Mayday for Britain

The prime minister is digging in despite her inability to govern, writes Nick Dearden. Where next for the left?

January 18, 2019 · 8 min read

After making the history books this week by securing the biggest parliamentary defeat of a British Prime Minister ever, Theresa May still shows no signs of stepping down. May’s ability to ‘soldier on’ is becoming the only certainty in British politics. If a thumping defeat of the most significant piece of legislation of your premiership doesn’t signal that it’s time to give up – losing 118 of your MPs on something you’ve put the last two years into concocting – what would it take?

Before being tempted to feel sympathy for May, let’s remember this whole shambles is entirely of her own making. It’s true that May inherited an utterly divided party, though don’t forget that she alongside her predecessor David Cameron as he imposed austerity of this country, tearing at the fabric of British society.

But from day one of May’s premiership she sought to widen those divisions. She came to power as the Brexiteers champion and has remained aloof and intransigent at every turn. Rather than building consensus, she tacked hard right, making a red line of her consistent desire to rid Britain of migrants. She failed to speak to the half of the county that voted remain. She refused to talk to the opposition in order to come up with a solution that marginalises her own extremist backbench MPs. She alienated most European leaders with her nationalistic language.

Now we see clearly that her strategy has disastrously backfired. But the vote against May gives no agreed direction either. While united in the ‘no’ lobby, those opposing May’s deal actually share nothing in common. Those MPs who support a hard Brexit hope that this vote will lead to Britain crashing out of the EU altogether. Remainers, on the other hand, believe it makes the whole notion of Brexit impossible to achieve. It’s a high stakes game, and they can’t both win.

It goes without saying that May should resign. She has had her chance, and she has failed. Neither does she appear to have any ideas for getting us to a better place, short of trying to peel away some of Labour’s more right-wing MPs behind her deal. The Labour leadership is currently working on manoeuvring her out of office through votes of confidence. This is a reasonable tactic – and one that has worked in the past. But it won’t be easy, because Tory MPs know an election could force their party into the wilderness for many years, and they aren’t about to trigger that, however much they might dislike their current leader. Neither is the DUP likely to give up its hold over May’s government anytime soon, and it’s tough to see how Labour could offer them something more to their liking. None of this means MPs should give up – but there’s clearly room for more than one strategy.  

More broadly, Corbyn has tried to reframe the debate, away from Brexit, and towards traditional left-right divisions, to unite working class voters behind a vision of radical change. In a sense, he wants to undermine the causes of Brexit. This is a laudable goal, and will be much needed in the years ahead. But at the moment it seems nearly impossible to achieve given where British politics currently are.

That’s why calls for a people’s vote or second referendum are so important. Without question, this carries risks. For one, assuming remain was on the ballot, which is another bridge to cross, it could lose again, forcing the country into a no-deal Brexit. Second, the racism whipped up by the first referendum could be dramatically increased. Very few people want to return to the climate of the last referendum. Also Corbyn particularly is nervous about losing potential leave voters in a future election, and is wary that this issue has been used by the right-wing of his party to consistently undermine his leadership.

But that said, what other choice is there? The only chance that any Prime Minister has of negotiating a ‘better’ deal than May’s is to negotiate a much softer Brexit, along the lines of Norway’s deal (but slightly different, given Norway doesn’t want us in the European Economic Area). In some ways, this could represent a happy compromise between remainers and leavers. And indeed it exists for exactly that reason – to prevent a split in the Norwegian Labour Party in the 1970s.

The problem is that it was never meant as a long-term solution. Politically it doesn’t make sense to be bound by laws you have no control over. And while I feel Britain has done so much damage in in its long history that having no power over its own laws seems a somewhat just punishment, for a country the size of Britain, it’s clearly not sustainable. Neither would either side really accept it as a compromise – after all if Brexiteers thought May’s deal was treachery, a Norway-style deal is far worse. For Left Brexiteers who believe, erroneously in my opinion, that the EU is an obstacle to radical governance in Britain, Norway is by far the worst option – rules you literally can’t change. So it wouldn’t convince anyone.

And why would a Labour government want to spend its first months in office – among the most important period for any government – inheriting these disastrous negotiations, only to end up with something disliked by virtually everyone? A transformative government absolutely needs all the time and energy it can muster in order to change even a fraction of what it wants to do, not arguing with their own movement about Brexit. Moreover, it requires the strongest and most powerful movement capable of pushing forward a radical agenda, whatever obstacles present themselves to those in power.

Having said all of this, it’s clear that a referendum wouldn’t be won for remain if it was a re-run of the last referendum – that’s to say, a complacent establishment trying to scare people. Britain is now a deeply divided society, scarred by the the lasting legacy of neoliberalism and austerity. We are not, and should not, go back to business as usual. No one wants to be lectured by Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell or Peter Mandelson.

So a people’s vote must also promise radical transformation of Britain. Some people who voted out last time were swayed by the promises of a Brexit dividend. They thought they were voting to save the NHS not flog it off to American big business through a trade deal. Many people in the north of England are crying out for investment, better public services, and a feeling that their voices matter. We urgently need more social housing, better training; in short, hope. These are positions that Corbyn could speak to, but which would also carry weight across the opposition parties, helping to unite the political left.  

What’s more, our vision should not be limited to transforming Britain. Inside Europe, a radical government in Britain could inspire others, and help them lift the blocks that currently stand in the way of other countries (Greece, Italy) to realising their own transformative programmes. It won’t be a moment too soon, as the European project is in danger of imploding, something we can’t escape by leaving, but could help redress by staying.

In the 1970s, Tony Benn said a referendum could be a ‘life raft’ for the Labour Party, divided to its base about the EU. A second referendum could well provide us with a life raft too, allowing us to escape from the division which Brexit has brought us, and move onto territory where we can unite to transform Britain and Europe. But the clock is ticking – without a determined push, we leave the EU in just 70 days.   

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