I haven’t written about Brexit since the day the result of the referendum was announced. Initially this was due to that overwhelming sense of doom and despondency that many of us felt about the decision, but as time has gone on it has been more a reflection of my increasing confusion as to how we should respond. I don’t know what to say (or even think sometimes) – and the more I have read and listened the more conflicted I have become.
I had been minimally involved in the Remain campaign and in retrospect felt a responsibility to be a more active proponent of what many would broadly call a more progressive politics. Thus I campaigned with a far greater commitment for the Labour Party at the last general election, during which I felt that my status as a supporter was a luxury I could no longer justify. I therefore re-joined the party – a step taken with some misgivings as I knew that with membership comes responsibility and (from previous experience) the need to navigate a way through contradictions, decisions and some policies that I wouldn’t feel entirely comfortable with.
Along with many of us I have watched the parliamentary attempts to manage the consequences of the Leave result with a mixture of despair and sometimes anger – particularly at the way in which the Tory Party has consistently put the interests of party unity before the need to find a workable way forward. Given the result of the last general election it would have made sense for Theresa May to have sought a more cross party consensus – but she didn’t – and still isn’t, despite a growing catalogue of parliamentary defeats and her recent pretence at doing so.
I have also often felt uncomfortable and sometimes critical about the way the Labour Party has approached the issue and worried about the impact that the perceived prevarication will have on the support of its members (who overwhelmingly backed Remain) and young people, who seemed such a key element of the party’s (relative) success at the last general election. However, I recognise the difficulties the party faces: a virulent opposition from virtually the whole of the mainstream media; the fact that many Labour held constituencies emphatically voted Leave; and the lack of numbers in the House of Commons to make a decisive intervention.
Whilst tempted by the idea of a second referendum (as a way of magically re-winding the clock) I think this would be fraught with difficulties. The standard argument against another plebiscite is that it would undermine the democratic process and runs the risk of alienating a large section of the population – which in turn may re-fuel the far right national populism that was such a regrettable feature of the previous campaign.
The counter argument to this of course is that the referendum was won on a false prospectus and that people should be given the chance to reconsider their position in the light of what Leave actually entails. This is persuasive, but ignores the other key factor in the result – that the referendum was also lost on a Remain prospectus that managed only to argue for the maintenance of the status quo – a status quo that has inflicted an austerity that has decimated the social infrastructure of not only this country but also across the EU. If there had been a concerted campaign since the referendum to sell the EU in a more positive, progressive light, this would now matter less – but there hasn’t and I ask myself why would a significant group of Leavers who have borne the brunt of austerity, who are disadvantaged and feel democratically excluded, now chose to vote for a status quo that hasn’t changed?
It would have been helpful if our politicians had reflected on why this group had voted Leave and started to take steps to support them better and to acknowledge their views. Unfortunately (if that’s right sentiment!) the Tories have been mired in their own existential crisis and, crucially, despite tearing themselves apart, have managed to hang onto power and control (I know that’s not the right word!) the course of Brexit. The Labour manifesto at the last general election proposed a small roll back of the austerity juggernought that has been decimating our country since 2008 – and despite the inevitable trashing by the mainstream media, came close to causing a serious upset to the neo liberal project in Britain. But close was not enough – and there has been little momentum to a progressive approach to inequality, job security, benefits etc since then.
But we have heard about Brexit ….. on and on and on .. whilst absolutely no progress has been made in sorting it out. It’s easy to blame all the politicians in all the parties but I suspect that it is more complicated than that. You have to look at who has the power – and quite extraordinarily it is still the Tories, with a little help from their DUP friends, who have their hands on the levers (although sometimes it feels that these have come off in their hands!).
It seems highly probable that I will soon be back out on the streets, canvassing and knocking on doors for the party as we head for either a general election or a second referendum. It struck me that no longer knowing what I think about how we should be responding to the developing Brexit calamity is not the ideal preparation for such activity! I therefore took myself along to a session held by our MP, Paul Bloomfield, on Saturday to canvas the views of local party members.
Putting aside my thoughts about the progressive limitations of (neo) liberal democracy (suspension of disbelief is as important in engaging with mainstream politics as in reading fiction), I have a lot of time for Paul, he is approachable, friendly, encouraging and open to discussion and dialogue. He makes considerable attempts to find out what his constituents think and what their key priorities are.
In the context of current criticisms of the party’s approach to the Brexit debacle, and in particular of its leader Jeremy Corbyn, I found the session useful in explaining where and why the party is at – and as ever, writing it down helps me to process it.
Paul provided some context:
– Leave is a project of the Right.
– Labour opposed the referendum – mainly on the grounds that it was too complicated an issue for an ‘in / out’ plebiscite – but also on the grounds that it would be a huge distraction from other, more pressing matters. NB the Lib Dems included a referendum in their general election manifesto alongside the Tories.
– Labour took the view that the democratic mandate (though slim) from the referendum had to be honoured, but that ‘leave at any cost’ was irresponsible. The party developed a number of key tests against which support for any proposed leave deal would be measured. Some of these came directly from senior Tory Brexiteers speaking in the House of Commons. In what must now seem like another time zone Theresa May stated that the tests were ‘reasonable.’
– Labour feel that in seeking to mollify the Tory Right, rather than seeking cross party consensus, Teresa May has unnecessarily boxed herself into a negotiating cul-de-sac through the statement and adherence to her ‘red lines’. When she says her deal is the only one available, what she omits to say is ‘within my red lines.’
Options set out by Paul:
Paul made it clear that there wasn’t any option that did not bring with it huge costs – so the task is to mitigate and minimise them. He stated that there were 4 options:
– May’s deal (which would result in an estimated 4% hit to the growth of the economy).
– To crash out with no deal (resulting in an estimated 8% hit to the growth of the economy).
– To negotiate a different deal without May’s red lines – Eg a Norway Plus deal (this would limit economic damage but would result in the loss of any political influence in how the EU runs itself and the regulations it imposes).
– To hold a second referendum. However, current polls do not suggest that enough leave voters have changed their minds despite seeing the reality of what is being proposed. Although Remain currently has a slight lead in the opinion polls this only reflects the situation as it was 4 weeks before the 1st referendum and a full 40% of voters still back leave even if this means crashing out without a deal! So calling a second referendum is very high risk indeed as it could very easily result in a majority for leave without a deal.
Labour Strategy (as agreed at the party conference in autumn 2018)
1) To oppose and defeat May’s deal if it failed the key tests.
2) To prevent a by default no deal.
3) To seek a Commons consensus for an alternative deal (eg Norway Plus).
4) To force a general election – always the aim of any opposition – but in this scenario in order to try and renegotiate a better deal with the EU.
5) To support a second referendum if Parliament is unable to sort the mess out.
Time constraints highlighted by Paul:
The EU has made it clear that it will not agree to an extension of Article 50 as a response to Parliament not being able to find a way forward – it will only countenance an extension if an alternative plan is put forward, or a general election called, or a second referendum held.
Views from the floor:
A large number of members spoke. Their contributions can be summarised in four categories:
1) Labour should call for a second referendum and be prepared to engage directly with the leave campaign. It was acknowledged that this would be difficult – and that politics was a ‘contact sport.’
2) Labour should focus on forcing a general election as the only way to address growing economic inequality.
3) Campaigning needs to be more positive – to give people hope – not a re-run of project fear.
4) Labour leadership should provide a clearer lead – although it was acknowledged that this is difficult given the bias of the main stream media and that this was not a mess of Labour’s making. Interestingly, given the current furore, there were only a few contributions about this.
So there you go.
I came away with a better understanding of how Labour is seeking (within the constraints and confines of our parliamentary democracy) to engage and influence the impending train crash of Brexit – and a much better appreciation of why there are no easy choices – no simple solutions.
As the bloke said (and I paraphrase, obviously) ‘we are seeking to shape history, but clearly not in conditions of our own choosing!’