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Forty years of failure: how to challenge the narrative of Hard Brexit

Labour needs to tell people a clear and convincing story about what has happened to Britain since the 1970s if it is to have any hope of challenging the Hard Brexit fairy-tale.

lead lead lead lead lead The Houses of Parliament reflected in a puddle following Prime Minister Theresa May's speech at Lancaster House, where she outlined plans for Brexit. Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved. We face a general election for which it is widely accepted that the only real issue is Brexit. Every TV news broadcast seems to feature interviews with former Labour voters stating that they will break the habits of a lifetime to vote for Theresa May, because they believe she will ‘deliver Brexit’. Despite last year’s referendum result having come as a huge shock to pollsters, Remainers and the entire political establishment, coherent explanations as to why and how this situation arose seem few and far between. 

The right-wing press has been pushing a consistently Europhobic narrative since the signing of the Maastricht treaty.

Of course the factors leading to the Brexit vote are multifarious and complicated. Yes it is true that data-processing wizards Cambridge Analytica generated carefully cultivated data on voters in order to target them through social media. Yes it is true that millionaire right-wing fanatic Arron Banks spent an awful lot of money (see the New Statesman on both of these stories). More importantly, it is also true that the right-wing press has been pushing a consistently, and often fantastically, Europhobic narrative since the moment that the Maastricht treaty was signed, and that this has been consistent with the xenophobic politics which it has promoted, almost without respite, since the 1970s at least. (The best available guide to all these and other factors, in my opinion, is here).

It is also true, statistically speaking, that the majority of Brexit voters were affluent old Tories. No doubt many of them are honest, decent people who genuinely believe the tale told to them by the Telegraph and the Mail: according to this story, despite decades of globalisation and less than 2% of global manufacturing now taking place in the UK, there is still this thing called ‘national sovereignty’ to which the EU constitutes some kind of threat. A cynical Marxist might point out that they are probably willing to believe this tale to the extent that it does not generate in them any ‘cognitive dissonance’: that uncomfortable, jarring feeling that a story does not quite fit either with the facts or with one’s own objective interest. The reason it does not produce any such dissonance might be that if you are someone who owns property in the South of England, and the rest of your life’s income is going to depend more on the value of your pension fund than on your wages, then the Tory right’s plan to use Brexit as a mechanism to further depress wages for British workers, and to further cut taxation and public spending, does not trouble you at all.

But, as the above description might lead one to expect, if these were the only people who had voted for Brexit, the Brexit vote-share would not have reached 40%. What tipped the balance in favour of Brexit, and what now threatens to annihilate Labour at the forthcoming election, is the firm belief on the part of a swathe of working-class voters that somehow Brexit will restore the world that they have lost – the world of full employment, a strong British manufacturing base and a stable sense of community and national identity. It is no accident that it is overwhelmingly voters old enough to remember the passing of that world who voted in large numbers to bring it back; young working-class people simply hardly voted at all.

What tipped the balance in favour of Brexit is the firm belief on the part of a swathe of working class voters that somehow Brexit will restore the world that they have lost.

It is easy for highly-educated Remainers to scoff or despair at this state of affairs. Of course, to anyone who knows enough about British and international politics, the idea that leaving the EU will do anything at all to restore those lost socio-economic conditions is absurd. If anything, under current political conditions, it will only exacerbate the problems, allowing finance capital to dominate British society on a scale which will make the 80s and 90s seem tame by comparison. This is why one of the strongest indicators of how any citizen outside the Tory shires was likely to vote in the referendum was whether they had been to university, or even had A-levels: almost everyone who had voted Remain.

This is not because the people who voted Leave were stupid. Quite the reverse is true. They voted logically and rationally on the basis of the best information available to them, and on the basis of who could offer an explanation for their conditions, which seemed both coherent and cognate with the facts of their own experience. There is no question that the overriding factor here was the campaign of deliberate disinformation to which the British public has been subject by the popular press for decades, specifically on issues connected with immigration and the EU [1]. But the other key factor is one which has hardly been discussed at all: the failure of either Remain or Labour to offer a coherent alternative narrative which could explain, and convincingly offer to alleviate, their circumstances. 

Forty years of failure

Successive governments have served the interests of finance capital rather than serving the interests of the people.

That alternative narrative is not difficult to frame, although nobody in the political mainstream has made any serious attempt to do it in popular terms. It would involve pointing out, simply and clearly, that since the moment when Prime Minister James Callaghan and Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey agreed to the IMF’s terms for a loan to the UK government in 1975 – involving massive cuts to public spending and taxation – successive UK governments have served the interests of finance capital rather than serving the interests of the people. That is why the factories have gone, the wages have declined, and the public services don’t work any more. In the service of those financial interests, governments have pursued a failed economic model: one based on the expansion of personal, household and national debts and the transfer of economic activity from manufacturing to retail and services. The communities who suffered most from this transfer have never been offered any adequate compensation for it; nor could this economic model ever work in such a way as to offer them any.

Such a story would involve promising those communities that, inside the EU or outside of it, government would finally seek to draw a line under this history. An end to ‘forty years of failure’ would be the slogan. Do you think that this narrative is somehow too abstract and too difficult to grasp for the great British public? Then ask yourself if the City of London and the IMF would really make less plausible culprits for the woes of working class Britons than that obscure technocratic institution, the European Union. And if you think that 40 years is too long a time-frame for such a popular narrative to inhabit, then ask yourself why it is the European Union which has become the plausible object of people’s misplaced anger.

Who to blame?

Without the unions to blame, the press has focused its hateful energy on immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers...

Is it a coincidence that we joined the European Economic Community (the predecessor to the EU) in the early 1970s, ratifying that membership by referendum in 1975, and that it is the EU which has become the hate object of this discourse? Of course it isn’t. Membership of the EU has coincided precisely with the period of Britain’s de-industrialisation and the hegemony of neoliberalism, during which much of the post-war welfare state has been cut, privatised or ‘reformed’ out of existence, while the trade unions who once guaranteed a stable life for working people have been beaten into the ground. 

Let me spell it out a bit more clearly. Since the 1970s the right-wing press has been pushing a narrative according to which what was wrong with Britain was either greedy and unruly trade-unionists, or too many foreigners, or probably both. Once the trade unionists had been thoroughly defeated, from the late 1980s onwards, the first part of this story was no longer plausible. But of course, people in many parts of the country continued to experience social dislocation, job insecurity, poverty and a sense that those in power did not serve their interests. Without the unions to blame, the press has focused its hateful energy on immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and that mysterious abode of unaccountable bureaucrats, the European Union. All of which adds up to a perfectly plausible explanation for what has gone wrong with Britain if you are someone without much education, or much opportunity to see the world, living in a small town or a former industrial region in England or Wales.

What exactly the relationship is between our membership of the EEC/EU and that process of de-industrialisation is a question for another time. My point here has nothing to do with the question of whether EU membership has made neoliberal de-industrialisation more or less likely. My point is simply that if we think about the fact that EU membership has coincided precisely with the history which also begins with Callaghan’s capitulation to the IMF, then we can see why it has been easy to persuade people that leaving the EU might somehow bring an end to the period which began then. And we can see that the only way to dissuade them from that view, or to persuade them that the Tory Right does not have the re-industrialisation of the North and the Midlands as any part of its current plans, would be to offer an alternative narrative about what has happened to the country since the 1970s.

The trouble with ‘austerity’

Of course Labour has been trying in recent years to tell a different story. But here is the key problem. That story has focused almost exclusively on the politics and social effects of ‘austerity’. But what does ‘austerity’ mean?  Basically it means attacks on government spending and wages. Of course it is true that since the 1970s, such attacks have been a periodic feature of aggressive neoliberalism. But they have not been a consistent feature of government policy or of neoliberal strategy throughout that time.

New Labour implemented a form of neoliberalism which allowed wages to rise, modestly, especially for the poorest workers, and which increased public spending massively in key areas. At the same time it extended and deepened the Thatcherite privatisation of the public sector; forced schools and hospitals into market-based models of administration; massively extended personal and household debt; facilitated the further de-industrialisation of the economy; pushed for the EU to relax its own rules protecting workers’ rights and allowed UK income-inequality to worsen. But it didn’t practice austerity. So ‘austerity’ in contemporary British political discourse can’t refer to the period of neoliberal de-industrialisation in general, which has been carrying on since the mid 1970s. Instead, in effect, the term is generally understood to apply to the policies pursued by the coalition and Tory governments since 2010. 

If you are someone whose community has been suffering not just for 7 years, but for 40, then talk of ‘austerity’ means little.

And here is the problem. If you are someone living on benefits, or employed by the public sector, working in one of the economic sectors not affected by de-industrialisation, or too young to remember what industrial Britain was like, then the period since 2010 has indeed been much more uncomfortable than the one which preceded it. It’s no surprise that those are exactly the people – the remaining 27% of the electorate – who continue to back Corbyn’s Labour. They are the people for whom an ‘anti-austerity’ politics makes sense. But if you are someone whose community has been suffering not just for 7 years, but for 40, then talk of ‘austerity’ means little. You want to hear a story which takes account of the fact that things have been going wrong for you for decades. The ‘austerity’ narrative cannot accommodate that. The Brexit narrative can. 

There has always been a narrative available to the left, and the Labour leadership, which could have done the same work – and could have won over the same people – as the Brexit tale. That is the narrative which would, as I have already suggested, point out that the period during which things have been going wrong for people in those communities has been precisely the period during which UK governments have done the bidding of the City, the IMF and Washington more willingly than that of the British people. 

Maybe this narrative would actually use the word ‘neoliberalism’, maybe it wouldn’t (to everyone who tells me that this is far too complicated a term for the public ever to understand, I am always minded to point out that there are peasant farmers all over Latin America who can tell you exactly what ‘neoliberalismo’ means, and where it comes from). That isn’t the point. The point is that it’s a story which is easy enough to tell, and which would resonate strongly with many people’s immediate experience. The question is why we haven’t heard it. 

Trashing the record

Here is the answer: for all that the Labour right accuses the left of ‘trashing the record’ of New Labour in government, it is actually difficult to find a single example of Corbyn or McDonnell publicly offering anything like the narrative that I have laid out here, since Corbyn became leader of the party.  McDonnell obviously understands it at least as well as I do, but he routinely presents anything like this narrative only for highly-educated audiences, and even then tends to present neoliberalism as a project that has reached the point of exhaustion, rather than a turn that should never have been taken.

The reasons for this are not hard to fathom. Despite the obsessively bad press that they have received, a lot of the Labour leadership’s energy over the past two years has gone into trying to persuade the party to hold together at all, especially in parliament. From this perspective, it is easy enough to see why they have avoided propagating a narrative which would effectively blame Blair just as much as Thatcher for the woes of post-industrial Britain. To do so would be intensely divisive, given that most of the current Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) are Blairites to the core, and do not accept that there was any structural problem with the New Labour project at all.

This is actually more true of the current PLP than it was of the PLP during Blair’s time, because the current cohort of Labour Members of Parliament is the outcome of Peter Mandelson’s long-term project to control candidate selections across the country, which only came to final fruition with the 2010 intake of Labour MPs, almost all of whom came into parliament assuming that they would be representatives of a party led by David Miliband. As such, it would be very difficult indeed to mobilise them in support of a narrative which claimed that the entire direction of the British polity since 1975 has been the wrong one. 

Who has come along with an alternative narrative about what has gone wrong since the 70s? The Brexit lobby. Is it any wonder that those former Labour voters now look likely to hand Theresa May a landslide?

Unfortunately, it has also proven predictably difficult to persuade them to lend support even to Corbyn’s weakly social democratic programme, which rather negates the argument against Corbyn putting forward a potentially divisive narrative which might actually have some purchase with the wider electorate. Indeed, it would probably have been impossible to persuade the PLP to back Corbyn even if David Miliband and Tony Blair themselves had penned the entire manifesto, such has been their personal petulance and entitled sense of outrage ever since the moment of Corbyn’s election. So the argument that the ‘40 years of failure’ narrative which I have advocated would have been too divisive simply doesn’t hold much water. Trying to keep the PLP onside has been a waste of time and a wasted opportunity. 

This should have been the theme of Corbyn’s first speech, and it should have been the core message of every speech, every policy announcement, every media statement, every argument: the country has been going in the wrong direction for 40 years; we are going to change that. If the Blairites didn’t like it then they should have been forced to defend their record in public. Ideally the narrative could have been presented in a way which didn’t blame anyone: ‘mistakes were made’, ‘intentions were good’, ‘things look different in hindsight’. All of that could have been put across in a way which did not dilute the core message: things have been going wrong since the 70s, we are going to put them right.

Instead the party’s narrative and policy agenda have focused obsessively on the ‘austerity’ theme which was only ever going to mobilise a quarter of the electorate. And who has come along with an alternative narrative about what has gone wrong since the 70s? The Brexit lobby. Is it any wonder that those former Labour voters, unmoved by the ‘austerity’ story, who flirted with UKIP for a couple of years, now look likely to hand Theresa May a landslide?

Is it too late now for Labour to begin to offer a coherent story? It is probably too late to have any hope of averting electoral disaster (unless the party is willing to accept the need for a coalition strategy). But it is never too late to start down the right track. Even now a more effective narrative could help to limit the damage. But any such narrative must be able to match the Brexit story in historical scope and implied political ambition. The ‘austerity’ story simply doesn’t do that. Promising an end to the forty years of failure just might.

About the author

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London. His most recent book is Common Ground. See jeremygilbert.org for more information, or follow @jemgilbert.

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