Brexit wins. An illusion dies.
What now for the radical left in Labour and beyond?
[I’m writing this with 54 counts still to declare but it is clear Leave has won.]
Britain has voted to leave the EU. The reason? A large section of the working class, concentrated in towns and cities that have been quietly devastated by free-market economics, decided they’d had enough.
Enough bleakness, enough ruined high streets, enough minimum wage jobs, and enough lies and fearmongering from the political class.
The issue that catalysed the vote for Brexit was the massive, unplanned migration from Europe that began after the accession of the A8 countries and then surged again after 2008 once the Eurozone stagnated while Britain enjoyed a limp recovery.
It is no surprise to anybody who’s lived their life at the street end of politics and journalism that a minority of the white working class are racists and xenophobes. But anyone who thinks half the British population fits that description is dead wrong.
Tens of thousands of black and Asian people will have voted for Brexit, and similar numbers of politically educated, left-leaning workers too. Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield and Coventry — multi-ethnic university cities — they too went for Leave.
Neither the political centre or the pro-remain left was able to explain how to offset the negative economic impact of low-skilled migration in conditions of (a) guaranteed free movement (b) permanent stagnation in Europe and (c) austerity in Britain.
Told by the government they could never control migration while inside the EU, just over 50% of the population decided controlling migration was more important than EU membership.
So the problem for Labour is not, yet, large numbers of its own voters “deserting the party”. They may still do so if Labour plays this wrong — but even as late as the May council elections Labour’s core vote held up.
Instead Labour’s heartland voters simply decided to change the party’s policy on migration from below, and forever, by leaving the EU.
The party’s front bench tried, late and in a muddled way, to come up with micro-economic solutions — more funds for areas where the NHS and schools come under strain; a new directive to prevent employers shipping entire workforces from East Europe on poor terms and conditions. And a promise to renegotiate the free movement pillar of the Lisbon Treaty in the future.
Because it was made late, and half-heartedly, this offer was barely heard. And clearly to some it did not seem plausible — given the insistence of the Labour centre and the liberal bourgeoisie that migration is unmitigatedly good and “there’s nothing you can do about it”. And also given the insistence of Jean Claude Juncker that there could be no renegotiation at all.
Ultimately, as I’ve written before, there is a strong case for “Lexit” on grounds of democracy and economic justice. But this won’t be Lexit. Unless Labour can win an early election it will be a fast-track process of Thatcherisation and the breakup of the UK.
Unlike me, however, many people who believe in Lexit were prepared to vote alongside right wing Tories to get to first base.
The task for the left in Britain now is to adapt to the new reality, and fast. The Labour right is already trying to pin the blame on Corbyn; UKIP will make a play for Labour’s voters. Most likely there’ll be a second independence referendum in Scotland.
Corbyn was right to try and fight on “remain and reform” but his proposed reforms were never radical enough. He was also right to devote energy to other issues — making the point that in or out of the EU, social justice and public services are under threat. But the right and centre of Labour then confused voters by parading along with the Tory centrists who Corbyn had promised never to stand on a platform with.
The Blairite Progress group is deluded if it thinks it can use this moment to launch a coup against Corbyn. The neoliberal wing of the Labour Party needs to realise — it may take them a few days — that their time is over.
Ultimately it looks like Labour still managed to get 2/3 of its voters to voter Remain [I’ll check this but that’s what YouGov said earlier]. So the major failure is Cameron’s. It looks like the Tory vote broke 60/40 to Brexit.
It’s possible Cameron will resign quickly. But that’s not the issue. The issue is the election and what to fight for.
Labour has to start, right now, a big political reorientation. Here is my 10 point suggestion for how we on the left of Labour go forward.
1. Accept the result. Labour will lead Britain out of EU if it wins the election.
2. Demand an election within 6–9 months: Cameron has no mandate to negotiate Brexit. The parties must be allowed to put their respective Brexit plans to the electorate and thereafter run the negotiations. In that Labour should:
3. Fight for Britain to stay in the EEA and apply an “emergency brake” to migration under the rules of the EEA. That should be a Labour goverment’s negotiating position.
4. Labour should fight to keep all the EU’s progressive laws (employment, environment, consumer protection etc) but scrap restrictions on state aid, trade union action and nationalisation. If the EU won’t allow that, then the fallback is a complete break and a bilateral trade deal.
5. Adopt a new, progressive long-term migration policy: design a points based system designed to respond annually to demand from employers and predicted GDP growth; make parliament responsible for setting the immigration target annually on the basis of an independent expert report; the needs of the economy — plus the absolute duty to accept refugees fleeing war and torture — is what should set the target, not some arbitrary ceiling. And devote massively more resources than before to meeting the stresses migration places on local services.
6. Continue to demand Britain honours its duty to refugees to the tune of tens of thousands. Reassure existing migrant communities in Britain that they are safe, welcome and cannot be expelled as a result of Brexit. Offer all those who’ve come here from Europe under free movement rules the inalienable right to stay.
7. Relentlessly prioritise and attack the combined problems of low wages, in-work poverty and dead-beat towns.
8. Offer Scotland a radical Home Rule package, and create a federalised Labour Party structure. If, in a second referendum, Scotland votes to leave the UK, Labour should offer a no-penalty exit process that facilitates Scotland rejoining the EU if its people wish. In the meantime Labour should seek a formal coalition with the SNP to block a right wing Tory/UKIP government emerging from the next election.
9. Offer the Republic of Ireland an immediate enhanced bilateral deal to keep the border open for movement and trade.
10. The strategic problem for Labour remains as before. Across Britain there have crystallised two clear kinds of radicalism: that of the urban salariat and that of the low-paid manual working class. In Scotland those groups are aligned around left cultural nationalism. In England and Wales, Labour can only win an election if it can attract both groups: it cannot and should not retreat to becoming a party of the public sector workforce, the graduate and the university town. The only way Labour can unite these culturally different groups (and geographic areas) — so clearly dramatised by the local-level results — is economic radicalism. Redistribution, well-funded public services, a revived private sector and vibrant local democracy is a common interest across both groups.
11. If Labour in England and Wales cannot quickly rekindle its ties to the low-paid manual working class — cultural and visceral, not just political — the situation is ripe for that group to swing to the right. This can easily be prevented but it means a clean break with Blairism and an end to the paralysis inside the shadow cabinet.
From my social media feed it’s clear a lot of young radical left people and anti-racists are despondent. It seems they equated the EU with internationalism; they knew about and sympathised with the totally disempowered poor communities but maybe assumed it was someone else’s job to connect with them.
I am glad I voted to Remain, even though I had to grit my teeth. But I underestimated the sheer frustration: I’d heard it clearly in the Welsh valleys, but not spotted it clearly enough in places like Barking, Kettering, Newport.
I am not despondent though. The Brexit result makes a radical left government in Britain harder to get — because it’s likely Scotland will leave, and the UK will disingegrate, and the Blairites will go off and found some kind of tribute band to neoliberalism with the Libdems.
But if you trace this event to its root cause, it is clear: neoliberalism is broken.
There’s no consent for the stagnation and austerity it has inflicted on people; there’s nothing but hostility to the political class and its fearmongering — whether that be Juncker, Cameron or the Blairites. As with Scotland, given the chance to disrupt the institutions of neoliberal rule, people will do so and ignore the warnings of experts and the political class.
I predicted in Postcapitalism that the crackup of neoliberalism would take geo-strategic form first, economic second. This is the first big crack.
It is, geopolitically, a victory for Putin and will weaken the West. For the centre in Europe it poses the question point blank: will you scrap Lisbon, scrap austerity and boost economic growth or let the whole project collapse amid stagnation? I predict they will not, and that the entire project will then collapse.
All we can do, as the left, is go on fighting for the interests of the poor, the workforce, the youth, refugees and migrants. We have to find better institutions and better language to do it with. As in 1932, Britain has become the first country to break with the institutional form of the global order.
If we do have a rerun of the 1930s now in Europe, we need a better left. The generation that tolerated Blairism and revelled in meaningless centrist technocracy needs to wake up. That era is over.