openDemocracyUK

We face a national emergency. Only an alliance of progressive forces can save Britain now.

The Brexit crisis offers a unique opportunity to build a politics of plurality and solidarity.

Benjamin Ramm
27 June 2016
The Dance by Henri Matisse, 1910. (Fair use)

The Dance by Henri Matisse, 1910. (Fair use)

After the act of self-mutilation, Britain is bleeding – and its very survival in under threat. The current course of events suggests the United Kingdom will unravel, while triggering a series of referendums that may fatally wound the European Union. The forces of reaction – from Le Pen in France to Wilders in the Netherlands – are circling like vultures.

First, let’s be clear about the severity of the crisis for Britain. The financial sector, whose tax receipts bolstered New Labour’s social programme, looks set to lose 100,000 jobs in the event of a Brexit, on top of the 250,000 lost since 2008. This represents a serious threat to the public finances, and to London itself – which may have already squandered its right to call itself the world’s financial capital. At this time of extreme insecurity, Britain is effectively leaderless, and seemingly without a plan of action.

Public anger, instead of being assuaged at ‘taking back control’, will increase as it emerges that the Leave campaign lied about both immigration and NHS funding. As the UK faces a recession – with job losses, a weak pound, and a rise in inflation – Scotland will begin the process of secession. The sense of betrayal will be exacerbated in deprived areas where EU funding is cut: in Wales, in the south-west, and in the north-east – the three largest beneficiaries of subsidies, all of which voted for Leave. (This remarkable correlation highlights why the Remain campaign’s focus on narrow economic arguments was so misguided). Since 2000, Wales has received £4 billion of EU funding – when this is retracted, and not replaced by Westminster, fury will be immense. How will the public channel its anger? UKIP has proved most astute at exploiting public discontent, which will likely be channeled against immigrants. Already there are reports of a wave of hate crimes by those emboldened by Leave’s victory.

Britain’s crisis pales into comparison with the all-out civil war now consuming the Labour party. Remain voters cannot fail to be upset by details emerging about the extent of Corbyn’s unwillingness to share data or a platform with others in the campaign. But while Corbyn’s ‘leadership’ has been ineffective and uninspired, it was New Labour that failed to heed the warning signs about the startling erosion of traditional support in the party's ‘heartlands’. The warnings from Scotland could not have been clearer, and Labour is now paying for its extreme complacency in the north-west and north-east of England. Remarkably, UKIP are displacing Labour in these areas without offering or even guaranteeing a social welfare programme (i.e. nationalism + socialism), which demonstrates the extent to which even old Labour voters have inculcated the tabloid loathing of ‘welfare dependency’.

Labour’s immediate problem is that the vast majority of its grassroots continues to support a candidate unacceptable to the parliamentary party, while the parliamentary party seems incapable of finding a candidate acceptable to the majority of Labour members. It remains to be seen whether deputy leader Tom Watson, an experienced and assertive figure with both popular and parliamentary support, will move decisively to oust Corbyn. Never has an opposition looked so weak at a time of such national strife.

This seems a picture of unfathomable bleakness. But the forces of progress in Britain still represent a substantial section of the electorate: the problem, as ever with the Left, is that they are disunited.

A broad Left alliance has been talked about for some time, usually after Tory victories, with the aim of emulating the progressive landslides of 1906, 1945 and 1997. In practical terms, this alliance is more plausible than ever before. On the key issue of membership of the EU and the common market, all three progressive parties in England are in agreement, and all oppose the dominant domestic policy of austerity. Crucially, all three parties face considerable electoral challenges, and are poorly served by first-past-the-post, denying each other seats by splitting the progressive vote. In 1997, Blair ultimately rejected Lib Dem overtures in the knowledge that Labour would win sufficient seats of its own accord. But now the parties are less than the sum of their parts, and face the additional threat of an insurgent UKIP.

Fortunately, new Lib Dem leader Tim Farron comes from the social democrat rather than neo-liberal wing of the party, and his determination to campaign from the centre-left has strong support among party members. Similarly, Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton, is running for the leadership on a ticket of advancing a “progressive alliance”. She is perhaps the most competent and respected progressive politician in Britain – testament both to Lucas’ ability and to the dearth of talent in the Labour party. Both Farron and Lucas are committed internationalists and Europhiles, who believe in an open society and stand in solidarity with migrants at a time of rising xenophobia.

How would this alliance work? In the short term, a new party is not viable, and it would elicit too much resistance from tribal parliamentary loyalists. But an electoral pact is possible – and if the parties agreed to maximise the vote in each seat, it could secure victory for the liberal-left at an autumn election, particularly one fought on the issue of Article 50. It would be based on an agreement that a progressive coalition government would enact electoral reform (an arrangement that would benefit all three parties), and it would be motivated by the prospect of stopping a Tory-UKIP administration – energising activists across the spectrum. This type of electoral alliance is not fanciful: today in Spain, Podemos and the PSOE will begin negotiations to keep the conservative governing Partido Popular from power. In the UK, it may require the Brexit crisis to trigger unity – a Left Front against the forces of neo-fascism unleashed by Farage and his Tory facilitators. As the huge economic and social cost of Brexit becomes clear, it is time for progressive politicians to seize a unique opportunity to reforge the future of British politics, and face down the forces of fear. 

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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