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After 2016

James Stafford, Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite

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To guarantee its relevance and survival, the British left needs urgently to understand the new forces ranged against it, moving against them while it still can.

It is rare to live through a year and to know, with some degree of certainty, that it will be a marker in scholarship and memory for generations. Rarer still, perhaps, to know this while also doubting whether coherent and truthful public reflection on politics will be possible for much longer.

Writing in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US Presidential Election, it is nearly impossible to overstate the extent of the peril. We are facing a virulent, networked neo-fascist International, which now has roots in Silicon Valley, the Kremlin, the White House and many European capitals, including our own. Wherever this achieves access to the awful resources of post-9/11 security states, liberals, greens and socialists may rapidly find themselves numbered among the ‘enemies of the people’. The process is already underway in Poland and Hungary. Nascent left populisms are currently too weak to prevent this, although they could plausibly benefit in the short-term from increasing political polarisation (here, America may still offer some hope). Media organisations are commercially crippled and often enjoy less popular legitimacy than the politicians they scrutinise. Whatever their constitutional settings, judiciaries are too easily bypassed to be relied upon. In short, there is no reason to believe that advanced capitalist societies are rendered immune to authoritarianism by virtue of superior institutions, economies, or ‘national characters’.

All this should not be as terrifying as it sounds. It is only in the contemporary liberal West that it has become habitual to regard politics as a genteel, limited set of consensual procedures, insulated from matters of life and death. What is surprising is that, despite the glaring evidence of twentieth-century history, so many thought this way for so long. An older political generation, now passed into death or retirement, knew that the fragile gains of the post-war order demanded constant, vigilant protection against the twin dangers of market fundamentalism and nationalist revival. In more recent decades, this perspective has been sorely lacking.

The immediate danger faced by the British left after the European referendum and Trump’s victory is irrelevance. Overcoming this danger, and taking some worthwhile stands for democracy, pluralism and social transformation, requires an understanding of the current politics of both the mainstream and the radical right. As Alan Finlayson argued in a previous editorial, committed left activists have a tendency to substitute introversion for analysis: to talk about who ‘we’ are, and what ‘we’ should be doing, without acknowledging the dynamic context within which politics occurs or the peripheral relevance of our decisions. In this context, the Labour leadership’s ongoing attempt to portray Trump’s victory as a boon for outsider politicians everywhere has been unedifying, shallow, and irresponsible. It is depressingly representative of the solipsism of a left that has forgotten how to identify and challenge its real opponents; indeed, the threats to its very existence.

In Britain, as in the US, the most urgent conflict of the current moment does not involve the left at all. It lies between the contradictory neoliberal and social-conservative impulses of the ‘New Right’ formed during the later twentieth century; the ‘alt-right’ techno-fascists increasingly feature as a rising spectre at the feast. In what follows, we set out our analysis of this conflict as it plays out in the politics of Brexit, and explore how opposition parties might intervene to influence the situation for the better in 2017.

Faultlines on the Right

In a final blow to David Cameron’s historical reputation, the ‘Leave’ vote has clearly deepened, rather than eliminating, the Tory division over Europe. On one side stand the libertarian Brexiteers who viewed the European project as protectionist and parochial. These Conservatives see Brexit as an opportunity to let the harsh winds of global competition blow more heavily than ever through Britain. ‘Hard’ Brexit will, in their eyes, be a strong tonic for the British economy, even if rights of entry are restricted to carefully chosen members of the global plutocracy and an exploited guest worker class. For the left, this looks like nothing less than a turbo-charged race to the bottom: a recipe for gated communities and Special Export Zones, tied to the nineteenth-century race ideology of the ‘Anglo-Saxon world’.

By comparison, the Osbornites pitted against the libertarian Brexiteers seem a lesser, familiar evil. As representatives of the mainstream of British business opinion and promoters of the ‘National Living Wage’, the Northern Powerhouse, and NHS ring-fencing, they recognise (at least rhetorically) that some aspects of our social and economic settlement cannot be trashed without political consequence. It is no secret that Osborne and Cameron, the architects of the referendum, ultimately found the EU of Schaüble and Sarkozy to be a relatively congenial place. They desire Brexit to be as ‘soft’ as possible.

Theresa May straddles the divide between these two camps, and adds her own brand of authoritarian economic populism to the mix of Tory ideologies. As Tim Bale writes in this issue, when May walked into number 10 over the summer – by dint of ending up the only credible candidate; indeed, the only candidate still standing – she was in a position of unexpected power. Having been a ‘reluctant Remainer’, May had a chance to shape a clear stance on Brexit, to insist on a soft, rather than catastrophically hard, exit from the EU. Instead, she took what may have seemed like a safer route, appointing Fox, Johnson and Davis to positions where they will be responsible for negotiating the Leave package and British trading relations thereafter. By bringing in the Tory right and making a strong pitch for votes against immigration, May has opted to prioritise wiping out UKIP once and for all, sucking its supporters towards the Tory party. The Prime Minister exemplifies the longstanding Conservative tendency to prioritise taking and holding power through the British electoral system over substantive conceptions of a national interest. What her own ideological position might be is less clear.

Many have turned to the writings of the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Nick Timothy, to try to understand where ‘Mayism’ points (if such a thing exists at all). In early profiles and thinkpieces on the new regime, much was made of Timothy’s admiration for Joe Chamberlain, a nineteenth-century Tory radical champion of the working classes, a local politician of many achievements in Birmingham, and an imperial protectionist. Many of these themes surface in May’s speeches; May has, for example, foregrounded the concept of the ‘working class’, and vowed to govern on their behalf. It is a mark of our times that both she and Corbyn are seen as somewhat iconoclastic in even using the term ‘class’. What governing in the interests of the ‘working classes’ seems to indicate is that May will take a more protectionist stance on questions of migration and (perhaps) the foreign ownership of corporations; depending on what ‘access’ to the European single market means, she may also be willing to accept tariffs on British trade with the continent. In the absence of the imperial market or domestic industrial base that formed the twin backbones of Chamberlain’s policy, it is difficult to see what this will achieve; more difficult, still, to know what the Prime Minister or the government really believe, or even care to know, about the dilemmas facing the country.

Mandates and meanings

The dearth of information regarding May’s intentions is, of course, a political strategy in itself; or at least a good approximation of one. The slogan ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is generally pilloried on the left. It has become one of May’s defining statements, and its frequent repetition is usually taken to indicate the hollowness of May’s thinking. But the slogan is, in fact, a stroke of genius. All opponents can do is mock it as a mindless tautology; but if there’s one lesson of 2016, it’s that stupid works. Repeated ad nauseam, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ cements in public discourse two key ideas: that May is a tough leader (remind you of anybody?) and that May’s definition of Brexit – whatever it turns out to be – is the only ‘commonsense’ one. In the 1920s and even more so in the 1930s, the Conservative Party under Stanley Baldwin tried to naturalise itself; to redefine British political culture so that Conservative Party ideas were commonsense, and Labour ideas were dangerous, dogmatic ideology. The Tories under May are doing the same. By repeating over and over the idea that Brexit means what May says it does, the Tories are trying to take the issue of what Brexit ‘means’ out of the very sphere of political argument.

This is a wilful denial of reality, since Brexit could mean many things. Since the referendum result in June, myriad different suggestions have been offered about the precise nature of the instruction offered to parliament by the people. Most are more or less overdetermined by what the commentator in question wants the political solution to be. For some within Labour, what it means more than anything is that we must have a more honest ‘conversation’ with voters about immigration, not ignoring or downplaying the issue. Quite what this means in practice is unclear; indeed, this has been the constant refrain of large parts of the party for nearly a decade now. The evidence shows, however, that it was not high levels of ethnic diversity, but high levels of change in immigration in recent years which best predicted a high Leave vote.

Others want to insist that the real grievances are not about immigration at all – again, a position we should all be familiar with from the pre-Brexit era. Kezia Dugdale said in a recent interview that:

If you spend 30 seconds with one of those voters [Leave voters] you’ll leave believing you’ve just had a conversation about immigration. Spend three minutes or 10 minutes with that voter, you’ve actually just had a conversation about globalisation.

Gordon Brown agrees, and has argued that Labour must become the party of managed and fair globalisation. Anti-globalisation ‘exploits grievances but offers no answers’.

There are other arguments about what the vote ‘meant’. Some suggest that Leave voters were voting against a more nebulous formation than the EU or even free movement of people: ‘the Establishment’, or the ‘political elite’. There is anecdotal evidence, presented by the LSE’s Lisa Mckenzie and John Harris’s ‘Anywhere but Westminster’ series, to suggest that some voters did not think voting Leave would improve their lives, but they did think it would be a major defeat for the political classes. And this was a defeat they were happy to finally have the chance to inflict.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that it was not just disaffected ex-Labour voters in places like Sunderland who delivered the vote for Leave. An even larger number of Leave voters came from relatively prosperous ‘middle England’, and were longstanding Tory voters. Perhaps we should be less concerned to divine precisely what the voters ‘meant’ by their Leave votes. We must recognise the indeterminacy and complexity of political motivation. The ballot box is a black box, and we have no secure understanding the complex interplay of long-term and short-term inputs in shaping the outcome. This complexity of motivation leaves significant room for political leadership.

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