Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Many of the establishment forces who fought tooth and nail to preserve Britain’s membership of the EU in the referendum now seek to ensure that as little as possible changes as a result of their defeat. The apostles of ‘no change’ from across the party divide – like Ken Clarke, Nick Clegg and Tony Blair – if not yet openly calling for a second referendum are advancing the case for full membership of the single market. They believe this best insulates the accumulation of capital from the crosswinds of democratic influence.
This is entirely predictable. More worrying, though, is the apparent preparedness of sections of the left to tail-end this approach, out of the belief that Brexit was the result of an unambiguously racist and reactionary upsurge, fuelled by the overt prejudice of UKIP and the right wing press. This view would reduce us to minor footnotes to the discourse of the neoliberal elite, what Tariq Ali has called the ‘extreme centre’. Those seeking to undo the referendum result from a ‘better-the-devil-you-know’ perspective are effectively accepting the very conditions of disempowerment that voters were desperate to resist and challenge.
Whatever else might have motivated the electoral insurgency that produced a majority for Brexit, it surely represented a demand for real change, and a sense that people wanted to take back control over decisions that shape their communities. In this sense, 52 per cent of voters thought that Brexit offered some kind of opportunity to challenge the seemingly locked-down framework that governs political decision-making. Of course, to say this still leaves out all the political questions: what kind of change were they seeking, and control over which decisions?
I am not suggesting some Pollyanna-ish outlook, which refuses to acknowledge there were any prejudiced or reactionary attitudes bound up in the pro-Brexit camp. That there are dangers in the situation is not in question – the spike in reported racist (and homophobic) attacks is a graphic indicator of this. Similarly, if the Tories are allowed to determine the terms of the negotiations, we can expect them to seek to boost British competitiveness by weakening social protections and workers’ rights. But the left, while alive to these dangers, should reject the fatalism that sees such outcomes as the inevitable consequence of Brexit.
Many of the Remain campaigners spoke – and often still speak – of the benefits of EU membership to ‘the economy’, or of it being in the ‘national interest’. We are told that the economy is prospering when GDP grows, the FTSE 100 climbs, or the pound rises against the US dollar. But who experiences this prosperity? Does it figure that workers in places like Sunderland or Barrow are feeling better off?
The whole notion of ‘the national interest’ to which the Bremoaners appeal is precisely a method of obfuscating a more class-based understanding of contending and conflicting interests. By contrast, not unlike the Scottish independence referendum, Brexit’s signalling of the possibility of major constitutional change has allowed for an opening up of alternative points of critique.
As Lisa McKenzie observed, the leave vote represented – among other things – a reaction against the political and cultural suppression of working-class identities, a determination to make present voices that have been excluded from the debate. Labour ought to be engaging with Brexit voters, neither dismissing them nor simply reflecting back existing prejudices, but re-opening a much more thorough-going debate on what ‘taking back control’ would involve.
If Jeremy Corbyn has established some credibility as a ‘straight talking, honest’ figure, unafraid to challenge the political establishment, then in some respects he may have an opportunity to connect with the prevailing anti-politics spirit. Anyone believing that the protest votes seen in the EU referendum will be translated simply or easily into votes for a radical Labour alternative would be naive. But an ability to relate to the anger and resentment of working-class communities against ‘politics as usual’ is essential if Corbyn is to succeed in making Labour electable.
How, then, should he respond? John McDonnell strikes the right note when he differentiates between different kinds of Brexit – opposing the ‘bankers’ Brexit’ sought by the Tory hard right. The challenge is to demonstrate how Labour could begin to realise a radical alternative direction. Rather than be seen in the camp of those seeking to reject the democratic will of the electorate, Labour must now hold out a compelling alternative vision of how democracy can be significantly extended.
Corbyn has already spoken of the need for the policy-making process to be taken out into workplaces, housing estates, churches, mosques and community halls. To this could be added a programme of extending democracy over our lives at work, and experiments with new forms of collective community-based deliberation. Leaving the EU need not be a disaster waiting to happen. It could be the occasion of a democratic revolution.
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun