brexit’ the time of day, obsessed as they are with the interests of London and the right to go on holiday without having to stand in long customs queues with all those actual working class people (and — god forbid — non-Europeans). The right-wing Eurosceptic media is arguably more opposed to a Labour Brexit than it is to the EU, given that the former requires at least some recognition of migrants and working class people as human beings with (gasp) human rights.
Even if they printed the things Corbyn actually said without the usual smirking, dismissive undertones, his credibility with English voters is completely shot. He cannot plausibly exploit the actual form of English populism, which is an overwhelmingly elite construct and riddled with the most idiotic paradoxes: anti-politician but pro-parliamentary sovereignty; rabidly anti-’shirker’ but doggedly, lazily pro-monarchy; anti-immigration but with a deep hatred of its “own” working class; and insistent on the inalienable rights of Englishmen unless they are petty criminals (hang them) or young (beat them).
Labour are already too much an accepted and expected part of the parliamentary and metropolitan furniture to be even noticed when they try to stray outside it, and Corbyn’s every cultural faux pas — not singing the national anthem, not bowing deeply enough, not licking enough Corgi shit off Prince Philip’s jackboots — is lodged in the mind of your average English petit-bourgeois as firmly as the tune to “Ten German Bombers”. He cannot appeal to English populism as it presently exists without abandoning socialism, and media hostility to socialism means he cannot get a fair hearing in order to try and change the character of English populism.
If votes are to be won amidst the carnage of this miserable assault that the Brexiteers are waging on the few redeeming features of British society, they won’t be found in England. But, the argument goes, at least some votes might be retained: for Labour to position itself against Brexit would be to guarantee the loss of core-vote seats and would usher in a new UKIP stronghold in the north of England. This completely misunderstands that Brexit cannot be extricated from its cultural characteristics: it is unavoidably a symbol of anti-immigrant sentiment, nostalgic fantasies of foreign despotism, and the least useful (though still, admittedly, politically interesting) sort of anti-elitism, the kind that inspires small children to put food in their nose instead of their mouth. To support Brexit without embracing its reactionary cultural politics is a flimsy shield against UKIP, and it is no defence at all for those targets of the hardline cultural conservatism being adopted by the Tories in an attempt to build political capital for a hard Brexit.
If there is any position that may actually help Labour get back into government in the long run, it is to support the decisions of Scottish and Northern Irish voters to remain, and to do this quite visibly at the expense of a supposedly “English” decision to leave. Wales voted leave too, of course, and there Welsh Labour have teamed up with Plaid Cymru to promote a Welsh Brexit plan — but that is yet to seriously factor into the political calculations being made in Northern Ireland or Scotland. Given the particular political situation in Northern Ireland (about which I should admit a degree of ignorance), the electoral benefits it offers to Labour are presumably limited, but further isolating the DUP’s pro-Brexit stance would perhaps benefit the left there.
It is in Scotland where real gains might be made, for the country’s political culture is relatively Europhile and the SNP have staked out clear ground for themselves as the sole defenders of Scotland’s European links. Most of Labour’s former voters in Scotland are now firmly committed to the SNP, and much of that commitment is structured around a narrative of Labour’s ‘Westminster’ (read: English) loyalties and its ‘betrayal’ of Scotland in the 2014 referendum. If Corbyn is ever to come to power on a socialist platform it will surely require a substantial bloc of Scottish MPs, given the relative predominance of right-leaning social demographics across the influential English south-east. A clear and explicit effort to win back Scottish votes by giving the Scottish ‘remain’ vote equal (and thus disproportionate) weight to its English ‘leave’ equivalent would go some way towards restoring Labour’s claims to actually care about Scottish voters on the latter’s (unavoidably national, if not always nationalist) terms.
Those who want to see Labour in power at Holyrood would also benefit. Nicola Sturgeon has sought a sweet spot between two constitutional questions, playing independence off against Brexit, thus far to little avail on either issue but just about managing to maintain her image as Scotland’s chief lobbyist in the process. She is aided enormously by Labour’s inability to prove any sort of principled commitment to its own constitutional arguments — an enormous stumbling block to recovery in Scotland. If Corbyn opposes article 50 on the basis that the UK is four nations more than it is one (though it remains both of those things), it would be a clear example of Labour’s new “federalist” agenda being put into practice at the centre of British politics and would render many of the SNP’s attacks on Labour meaningless. Scottish voters still favour devolution over independence, but believe the SNP is more committed to “standing up for Scotland” because, quite frankly, they are. They are actually interested in and informed about Scottish politics, for a start, and without English voters to take into account, they can happily demand things that are perceived as unjust special treatment by those south of the border (such as the maintenance of a Barnett formula that continues to discriminate against parts of England and Wales). Labour’s choice is not pretty: lose ‘Leave’ voters across the UK to gain ‘Remain’ voters in Scotland, or hope that somehow voters in England will turn to the party in great enough numbers to make Scottish votes an irrelevance. Given the current lack of interest in Scottish politics coming from Corbyn and his supporters down south and the haplessness of the party up north, the latter path seems like the likely choice — but it doesn’t seem like the one most likely to succeed.
This is all somewhat utopian. The overwhelming likelihood is that on their current path Labour will not make a comeback in Scotland (the Tories, miraculously, have a better chance at power up here), and they will decline further in England. There is little evidence to suggest that an alternate route — even the one proposed here — will make much of a difference. Despite Corbyn, Labour remains too wedded to reforming a fundamentally moribund system. Its electoral base has lost the cultural and economic homogeneity on which a stable social-democratic movement relies — even if it were somehow to take power it could not defend it for long. Labour continue to produce policies which expect far too much from a global economy that will only lurch between crisis and stagnation for the foreseeable future. But Labour’s leaders, intellectuals and activists lack the necessary pessimism or skill to revolutionise their ambitions.
The world that socialists must navigate is increasingly one of hermetic subcultures, economic decline and political crisis as a form of governance. I suspect that the most effective responses will be closer to the traditions of anarchism than socialism. If national struggles for constitutional power are not working, then localised extra-legal resistance which emphasises subcultural or community solidarity must take precedence. If national identities cannot be mobilised for the left then they must be disrupted and subverted, their institutions disrespected and their everyday cultural manifestations ruthlessly undermined. There may be no more room for good patriots; only good traitors. Corbyn has shown the occasional, accidental flash of treason — it’s up to those who have supported him this far to start doing it deliberately.