Confronting Brexit

Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

March 20, 2017
22 min read


Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank

Photo credit: Tomek Nacho/ flickr

‘The situation is hopeless, we must take the next step’

Pablo Casals

The current historical period is one of seemingly ceaseless flux. Political and economic shocks and crises follow in apparently endless succession. Complex political and historical phenomena arise with such rapidity that we’re reduced to cataloguing them in one-word formulae before moving on to the next challenge: Syria, Brexit, Trump, Le Pen.

The sense of fear, confusion and anger that such an environment creates leaves people scrambling for answers – for a way of making sense of the world around them. In the UK, the Brexit referendum and subsequent debates have provided a vivid example of the confusion and despair that is so common today, particularly on the left.

The Brexit debate fractured UK society, and the left, in a profound way. It hasn’t quite produced a second civil war, but the strength of opinion on either side of the Leave/Remain debate has led to a hardening of political positions, if not a clarification of ideas. In this essay, we aim to do two things: first, to provide an account of the context that gave rise to Brexit, a way of understanding Brexit, as it were; and second, to make some suggestions as to how the left should begin to position itself to go on the offensive in a post-Brexit environment.

Brexit and the crisis of representation

During the Brexit debate, sharp divisions opened up on the left. On the one hand, there were those who saw Brexit as an irredeemably racist initiative and believed that, in this context, the left should argue for a position of ‘remain and reform’. Others argued that while racism was indeed central to both the mainstream Leave and Remain campaigns, there were myriad good reasons why the left should argue for a rupture with the EU and its institutions, and that if it took the lead on this, it could provide the basis for building an alternative politics.

The surprise vote by a small majority of people in the UK to leave the EU reinforced variations on this narrative. For some Brexit was a racist vote, indicative of a rising tide of reaction and xenophobia across the west. In contrast others argued, simplistically, that it was a working-class rebellion, and a victory for working-class people. Neither of these positions is accurate or sufficient.

To understand Brexit (and related phenomena the world over) we must situate the vote in the context of the long-term enfeeblement of representative democracy and the abandonment of working-class communities by social democratic parties. This process is documented in Peter Mair’s book Ruling the Void, in which he details a 40-year process of ordinary people withdrawing from politics, while political elites simultaneously withdraw from the people.

In the UK, the election of Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party represents an important turning point in this regard. In 1995 Blair declared that Labour was ‘the party of modern business’ in Britain. New Labour’s electoral strategists could barely conceal their disinterest in traditionally Labour-voting, mostly working-class electorates concentrated in the party’s safe seats. Under the guidance of Philip Gould and Peter Mandelson, Labour instead concentrated its appeal to the priorities of the ‘swing voter’ in Middle England marginals – dubbed variously ‘Mondeo man’ and ‘Worcester woman’. This, for them, was the demographic that really mattered, and via techniques borrowed directly from market research (focus groups, polling, branding) the party turned itself into the commodity that it believed these consumers wanted. What did it matter what the ‘core vote’ did? They’d likely vote Labour anyway, since the Tories were even worse. They had ‘nowhere else to go’. If they stayed at home, so what? The seats were already in the bag.

In fact, the strategy went beyond neglecting the ‘core vote’. By actively attacking elements of traditional Labour commitments – the collective influence of the trade unions; Clause IV’s commitment to extending public ownership – New Labour revelled in confronting its traditional supporters to overhaul its brand and woo the ‘aspirational’ middle classes. Heartland seats were useful in one respect, though. By overriding or shackling the democratic processes of constituency branches, the party machine could ‘parachute’ career politicians into seats where they didn’t have to worry about getting re-elected.

Frequently the background, experience and mentality of the new MP was almost comically out of step with those they claimed to represent. Former Tory MP Shaun Woodward (who employed his own butler) in St Helens. Mandelson himself in Hartlepool. The Miliband brothers in South Shields and Doncaster respectively. The privately-educated son-of-a-peer, Tristram Hunt, in Stoke. What did these people know about the lives of their constituents? What did they care of their struggles, their experiences, their attitudes, their priorities? Far from giving a voice to working people, the system was now producing a political elite whose existence was entirely parasitical. A similar charge could be laid at the door of a compliant generation of full-time trade union officials prepared to collaborate with New Labour out of a sense of cynical pragmatism.

Far from articulating the anger of communities ripped apart by Thatcher’s de-industrialisation of Britain, high unemployment, rising drug addiction, and the transformation of the labour market into a low-skilled, low-paid and often casualised festival of exploitation, New Labour was welcoming the ‘benefits of globalisation’, further deregulating the financial sector, levering private capital further into the public sector via PFI/PPP, and welcoming Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws. Those who opposed this so-called ‘modernisation’ were condemned as dinosaurs, incapable of grasping new opportunities.

At best New Labour used mildly redistributive tax measures to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty, and directed some public investment towards early years care in the form of Sure Start centres. But there were precious few ‘opportunities’ in whole stretches of the country formerly reliant on stable jobs in industries like shipbuilding, coal mining, car manufacturing and steel production. The loss of such industries often set communities on a path toward dereliction, so that New Labour, effectively, followed through with the ‘managed decline’ Thatcher intended for Merseyside, on a much wider scale.

The expansion of the financial services sector predominantly benefited London and the south east. Increased public sector employment and investment in ‘urban regeneration’ did help to cushion the blow in big metropolitan areas outside London, but could hardly replace major industries. When the Tory think-tank Policy Exchange recommended in 2008 that areas of northern England such as Liverpool, Sunderland and Bradford are ‘beyond revival’, advising that ‘residents should move south’, it was condemned for merely following the logic of the previous three decades of deliberate neoliberal under-development.

In communities marginalised, neglected and taken for granted (by the Tories and New Labour) the onset of the financial crisis of 2008 and the era of austerity felt more like an intensification of what preceded it, rather than a wholly new front in the class war. When the media speaks of growth in ‘the economy’ or a rise in the FTSE 100 it sounds like an empty abstraction, so tenuous is the link between what is good for corporate profitability and the living standards of ordinary people. The perception that people born into the world’s fifth richest country are not benefiting from that economic development gives further credence to the view that the political system is working in the interests of people other than ourselves.

Racism and the opportunist right

The general withdrawal of political elites from the people they presume to govern generates a set of tensions. As Peter Mair put it:

‘In terms of politics on the ground, the widening gap between rulers and ruled has facilitated the often strident populist challenge that is now a feature of many advanced European democracies … Each of these particular versions of the challenge to the political mainstream has its own nationally specific set of ideas, policies and interests, often revolving around shared expressions of xenophobia, racism and cultural defence, and usually emerging on the right wing of the political spectrum … But each is also marked by a common and often very explicit hostility to what is seen in the different countries as the national political class.’

In a climate where communities feel, with justification, that they have been cast off by their national political elites, and the erstwhile champions of their interests have abandoned any thoughts of a genuine alternative, space opens for reactionary alternatives. UKIP, in the UK, and others touting xenophobic delusions around the world, are more than happy to step into this space.

People in areas described as having been ‘left behind’ felt like their communities had been subject to a raft of damaging changes without their consent being either asked or given. Anger and alienation at the political and business elites responsible for such a situation is an understandable response. Into this volatile mix has also been thrust the question of immigration, not least since the free movement of people across the EU has been promoted and utilised by employers seeking to drive down their labour costs. This has also been fertile ground for the demonisation of minority communities, as racists promote myths about unfair distribution of resources, incite anxieties around cultural difference and find convenient scapegoats.

Despite warning signs such as the election of Nick Griffin of the BNP to the European Parliament, or later the growth in support for UKIP in Labour areas, a complacent Labour establishment largely failed to take heed of mounting anger and alienation. After all, when it comes to a general election, surely the threat of a Tory government would concentrate minds? This argument was used by Scottish Labour MPs, among others, to reassure themselves that the furious backlash against them for partnering with the Tories in the Better Together campaign against Scottish independence would subside.

What this overlooked was that voting in the referendum offered an opportunity to withhold assent from a political establishment seeking re-confirmation of its popular legitimacy. The Scottish Yes campaign was not simply about trusting in Scottish Nationalist politicians rather than Labour ones, but about an opportunity to radically democratise the political system, for a reassertion of popular sovereignty and the repudiation of a remote elite in Westminster. In the light of this electric charge of politicised, class-conscious reawakening, Labour’s etiolated structures had nothing with which to respond. They were part of the problem, not part of the solution. That the Scottish National Party went on to wipe out all but one Labour MP at the 2015 election was less a vindication of their own political credibility and more a resounding rejection of a Labour Party so invested in resisting fundamental change.

Considering this experience, what is most shocking is how little prepared Labour politicians were regarding the likely extent of working class support for Brexit in the EU referendum. David Cameron and the Tories had taken as read the ability of the Labour and TUC establishments to ‘turn out’ enough of the vote in ‘their’ areas to contribute to a decisive majority to Remain. Surely areas with Labour MPs would listen to their representatives’ concerns over damage to the economy and the potential loss of jobs and rights? The threat of an immediate ‘austerity budget’ in the event of a Brexit vote would surely whip them into line? In most big cities – London in particular – Labour’s Remain message won the support of ‘progressive’ liberal-minded professional sections of the electorate, students and workers from ethnically-diverse backgrounds.

But what of the former industrial heartlands? Here the catastrophic warnings of economic apocalypse held little real fear, since the damage had already been done – and done by the same neoliberal forces that already run our political institutions, the EU included. Jeremy Corbyn wisely avoided sharing platforms directly with the Tory architects of austerity, but was nevertheless aligned on the same side of the argument, together with the CBI, the Institute of Directors and the IMF. The political and business elite was coalescing around defence of the status quo, while the Labour movement had little to offer beyond ‘be thankful for what you’ve already got’. The referendum turnout exceeded that in general elections in areas such as Salford or Sunderland, when suddenly every vote counted and there was a chance to poke virtually the entire political class in the eye.

The question of immigration was indeed an important locus around which the pro-Brexit message was articulated. This could be inflected with openly or implicitly racist sentiment. But to dismiss Brexit voters en masse as racist and ignorant (or at best credulous dupes, willing to believe that £350 million per week would go into the NHS if we pulled out) is fundamentally misguided. To do so repeats the gesture of patronising disdain against which the Brexit vote was directed in the first place. This is certainly not to say that concerns about immigration should be affirmed or uncritically accepted, but they can be acknowledged and understood in the light of the forces to which these communities have been subjected over recent decades.

The erosion of trade union strength has meant not only the widespread disappearance of national collective bargaining agreements, but also the emergence of whole sectors of employment where union organisation is practically unknown. The inability to protect pay and conditions by ensuring that employers are unable to bring in other groups of workers on substantially reduced terms means that some sectors of employment have become essentially closed to a UK workforce in favour of exploited agency workers, often migrants brought in, for example, under the much-criticised EU Posted Workers Directive. From this perspective, the desire to reassert some measure of ‘control’ over the labour market is entirely understandable, even if the tightening of border controls would not represent the ‘solution’ its advocates assume.

Similarly, people are entirely justified in thinking that social and economic changes to which no one has been asked to consent have been allowed to rip through the hearts of their communities. They are right to think that other groups in society have disproportionately benefited from this at the expense of their class and community. They are also accurate in thinking that the prevailing liberal defence of globalised modernity betrays an attitude of disinterest at best, or more likely disdain, for how this impacts on working-class people. Politicians defending the EU were forced to admit that under the framework they are defending they either can’t, or won’t, intervene to subject the power of capital to democratic control. It is because the left has very largely failed to engage with these concerns in a meaningful way, that the right (and far right) has managed to make immigration (and ethnic/cultural/religious difference) such a poisonous issue, and stepped in to fill the vacuum.

From grief to action

The shock of the Brexit vote caught the entire UK, and European, political establishment off guard. But while the right has quickly adjusted and moved to exploit the situation, the left remains fragmented and divided in the face of historical transformations. Those on the left who argued that the UK should remain in the EU continue to oscillate wildly between the first two stages of grief: raging against the stupidity of the morons who voted for leave, or denying the legitimacy of the vote and looking for ways to overturn it. It is telling that in this period of upheaval Tony Blair has, like the morbid symptoms Gramsci warned of, re-emerged onto the political scene to champion the overturning of the Brexit result, and to try to undermine Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Above all, the Brexit vote was a rebuke to the political class that Blair so vividly represents; it was an angry denial of legitimacy to the whole system and the media discourse around it. Political leaders, business and bankers, union officials, media commentators, academic experts and celebrities were united in echoing Thatcher’s mantra that There Is No Alternative. But all such voices were equally tainted, merely justifying the system that gave them a privileged position from which to speak. Much the same process is happening across Europe. For the left to mount a counter-offensive by trying to overturn the referendum result and begin trying to rescue Britain’s membership of a failing European Union would serve simply to reinforce the alienation and anger felt by communities that have been neglected or taken for granted for decades.

Such a strategy would also underline how divorced the left, whether in Labour or elsewhere, is from the working-class communities they purport to speak for. In doing this, they would abandon such communities to the easy answers of the snake oil salesmen in UKIP and elsewhere, and hasten the rise of the very reactionary right that many people, post-Brexit and Trump, fear. In the wake of Brexit the spectre of 1930s Germany has been invoked far too easily, but if we are going to talk about the rise of fascism in an earlier period, then the key lesson we should draw is that the right triumphed, in large part, because of the timidity and lack of vision on the left.

As Florian Wilde has written:

‘We should take the experience of the SPD before 1933 as a warning: a workers’ party that allows itself to become an administrator of the capitalist system by joining or supporting bourgeois governments – and thereby providing left-wing cover to austerity – runs the danger of becoming identified with the system itself. It risks discrediting any claim to be an alternative to the status quo. In times of economic crisis like 1929 in Germany or today … millions begin to turn their backs on a status quo that no longer offers them a future. It is precisely then that a credible socialist alternative is needed to channel the anger of the masses in an emancipatory direction. The building of such an alternative is a task the importance of which must not be understated, particularly in the midst of the deepest economic crisis since 1929.’

For too long, since at least the emergence of New Labour, the parliamentary left in the UK has been seen by many as just another element of the status quo.

But this is not just a question of the Labour Party itself, but of the wider left, which fundamentally not only lacks any substantial connection to the class in whose name it purports to speak, but has a positive aversion to it, preferring the sanitised ‘progressive’ values of its own subculture and romanticised images of bygone years to the lived reality in Britain today. For a number on Labour’s left who do sense how far the party has drifted from large sections of its own electoral base, the answer lies in an embrace of patriotism and national identity combined with a corporatist and socially conservative vision of the ‘common good’. However, this would appear more an attempt to triangulate in response to UKIP’s success and still suggests a manipulative and instrumental approach where a professional political elite seeks to pitch itself more appealingly to the voter-as-consumer. Given that the political centre of gravity has shifted to the right as a response to the vacuum created by New Labour’s earlier attempted triangulation this seems to represent a strategy for further political retreats.

The socialist offensive

Margaret Thatcher is reported to have said that her greatest political achievement was Tony Blair and New Labour. The New Labour project, like social democratic parties across the developed world, ‘won’ on the electoral plain by abandoning any vision of an alternative to finance-led, neoliberal capitalism, which tossed millions on the scrapheap while hollowing out democracy.

In the wake of the great financial crisis of 2008, the bankruptcy of social democracy in this mould has meant that the right, in general, has triumphed, while the left is almost everywhere floundering. This conjuncture attests to the accuracy of Samir Amin’s observation that in the absence of positive utopias, people will retreat into reactionary ones. Brexit was by no means a simple working-class rebellion against the status quo, at least not in any progressive sense. But it was a clear statement that working class people want an alternative to the status quo.

The historical obligation of the left is to articulate this alternative. In the wake of Brexit this cannot be achieved by aligning with Tony Blair, or the charlatan Lib Dems. The left, in the Labour Party and elsewhere, must accept Brexit as a political fact and begin a socialist offensive to remake the UK – to build, as Amin puts it, the world we wish to see.

To do this it will be necessary to move forward, to pick up the fractured pieces of the left and build around shared beliefs and goals. In this regard three key lessons need to be drawn from the Brexit debate, which in turn provide three key principles that should shape the struggles of the left going forward.

The first is that the left in the UK, whether in the Labour Party, trade unions, or various groupings on the revolutionary left, is divorced, in key ways, from the working-class communities that it purports to speak for. A central tenet of socialist politics, articulated explicitly by Marx, has been that the emancipation of working-class people was, in the first instance, the job of the working class. In various ways, the left has lost faith with this basic principle, and by retreating into professionalised politics (whether in political parties/groupings, NGOs, trade unions, media punditry or academia) has lost any meaningful, organic connection with the daily struggles of working people.

In the era opening before us, it is crucial then that those on the left work assiduously to ensure that their work, ideas and arguments are immersed in the concrete struggles of working people. This will take the form of specific workplace struggles, campaigns for migrant rights, community struggles to defend the NHS, and more. Whatever form the struggle takes, socialists must ensure that their frame of reference is the experience of communities at the coal face, and not the self-referential and self-reinforcing bubble of mainstream politics and parliamentarianism.

A second key principle, which draws on what was best in those who argued for Remain, is that a large number of people are committed to a form of internationalism. The mistake is to identify these positive ideals with the EU, which, as E P Thompson long ago noted, has only ever been a truncated form of internationalism. The positive principles implicit in the best elements of the Remain campaign will be central to socialist politics. We must make an uncompromising defence of workers’ rights – including those of migrant workers – together with an unrepentant anti-racism and a genuine internationalism.

The final key lesson and principle that emerges from the Brexit debate is the centrality of the struggle for democracy. It is easy for the liberal commentariat to blithely dismiss the slogan of ‘taking back control’ as articulated by Eton-educated career politicians. But the purchase of this slogan shows vast sections of society want more of a say in the decisions that shape and impact on their lives. People, with varying degrees of consciousness, are rejecting the tyranny of impersonal market forces controlling their lives, and demanding a say in what the future looks like. This desire to become active protagonists in shaping the world around them is something socialists must embrace. This is even more reason why the siren call of overturning the referendum result should be resisted.

The left needs to push for an expansion and proliferation of democracy and participation in every aspect of our shared lives: in local communities, political parties, trade unions and over matters of national policy. In certain respects, the Corbyn phenomenon has seen a surge of such democratic, mass involvement within the Labour Party. This, of course, faces a counter-offensive from the representatives of the extreme centre in the Labour Party, and in the mainstream media, including erstwhile supporters. Those focused solely, or primarily, on the politics of parliamentarianism are happy to jettison the green shoots of change that Corbyn represents in favour of a Blair-lite, ‘electable’ candidate. Such a move would be a travesty.

Instead of resignedly accepting the logic of the establishment, socialists must make every aspect of people’s lives a realm of politics, struggle and change and must argue for and work towards a fundamental transformation of the post-Brexit landscape. The Chilean socialist Marta Harnecker has articulated the real challenge for socialists in the 21st century – for her:

‘Politics is the art of making the impossible possible, not from some voluntarist urge to change things but because our efforts should be realistically focused on changing the current balance of power so that what appears to be impossible today becomes possible tomorrow.’

For the left in the UK, resignation and melancholy are luxuries we cannot afford. Having plunged us into a major crisis by airing their dirty laundry in public, the right has rapidly regrouped and is on the offensive. The sort of Brexit that many fear is only inevitable if we resign ourselves to it. If, instead, we go on the offensive, then we can take this moment to remake the UK. The future is open, how it turns out will depend on the steps we take, and the resolve we show: there are no guarantees, but if we unite and fight, we can win.


Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank


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