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
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.