By a margin of 52-48, Britain decided to leave the European Union. The Mutualist’s author decided to vote Remain, primarily due to the fear that Brexit would lead to a big shift towards the right on the political spectrum. So far the Left have done little to encourage me that my fear was wrong. Unless Jeremy Corbyn resigns before a leadership contest is held, the Labour party will split in two. Progressives outside of Labour have also essentially stated that the referendum result should be ignored. Both of these situations the left find themselves in are highly damning.
Let’s start with Labour. The EU referendum result offers the first major chance the Left has had to realign the political spectrum since the Second World War. The political system is in chaos at the moment with a very nervy population that seeks to gain control over their own lives. Many have not seen wages rise for over a decade, mass unemployment exists within the North and those among the working classes don’t feel proud to either being working class, or British/English. Even though the left has never had a good reputation for stoking up patriotism in this country, it can be good at promoting prosperity for those struggling in society.
If you’re on the left thinking about the scenario we find ourselves in, there are opportunities to overturn the political orthodoxy by giving Leave voters (particularly those in the North East) the ability to Take Control of their lives through a more left wing economic agenda tackling both inequality but also the dearth of investment in the North to the scale needed to make the region prosperous. This could be done while remaining socially liberal, demonstrating the people’s socially conservative attitude towards immigrations in a symptom of the economic hardship they’ve faced, rather than because a significant amount of the population are racists looking to come out of the closet.
The party you’d expect to represent the left is not only in disarray, but lacks the necessary leadership to do the stuff mentioned above. It’s leader barely has a Shadow Cabinet, yet no alternative leader is offering a vision on how to make the Labour heartlands prosperous. It was clear throughout the reign of Miliband, that Labour lacked leadership throughout the party. There wasn’t a single politician that looked capable of setting the agenda, this despite the publication of the popular and flawed study of inequality by Thomas Piketty’s in his book Capital. The Parliamentary Labour Party seems devoid of the talent necessary to do for the left what Thatcher did to the right in the 80s.
Jeremy Corbyn had the right idea in allowing a team of experts to heavily influence his economic policy, yet such ideas haven’t took off and neither does Corbyn look like someone who could demand obedience from his fellow MPs. Yet those MPs have little appreciation for the scale of ambition needed to ensure their party survive. They think they do, but everyone thinks they’re capable of surviving until its too late. This is the sorry state of not only the Labour party but the left as a whole. Those with washy washy ideas about how to improve things, like Ed Miliband, lack the leadership calibre to make those ideas turn into reality, likewise those with the ideas also lack that exact calibre needed. This is what will kill of the left and progressivism in this country.
If you still think that a future exists for the left and progressivism in 21st century Britain, then you’ll be pleased to know that some progressives want to reject the result of the referendum. The referendum itself was advisory so it is technically possible to do this, especially given that Leave only won by a narrow margin.
Politically it would be a disaster. First the right could legitimately claim to be on the side of the people, ensuring their vote gets put into action. It will be right-wing parties like UKIP that will benefit electorally, it will be left-wing parties like Labour that will lose out. UKIP will be the one’s in touch with the working classes, listening to them and acting on what they want.
Second there is no reason to think that the EU would take Britain, or the left, seriously at future negotiating conferences, etc. We would be the divorcee who can’t be arsed to move out into a new home, to file the divorce papers and expect the partners flow of funds to keep coming. Is that the vision of Britain progressives have in mind? It is a sickening vision that will only turn the country away from those who espouse such a picture, or to be fair those who espouse a picture that implies the picture just laid out. We’ve made our claim to divorce, let’s do it honourably seek to ensure the future ends up being good for us and who knows in the future we may want to remarry.
The referendum result will not only highlight frailties in the British economy, but it will highlight how the left has had little contribution to the mainstream economic debate in a very long time. It has not built a movement of think tanks, etc., like the right did with the Mont Pelerin Society, the IEA and across the Atlantic the Cato Institute. Those that have been set up don’t look like they’ll be called upon.
The situation we face should be an opportunity for any set of ideologies to come and form new electoral coalitions that will shape British politics for the next generation. The left though don’t seem intent on either espousing an ideology with conviction or forming a coalition that is workable. It looks like the right will win the next political realignment, just like it did with the last one in the 80s.