Is Lexit a centrist fantasy?

Lexit exists more in the mind of its opponents than in any on-the-ground reality. Why do commentators in the FT and Economist talk it up?

Julian Sayarer
15 November 2017

If Labour were mad about Lexit, then why would it appoint Starmer?Writing in the Financial Times, Philip Stephens, asserts this week of Corbyn’s Labour that they hail “from a small far left sect that views Brussels as a capitalist plot”. Close and long-suffering watchers of Brexit will know this position, affectionately, as “lexit”, and “the left-wing version of Brexit” is its clunkier title for those already past caring.

Despite the logical-seeming simplicity of Stephens’s argument, as the Brexit process gets ever more critical and remainers seek a new ‘Will of the people', the provenance of lexit needs scrutiny if it is not to be found, all too late, to have been only a misleading trope.

Firstly it is important to recognise that "lexit" in the popular imagination and vocabulary, does not really exist. Devout politicos know to what it refers, but the concept only registers any clout in Google trends on a few days of 2016 when the Guardian ran one article successfully outlining what lexit might be. Perhaps that is not a problem; the idea does not need not be popular currency to have hold in the minds of Corbyn and McDonnell, but even this is to succumb to the centrist’s other laziness of thought by which Corbyn’s Labour is compulsively to be regarded as homogeneous. It is to ignore that Diane Abbott avoided the Article 50 vote, Clive Lewis resigned as shadow business secretary so as to disobey the whip on it, and the entire Labour project on Brexit is under the stewardship of heart-on-sleeve Europhile and open remain-backer, Keir Starmer QC.

Why would professional political commentators be so reluctant to read the cards as they are being dealt? Having already been shown that Momentum was predominantly not a Trotskyite cult that would alienate Labour from its voters, lexit has maybe become the new guise for that old logic, and the judgment, or pre-judgment, of many in the pundit class has been clouded by a need to see Labour as a threat and an extreme project.

Commentators have speculated openly whether Corbyn’s Labour see the chaos and financial collapse of Brexit as the ideal soil for a creative destruction out of which to grow socialism. The more obvious reason for Labour equivocating – that the bulk of Labour MPs are in leave-voting seats – often fails to penetrate their dogma, despite its glaring obviousness. That Labour, on the European Court of Justice and EU citizens’ rights are quite clearly amenable to making Brexit as sane as possible, has already passed them by, such is the fidelity to the creed that Corbyn must be mad. Fanatics always tend to see others in their own image, and it is arguably the fanatics of a shrinking centre who are now projecting their own mania on to rational actors within Labour.

This is not to say that there are no old communists, anarchists and radicals who voted leave in protest at the perception of the EU as a neoliberal order – there are. That group might be as statistically insignificant as Trotskyists are to Momentum’s numbers, but that they do exist is as unquestionable as the fact that they are now being given outsized prominence. Perhaps the great irony here is that, while the left and centre-left work overtime to stress that railways can be nationalised, strategic industry subsidised and minimum wages raised inside the EU, centre-right financial pundits producing narrative journalism-cum-opinion give credence to the myth of the EU neoliberal club.

One recent good example of this was provided by The Economist, which in consecutive paragraphs reasoned that the city of Preston – much admired for its social, local procurement policy – was used to demonstrate why Corbyn might want out of EU rules. Both writer and editor failed to highlight what was so obvious but key it seemed regrettably to have been missed – that these admired policies were being implemented within the EU.

All this leaves an urgent need to address the fact that lexit is the form by which a dwindling political centre and pundit class legitimises a pre-existing certainty that Corbyn, having been found not unelectable, must in fact be dangerous. Fair enough, people always hold tight to their views in politics, politicos all the more so. But what if they are wrong? This too leaves two options. The first possibility is that they are wrong but in good faith; that they believe their mistake to be true, unaware that the need to doubt and pillory Labour under Corybn could cost them a valuable ally in maintaining their EU. Or are they wrong but in bad faith; they have divined that Labour are in fact agnostic on the EU, but – threatened by a Corbyn government – the spectre of lexit, at-best fringe in Labour circles, must be peddled to discredit this movement. That none of the left's regular think tanks seem eager to elaborate on this lexit, that the Labour membership is overwhelmingly pro-EU, become inconvenient but elided factors in the misnomer of the Brexit left.

In one thing the pundit class are certainly right, even if their pejorative tone often associated with the statement is unnecessary: Corbyn and McDonnell will stop at nothing to get a UK built on social and economic justice.  Where they in their mania are wrong is the failure to realise that that ‘nothing’ probably includes, in the right political circumstances, remaining in the EU. For any who would want that outcome, the priority should be creating those circumstances, and helping to drop the myth of lexit.

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