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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.