A Brexit Diary: What Comes Next for Labour?

Stefan Rousseau/Press Association via AP Images

Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks during the annual conference of the EEF manufacturers organisation at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London. 

I didn’t go to London to write about Brexit; despite that, here I am, back in the U.S. and writing about Brexit. 

At the moment, Brexit remains the unavoidable obstacle of British politics. For the past several months, almost nothing has happened inside Parliament except failed Brexit deal votes, Groundhog Day-style, like the one that happened on Tuesday evening, when Prime Minister Theresa May’s exit deal went down to yet another historic defeat—the fourth-largest in House of Commons history

When visiting Parliament in late February, I did watch Labour MP Helen Hayes introduce a bill on affordable housing, but then the debate shifted immediately to Brexit. The tone of parliamentary debate is jarring for an outsider—the culture of mockery, the speaker teasing his colleagues that they know the answer to their questions, the snark, makes it feel like an Oxford debating society meeting rather than a serious consideration of issues that affect millions of people’s lives. Jeremy Corbyn looked on sternly from the front bench, giving the impression that he too disapproved of the mood. (This is a perhaps under-discussed thing much of Parliament doesn’t like about him—he acts like something’s actually at stake far too often.)

Outside Parliament, though, like Corbyn, people are ready to move on. The ever-present Leave and Remain protests on Parliament square are often dwarfed by, respectively: black taxi drivers, Uber and other private hire drivers, and outsourced cleaning and security workers demonstrating for their rights and wages. This underscores the austerity crisis that underlies all of British politics, even the damned Brexit vote. The protests are a reminder that not that long ago, during the 2017 general election campaign, the public jumped at the chance to talk about anything other than Brexit. They enthusiastically read Labour’s campaign manifesto, filled with policies like re-nationalizing mail, rail, and water, and creating a National Investment Bank, and they gave Labour constituencies that would normally have meant it was winning the election. The attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and Labour faded, briefly, with electoral success and the dramatic collapse of May’s onslaught.

But Brexit returned like a recurring nightmare. And it’s overshadowed other aspects of politics that affect real people’s lives. It has made it impossible to discuss the leftist policies on the Corbyn agenda and how they might be implemented, inside or outside of the EU. Now that May’s deal appears fully dead (though nothing is fully dead in politics these days), the next steps are for the House of Commons to officially vote down no-deal Brexit and then extend the deadline for leaving. With no reason to believe that May will propose anything new, Labour must find a way to get its agenda heard once again. 

May’s latest unsuccessful draft agreement—which was the same as the old one though hilariously printed in a different font size to make it look different—was destined to fail the moment it spat out of the mimeograph machine. It was never going to pass. 

Yet it’s hard to see what the other options are. During a day of Brexit debates on February 27, which predictably resolved absolutely nothing, the protests that had been going on outside of Parliament all week intensified. One woman in particular caught my eye, bottle-blonde and brandishing a “STOP BREXIT” sign, shouting something about not caring about the law, just wanting it stopped. It is this particular “I’d-like-to-speak-to-Brexit’s-manager” tendency among some of the most ardent Remain set that grates the hardest on the soft Leave crowd; as one Labour activist told me, they’ve done little to actually win over Leave voters who might have been winnable when the Leave leaders immediately walked back their promises. Instead, they just act as though it is obvious that the vote was just wrong.

Without a serious persuasion campaign that takes Leave voters seriously rather than dismissing them as wrongheaded bigots, would a second referendum go any differently than the first? YouGov polls show a public still deeply divided on the best Brexit outcome; a second referendum polls around 40 percent positive but around the same oppose it. More people think a no-deal Brexit is a good option than support the prime minister’s deal. “What has happened,” explains economist and New Statesman editor Grace Blakeley, “is that there hasn’t been that much shift, but there has been a massive polarization around the edges.” 

Corbyn was mostly sidelined during the Brexit battle because he made the fatal mistake of holding a nuanced position—that the EU is an often undemocratic institution that nevertheless was not actually responsible for the austerity wrecking communities, which a new study notes correlates strongly with Leave voting. That, after all, was all David Cameron’s Tories’ doing, building on the foundation left for them by New Labour and Thatcherism. 

Nuance doesn’t play well in the middle of increasingly shrill single-issue battles, and the centrist chunk of Corbyn’s own party tends to blame him for being insufficiently emotive about Remaining. Though to be fair, many of them would accuse him of having killed JFK if they thought it would remove him from leadership.

Labour is at its best when it leaves Brexit behind to talk about the issues that affect “the many, not the few,” as the Corbynist framing terms it. The 2017 election, where Theresa May thought she’d pick up 100 seats and instead lost her absolute majority, saw Corbyn at his best, appealing to the class interests of a U.K. population broken by neoliberalism, whether they be city-dwelling young people with student debt and a zero-hours contract or aging marginally-employed Leave voters in former industrial or mining towns. 

Dan Firth, director of Labour’s new community organizing project, says that in his experience people are thrilled to talk about anything but Brexit. “I have been around the country, to a lot of Leave voting areas and former industrial towns, cities in the Rust Belt where there are lots of people who voted Leave. I am not saying that Brexit doesn’t matter to people, but I very rarely have conversations about Brexit in those meetings.”

What people want to talk about is housing, he says, and their low-paying jobs with exploitative employers. They want good schools for their kids. “I think this is why the [Labour] Manifesto cut through,” Firth says. “It actually touched people and the real reasons that people are angry about the kind of economy that we have. The economy doesn’t feel like it is serving everyday people.”

The downside of Corbyn’s ability to attract former Tory or UKIP or Liberal Democrat voters was that it left Labour seriously divided over Brexit. The referendum wasn’t calculated by parliamentary constituency, so all we have are estimates, but the best estimate had 61 percent of Labour MPs representing constituencies that voted Leave. Though some may have drifted slightly more Remain, this still presents a problem for holding together a coalition, let alone building on it to deliver general election success. As Labour faces demands to support a second referendum, and some in its ranks blame Corbyn, once again, for insufficiently adoring the EU, the odds of the votes in Parliament actually existing for one remain slim.

And so Labour’s left leadership has focused on trying to prevent a “hard Brexit,” on staying in the customs union and the single market, and on maintaining the worker, consumer and environmental protections that May’s deal doesn’t protect. They have gradually warmed toward a second referendum, but it remains far down on the list of priorities. For now the best-case scenario for Labour is getting through Brexit with minimal damage, holding May responsible for the fallout, and building toward a general election.

The most persuasive pro-Remain argument revolves around free movement—an unmitigated good, even if the EU’st reatment of migrants from outside its borders is often appalling. The challenge for Corbyn is to articulate a migration policy that rejects the racism lingering in British society and his own base. The party memorably conceded to fears of migrants in 2015, when under Ed Miliband Labour printed mugs with “Controls on Immigration” on them, and members of the current leadership rightfully denounced that stance. But the leadership needs to tackle questions of the border and of racism head-on rather than dodge them—and it should be able to do better, given Corbyn’s long commitment to internationalism, often used as a weapon against him on the right. 

But what would Brexit actually mean to Labour’s goals of re-nationalization, reinvestment, and remaking the economy to serve working people? It’s unclear whether EU rules actually prevent Labour’s re-nationalization plans. While the EU doesn’t ban public ownership, the creation of new public monopolies is not allowed. Market competition and the free movement of commerce (to which free movement of people within the EU has been attached) are the principles around which the EU revolves, even as its protections for workers have real impact. Yet others have argued that the struggle to nationalize would not primarily be with the EU but with international trade deals. Still others have noted that the U.K. is perhaps the best positioned to push the EU to reform, since it remains outside of the Eurozone, and unlike Greece and other peripheral countries that have been disciplined into austerity, it remains a powerful economy that would be harder to bring to heel.

There is also the question—far too broad to do more than gesture at here—of whether the bigger threat to the Corbyn agenda is the independent actions of capital. Blakeley notes, “I think there is a general consensus that most wealthy people are far more scared of Corbyn than a no-deal Brexit.” Capital flight—permitted, Blakeley notes, under single-market rules—can be a powerful force limiting what a left-Labour government can do. But being outside of the EU might make capital controls possible. (A new report has tracked some trillion pounds in assets moved out of the U.K. already during the ongoing Brexitshambles.)  

It looks unlikely that any of these questions will be answered anytime soon, as the most likely Brexit scenario now appears to be yet another postponement. Yet no matter what happens next, it is the job of the left—now with a significant base of power inside a major political party—to articulate a vision of the future that can have broad appeal, and then to lay out concrete enough plans so that people can see hope that that future may actually come about.

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