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.