Labour let the right shape both sides of the Brexit debate
Labour’s defeat and the triumph of Johnsonism part 4: Brexit.
There is one issue for which this election will be remembered for generations: Brexit.
This is the fourth article in a series of six, reflecting on Labour’s 2019 election. In the first three I looked at the issue of exactly why Labour’s electoral coalition fell apart, the strengths and weaknesses of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party, and the problems inherent in Labour in relying on an ‘anti-austerity’ narrative when trying to justify a programme that would reverse 40 years of neoliberalism. Now, at last, we come to the defining issue of the vote.
Ultimately I am going to suggest that there was really no good way out of it. This was arguably the single most divisive issue in British politics since World War II, and Labour’s voter coalition was hopelessly divided on it. In a way, nothing more needs to be said.
But of course, there is plenty more to say. Most importantly, it is crucial to understand the long-term political conditions that produced support for Brexit among certain key constituencies, and extreme hostility to it among others.
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There will not be space here to discuss all of the historic and political circumstances leading to this. But it is important to note one of the key reasons for the Brexit vote. Ever since the 1970s, the British political class – left and right – had simply made no real effort to persuade the public that EEC and EU membership were positive goods. The attitude of successive governments and party leaderships had always been to effectively deny to the British public that the European project had any real political dimension at all; and to try to assert, both to them and to the rest of the EU, that the UK could treat it as a free-trade bloc rather than as a project of political and economic integration. And, it must be understood, this is the primary objection to EU membership of most of the people who voted leave. Most of them were not working-class Northerners, but middle-class, Conservatives: readers of the Times and the Telegraph. And frankly, their objection to Britain’s participation in the EU project was always valid. The EU always was a project of political integration; and no UK government had ever sought or been granted an honest democratic mandate for that.
The one historical moment when a government could have tried actively to sell the EU project to the British public was in the early days of the Blair government, when an increasingly Eurosceptic Tory party had just been comprehensively rejected by the electorate. But instead of trying to popularise the idea of Britain as a modern, western-European social democracy, Blair chose the contrary route of becoming Washington’s representative in Brussels, pushing for expansion of the union and deregulation of its labour markets; trying not to make the UK more European, but to make Europe more American. The chance for a popular British Europeanism was sacrificed on the altar of neoliberal Atlanticism.
But this is only part of the story. The most important issue for us, and for Labour, was the fact that a significant minority of its own voter base also comprised a significant minority of the Leave voting bloc. And crucial to the story is the question of why. Why did working class voters in some of the most depressed regions of the country end up sharing a political position with the affluent golfers of the home counties? If they hadn’t, then Leave wouldn’t have won, and neither would Boris Johnson.
In 2007 I wrote a book about the relationships between cultural theory and anticapitalist politics. In it I tried to survey the then current state of British politics, and make some predictions about its likely near future. I suggested that the economic model of growth based on endless expansion of debt and inflation of house-prices couldn’t go on forever. I then argued that when the crash came, the immediate beneficiaries would be the xenophobic political right: because they had been laying the ground for victory for many years previously, whereas the political left – weak and disorganised – had still really never recovered from the defeats of the 1980s.
As someone working partly in the fields of cultural and media studies, I knew that the tabloid press had been consistently pushing the line that immigrants were the cause of all Britain’s problems for decades, and that a worrying number of people believed them.
This is the key and crucial issue. The reason that many working-class people voted for Leave is that, with very few exceptions, they had become convinced by a political narrative that both massively inflated the scale of actual immigration to the UK, and gave them a demonstrably false impression as to its economic and social consequences. This had been going on since the 1970s. The left had made no systematic challenge to that narrative in working class communities, except at moments of extreme emergency when parties of the far-right started to win elections, as they periodically did (for example, in Barking and Dagenham in the early 2000s).
The Labour party’s pro-Brexit faction had a problem. They wanted to persuade the party and its voters that Brexit was a good idea, as their great hero Tony Benn had always believed. But everybody could see that Brexit was not happening because they had won the public argument, but because Murdoch and the Mail had. On the other hand, those who opposed Brexit were faced with exactly the same problem. The left had done nothing like the necessary work of challenging the anti-immigration narrative of the right-wing press over the preceding decades; and by 2016, it was much too late to start.
So in 2017, we heard from canvassers, time and again, that Labour’s willingness to implement the Brexit referendum decision was a precondition for those Northern ‘working-class’ voters giving us the time of day. During the 2019 campaign, we heard time and again that the same voters were promising to vote Conservative, at least this one time, in order to ‘get Brexit done’.
Here is the key difference between 2017 and 2019. In 2017 Labour was formally committed to implementing the 2016 Brexit referendum result. By 2019 our policy was to hold another referendum on the matter, having prevented May or Johnson from implementing their version of Brexit for the past two years of a hung parliament. For voters uninterested in the niceties of customs unions and complicated treaty arrangements, this felt like Labour frustrating their democratic will. Given that many of them had voted for Brexit, with little idea what it meant (apart from reducing immigration), for no other reason than to have the experience of that democratic will being expressed, this was anathema.
So it’s not as if nobody foresaw the danger of Labour departing from, or qualifying, its commitment to implementing Brexit. The question was always: could that danger be avoided, and if so how? Since the election, a chorus of voices both from the ‘Blue Labour’ strand of Labour politics and from the pro-Brexit hard left have declared that weakening our support for Brexit is what cost us precious working-class votes. And of course they are right.
But the problem with their retrospective prescriptions is simple: we tried it their way. In full knowledge that this disaster might be coming, the leadership refused, for over a year after June 2017, to accept the view of the vast majority of Labour members and voters, that Brexit must be seen as a terrible mistake, and that any final deal must be put to a second referendum (with Remain as one of the options). The result of this insistence on respecting the 2016 referendum result was a collapse in Labours polling and performance in local and European elections; as the urban, cosmopolitan, almost-uniformly pro-Remain section of its base became increasingly dismayed, feeling unrepresented and taken for granted. By mid 2018 Labour was polling around 22% nationally. If Labour had not shifted its position somewhat, then its vote would have collapsed in the South and the urban centres, as it did in the Northern towns because it did shift. Of course we would have lost fewer seats in this scenario. But we would have lost too many to win the election, and would have lost even more votes overall than we eventually did.
Labour’s final Brexit policy – negotiate yet another new deal, put that to a referendum with Remain as the other option – was sane, rational and intelligent. But it pleased nobody. The actual effect of Labour adopting this policy – and of the relentless campaigning of its heroic activists to promote it in communities around the country – was to effect a significant recovery of its support among Remain voters. But not enough. Here is a crucial fact about the election result that has been overlooked in many quarters. Labour lost 7.8 percentage points of national vote share. The Tories gained 1.3%. The Greens gained 1.1%. The Liberal Democrats gained 4.2%. Obviously any inferences from these figures are speculative and abstract. But, put crudely, they show very clearly that Labour lost as much of its 2019 vote to the ‘remain alliance’ of Green and Lib Dems’ as it did to the Tories. We can safely assume that an explicitly leave-backing Labour party would have lost even more. It is also true that, in all probability, Labour lost many votes to leave-voters who voted Labour in 2017 and then simply abstained in 2019. But the point still stands. Labour lost votes in multiple directions. It shed votes from its coalition, whatever direction it moved in, and even while standing still. On some plausible calculations, Labour would have lost almost 60 urban and middle-class seats to the Green / Liberal Democrat ‘Remain Alliance’ if it had not embraced the policy of a second-referendum.
Many commentators, including myself, always felt that there was simply no point in Labour trying to pretend to be anything but a party of Remain. The vast majority of its members, and of its voters, even in most Leave-supporting constituencies, supported Remain. Yes, there was always a vocal minority of party members who had always taken a principled position against EU membership. But they were a small proportion of the membership and – this cannot be stressed enough times – less than one third of our voters in 2017 were Leavers. The now-popular idea that a tiny middle-class elite within the party ‘betrayed’ the working class by abandoning the party support for Leave is nonsense. The fact that a small, but highly visible, and strategically crucial section of that voter base – older, white workers and retirees in former industrial areas – took a different view, cannot be allowed to obscure that fact.
Nor can it be allowed to obscure the fact that it is very clear why those voters supported Leave. In all but negligible proportions, they did not support it out of a lifelong commitment to Bennite socialism and to Labour’s 1983 manifesto (that had promised to withdraw from the European Economic Community). They voted leave because they had been persuaded by a right-wing nationalist narrative, fed to them daily by the tabloid press for decades. Within the terms of this narrative, hostility to ‘immigration’ was not a coded way of expressing hostility to neoliberalism: it was a direct alternative to a genuinely anti-neoliberal politics. The tabloids were not saying, and voters on the doorsteps were not saying ‘we hate the EU because we hate neoliberalism’. They were saying ‘we hate immigrants because they take our jobs and homes’, because they had been systematically presented with an anti-immigration narrative, for literally decades, as a way of closing off the possibility of an anti-neoliberal narrative winning popular support. Of course, as I pointed out in the second article of this series, neoliberalism and globalisation were the true sources of the problems that voters were objecting to. But they were objecting to them in terms that were entirely shaped by the discourse of the right-wing press. As such, claiming that support for Brexit was simply an expression of anti-neoliberal sentiment is about as accurate as saying that support for Trump’s wall in the USA is a direct expression of radical class consciousness.
This was a key reason why the compromise position recommended by so many commentators in 2018 – of committing Labour to a ‘soft Brexit’ – was clearly never going to work. Not only was it too big an ask for the membership to continue accepting that any Brexit at all should happen, when they overwhelmingly felt that the Brexit vote was a symptom of Murdoch’s decades-long propaganda machine. The ‘soft Brexit compromise’ theory was also hopelessly naive as to the predictable reaction of the tabloids to Labour accepting any deal that did not end free movement: and there was zero chance of any remotely ‘soft’ Brexit being agreed by the EU that did not preserve free movement between EU states and the UK. Labour’s 2017 manifesto had been able to fudge this because negotiations over the form of the exit deal had barely begun. The idea that any version of that fudge could survive the negotiations is just fanciful, once the key role of the press in shaping Leaver opinion is taken into account. And let there be no doubt. In a situation in which Labour was advocating for a form of Brexit that preserved free movement, the tabloids would have had a field day, screaming that Labour’s ‘soft’ Brexit constituted a ‘betrayal’.
Those sections of the hard left most closely allied to the Morning Star and the Unite union continue to maintain that support for Brexit was not motivated by racism and xenophobia, but constituted an incipient expression of class-consciousness that ought to have been respected. I have yet to see any of the advocates of this perspective address the point that the vast majority of Black and Asian working class voters supported Remain. Is their class-consciousness to be regarded as inherently inferior to that of retired white munitions workers in Cumbria? Nor have I ever seen them address the point that the majority of leave-voters were not working-class or Northern at all, but were affluent, true-blue Tory homeowners in the home counties and other comfortable districts. These same sections of the pro-Brexit left have been vituperative in their attacks on the ‘betrayal’ of the working class by cosmopolitan liberals, for which they blame Labour’s election defeat. If their analysis is allowed to have any serious sway over the coming Labour leadership election, it will be unfortunate: not because the Lexiters are bad comrades, but because they are simply factually wrong about why Labour lost.
The Case for ‘Lexit’
But while we’re on the subject, let’s not caricature the analysis of the Lexiters. Here is the most defensible version of it. From this perspective, the European Union has always been a project to enforce free-market neoliberalism across the continent, and no socialist should ever have supported UK membership of it. The Eastward expansion of the European Union was driven by the Blair government at Washington’s behest, deliberately seeking to shift the balance of power within the EU away from Western European social democracy.
The resultant influx of Eastern European workers to the UK Labour market had very different effects to immigration from the former British colonies in the 40s and 50s. In that case, immigrants from countries and regions with strong traditions of anti-colonialism, socialism and labour organisation came to settle in our towns and cities, transforming British culture for the better. Yes, there was ’racial tension’ at times, but over the medium-term, in many places this wave of immigration actively contributed to the emergence of a multicultural politics of municipal socialism and cross-cultural solidarity, in the face of far-right and Thatcherite aggression towards both trade-unionists and minorities of all types. By contrast, Eastern European migrant workers are more or less actively encouraged by the ease of movement across the EU not to settle here at all, but to work, for low wages, for limited periods, while forming no significant political or cultural relationships with their indigenous neighbours of any culture. (Trade union organisers have also told me that Eastern European immigrants have proven very difficult to recruit and organise, normally attributing this to a suspicion of socialism on the part of those whose families lived through the traumatic experience of communist rule in the region. I have no idea if this is true, but it seems plausible.)
In this context, the resistance of British workers to EU-enabled immigration may well be a feeling that Murdoch and his allies in the far right are able to prey upon; but it does not derive from reactionary impulses. It is – the Lexit argument goes – a realistic, if intuitive, assessment of the politics of the EU as an institutionalised expression of capitalist interests. At the same time, it is understandable that the descendants of those mid-century immigrants should themselves feel very uncomfortable with any form of anti-immigration rhetoric. But this unease, and their entirely understandable sense of vulnerability, leaves black and Asian citizens easy prey to exploitation by a neoliberal elite, who lure them into complicity with their own super-exploitation by promising (and to some extent delivering) a culture of ‘diversity’ and free movement. The correct response to this situation is not to encourage this complicity, but to build solidarity among all workers, whatever their origins, without reproducing the myth of the European Union as a progressive institution, or allowing the neoliberal technocrats to maintain a monopoly on cosmopolitan and anti-racist politics.
This is the argument for ‘Lexit’ – left Brexit – as I understand it, and it is important that even those of us who don’t agree with it respect it. In fact my own position was always that this was a more than respectable argument, and that the Lexit goal of redefining Brexit as a left-democratic project was a laudable one, as well as being politically and intellectually consistent with a proud tradition of left opposition to the EU, that actually predated the Tory-right embrace of Euroscepticism in the early 1990s. The problem with the Lexit strategy was never its intrinsic merits. It was the fact that it was always predicated on a certain naivety about how easy it would be to persuade the Remain-voting majority of Labour’s supporters and members of its virtues. To grasp this point, it is important to understand why the Lexit argument has ultimately never persuaded the vast majority of Labour voters or members. It is not, as Lexiters have repeatedly claimed, simply because Labour party supporters are all hopelessly naive about the politics of the EU.
There are serious intellectual arguments to be made against the Lexit position, even by those of us who are fully aware of the political role that the EU has often played (above all, in the hideous treatment of the Syriza government in 2016). The most obvious of these arguments is that all of the claims that can be made about the EU from a radical perspective can also be made about the British state: which is the mechanism that Lexiters propose to use to build socialism in the UK. If there is no hope of ever building an international coalition to reform the EU, using its structures to discipline international capital rather than to enable it, then why should anyone believe that there is any hope of an equivalent project succeeding at the UK level alone? Conversely, the history of social democracy in all countries is the history of oppressive and entirely pro-capitalist state structures being, eventually, successfully used for partially anti-capitalist ends. Why should we expect the story of the EU to be any different? And why, when radical socialists have spent almost two centuries calling for international solidarity between workers, would we abandon the one institution that has ever seemed to hold out the possibility of a governmental structure within which the practice of such solidarity might become possible?
And these are not merely speculative claims about the progressive potential of the EU. Rupert Murdoch notoriously admitted that his implacable hostility to the EU derived from his awareness that it is too large and powerful a political structure for he and his newspapers to intimidate. The EU is to date the only organisations on the planet — the US federal government included – to have successfully forced the Apple corporation to pay its taxes.
Finally, the major political reason why – consciously or otherwise – most Labour supporters never bought into the Lexit idea, is this. We were never convinced that leaving the EU would actually make it significantly easier for a Labour government to pursue its political agenda. Advocates for Lexit had insisted that the EU’s rules regulating ‘state aid’ or corporations would make it impossible to pursue an interventionist economic programme or a programme of significant re-nationalisation. But most experts told us that in fact this case was not proven at all, because there simply was no legal precedent for an EU member state attempting to implement such a programme. Privately, I was shown a report commissioned by an MP from the House of Commons library that made exactly this case. Under these circumstances, it always seemed reasonable that a Labour government might deliberately seek to test the neoliberal limits of the EU’s regulatory regime from inside the EU, with the direct objective of breaking them, if necessary.
In fact, ultimately, this seemed like a more plausible objective than simply leaving the EU, imagining that somehow by quitting its formal structures, we could escape their influence and hostility. The persistent hegemony of neoliberalism within those institutions would continue to pose a major impediment to socialist reform in the UK even if we left, as the EU would be able to impose all kinds of sanctions on UK trade if it decided to seriously oppose the political agenda of its government.
To put this more simply: the neoliberal dominance of the EU – by far Britain’s most important trading partner – was going to continue to pose a major problem for a socialist UK government, whether Britain was inside the EU or not. The long-term political task was surely to build pan-European support for a counter-project to European neoliberalism. Rightly or wrongly, few were convinced that such a project would be bolstered by Brexit.
But more fundamental, if less rational, than any of these arguments was the real symbolic value of EU membership for many citizens who are not – and never will be – members of the international neoliberal elite. This is a crucial point and it cannot be stated too often. There is a powerful mythology shared by many sections of British political culture: from the far right to the far left, and at every intermediary point along the spectrum. According to this mythology, members of ‘settled’ working-class communities (be they former pit villages in Derbyshire or council estates on the edge of London) simply have stronger, more intimate bonds with each other and with their established habits of life than do other people. These others – from immigrants to university students to metropolitan professionals – are recognised as having a culture, and values, and preferences. But they are somehow assumed to be less attached to them, or to be more easily reconciled to seeing their values traduced. Cosmopolitans, it is assumed, are rootless: aimless postmodern individuals, with no real commitment to anything. These assumptions are central to the discourse of the ‘authentocrats’, as Joe Kennedy has named that range of commentators and pundits who claim to speak for the ‘authentic’ people of Britain.
The problem with these assumptions is that they are completely wrong, and proceed from a sheer inability to grasp the changing nature of cultural belonging and political community in the 21st century. Cosmopolitanism is not merely a symptom of rootlessness. It can be just as deeply entrenched an element of a person’s identity as can attachment to a particular place and ethnicity. Those of us who live in cities, who have close friends and families with different-coloured skin to our own, and with foreign passports, will feel an affront to our values – of which freedom of movement is a fundamental element – just as much as some cultural conservative will resent the presence of ‘foreigners’ in his town. As the cultural historical Mica Nava has shown, cosmopolitanism can be ‘visceral’ just as conservatism can. This is not merely an expression of liberalism and individualism; for many of us today, our communities are not rooted primarily in our neighbourhoods or workplaces, but grounded in our dispersed and complex social networks. That doesn’t make us any less loyal to them.
Crucially, this is not just a ‘middle-class’ experience. In places like London, cosmopolitanism and libertarian social ethics have formed a part of vernacular working class culture for centuries. This is more true now in more other places than it ever has been. Such cosmopolitan values may be alien to the culture of retired workers who once worked in Britain’s industrial heartlands, but in the age of the internet, they are more widely shared among both ‘working’ and ‘middle’ class people than ever before. It is true that, on the precise issue of Brexit, opinion polls showed that Leave voters placed it more highly in a list of issues that they cared about than did Remain voters. But that didn’t mean that Remainers didn’t care about EU membership and free movement: it just meant that they cared even more about the NHS. We saw in 2018 and 2019 what happened when a large part of that electorate felt motivated to turn their backs on the party that they felt no longer represented them. Cosmopolitans of all classes – above all, of the multicultural urban working classes – felt betrayed and dismayed at the sight of Labour refusing to endorse a second referendum, once it became apparent that May’s version of Brexit was untenable. This is why Labour support collapsed in 2018.
What were we to do?
My point here is not to argue that Labour necessarily should have adopted a more aggressively pro-Remain position. Any claims we can make about what might have happened had a different strategy been pursued are ultimately speculative and unprovable. But what it is clear is that the emergent common-sense on this issue is profoundly mistaken. Labour did not ‘lose the heartlands’ because it made a mistake by refusing to ‘honour the referendum’. Labour’s electoral base was split, and the section of that base that was numerically much smaller than the other happened to be in a strategically crucial position because of the iniquities of the electoral system. Of that smaller, leave-voting, section of its voter base, a large proportion has been drifting away from Labour for many years for purely socio-economic reasons: it is made up of propertied pensioners with no material interest in defending or extending the public sector, reliant as they are on the value stored in their homes for any sense of security in old-age, most of whom belong to a strand of working-class culture that has always been nationalist and socially-conservative. At the same time, a large constituency of middle-class cosmopolitans in their 40s and 50s deserted Labour precisely because we seemed too concerned with pandering to this ageing, conservative section of their traditional base. Finally, another section of that older ‘traditional working-class' base could have been kept onside with more convincing, explicitly anti-capitalist leadership; while younger non-voters in the same neighbourhoods might yet have been motivated to support the party by much the same thing.
So what were we to do? In theory, if we had taken a position in favour of a second referendum much earlier, we could have actively campaigned in leave-oriented constituencies in order to actually try to change the minds of enough of our leave-backing supporters to steady our support. ‘Brexit is a con’ could have been the slogan on which to hang a whole popular critique of the class-politics of phantasmatic nationalism (or some better slogan, that could have conveyed in a non-patronising way the idea that, while the questions to which Brexit was an answer were all valid ones, it was an answer that was being supplied by reactionary sections of the ruling class: entirely in their own interests). In theory.
We could have engaged in an open struggle against tabloid populism, presenting to voters the fact that Murdoch had been lying to them for decades, seeking to replace their reactionary nationalism with true class consciousness: directing their anger at the elite of which Boris Johnson is so obviously a member. Then perhaps we would have found out if it was true, as the Lexiters still claim, that support for Brexit was an expression of incipient class consciousness.
But in all honesty, I doubt that even now Labour has the capacity for this kind of sustained proselytisation and issue-based campaigning, outside of election-time and far-away from the metropolitan centres. Maybe it does. And we certainly could have tried. And the results could hardly have been any worse than they finally were. But this would have been a herculean task to undertake, especially given the way that Leave and Remain opinion was distributed between actual parliamentary constituencies.
Frankly any political solution to this dilemma would have been risky and unlikely to work. It is easy to see why those on the left, who happened to support Brexit and who feel that Labour ‘betrayed’ its working class voters by ‘betraying’ the referendum result, allow themselves the luxury of such delusion. But this is not a view of the situation that corresponds in any meaningful way with the facts. Labour was stuck. If it stayed ‘leave’ it was going to lose half its voters. As it was, even with the late promise of a second-referendum, it lost a large chunk of them for not being Remain enough.
If anything could have worked, then campaigning for Remain early, explicitly and ideologically, from a socialist perspective, against the right-wing nationalism that the Murdoch press had peddled to voters for decades, would have been more likely to than anything else. But it probably wouldn’t. Getting out to campaign in all of these constituencies would have involved a mobilisation of activist on a scale much higher than that achieved in Labours incredibly impressive 2019 ground campaign. And the effort would always been hampered by the fact that a significant section of our own activists and leaders – especially those with historic ties to the Communist Party of Britain or the National Union of Mineworkers – actively supported Brexit, from their own distinctively socialist perspective. At the same time, the absence of any very visible pan-European campaign for progressive reform of the EU also meant that the claims of those of us arguing for ‘remain and reform’ always rang rather hollow. And the fear on the part of many Leavers that ‘remain’ would only ever mean ‘more of the same’ was visibly reinforced by the fact that the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign was led by the most awful representatives of Blairite centrism.
The Centrist Backlash
The pro-Lexit critics of Labour’s turn to a second-referendum position are wrong to see it as having been primarily driven by the machinations of these people; but they are not wrong that those machinations took place, or that they were motivated entirely by the desire of the displaced technocratic elite to somehow regain their power.
This is a very important point to grasp, if we are understand the reaction to the election defeat and the tendency of many on the left to want to blame the Remain camp for it. Precisely the same elements of the Labour right who went to such lengths to propagate the idea that Corbyn was an anti-semite, also worked tirelessly to paint him as a ‘secret leaver’, determined to deliver Brexit while pretending to his supporters that that wasn’t what he was doing. The narrative currently being circulated by many on the Labour left maintains that it was these elements, in league with their own secret allies inside the shadow cabinet (Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry), who eventually pushed and bullied Corbyn into accepting a less resolutely pro-Leave stance.
This is a completely understandable reading, and although it is factually wrong, it is, in a certain sense, emotionally and politically correct. The problem with this account, is that it ignores the real visceral, political and intellectual distaste that most of Corbyn’s supporters in the party always had for the policy of accepting any form of Brexit without a second mandate on any final deal. It never required any pressure from the liberal centre to make them unhappy with the policy, for reasons that I have already explained. But this account is also wrong because it overlooks the real damage done by the centrists to Corbyn’s cause and to Labour’s election prospects. As we can see from the data I referred to in the first article of this series: there is good evidence that the largest distinctive cohort of votes that Labour actually lost between 2017 and 2019 wasn’t any one group of leave-voters, but middle-aged liberal centrists. The only good reason for any such voters to abandon Labour between those two elections was they had come to believe the relentless propaganda to the effect that Corbyn was an enemy of cosmopolitan liberalism. It wasn’t in pushing Labour to adopt a less ‘Leave’ position that the centrist-Remain camp did their damage. It was in convincing a large section of their own audience to vote against Labour.
The centrists ultimately would not reconcile themselves to the fact that the anti-Conservative coalition now had to be led from the Left. They did everything they could to undermine Corbyn, in the hope of winning back leadership of anti-Conservatism. In the process, they broke the emergent coalition, and condemned the country to a Johnson premiership. The centrist, anti-Corbyn commentariat should feel very proud of themselves.
The narrative according to which ‘Remain lost it for Labour’ is therefore factually wrong, insofar as it relies on the mistaken assumption that it was the loss of leave votes alone that produced the electoral outcome. But it is politically and emotionally correct to the extent that it recognises the fatal damage done to Labour by the obsessively pro-Remain camp in the wider political sphere. What is important to grasp here, however, is that a non-centrist, genuinely-Corbynite, but also determinedly anti-Brexit stance was always an authentic political position, quite distinct from that of the centrist anti-Corbynites. In fact this is the main reason why Starmer emerged as the most popular contender for the Labour leadership so quickly after the defeat: rightly or wrongly, he is the most high-profile MP to be associated with precisely that position in the minds of most members.
Where Does This Leave Us?
But where does all this leave Labour now? As I have suggested, the single biggest structural factor that made the Brexit conundrum unsolvable for Labour was the fact that it had, for decades, allowed the right-wing press to define the common-sense of a key section of its traditional base, on some issues of fundamental importance. That doesn’t mean that Labour can’t start now to struggle against the 40-year campaign for the British press to promote xenophobic English nationalism. It should. It must start campaigning in communities, not against Brexit (which is a done deal now), but explicitly against the ideology of conservative nationalism that has cost it so dearly in this election. That, at least will be a programme that we can unite around: and must.
There was no easy way through this maze. But any route out of it must take account of all these factors. The implications are clear, even if they do fly in the face of the assumption that what Labour must now do is to focus exclusively on winning back propertied white pensioners. Labour must rebuild and consolidate the progressive urban base that shed so many voters to the Greens and Liberal Democrats. But it must do so on the basis of a leadership that is able to communicate with the more radical sections of its older ‘traditional’ constituency and with those of the working-age population in the same communities who did not turn out in high enough numbers to support it in 2019. The idea that the next leader must be a ‘leaver’ is ludicrous in the light of these observations: but so would any suggestion that they must be a ‘remainer’. What they must be is able to speak a language both of class struggle and of national renewal, in terms that can resonate with small-town voters without alienating urban progressives.
Is this an impossible task? It may be for one person. We would do well to abandon the myth of the single, all-purpose leader, in my opinion. Whoever becomes party leader must not be afraid to promote a strong team around them, able to speak directly to different sections of the coalition that we need. But it is not an impossible task at all for a leadership with the vision to see the scale of the problem. Honestly, all it really needs is a leadership who can grasp the point that Britain has still not really resolved the crisis of the 1970s. The end of the post-war consensus gave way to a period in which neoliberalism was implemented by a professional political class in allegiance with powerful sections of capital; but their project never commanded widespread public support, and anger and frustration at its long-term implications now inform every shade of political opinion in the country. Any leadership who can grasp this can take us forward. Any that can’t, won’t.
Ultimately, I think, the Brexit conundrum, and Labour’s structural inability to respond to it, revealed deep weaknesses in Labour’s strategy that have been visible since the earliest days of Thatcherism. The Lexiters wanted to ride a clearly reactionary wave to a policy outcome that they happened to agree with. When, in the history of human civilisation, has that ever worked out well? Many of them ended up sharing platforms with figures with highly dubious politics.
Advocates of a ‘soft Brexit’ compromise were also simply ignoring the anti-immigration animus that all evidence showed to be driving almost all working-class support for Brexit: the right were never going to let us get away with implementing a ‘soft’ Brexit ’without trying to convince their supporters that in effect we were stealing Brexit from them. Again, the real issue here is the fact that the left has never been able to break the hold of the right-wing press over the common-sense of a large section of the public; a section that the left really needs to ally with to win.
But Remainers wanted to overturn a democratic vote and defend a project – the European Union – that they had made no serious effort to challenge or reform throughout its decades of administering neoliberal orthodoxy. By 2016, it was far too late to start trying to build an internationalist pan-European left project in time for Labour to align with it successfully. They too found themselves contingently allied to highly problematic figures who had done nothing since the start of the Corbyn project but seek to undermine it. And this was partly a symptom of a more fundamental structural issue: the fact that large sections of the middle-class left had acquiesced to a cosmopolitan version of neoliberalism ever since the 1990s, partly because it seemed more aligned with their cultural values than did the revanchist conservatism of some of the provincial working class. Indeed, arguably the liberal middle-class left had become lazy about confronting widespread xenophobia precisely because we assumed that EU membership would always do the work for us of preventing governments from adopting reactionary positions on immigration.
There is only one long-term response to these problems that can work: to rebuild a sense of class solidarity and class consciousness that can include everyone from high paid salary-earners in the home-counties to warehouse workers on zero-hours contracts in the North. We know from hard experience that simply talking to people explicitly about class, class consciousness and class struggle rarely has the required emotional appeal. Often we have to find other languages in which to address these issues. But let us be in no mistake that those are the issues we have to talk about. And in fact, Sanders and Alexandra Orcasio-Cortez have made themselves some of the most popular politicians in the USA by speaking more or less precisely this language. We must learn to speak it, and to use it as a hammer with which to fight back explicitly against the propagandists of the right-wing press, as well as their allies in the digital media sphere. In the next article, I’ll reflect a bit more on the implications of this assertion.
Read all of Jeremy Gilbert's series so far:
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