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Brexit reflections: Building a space for progressive politics

Jeremy Green

19.12.17

Brexit has eclipsed all contending motifs within contemporary British politics and will continue to do so. Progressive visions for Britain’s political economy must now be crafted under Brexit’s long shadow. But this does not mean that the current period is without opportunity for the left. Illuminating those opportunities, and identifying political pathways towards them, is the central task in building a progressive Brexit.

Labour’s manifesto made promising advances towards this, finding popular resonance with its calls for renationalisation, higher taxes on the rich, and a broad vision of national economic regeneration. The contours of Labour’s emerging platform now need to be traced much more precisely around the edges of an evolving Brexit process that transforms Britain’s international position.

Determining what sort of national policy space is available post-Brexit, and how this might be conditioned by wider international forces, is at the crux of understanding the possibilities for progressive politics. As Joe Guinan has recognised, this is a time to be bold, thinking about how institutions can be reoriented towards a more socially and environmentally sustainable economic model. Extending public ownership is a vital part of this, as is the wider democratisation of the economy through enhanced worker representation and control. The political risk here, though, is in attributing too much blame to the EU’s state aid rules in prohibiting the development of new institutional strategies. Battles over how to reimagine the 21st century British economy will need to be fought first and foremost with an emphasis on the home front.  It is, after all, Britain’s liberal-market institutional orientation that has long been the outlier within a more statist continental European tradition.

In this context, Andy Tarrant and Andrea Biondi’s identification of the compatibility between Labour’s economic programme and EU state aid rules is timely. It reminds us of the broad possibilities for state ownership within Europe, demonstrating that maintaining a closer relationship to Europe than that offered by the Tories doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing creative visions for industrial control on the altar of EU industrial policy rules.

The fit between Britain’s domestic economic structures and wider frameworks of international rules will be a predominant theme for post-Brexit trade policy too. Here, sober recognition of Britain’s limited power to reset those frameworks is required. Silke Trommer highlights this through her focus on Britain’s ‘middle power’ status in a world of increasingly fractious great power trade politics dominated by the mega-markets of the US, EU, and China. Trommer’s emphasis on the need for public engagement and parliamentary oversight over future trade deals is a keen insight on how to expand democratic engagement over trade policy. Focussing too much on a broad structural reading of Britain’s standing in the world could, though, lead us to miss the importance of the specificities of our economic model. Although we are a middle power in the aggregate we are, for example, a superpower when it comes to financial and related services.

How to deal with financial services will also be a central domestic issue for progressives. Brexit is overwhelmingly portrayed as a moment of defensive vulnerability for the UK vis-a-vis global financial firms. This representation is not politically neutral: it allows those firms to push for further domestic regulatory changes to cushion the Brexit blow. But this is a situation of mutual dependence, one in which the loss of the City’s aggregation of expertise, infrastructure, and regulatory stability creates vulnerabilities and costs for firms too. Labour should leverage this vulnerability to think creatively, pushing for a transformed domestic settlement with financial services as a quid pro quo for maintaining a closer relationship with Europe than that on offer from the Conservatives.

Above all, the left must resist the temptation for a defensive ‘status quo’ Brexit posture. Although tempting to view the progressive task vis-à-vis Brexit as one of defending conditions that now appear imperilled by leaving the EU, this would be a terrible mistake. It is an inherently conservative position: one that too readily forgets just how dysfunctional the UK’s pre-Brexit economic and social model are. However inauspicious for progressive politics the current moment might appear, the left must not abandon the potential for a bold narrative of political and economic progress to mobilise the widening seam of discontent that runs through British politics.

Jeremy Green is a Lecturer in Political Economy and a fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge.

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