The Labour Party has squandered three years in addressing the challenge posed by the Brexit referendum.
The left is in a mess on Brexit—both in the UK and, despite lots of solidarity, in terms of creative thinking and practical help from the wider European left.
The UK left, of course, has its own chequered history with the EU. Some objected all along and still do. They now lead the Labour Party. Others were only ever half in—happy to take the market, but not the social, elements. Outside the euro and the Schengen zones, the UK was only ever partially in the EU, politically, economically and culturally.
Against the backdrop of a never-contested Eurosceptic campaign that had been running in the tabloids for 30 years, given the ramped-up last-minute lies and a bloodless Remain campaign it’s a surprise that anyone was surprised by the result of the 2016 referendum.
Least likely option
Three years on, it’s little wonder that the Brexit Party goes from nought to national prominence in the space of weeks, given the outrage many of its supporters feel that Brexit still hasn’t been delivered. Yet if the vote was for anything it was for the softest of Brexits—now possibly the least likely option on the table. Instead no-deal vies with a general election and in third place a Boris Johnson-ised version of Theresa May’s deal.
We are in this mess in part because Labour has wasted the last three years. The leadership’s strategy was to respect the result but hope the Tories would implode under Brexit pressure before Labour did. For the leadership, Brexit was always a second-order issue—the first was getting a Labour government. It bet everything on an election which only the Tories and their allies in the Democratic Unionist Party could call.
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While Labour was right morally and electorally to try to straddle the Brexit divide, this was never attempted coherently or convincingly. The pursuit of office and not national interest was what ultimately mattered. This ‘constructive ambiguity’ hit the inevitable buffers in the European elections in May, when the party came third and 40 per cent of its members voted for parties other than their own.
Labour’s strategy might conceivably still work and anyway the leadership shows few signs of really shifting from it, despite a series of verbal finesses. Maybe in a general election the fear of a continuing Johnson premiership and concerns about the National Health Service will drive some voters back to Labour, but any imminent Westminster election before the UK has left the EU will be dominated by Brexit in ways that the 2017 contest wasn’t.
Then Brexit was assumed to be a done deal, allowing Labour to ‘move on’ to issues such as public investment. Such leeway is unlikely again. With Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership having lost its lustre, Labour divided as never before and the Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and Greens all riding the Remain wave, does Labour have any real hope that ‘one more heave’ will win a Westminster majority?
Search for compromises
It didn’t have to be like this. Labour could have decided to put the huge resources of the party and the Momentum leadership support group into majority-leave seats to make the case for ‘remain and reform’. It could have called for cross-party talks, and gone ahead with a coalition of the willing, which would have meant sitting down with the SNP, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Plaid Cymru in Wales to search for compromises. The very act of doing so would have boosted its standing.
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Labour could have instigated a party members’ assembly, to deliberate on how to resolve the contradictions thrown up by the referendum. It should have spent every day of the last three years addressing the causes of Brexit with a programme of tailored policy ideas. The reason it is now trapped is that the leadership sat on its hands, hoping that in all the chaos an election would fall into its lap.
Meanwhile the bulk of the Remain campaign is a restoration project of centrist politics that helped get us into this mess. The much smaller wing of the Remain / second-referendum movement, for remain and reform, is weak and lacks influence. Critically, there has been no coherent or popular case developed as to how Europe could actually be reformed.
DiEM 25, the pan-European political party (brainchild of the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis) ambitiously set out to create a vehicle capable of making change happen but unsurprisingly won only one EU seat. There is still no pan-European demos to carry such a political project. In a networked society such a demos could and should emerge quickly, but progressives have to understand their weaknesses if transformative change is to happen.
The EU comprises, of course, a contradictory and paradoxical set of institutions which contain the seeds of both progressive and regressive politics. It has been captured by global corporates and mostly imposes ‘free market’ nostra. No progressive should forget or forgive its treatment of the Greek people and its imposition of austerity. It is not unreasonable to be sceptical about institutions which too often look and act only to the right.
And yet, the EU still regulates for the common good in some critical areas. It is the social, democratic and environmental potential of the EU that attracts progressives. The old 20th-century EU institutions, just like the member-state governments, need a radical overhaul to make them relevant to this century and the imperatives of networks and climate chaos.
Where does that leave progressives? Some will make the judgement that stopping Brexit is all that matters. Others find it harder to ignore democratic qualms. Who can say whether the economic harm of leaving is worse than the democratic crisis of staying? There is no right answer. The only wrong response is to pretend it’s simple. Article 50 could be temporally revoked to allow a full citizens’ assembly on all aspects of Brexit. And all progressives can agree there must be a second referendum for or against no-deal, if it comes to that. Given the threat of right-wing populism we have to find a way to take it on, without turbo-charging the forces behind it with the excuse to be the bogus champions of democracy.
Brexit tells us one thing loudly and unambiguously: politics and politicians must change. Waves of social, economic, technological, cultural and climate change are going to keep hitting us. And all of this is happening while the traditional vehicle of progressives for the last century, social democracy, is struggling to adapt to the new networked society and may well be dying before our eyes.
This an edited version of an essay published by OpenDemocracy.