The need for demands
The Parliamentary Labour Party must therefore think very carefully about whether it is willing to accept that Brexit means whatever May says it does. Unlike the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens – all of whose supporters overwhelmingly voted Remain – Labour’s dilemma in this situation is genuine. The risks of a botched exit are evident, but the perception of ‘backsliding’ on Brexit could snap the fragile thread linking the modern Labour party to its surviving redoubts in northern England, the Midlands, and southern Wales. In spite of the formidable presence of Keir Starmer, a lack of basic information or organisational resources for contesting the detail of the process or the negotiation surely poses a further obstacle to political efficacy; if Whitehall itself is overwhelmed, how on earth can a gaggle of Labour advisers and MPs hope to have an impact on the outcome? Given the complexity and peril of the situation, it will be tempting for opposition parties to sit back and allow the Government to ‘own’ what may well be an epochal disaster.
The logic of this position, however, is that Labour permanently abandons the leverage afforded to it by the Tories’ narrow majority, signing away its right to criticise the government’s direction and conceding the principle that Brexit means whatever May says it does. Retreating to rallies, seminar rooms (and journal pages), we can enter a comforting, traditional cycle of introspection, in which we can talk about maybe starting to talk about things that might start to show ‘our people’ we are ‘listening’. For a party that already struggles – to say the least – to be taken seriously as a governing proposition, signing over the issue of the day to one’s opponents seems like a losing game. These are not normal times. A lack of clarity and resolve could be as damaging to Labour as a jump in the wrong direction.
Needless to say, the damage will go well beyond immediate political perception. Rather than heralding a return to social-democratic economic nationalism, May’s politics will most likely result in a form of uneven, illiberal corporatism, in which big capital will remain free to move and exploit even as migrants are punished, the public realm destroyed, and cultural openness abandoned. In this context, John McDonnell’s argument that ‘moral pressure’ should be Labour’s principle weapon against the government does not inspire confidence. As a veteran of the Greater London Council, abolished by Thatcher in 1986, the Shadow Chancellor knows full well that Tory governments aren’t often moved by a generous spirit of concession. If you get out of their way, they will simply ignore you.
The obvious place to apply real pressure on the government is in the succession of parliamentary votes that will govern the process of withdrawal, when May’s majority will be on the line. Demands for greater transparency and consultation, in parliament and beyond, should be levelled by Labour in collaboration with other parties, including Osbornite Tories, if and when the Article 50 notification comes to a parliamentary vote. They would offer one way to force the opening of what has hitherto been an entirely closed process, establishing that the process of Brexit is a matter of transcendent importance that cannot be decided by party interest and executive fiat.
There is a sense across much of the party, however, that even to contest the process of Brexit is an inherent betrayal of Labour’s values; as if commitment to European trade was something alien, imported by Tony Blair in the 1990s. In fact, the party’s mid-twentieth century moment as an economically nationalist party was a comparatively brief one (sustained, at least in part, by the convenient continuation of a Sterling area by the exporting economies of the Commonwealth). From the 1960s, increasing numbers within Labour were attracted to the European project as a free trading bloc that might reinvigorate British industry. This position represented a reversion to the party’s earliest traditions, rather than their repudiation. You would not know it from reading Maurice Glasman, but the early Labour movement was profoundly shaped by Victorian liberalism, at the level of the rank and file as well as the much-maligned Fabian elite. This is why Labour remained the axiomatic party of ‘free trade’ – the Liberal rallying cry since the 1840s – until the Second World War. The party entered Parliament in 1906 on a shared platform against Tory protectionism, and maintained a steadier commitment to the principle than even the Liberals themselves.
Something like the multivalent politics of the later nineteenth century, with its shifting local coalitions, its international solidarities, and its attention to the visceral national and spiritual dimensions of working class life, is probably needed now. Labour was built in a world where class was refracted through plural identities, trade unions were weak, and racist imperialism on the rise. It grew by taking positions, choosing leaders, making demands, and building difficult alliances, not by aping the (highly successful) working-class Tory politics of the day.
Options for contemporary resistance and reconstruction lie in either seeking to bring down May to save the single market, or offering a fleshed-out, parallel vision of a considerably less globalised Britain. Neither choice would represent a ‘betrayal’ of anything essential about Labour: each has a long heritage in the party’s tradition, and is consistent with a defensible view of an emancipatory, egalitarian, internationalist politics. At this point, the key thing is to make a choice, and accept the immediate implications of that choice.
What would a post-globalised Britain look like? The national route to socialism was kept alive in the 60s and 70s by the Bennite left of the Labour party, and is revived in the current leadership’s apparent nonchalance over the economic consequences of a ‘hard Brexit’. McDonnell and Corbyn were among the left activists who voted against Wilson in the 1975 referendum on remaining part of the European Economic Community. The Alternative Economic Strategy was the focal point of the Labour left’s economic thinking for much of the 1970s and early 1980s, with a strategy of import and capital controls at its core. As Joe Guinan and Matthew Brown have detailed in these pages, modern thinking on the Labour left maintains the previous focus on the centrality of ownership and wealth, but offers a new emphasis on localism and democratic control, which have displaced older varieties of socialist planning.
Superficially, the short-term politics of this position are quite straightforward. Let May own Brexit, while building Labour’s next transformational government in the municipalities. This implicitly fits with a reasonable scepticism regarding Labour’s immediate prospects in Westminster elections: it is a strategy for the 2030s as much as now. Its immediacy is further blunted by a number of other factors: a lack of interest in answering the immigration question directly; a failure to discuss seriously how Britain might retreat from globalisation without creating significant additional poverty; the stubborn refusal of the electorate to turn out in local elections, or to vote on local issues when questions of national leadership and identity are stake. Allowing the competing conservatisms described above to monopolise these is a heavy risk indeed.
Defending the single market would require an entirely different set of priorities. A form of ‘progressive alliance’ would be necessary, albeit one considerably more uncomfortable, and provisional, than that discussed by Lisa Nandy, Caroline Lucas and others in The Alternative: Towards a New Progressive Politics (reviewed in this issue). The crucial parliamentary votes for overturning May’s majority are not those of the Liberal Democrats or SNP, but the Osbornites and the Northern Irish parties, particularly the DUP. The latter vociferously supported the Leave campaign but cannot have a genuine interest in the imposition of controls on the Irish border; they are ripe for conversion by an enterprising opposition leader.
What demands could this unlikely alliance mobilise around? The international situation would also have to be recognised and used to Labour’s advantage, with more skill than the party has achieved at any point since Blair and Mowlam’s brokering of the Good Friday Agreement. Fundamental discussions over Britain’s defence and foreign policies, largely settled by the Labour government of 1945-51, will need to be reopened. The mere fact of Trump’s election, and his early alignment with Putin over Syria, represents a significant weakening of NATO. If the UK abandoned its irrational aversion to autonomous, collective European defence endeavours, then it could improve its parlous position in future negotiations with the EU 27, potentially trading military muscle and budgetary contributions for some degree of immigration control, alongside full EEA membership.
In domestic politics, a form of anti-Trump populism would be the order of the day. According to a survey published the weekend before the vote, the new American President was preferred to Hillary Clinton by just 12% of the British population. This makes sense: Trump’s crass, moneyed ostentation is ridiculous even to the minority of Britons tempted by the saltier right-populism of Farage, Nuttall or Banks. If Labour, instead of tying themselves to Trump, attacked the Tories and the media for their shameful attempts at normalisation, and outmanoeuvred the hapless Johnson in staging amicable public conversations with reassuring, respectable European leaders, the politics of Brexit could start to look very different. This would benefit both party and country.
Readers are capable of judging for themselves whether or not Labour, in its current state, is capable of pursuing either strategy with conviction or success. Regardless of party faction, there is far too much emphasis on abstraction and introversion, and not enough on engagement with the rapidly changing realities of an unprecedented political situation. A vastly more ambitious, imaginative and serious form of politics is required from both the leadership and the broader party. We will do our bit to help construct it. 2016 has been a year of drift, delusion and panic, one pulverising blow following another. There remains, however, work to do, and choices to be made. The task is now, very clearly, one of survival.
Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite is co-editor of Renewal and a lecturer in Modern British History at University College London.
James Stafford is co-editor of Renewal and a lecturer in Modern History at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford.
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