Brexit, complexity and compromise – a progressive future will be negotiated, not imposed

Only when we recognise the vulnerability of all progressive positions, and reject simple binaries, can we start to build trust, dialogue and the long-term solutions the moment demands.

Neal Lawson
25 June 2019, 10.55am
Leave and Remain supporters outside the Houses of Parliament in London,UK on March 14, 2019
Claire Doherty/SIPA USA/PA Images

Three years ago this week many woke up to the shock of Britain voting, by a slim majority, to leave the EU. Others saw it coming. Long term and deep divisions became formalised and entrenched, into a seemingly black versus white, Brexit versus Remain polarity. But three years on from that fateful referendum we all need to take our blinkers off and help each other understand a world that isn’t black or white at all.

Instead of society, politics and decisions being binary we have to accept the world as complex, contradictory and paradoxical. And therefore when it comes to Brexit, a realisation that there is no safe ground for anyone to stand – however certain you feel. From this position of vulnerability, the real process of politics can resume – that of dialogue and compromise. Progressives, if we are ever to recover, need to do two things. First, be more tolerant of different tactical responses to Brexit, and second, dig deep to lay the foundations for the long-term renewal of our political project given that Brexit is a symptom of an economic, social, cultural and democratic malaise going back decades.

The contradiction – internationalists, but democrats

The referendum of 23rd June 2016 set up a massive and unnecessary contradiction for progressives, one that we are yet to come to terms with: as progressives we are both internationalists and democrats. But because of the referendum, that circle, right now at least but not for all time, feels difficult to square. In a situation where so many political leaders said the referendum was final, binding and that the result must be respected, that Article 50 should be immediately triggered[i], the case is being made now, understandably and forcefully, to vote again through a second referendum.

Woefully, there was no decision or discussion on what form Brexit should take – and there is a strong democratic case for such a decision to be put to the people. But the argument to rerun the referendum doesn’t yet feel strong enough and is still confused. The referendum saw millions vote who don’t normally. The Leave campaign broke the law over spending but mistruths were told on both sides; £350 million per week for the NHS if we left, vied with immediate economic meltdown if we did. Clearly the Leave side played the fastest and loosest and must face the financial and legal consequences. And here it is vital to distinguish between Leave voters and the people who ran the Leave campaign. For many of the former, hearts triumphed over wallets, while the later ran a cynical campaign. But what is undoubtedly the case is that Leave ran the most effective campaign, not least through the crystallisation of a “take back control” message that resonated strongly with those who felt they had lost so much control. The Remain case was put terribly and was run by people who had never been evangelical or ambitious about the future of Europe.

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The case for a second vote, before the first is even implemented, is made on the basis of two arguments; that the first vote was undemocratic, despite almost everyone initially saying the result must be respected; and secondly, that people didn’t know what they were voting for and/or we’ve since found out leaving is just too complicated. Neither arguments are totally unreasonable, but both are highly subjective and open to challenge. The bottom line is that however the decision is changed, or an attempt to do so is made, it’s a legitimate accusation that democracy becomes something that suits – until it doesn’t. Of course, people and countries can change their minds but we open ourselves up to rule by opinion poll at our peril. There is of course the additional concern that there is never a “final vote”, and this just rumbles on and on.

The harsh truth is that most on the Remain side thought they were going to win and were complacent. There was little scrutiny or challenge about the nature of the question, the majority needed to make such a huge constitutional change, nor, scandalously, what would happen next. All the problems have been registered in hindsight after a result that Remainers, by and large, didn’t see coming. Of course you can argue that economic interest trumps democratic principle, but that is a problematic position, to say the least, for any self-confirmed ‘radical democrat’. Often, those who demand a second vote on the EU, refuse another on Scottish independence. We can’t want the people’s vote to count, just not ‘that vote’. Progressives cannot play fast and loose with democracy when it is so central to how and why we want to change society. And if taking back control and having a voice was a big driver of Leave votes, then it’s not hard to see why a second vote potentially offends so strongly.

There are deep issues here about the clash between representative and direct forms of democracy, majority control and minority views, that without a written constitution leave the country in a mess. Simple majority rule doesn’t equal democracy - that is why commitments to human rights are so important. And a 52/48 per cent result is not a mandate for an extreme Brexit but an instruction to Parliament to negotiate a compromise – something our adversarial political institutions actively discourage. But most politicians and people went along with the vote and, initially at least, accepted the result.

But of course, Brexit doesn’t just challenge progressives’ democratic credentials, it hits up hard against the principle of internationalism – not least because we know that global capitalism, climate change and mass migration can only be dealt with on the basis of cross-border cooperation. Progressives believe we are human beings before we are British, English, Scottish or Welsh. We hate isolationism or national exceptionalism. And, Brexit is now being prosecuted, almost entirely, for very right-wing reasons in a campaign that will be turbo-charged whether we leave or stay. The failure of the Labour leadership and wider Lexit community to develop and popularise the case for a progressive Brexit, for which there are serious arguments, has simply vacated the field to Farage, Rees-Mogg and Johnson. But it is also the case that for some Remainers, internationalism stops at the borders of the EU and is about freedom of movement for some but not all. Again, this point is made not to criticise but to show how complex these issues now are.

So, it seems, because of the referendum, you can be an internationalist or a democrat – but it’s incredibly hard right now to be both. Let’s unpack all this and the Brexit shades of grey by looking at the different responses to this conundrum.

Labour’s response – betting everything on a General Election

First Labour. This has turned into three wasted years. The leadership’s strategy was to respect the result, but hope the Tories would implode under Brexit pressure before Labour did. After the vote Corbyn pushed for Article 50 to be triggered immediately in a bid to both appease Leave voters and fulfil his own Euro-sceptic aspirations. The assumption was, especially after the surprisingly good 2017 election result, that Remainers would hold their nose and not jump to the Lib Dems or Greens. Like Theresa May, Corbyn weaponised Brexit for party and ideological reasons, when what was needed (after such a narrow vote in which ‘the will of the people’ becomes meaningless) was the time, space and a process to understand what had happened, why, and how the nation’s divisions might be healed. This should have been especially the case when Labour itself was hugely divided culturally and geographically. But for the leadership, Brexit was always a second order issue. The first was getting a Labour government however improbable the likelihood of that happening. This bet everything on an election that only the Tories and the DUP could call. While Labour was right morally and electorally to try and straddle the Brexit divide, its attempts were never coherent or convincing. The pursuit of office and not national interest was what ultimately mattered. Further division and polarisation was inevitable.

In Parliament the Labour leadership wanted Brexit, but they didn’t want to own its passage and MPs voted down every option, thus helping to set up the rise of the Brexit Party, whose beef we need to at least recognise – three years on and the vote has not been actioned. But for Labour, UKIP/the Brexit Party were always seen as more damaging to the Tories’ electoral interests than theirs. Hence Farage and the ERG have been given virtually a free run by Labour – my enemy’s enemy and all that. No matter that the national discourse tilts ever more to the nationalistic Right. If the Right are split, Labour, even on a reduced vote, could squeeze into office. The approach is Miliband-esque in its analysis and tactics: assuming the other side will lose the election for you, so say or do little and win by default – but this time on only 30% not 35% of the vote.

Both ends were to be played off against the middle via a smoke and mirrors strategy of ‘constructive ambiguity’, which was just another form of New Labour spin and triangulation – promising one thing to one lot of voters, another to another, and hoping no one would see the contradictions. It wasn’t constructive or ambiguous and hit the inevitable buffers in the Euro elections last month when the party came third and 40% of its members voted for parties other than their own.

Who knows? This strategy might still work, and anyway the leadership show few real signs of shifting from it. Maybe in a general election the fear of an on-going Johnson premiership and concerns about the NHS will drive some voters back to Labour, but any imminent general election before the UK has left will be dominated by Brexit in ways that 2017 wasn’t. Because then Brexit was assumed to be a done deal, allowing Labour to ‘move on’ to issues such as public investment. Such leeway is unlikely again. With the shine off the Corbyn project, Labour divided as never before, the SNP triumphant in Scotland again and the Lib Dems and Greens riding a Remain wave – does Labour have any real hope that a ‘one more heave’ approach will win a majority? Isn’t the best it can hope for minority rule, propped up by the SNP? Can it even contemplate a more positive progressive alliance? Perhaps just as likely is that an implicit or explicit hard Brexit ‘Regressive Alliance’ will be formed, not least on the basis of Parliament’s inability to vote through any Brexit deal. In such circumstances Labour may not even hold on to the seats it’s got, given a pincer movement of real Brexit and clear Remain offers coming at it from both sides.

The leadership could shift to an unequivocal second vote position, but it’s probably too late for it to be credible under a Corbyn leadership, and would anyway create a vacuum in swathes of northern and post-industrial seats, which the hard right (in the shape of the Brexit Party) will fill. If Corbyn shifts his and Labour’s position fully, it will be the Tories and the Brexit Party that will be celebrating as well as Remainers. Corbyn is caught in his own bind, between perceived authenticity and the demands of party members who voted for him. The Brexit division causes Labour real and serious electoral and political problems and demands strong, open and imaginative leadership and a deep deliberative process to resolve. But within Labour, it seems, you have to pick between a second referendum or allegiance to Corbyn. Now if they move either way, Labour loses votes and seats.

It didn't have to be like this. They could have decided to put the huge resources of the Party and Momentum into leave seats to make the case for remain and reform. They could have called for cross-party talks and gone ahead with a coalition of the willing, which would have meant sitting down with the SNP, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Plaid to search for compromises. The very act of so doing would have boosted their standing. They could have instigated a party members’ assembly to deliberate on how to resolve the contradictions thrown up by the referendum. Labour should have spent every day of the last three years addressing the causes of Brexit with a programme of specifically tailored policy ideas. The reason they are now trapped is that the leadership sat and did too little, hoping an election would fall into their lap.

Four structural weaknesses in the Corbyn project

Beyond this tactical dead end, Brexit reveals four structural weaknesses with the Corbyn project. The first is that their brand of internationalism extends only to solidarity with countries under Western Imperial domination. This solidarity maybe necessary, but it is far from sufficient. There is little evidence of moving beyond solidarity to a strategic internationalism that allows progressives to deal with the global challenges of finance, climate and migration. Even if you think the EU is a capitalist club, surely, it’s beholden on you to devise alternative forms of global cooperation? But few big ideas, networks or partnerships have been forged – even with Left parties governing in countries such as Portugal.

The second weakness is that while there is an argument for Lexit and a theoretical case to be made for socialism in one country, that case has not been made by the Leadership. How would capital controls be enforced, investment sought, etc? Mitterrand effectively tried a ‘go it alone’ strategy in France in 1982. It ended abruptly and badly. Almost 40 years of full-throated globalisation later, this approach looks as undesirable as it does unfeasible. But where is the plan? With the country divided and isolated, how on earth would Labour offer any kind of transformative agenda? Some such as The Full Brexit and other Left economists have set out some of the arguments but these are far from being coherent or influential.

The third weakness that Brexit has revealed in the Corbyn project is the blind spot when it comes to democratic reform. If Brexit was a cry for power and to take back control, where then is the big Left response in terms of a radical new democratic settlement? The leadership, just like the Right of the party, follow what is called a Labourist approach – which simply sees the state as a neutral body to be inhabited and set on the right course by the right people. But it is the restrictive nature of our democratic structures and culture that holds us back. The undemocratic, unresponsive and centralised nature of the state has to be overturned to get the good society we want. It’s not just a politics of class we need, but of constitution. Sadly, this terrain has been vacated to Farage, even after he said he wouldn’t accept any close first referendum vote.

The final flaw is one of tribalism. The bunker mentality of the Corbyn leadership simply isolates and alienates in equal measure. Again, it didn’t have to be this way - it is a choice. The chance to change came off the back of the surprise 2017 election result when, from a position of new-found strength, they could have reached out. Complex situations like Brexit can only be met by equally complex forms of governance. The Brexit response reveals the fatal flaw of Corbynism – its elitism. If it can’t even try to bring the party together, despite obvious resistance, then how can it hope to try and bring the country together? To be clear, most of these fundamental criticisms apply equally to the Labour Right.

Restoration Remain

So, what of the Remain campaign? There are of course very different elements to this. By far the biggest and most dominant is what might be called Restoration Remain. These are the remnants of the Cameron, Clegg and Blair era who simply want to turn the clock back to how it was before all of this ‘awfulness’ – as if that were either feasible or desirable. The 2008 crash changed everything for everyone, except, it seems, for them. Much of their argument is reduced to the case for GDP growth as if consumerism was the only or main purpose of politics. Such a narrow claim fails to recognise ‘whose GDP’ we are talking about when the economic spoils always go to a few people in the London and the South East. But since the crash there is no solid centre ground to return to. Yes, the Lib Dems can temporarily pump themselves up as memories of the coalition fade and they resort to a sadly crass populism of “Bollocks to Brexit”, but it merely entrenches divisions and stokes up more problems. Can the Lib Dems govern the country from this position? And who would they form alliances with given this approach?

Within mainstream Labour there is little recognition of the role of New Labour in creating the conditions for Brexit, not least the way Old Labour voters were humiliated and taken for granted. And for some Brexit is a convenient way to attack Corbyn – watch as Tom Watson calls the Lib Dems ‘Brexit deniers’ after 2016 and then switches to a gung-ho second vote position because it suits his leadership purpose. Few seem to be thinking about how much more divisive any second referendum could be and how much more polarised the country would probably be as a consequence. Again, that isn’t a reason not to campaign for such a vote, it is to say you have to see, recognise and respond to all the consequences.

The same kind of people are calling the shots now for Remain that did so during the referendum campaign. Almost nothing it seems has been learnt. Honourable exceptions go to the likes of Hugo Dixon and Common Cause, who have at least tried to look at a ‘No Brexit Dividend’, but it’s not been taken up or developed ambitiously and coherently. The bulk of the Remain campaign doesn’t see Brexit as a symptom of long-term social, economic and democratic decay that demands a radically different political settlement. They have little critique of the EU and even less of an inclination to change it. Every day since 2016 should have been spent by Remainers making the case for a new economic, political and democratic settlement to address the causes of Brexit and propose cures. But they haven’t.

Remain and Reform – but how do we make another Europe possible?

There is a second, much smaller wing of the Remain/second referendum movement. Led by Clive Lewis in Labour and Caroline Lucas in the Greens, and through organisations such as Another Europe is Possible, they have centred a campaign around the idea of ‘Remain and Reform’ of the UK and the EU. For them, quite rightly, there is no going back, they want instead a new post-neoliberal settlement. Read Anthony Barnett’s Lure of Greatness to get the full flavour of why Brexit happened and the road to resolution from a deep and progressive perspective.

The problem though is that Remain and Reform are weak in numbers and resources compared to Restoration Remain, and critically have failed to develop a coherent or convincing case about how Europe could actually be reformed. How would we get the 28 member states to agree, what treaties need to be amended and what new ones put in place? Given the weakness of social democrats across the EU and the rise of the Greens, what is the political coalition to make progressive change happen? Remain and Reform has worked valiantly to make a Left, progressive and green case for Europe and this is certainly the right direction of travel. But we simply don’t yet know how to make another Europe possible.

In this vision DiEM 25, the pan-European political party (brain-child of Yanis Varoufakis) ambitiously set out to create a vehicle capable of making change happen, but unsurprisingly won only one EU seat. There is still no pan-European demos to carry such a political project. In a networked society such a demos could and should emerge quickly, but progressives have to understand their weaknesses if transformative change is to happen.

Meanwhile the EU has gone through a process of deification in the eyes of some Remainers – for many it is suddenly now a saintly institution we must return to at all costs. In truth it is a contradictory and paradoxical body that contains the seeds of both progressive and regressive politics. It has been captured by global corporates and mostly imposes free market nostrums. No progressive should forget or forgive its treatment of the Greek people and its imposition of austerity. This of course is a factor of the weakness of progressives more widely in and across Europe. But it is not unreasonable to be sceptical about an institution that too often looks and acts only to the right. In the absence of a progressive revival, during the last three years, the EU has done little to show it understands the nature of the democratic deficit that helped underpin the causes of Brexit or why its imposition of austerity has been so polarising.

And yet, the EU still regulates for the common good in some critical areas. It is the social, democratic and environmental potential of the EU that attracts progressives – but that, to reiterate the point, demands a pragmatic theory of change to realise its potential. The EU is an old 20th century institution that needs a radical overhaul to make it relevant to this century and the imperatives of networks and climate chaos. But the Left is split. Some argue the EU is the best vehicle we have got, others that it’s unreformable and we have to leave it to replace it. The debate needs to happen and both sides need to show what change is both feasible and desirable.

So, two big fears play out: the fear of Brexit and what it will mean socially and economically, and the democratic perils of trying to rerun the referendum, whereby a sizeable minority of the country could, in all likelihood, give up on any residual attachment to our democratic norms. Politics then transmutes from a Brexit issue to a democracy, populism and even a dictatorship issue. Which one is worse? How can anyone honestly say – little about Brexit is simple, clear-cut or black or white.

Tory leadership context and the risk of a reactionary alliance

Finally, let’s set this problematic background against the foreground now coming into view. Johnson is of course still likely to win the Tory leadership and therefore the premiership. He is an unpredictable beast, because he serves only his own interests. He could spin the Withdrawal Agreement and squeak that through. Or he might push for a hard Brexit, using No Deal as a bargaining chip, blaming Parliament and the EU for blocking the so called ‘will of the people’. This then sets him up for a Johnson and the people versus Parliament/EU general election over who runs the country? If he gets a sufficient bounce in the polls from his new leadership and if he can secure an implicit or explicit deal with Farage to slice and dice the country between north and south, with Labour all over the place, there could be a comfortable pro-Brexit landslide and five more years of the country shifting further to the Right. Tory donors are already reported to be in talks to oil the wheels of such a deal. Of course it might not come off and they could split the Leave vote.

But where does that leave progressives? The starting point is the recognition that a Remain Alliance is not the same thing as a genuinely Progressive Alliance – an alliance that doesn’t want to restore the nation but transform it. The Brexit cleavage is one big barrier to this, but so is the 2017 decision by Labour to turn its back on electoral solidarity with Greens in particular, who stood aside in seats to help stop a Tory landslide. Labour refused then to reciprocate or even acknowledge their generosity. That now looks like a high price the country is having to pay, given Corbyn could have been installed as PM in 2017 if a deal in a few seats had been struck and Labour was prepared to give and not just take votes and seats from other progressives. Labour shows little inclination at the top to shift from this winner-takes-all/loser loses everything approach, nor back the corollary position of support for proportional representation. Given the Labour leadership’s implicit pro-Brexit position, any alliance is now problematic to say the least.

Some progressives will make the judgement that stopping Brexit is all that matters. Others find it harder to minimise democratic qualms. There is no right answer. The only wrong response is to pretend it’s simple. We must refuse to accept binaries because that’s what the populists want us to do. Too often people on either side of the Brexit divide question the other sides motives, rather than try to understand them. A progressive future, one fit for the 21stcentury, will be negotiated not imposed.

Economic imperatives can’t trump democratic principles. It is a combinational politics of both/and we need. No one has a safe place to stand on, every bridge is burning. Only when we recognise the vulnerability of all progressive positions can we start to build trust, dialogue and the complex long-term solutions the moment demands. Because we know means always shape ends, the way out of this mess has to be more democratic than the way in. Along the way we must rekindle the flames of a genuine internationalism.

Compromise is the only way to reconcile our belief in both democracy and internationalism in the fall out from the referendum. So, for instance, Article 50 could be temporally revoked to allow a full citizens assembly on all aspects of Brexit. And all progressives can agree there must be a second referendum for or against a No Deal, if it comes to that. Given the threat of right-wing populism we have to find a way to take it on without turbo-charging the forces behind with the excuse of being the bogus champions of democracy.

Least bad is no longer good enough

In all this, the politics of the least bad option or the short cut is no longer good enough. There is no alternative but to build a vibrant democratic, internationalist, egalitarian and sustainable political project – and we can never do that if we keep start from the wrong place or reacting to the right. This is why Compass, and others have been pushing the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly as a way out of the impasse - a deliberative process to help assess all the evidence and issues. If Parliament refuse to decide then this should be the mechanism to negotiate the complexities of Brexit.

Despite all the attempt to paint progressives into opposing corners, politics now is far from black or white. No one can be certain that they are right. Do we stop Brexit at any price or stop the polarisation of society through compromise at any price? We face instead the complexity of our relationship with the EU and our always half-in and half-out, never fully committed position. We face too the complexity of democracy and the clash between parliamentary sovereignty and the sovereignty of the people. And then Labour faces the complexity of its cultural composition as its struggles to determine how much it is a Party of values or interests and how class and identity are to be squared.

Difficult short-term decisions are going to have to be made. Progressives should give each other the room to be ‘remain and reform’ or ‘leave and rebuild’. But progressives must also commit to the deep foundational work of what the good society is and how it’s achieved - otherwise we face continual crisis management but in ever decreasing circles.

Because Brexit tells us one thing loudly and unambiguously – politics and politicians must change. Waves of social, economic, technological, cultural and climate change are going to keep hitting us. All of this is happening while the traditional vehicle of progressives for the last century, social democracy, is struggling to adapt to the new networked society and may well be dying before our eyes. The answer isn’t to jump into one camp but to consider, negotiate, compromise, respect and start to rebuild trust across our country. Any considered and reflective progressive will have a bit of both 52/48 per cent in them. So maybe between them the likes of Caroline Lucas, Clive Lewis and Lisa Nandy hold some of the cards of a new leadership hand that is as red and green as it is democratic.

Certainly the ideas and networks of a new politics are starting to emerge, from Extinction Rebellion to the Green New Deal, from citizens’ assemblies springing up everywhere to the more full-throated demands for PR, from campaigns around a shorter working week to universal basic services and income – such that both the ideas and the agency for progressive change are building.

But reductive binaries won’t help the new to be born. Populism can and must be confronted and the journey to a good society kick-started, but only when we embrace complexity – it is a difficult path but it is the only path.

Neal Lawson is the Executive Director of Compass and writes here in a personal capacity. He was editor of The Causes and Cures of Brexit, has helped convene conversations and publications for many years on Europe and the Good Society and was the Spokesperson for the Progressive Alliance in the 2017 general election.


[i] Some MPs, such as Caroline Lucas did argue for Article 50 to be delayed until a clear process emerged

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