Brexit: Absorb the lessons, seize the initiative

The Left lost the argument on Brexit. But rather than moaning on the sidelines, we must seize this historic chance to reshape Britain and its politics. Over the coming weeks, Forward March will be looking at what sort of Brexit the left should push for. It is an urgent question, and one we cannot ignore.

Winston Churchill was fond of saying that one should ‘never let a good crisis go to waste.’ As a man whose career had as many ups and down as his, he knew a thing or two about crises. Yet buried in this quote there is an essential truth; that sometimes, a crisis is too good to miss.

Brexit presents such a crisis. So far, the reaction of the left to Brexit has been about as dignified as a group of indignant toddlers. Some have gone straight to refusal, hoping that if they shout loud enough, the problem will go away. Some have keenly trotted Theresa May’s line that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, but without any genuine thought as to what Brexit actually means. Some- like the party leadership- deem Brexit an issue too difficult and dangerous to confront head on.

These responses reflect the deep sense of trauma the left finds itself in post-Brexit. The vote represented a historic and at times brutal illumination of cracks that the left have long papered over. It exposed a deep chasm between Labour MPs and their constituencies; roughly one hundred more Labour constituencies voted Leave than Remain. 64% of C2DEs voted Leave while 57% of ABs voted Remain. The intellectual, political and organisational gurus of the left found themselves alienated from their supposed ‘core’ supporters. Even those who voted to stay in felt largely isolated from the cold and ill-judged Remain camp.

For all wings of the left, Brexit therefore represented a foundational and traumatic experience. Within the Labour Party, both the Corbynite and Blairite tendencies found that their essentially shared liberalism was out of step with swathes of the electorate.

In this climate, it is unsurprising that the left is reacting with petulance and myopia. But the risks of continuing to do so are too great. First and foremost, it concedes the narrative and agenda to the government and their dog-whistlers on the far right. By vacating the space of ‘Brexit means Brexit’, we allow the government to get away with a haphazard and ‘Hard’ Brexit. This cannot be good enough.

Yet more fundamentally, a refusal to engage with the big questions of Brexit will represent the greatest missed opportunity in a generation. This might sound iconoclastic- the left have learnt to visualise Brexit as a cliff to jump off rather than any sort of launching pad- but we must be resolute; Brexit has the potential to be a moment of great left transformation.

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Seizing the Initiative

Let us start by reminding ourselves how we got here. The Brexit campaign has exposed what many on the left have been saying for over a decade- that public faith in the traditional institutions of politics have evaporated. Voters looked at their leaders and usual mechanisms of political action, and decided that they were insufficient.

This represents a profound moment of rupture. It was actually Ed Miliband who first recognised that the breakage in the public’s belief in a link between GDP and their own personal finances was an important one. It meant that when people were told that ‘Brexit will crash the economy’, they basically did not care. Why does it matter if GDP goes down, voters asked, given that when it supposedly went ‘up’ for the past three decades we never got richer? As The Resolution Foundation have shown, people have long given up on an assumption that national growth means personal growth.

The consequence? A deep and irrevocable appetite for change to our economic and social settlement. Brexit must be taken as a cry of anguish from a population who basically no longer believe that politics- and politicians- serve their interests, or even have the capacity to do so. As has been wryly observed, the slogan TAKE BACK CONTROL was an ingenious appeal to this sense of alienation and degree of frustration.

In these circumstances, the left has every right to see Brexit as a confirmation that it’s essential diagnosis of Britain as correct. Although we might have failed to take seriously the bundle of cultural issues associated with identity, immigration and sociability, it is also clear that Brexit has vindicated many of our strongest narratives. The lack of infrastructure and an adequate state investment. The urgent need for political devolution away from London. The disconnect between communities and those who make decisions for it.

More fundamentally, Brexit reveals a moment in which, to borrown a phrase from a former Prime Minister, the ‘kaliedescope has been shaken and the pieces are in flux.’ In the coming years, every inch of the complex fabric of British political and constitutional life will be up for reappraisal.

This is a daunting challenge, but also a unique chance to clean some skeletons out of the British closet- for example on the urgent need for voting reform. Conversations long thought ‘off limits’ (or to use the academic jargon, outside the Overtonian window) are back in vogue. Why can’t this be the moment to finally consider a genuine industrial strategy? Why can’t this be the moment to push for a stronger link between workers and the dividends of their labour?

The challenge ahead

Of course, there are grave dangers ahead. Given the government we have, the left will have to spend many of the coming years on the defensive; defending immigrants, liberal values of tolerance, trade union rights. Those who underestimate the May government do so at their peril- they are much more aware than the right that we are living in genuinely ‘New Times’, in which the art of the possible has been shifted once again.

But if the left spends its time merely defending, it will lose the historic opportunity Brexit poses. At this point of juncture, we have a chance to bring fresh ideas to a population who have made a clear and bold cry for an end to politics as usual. ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’ Winston reminded us. Brexit may well be a crisis, but it need not be one forever. We have no option but to turn it to our advantage.

See also:

http://blablaface.net/great-britain/faces/ed-miliband/245281

http://www.resolutionfoundation.org/media/blog/the-referendum-living-standards-and-inequality/

http://www.perc.org.uk/project_posts/liberalism-after-brexit/

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/economy/2016/09/brexit-lefts-great-chance-rid-britain-its-bankers

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2016/07/14/brexit-could-be-an-opportunity-for-the-labour-party-not-a-tragedy/