Photos from our trip to Skiathos are here.
Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning – Eugene V. Debs
‘And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain.
‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.’
– Percy Bysshe Shelley
Unless there is a major upset, the Tories are going to win the election on Thursday. They certainly don’t deserve to – their election campaign has been dismal and contemptuous, demonstrating an arrogant sense of entitlement and appealing to the very worst in us. May called this election solely for her own advantage and clearly didn’t expect to have to do much beyond stoke crude nationalism, inflame petty xenophobia and rely on a largely prostrate media to hammer home that she was The Only Serious Option. Her efforts to avoid interacting with the public and refusal to debate her opponents have exemplified this galling hubris and it’s depressing that she’ll probably still win despite it.
Yet there can be no doubt that May has gotten more than she bargained for in this election. Something remarkable has happened, with the Tory lead in some polls crashing from over 20 points to only 1 to 3. Some of this owes a lot to May’s aforementioned contemptuousness inspiring a backlash, a refusal to be taken for granted; much of it, however, is due to Jeremy Corbyn having the kind of campaign which political wisdom has told us for two years was impossible. Corbyn has been, in stark contrast to May, warm, open, compassionate and reasonable: qualities which have no doubt resonated even more with many people given they’ve been told repeatedly that he is a dangerous, unhinged extremist. His approval ratings have soared over the course of the past few weeks and suddenly all those months of Very Wise People sneering at the notion of ‘media bias’ against him seem very silly indeed. It turns out that when they see and hear him themselves, folk quite like him.
There are, of course, many ‘sensible moderates’ who still refuse to countenance this fact and scramble around for excuses as to why Labour has had such a good campaign. They tell us it’s the manifesto (ignoring the fact that such a manifesto would never have happened without Corbyn), that it’s May’s unpopularity (after spending months telling us she was a safe pair of hands parking tanks on Labour’s lawn), that if Labour had some other leader it would be soaring ahead in the polls (the only other options being uninspiring technocrats whose response to Ed Miliband’s defeat was to argue for a shift right, particularly on immigration). Indeed, some of these ‘sensible moderates’ clearly still want Corbyn’s Labour to do badly so that they can be proved right, to the point that they have shifted the goals as the poll numbers have improved. It is very clear, if it wasn’t already, that all of the talk about how ‘principle without power is useless, we want to win’ has been self-serving drivel – they just hate the left and still can’t emerge from their petulant strop at not being in control of the party.
If Corbyn’s Labour were to win this election, these people would either have to put up or shut up – get behind him and his manifesto, or go elsewhere. That in itself would be a positive development. As it is, however, even if he is defeated Corbyn has changed the game in a way few were anticipating. He has drawn a much-needed line in the sand and shown his critics that yes, left-wing ideas can be very popular when presented by someone who clearly believes them, that a ‘social movement’ is not something to be mocked, that ‘move right, move right’ doesn’t have to be the received political wisdom on how to appeal and that yes, class and ideology still matter as many of us always knew it did.
The odds may be against Corbyn winning but, as far as my words have any value, I implore everyone and anyone who cares about solidarity and social justice to vote Labour on Thursday. I’m sure no-one reading this would be voting Tory but I’m sure some are contemplating voting Liberal Democrat or SNP. My views on both are well-documented (my most recent blog was about the astonishing hypocrisy of the Lib Dems under Farron) but it’s given me no pleasure to witness the self-serving contortions of so-called ‘progressives’ trying to justify not voting for the kind of Labour Party policies they’ve apparently demanded for years. Suffice to say, if you can’t vote for Corbyn’s Labour because of Scottish independence, you need to face up to the fact that you’re a nationalist before you are a socialist. If you can’t vote for Corbyn’s Labour because ‘Scottish Labour attacked Corbyn’ but can happily vote SNP when it has repeatedly done the same, you probably have to face the same thing. If you ‘want to vote Labour in Scotland but don’t want to split the vote and let the Tories in’, you should ask why splitting the vote wasn’t much of a concern in 2015 when the polls suggested a dead-heat between Labour and the Tories in the UK.
Corbyn and Labour are far from perfect and few would claim that of either – we are electing politicians, after all. Nonetheless, Corbyn has offered a tangible sense of hope. Far from being an unelectable ‘loony left’ faction, Corbyn’s Labour has found its policies on the economy praised by mainstream economists, its policies on housing praised by housing experts, its policies on education applauded by headteachers and is now finding its warnings about police and security cuts, and the UK’s disastrous foreign policy, being widely agreed with in the mainstream media. More than this, however, Corbyn’s Labour has offered hope in ourselves. I realise that sounds trite but as the left has suffered defeat after defeat in recent years, it has been immensely powerful and very moving to see people responding to a platform based on solidarity, on those seen as weak, vulnerable and unvalued coming together and standing up against the powerful. When Corbyn won the Labour leadership, he ended his acceptance speech by saying:
I say thank you in advance to us all working together to achieve great victories, not just electorally for Labour, but emotionally for the whole of our society to show we don’t have to be unequal. It doesn’t have to be unfair, poverty isn’t inevitable, things can, and they will, change.
The emotional victory described her has already happened – people who have spent most of recent political memory being told they were out of touch, crazy, selfish, unreasonable are now on the offensive, strong in the knowledge that their message can resonate and that appealing to fear and resentment is not the only, or even the most effective, way to do things. Such is the audacity of hope and its importance cannot be overstated. This is not going to go away on Friday morning, whatever the result. If Labour were to defy all expectation and win, we would immediately have to get to work. If we lose, however, we do not sit desolate in defeat but rather embrace each other even closer, moving forward with hope, hope, hope, knowing with certainty that together we can make things better and, as a result, with a renewed understanding that we must.
That comes on Friday. For now – vote Labour.
As British politics sinks further into a hellhole of competing nationalisms and utter bullshit masquerading as ‘being informed’, it’s time for another election! “Yay!” said absolutely no-one. If you’re reading this I think I can safely assume that you know what my views on the Tories and SNP are, though with the relentless Tory march to the right much of what I’ve written on them feels somewhat out of date. It’s been pointed out that the policies and rhetoric of the Tories currently bear comparison with the BNP; I could also observe that upon reading about Marie Le Pen’s platform, I couldn’t see many substantive differences with that of Theresa May. The Tories are a far-right party and it’s only a capitulant media which bafflingly continues to frame them as ‘centrist’ and May as ‘safe’ and ‘competent’ which is stopping more of us from appreciating this terrifying fact.
Let nothing I write here distract from the fact that the prospect of five more years of the Tories is a truly terrifying prospect. Yet the current government did not emerge from a vacuum, and neither did Brexit. With this in mind, I wanted to write a little about a party I tend to ignore: the Liberal Democrats. Following their 2015 election disaster, which saw them almost wiped out, the Liberal Democrats have been bobbing along, barely budging in the polls. They’ve been so irrelevant that the media hasn’t even saw fit to cover their woes, in the same way it’s focused on Labour and Corbyn. Now, however, the Lib Dems have spotted their chance. That rope has been thrown which they hope will guide them back to the hallowed land of people caring again. Yes, the Lib Dems OPPOSE BREXIT!
Anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to politics post-Brexit will be aware that the Lib Dems have branded themselves as ‘the Remain party’. Their victory in Richmond Park was seen as a proxy re-run of the referendum, so it’s unsurprising that they propose a second referendum. This referendum is ostensibly on a Brexit deal but everyone understands it to actually be a chance to re-run the first one and reject Brexit. They’ve gone big on being the ‘real opposition’ to the Tories, based almost entirely on Brexit, and hammer Labour’s difficult position on the issue.
When Theresa May called this unnecessary election, she framed it as being entirely about Brexit. May did this because she knows she will win in an election based on the nationalism, xenophobia and racism she has inflamed and exploited since Brexit, and because she has little record to defend. Unfortunately, it’s clear that many adamant ‘Remainers’ are walking straight into this and framing the election as a proxy Brexit referendum. As most of these people seem to be supporting the Lib Dems, I wanted to make a few observations about the lines which I keep seeing wheeled out.
First of all, I think few ‘Remain’ voters would deny that immigration, and more specifically anti-immigration myths and sentiment, played a massive role in Brexit. Many profess to wish to oppose Brexit because they are ‘pro-immigration’. Yet if this is your motivation, it’s rather curious to support a party which was part of a government with an absolutely dire record on this matter. The coalition, which Tim Farron voted with in almost every single vote, set an arbitrary target to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’. made immigration rules stricter and crueler, illegally deported thousands of students and sent the infamous ‘Go Home’ vans around the country. Some Lib Dems justify this on the basis that it would have been even worse if they’d not been present, which is curious to say the least. Nothing and no-one forced the Lib Dems to enter a formal coalition with the Tories and we cannot know what would have happened had they not – we can only judge what actually did happen in its government, as we do (and should) with any other government. We can also note that the Coalition Agreement included a commitment to “introduce a cap on immigration and reduce the number of non-EU immigrants.” So the idea that Farron’s Lib Dems are an attractive defender of migrant rights is…curious, to say the least.
Now, onto Brexit itself. It’s clear that all of the main parties have played their role in fostering the climate that led us here, but given Farron and the Lib Dems now repeatedly accuse Labour of being ‘pro-Brexit’, let’s have a look at some history.
In 2008, Tim Farron resigned from the Lib Dem Shadow Cabinet because he supported a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty but the Lib Dem position was to abstain:
Given his current position, you have to wonder what Farron would have done had he won a referendum and voters rejected the Treaty but let’s be generous and come a bit more up to date. The 2010 Lib Dem manifesto committed itself to referendums if there was ‘fundamental change’ in the UK/EU relationship, not an ‘In/Out’ referendum.
In 2011, with the Lib Dems in the coalition, parliament looked at whether there should be a ‘European Referendum Committee’ which would clarify when an EU referendum should be necessary. The Lib Dems voted with the Conservatives against this (and against Labour):
In 2011 most Lib Dems, and most of all parties, voted against calling for an EU membership referendum. In 2013 and 2014 there were Private Member’s Bills to legislate for a referendum, which were largely ignored by every party except the Tories.
It’s clear that the Lib Dem capitulation to the Tories played a large role in its 2015 meltdown and the Tory majority, which led us to the referendum and Brexit. It’s also clear that Labour in government played a big role in fostering the atmosphere. We can note that, whereas Ed Miliband steadfastly refused to commit to an EU membership referendum at the 2015 election, both Labour and the Lib Dem manifestos included a commitment to an In/Out referendum should there be further substantive transfer of powers:
Then, following the Tory victory, Farron joined most of the remaining Lib Dems in voting for a referendum (only the SNP voted against it):
There then followed a series of votes on amendments to the referendum bill. We can note that Farron didn’t vote to allow 16 and 17yos to participate in the referendum (but did later.) In fact, Farron and most of the Lib Dems didn’t seem to vote on a single amendment. This is most interesting when it comes to an amendment which would have required:
…the publication, at least ten weeks before the referendum, of the terms of any renegotiation between the United Kingdom and the European Union and the consequences for the United Kingdom of leaving the European Union.
In short, an attempt to ensure that everyone voting in the referendum had the best possible idea of what they were voting for. Given his current rhetoric around this matter, it’s curious Farron didn’t vote on it. Indeed, no Lib Dem did (Labour and the SNP voted for it):
If our political journalists were any good, you’d expect them to be raising this with Farron again and again as it rather undermines his current stance. You’d perhaps also expect them to be highlighting this:
Yes, Mr ‘Second Referendum’ Farron himself openly mocked the idea when it was advanced by Nigel Farage, somewhat hilariously invoking ‘the will of the people’ as a wry aside. Indeed, he went further, labelling the notion of a second referendum ‘pathetic’ in Prospect Magazine:
If it’s not yet clear that the current Lib Dem position is little more than hypocrisy and opportunism, let’s look at one more thing: Farron’s frequent claims to be the ‘real opposition’ to the Tories. Leaving aside the hilarity of the party which brought us the coalition using this attack, Farron, in leading this ‘real opposition’, has voted in little more than a third of divisions (votes) in this parliament – far less than when the Lib Dems were in power:
The leader of this ‘real opposition’ didn’t vote on a proposal to limit public spending cuts immediately following the first Tory Queen’s Speech; he didn’t vote on an Opposition Day motion calling on the government to address the housing crisis; he didn’t vote on a proposal to produce annual reports on addressing the gender pay gap; he didn’t vote on targeting assistance at those on low- and middle-incomes; he didn’t vote on requiring schools to include Personal, Social, Health and Economic education at school, including sex education; he didn’t vote on demands for more assistance for refugees; he didn’t vote on the notorious Trade Union Bill; he didn’t vote on attempts to prevent or ameliorate the tax credit cuts, to protect Employment and Support Allowance or against the Welfare Bill which further reduced the benefit cap and cut various benefits; he didn’t vote on an Opposition Day motion on the dispute over Junior Doctors’ contracts; he didn’t vote on the call to reconsider tax credit cuts which even some Tories supported; he didn’t vote on the third reading of the Immigration Bill, effectively extending border controls further into everyday life…
…you get the idea (that’s still only up to the end of 2015). The notion of Farron and the Lib Dems being the ‘real opposition’ is risible and hanging it entirely around the votes on Article 50, where the Lib Dem position was contrary to all that had gone before and where the government was never going to be defeated, is mendacious in the extreme and makes a mockery of any possible ‘progressive alliance’. The Lib Dems know they have zero power to prevent Brexit (and you’ll note the tactics people have to prevent it are never more fully-formed than ‘elect some MPs who don’t want Brexit’), and are exploiting the fact most people don’t pay much attention to politics to offer false hope to those for whom it is now the single most important issue in politics.
Yet however we feel about Brexit, the idea that opposing it should mean voting for politicians and parties with a dire record on immigration, on poverty, on employment rights and so on is at best naive, at worst woefully out-of-touch. We certainly should not reward Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrats for their cheap opportunism, of the kind which has so destroyed faith and trust in politics and contributed to our grim political landscape.
You can’t argue with that.
Supporting #1DayWithoutUs is a no-brainer, because it’s a just cause. The division between ‘migrants’ and ‘natives’ is a slim and often arbitrary one at best and, while I understand the political logic behind emphasising the economic benefits of migration, freedom of movement is a moral cause which shouldn’t hinge on employment. Migrant rights is perhaps *the* progressive cause of our times and it’s a secondary, but important, benefit that it just so happens to make our societies a lot better. I’m descended from Lithuanian migrants and quite literally wouldn’t be here if not for immigration, while today my friendship group would consist of about 3 people if non-British people all upped and left. For too long the discourse around immigration has been dominated by the ill-informed, the small-minded, the bigots and yes, the racists. This will only begin to change if we all take responsibility in our own lives and step up to the plate. Challenge lazy anti-immigration rhetoric whenever you encounter it, especially if it comes from family or friends. Write to your councillors, MPs, MEPs informing them that you want unapologetic support for immigration. Support political parties which refuse to pander to racism. If you can afford it, donate to pro-migrant organisations like the ones listed here https://storify.com/trillingual/refugee-resources-in-the-uk-and-europe . Oppose anti-migrant politics wherever it is found but especially in our hateful, destructive Tory government.
Rory Scothorne, one of the insightful authors of Roch Winds, has written an interesting blog which serves as a counterpoint to my argument on Article 50. It’s compelling in parts but on reflection I disagree and I wanted to outline why:
1 – It stands as one of those arguments which should have been made prior to the referendum happening, appearing as a desperate afterthought now. As a basic point of principle, it’s difficult (not impossible, of course) for your opponents to condemn you for doing what you said you would. Much of the capital Rory believes Labour could win by professing to ‘stand up’ for Scotland and Northern Ireland could have been won previously by insisting on the mooted ‘quadruple lock’. Yet Labour was largely mute on this, due in large part no doubt to the fact that it was seen to fuel ‘separatist’ ideas: Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland are not members of the EU except as part of the UK, so the referendum was framed as a ‘UK-wide’ question. Scotland is no more being ‘dragged from the EU against its will’ than London or Newcastle is, yet the idea Labour would oppose Article 50 ‘on behalf of London and Newcastle’ would be widely viewed as absurd.
2 – Having not previously been loudly making the ‘quadruple lock’ argument, hinging opposition to Article 50 on it now would be viewed as weak and opportunistic. Crucially this would not only be the case in England – it would 100% be how it was framed by the SNP, which never misses a chance to stick the knife into Labour. It would further destroy Labour’s base in England without offering any certain uplift in Scotland, where Labour would be viewed as very late to the party and dependent on the whims of its Westminster leadership. In that regard it could actually further strengthen the Nationalist cause.
3 – Rory argues (rightly) that Corbyn and Labour are not well-placed to capitalise on English nationalism. It does not follow that it should then attempt to capitalise on Scottish nationalism, on which it is always going to be outflanked by an SNP which does not have electoral or indeed moral considerations beyond Scotland’s borders. If “your average English petit-bourgeois” considers Corbyn to be unpatriotic, the exact same could be said of his/her counterpart in Scotland. Indeed, Rory himself speaks of “the current lack of interest in Scottish politics coming from Corbyn and his supporters down south”. I don’t think this is entirely fair because, as it stands, Corbyn speaking on ‘Scottish politics’ is easily presented as ‘Westminster interference’ while leaving it to Scottish Labour is viewed as either not caring or outright contempt. Such are the dynamics of nationalist politics and feeding the SNP narrative of Brexit as a ‘Scotland’ vs ‘England’ issue fuels both English and Scottish nationalism and only further destroys any possibility of a future Labour recovery in either.
4 – Rory speaks of how it would be necessary to ‘abandon socialism’ in order to appeal to ‘English populism’. While this isn’t incorrect, the implicit counterpoint is that this isn’t the case in Scotland. Yet as the past few years have amply demonstrated, while Scottish nationalism may posture as far more left-wing and radical than its English counterpart, when it has actually come down to practical action and policy it has proved itself to be largely cautious, conservative and not far removed from the right of the Labour party. There is little evidence to suggest that Corbyn pursuing radicalism offers any more electoral gain in Scotland than in (parts of) England (and indeed Scottish Labour’s 2016 manifesto, clearly to the left of the SNP’s, tells us that Labour’s problems in Scotland go far beyond offering any move towards socialism).
5 – The fundamental point remains that both parliamentary and electoral maths mean Brexit is going to happen, whatever Labour’s position. If, as Rory states, Brexit is “is unavoidably a symbol of anti-immigrant sentiment, nostalgic fantasies of foreign despotism, and the least useful (though still, admittedly, politically interesting) sort of anti-elitism”, then that reflects dominant trends in politics more widely which won’t be swept away by opposing Article 50. If anything they will, as I argue, be further emboldened. Labour’s great failure in the Scottish independence debate was to largely co-sponsor the Conservative Party’s doom-laden vision of Scotland outside of the UK rather than pushing a positive, left-wing argument for a UK rooted in the solidarity which is essential for any large-scale left-wing platform to succeed. It is crucial that it does not now make the same mistake and distinguishes itself from the Tory vision of Brexit as loudly as possible – a case which simply won’t be listened to by many (including many Remainers who have accepted the result) if they are viewed as trying to reverse the referendum.
6 – The idea that opposing Brexit offers a way back for Labour in Scotland seems more rooted in the nationalist narrative of Scotland than in anything tangible. It’s worth remembering that behind the ‘Scotland voted Remain’ story, 1/3 of the electorate there didn’t vote and the difference between Leave and Remain was approx. 600,000 votes (1.66 million for remain vs 1.01 million for leave). As I noted in my blog, last week’s Yougov poll suggested that while a majority in Scotland still want to remain, clear majorities also endorse Theresa May’s main ‘negotiating points’ for Brexit, including on immigration where Scottish public opinion remains regressive. We can also note that behind Scotland ‘relative europhilia’ lies a more complex history where a plurality or majority have wanted to leave the EU or reduce its powers. I have long argued that Brexit becoming tightly associated with right-wing English nationalism has far more to do with a majority in Scotland falling ‘in love’ with the EU than any substantive support for it. It’s also been clear in polls that a majority in Scotland currently have no appetite for leaving the UK in order to join the EU, hence even the SNP focusing on the single market rather than EU membership. Rory even notes that it’s the Tories, not Labour who seem most likely to experience a significant revival in Scotland – a fact which owes much to the centrality of the ‘national question’ in Scottish politics. As it stands, a significant % of those who currently support the SNP will never vote Labour unless it supports independence, and many of those going to the Tories want nothing less than total opposition to further devolution. Labour opening itself to countless, easy attacks in England on the basis of Scotland’s support for the EU would seem to me to be a battle lost before it even begins.
7 – Nicola Sturgeon has indeed been successful at positioning herself as ‘Scotland’s chief lobbyist’ on this issue. Yet, given what I’ve outlined above, the answer to this isn’t to seek to join her but to hammer home the contradictions inherent in her position. As I’ve said, there is no doubt in my mind that the SNP would not welcome a commitment from Corbyn to oppose Article 50 but would instead quickly find a new angle of attack. A (welcome) commitment to federalism does not mean pretending we currently have it – Labour is best placed to argue that the current set-up in the UK isn’t fit for purpose while constructively offering solutions, just as it is best placed to argue that if Brexit is (regretfully) going to happen, it should happen on as social democratic a platform as it can secure (which admittedly is perhaps not much of one). These may not be compellingly instant positions but I think they will stand the party in good stead in the long run, just as hammering home the SNP’s incoherent position on the UK vs the EU and its singular fixation on referendums will.
8 – As Rory argues, the current Labour position is weak and subject to attack by both political and media opponents. I don’t dispute this, instead arguing in my blog that their current position is the least bad of the terrible options. Yet in speaking of the position most likely to bring Corbyn to power Rory ignores his own compelling arguments, both with regards to the UK and to the wider environment for socialism, as to why that’s almost certainly not going to happen. Labour should have been positioning itself on Brexit, on the English and Scottish questions (and on a whole lot else) for the past 2 years but has instead been consumed by infighting. It has likely squandered its chance and, barring any seismic occurrence, it is not going to come to power any time soon. It is not unreasonable, then, to be concerned with minimising losses and seeking to guard against a reactionary post-Corbyn future for the party. It’s clear that some on the left harbour illusions that a socialist leader without Corbyn’s baggage or presentational issues would be a compelling figure for the electorate, yet it is undeniable that the stakes are piled formidably high against any such leader. This is why I argue that turning the tide is going to take time (something I think Rory agrees with) and that it requires all of us committed to socialism to engage in social movements. So, while I think Rory’s course of action would only make the terrain more treacherous for socialism in the long run, I fully agree with his conclusion:
The world that socialists must navigate is increasingly one of hermetic subcultures, economic decline and political crisis as a form of governance. I suspect that the most effective responses will be closer to the traditions of anarchism than socialism. If national struggles for constitutional power are not working, then localised extra-legal resistance which emphasises subcultural or community solidarity must take precedence. If national identities cannot be mobilised for the left then they must be disrupted and subverted, their institutions disrespected and their everyday cultural manifestations ruthlessly undermined. There may be no more room for good patriots; only good traitors. Corbyn has shown the occasional, accidental flash of treason — it’s up to those who have supported him this far to start doing it deliberately.
So Brexit is proving to be a shitshow and a disaster for the left, as all of us who weren’t deluded enough to believe in Lexit knew it would be. I don’t think many of us actually expected it to happen, though – even when the polls showed a tight race they usually had ‘Remain’ in the lead and there was a widespread sense that people would ‘see sense’ on the day. So the result not only came as a shock but (for many of us) felt like a hammer blow to our identity, our notion of the country we lived in and its place in the world. Yet as we get further on from the vote it seems increasingly obvious that this isn’t something which happened on the day of the referendum, or even during the referendum campaign: this has been decades in the making and too many of us were blind to it. Some remain blind to it and have retreated into an almost petulant rage that most people didn’t vote ‘the right way’.
Much of the worst rhetoric from the ‘Leave’ side, and from the Tory government under the ostensibly ‘Remain’ Theresa May, has presented those opposed to Brexit as an out of touch elite and enemies of democracy. It shouldn’t need to be pointed out how dangerous and disgusting this is, yet it’s difficult not to wonder if it’s given unwarranted power as many celebrate a multi-millionare hedge fund manager winning a court battle on parliamentary sovereignty. That in itself is fine – Brexit has been sold to us as ‘taking back control’, after all – yet it’s very clear that for many this presents an opportunity for Westminster to override/ignore the referendum result in a vote. These people have reacted with blind fury to Labour’s pledge that it will respect the referendum result and will not seek to ‘frustrate’ the triggering of Article 50, instead seeking to influence the kind of Brexit we end up with by demanding detailed legislation be presented before parliment to be debated and amended. This has commonly been presented hand in hand with the myth that Jeremy Corbyn was somehow to blame for the result of the vote, despite 2/3rds of Labour voters opting to ‘Remain’ (the same % as SNP voters) and Corbyn being by far the most prominent Labour figure, and third most prominent ‘Remain’ figure, in the campaign.
Yet Labour cannot prevent Brexit in parliament and, more than that, it would be utterly disastrous were it to try. As briefly as possible, here is why:
- The numbers just aren’t there. The Tories will vote en masse to trigger Article 50 for several reasons: party discipline, the fact the party is currently benefiting enormously from Brexit in the polls and the certain pressure from UKIP which any Tory MP voting it down would find themselves under. The DUP will support it. UKIP will clearly support it. That already guarantees that the vote will pass, without getting into the Labour MPs in areas which heavily voted ‘Leave’ who would almost certainly support the vote whatever the ‘official party position’.
- Accepting that the numbers aren’t there, it would be madness for Labour to squander what little capital it has on this issue by gifting the Tories, UKIP and the majority right-wing media the narrative of it ‘seeking to subvert the will of the people’. Absolutely everything it had to say on Brexit after a vote against triggering Article 50 would be met by this message being hammered home again and again and again.
- Instead, saying ‘we respect the result and will not overturn it, but we will seek to ensure parliament has oversight of and influence over the kind of Brexit we get’ does not lend power to the idea that Labour is ‘opposed to democracy’ and actually offers the prospect of pro-EU Tories supporting amendments which could make a real difference in preventing what is being called ‘hard Brexit’.
It’s an imperfect position, certainly, but the only feasible one. We then move onto what I’ve found to be a common response to this: “well shouldn’t Labour offer leadership and do what it thinks is right, rather than blindly following a ‘majority’ who voted on a bunch of lies’?
As I noted earlier, this has been decades in the making. Parties across the political spectrum have happily blamed the EU as an easy scapegoat for domestic decisions (even the SNP blamed the EU in the row over privatising Calmac) while politicians have at best ignored popular hostility towards immigration and at worst fanned it. As I documented in my pre-referendum post, the majority of people have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about with regards to immigration yet polls have consistently found that most view it negatively (including in Scotland). In my lifetime it has been common for politicians to use the rhetoric of the far right on immigration, push increasingly intolerant policies on asylum and immigration and engage in a perverse arms race on who can be ‘toughest‘ on the issue.
In the 2015 Labour leadership campaign Andy Burnham repeated dangerous myths about migration and called for tighter controls, while Liz Kendall disgracefully conflated desperate refugees with migrants presumed to be ‘cheating’ the welfare system. Immediately after the Brexit vote Owen Smith, in the Labour leadership campaign, argued for a ‘progressive case against freedom of movement‘and suggested there were too many immigrants, while leading Labour figures like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper lined up to chuck ‘freedom of movement’ under a bus. During the leadership campaigns and referendum, Jeremy Corbyn singularly refused to feed these narratives, yet what should be an unremarkable, fact-based position is considered so extreme that he has faced enormous pressure to backtrack on it. This lead to the dismal spectacle of a heavily-trailed seachange in his immigration position wherein he moved a bit to the right in his rhetoric yet didn’t actually seem to alter his position (apparently following an intervention from Diane Abbott), managing to piss off his supporters for no apparent reason.This in itself was treated as a ‘gotcha’ by the media, which has been utterly woeful in presenting the facts of immigration.
Far too many of those now calling for ‘leadership’ on Brexit have refused to step up and fight to drain the swamp that has been the immigration ‘debate’.’Addressing concerns over immigration’ has been the ‘moderate’ cry to demonstrate how serious and ready for power they are. Even the supposedly pro-immigration SNP has played this game and it’s worth noting that the independence White Paper proposed exactly the kind of points-system which is so beloved of reactionaries. For too long we have been timid on both the EU and on immigration, conceding more and more ground to a right-wing which has only moved further and further right in response. In retrospect it was a remarkably brave move for Ed Miliband to rule out an EU referendum if he won power – it’s notable that the now-decidedly anti-Brexit Green Party actually promised one in its manifesto and complained of “the EU’s unsustainable economics of free trade and growth” (a position not to dissimilar from Corbyn’s previous rhetoric). By the time the vote on holding the EU referendum came around after the 2015 election, only the SNP felt able to actually oppose it.
Calls for ‘leadership’ now are laughable because it’s been lacking for so long, replaced by crude and contemptible attempts to ride and exploit ‘public opinion’. The same mindset and tactics were at play in the EU referendum: we were so sure ‘Remain’ would win that there was little thought put into how the referendum should be conducted and little preparation made for what happened if the vote went the other way. Tim Farron, now a passionate advocate for opposing Brexit, explicitly mocked the idea of a second referendum prior to the vote. Yet now calls for a second referendum are common from people who would have found this a democratic outrage coming from Nigel Farage, and the idea that the vote is invalid because’Leave’ voters were duped is commonly expressed. ‘The referendum was only advisory!’ All referendums in the UK are ‘only advisory’ – the point is that absolutely no-one campaigning or voting believed this one was until the result wasn’t what they wanted. Absolutely no-one is fooled that demands for another referendum are anything other than attempts to reverse the vote. Most of the arguments for ignoring the referendum result are arguments for not holding the referendum in the first place (and I think most ‘Remain’ voters didn’t particularly understand what they were voting for any more than ‘Leave’ voters understood what they were voting against) and that ship sailed long ago. It’s notable that last week’s Yougov poll found that 66% of Remain voters supported either Labour or the Tories, while a majority in every region of the UK endorsed May’s ‘negotiating points’. There is not some groundswell for overturning the vote.
This brings us to probably the most profoundly scary reason why Labour (and indeed other politicians) trying to prevent Brexit in parliament is such a terrible idea. As we’ve seen, rhetoric around ‘elites’ trying to ‘subvert democracy’ has been common in the aftermath of the referendum and we’ve heard how bigotry has surged. Yet if politicians were to actually prevent the result of the referendum being implemented as the worst extremes of the right keep suggesting they want to, this would provide a founding myth for the far-right of the kind we have not seen in my lifetime. There is no doubt in my mind that not only would UKIP surge dramatically in this scenario but that less ‘respectable’ fascists like the EDL would explode in popularity, emboldened by the simple and powerful narrative that the ‘elite’ were ignoring ‘the people’.
Yes, Brexit is an absolute shitshow and it’s a disaster for the left. But we lost the referendum because we long ago lost the arguments which mattered most to people. We neglected the left as a a movement and I’ve noted with irony that some of the most vocal advocates for reversing Brexit are from the camp so fond of the ‘we can’t achieve anything without winning elections’ faction. It’s no wonder they would want politicians to save us but we aren’t going to address how we got here by indulging that tactic. The only thing that can begin to pull us back from the precipice is a strong, dynamic social movement which we all need to step up and be part of. That means letting go of the dangerous fantasy that we can vote Brexit down and realising we must win the argument on immigration, on inequality, on employment rights and on so much more. To do that we actually have to take that argument to people and we have to create both pressure for politicians to support us, and a base from which we can support politicians who do. We have to be involved in pro-migrant and anti-racist movements. We have to have uncomfortable conversations with work colleagues, with family, with friends. No-one is going to put this right from above. It’s up to us.