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The five ways the left can win back the Leavers

People voted Leave for many different reasons, but we can still identify key concerns that deserve a progressive response.

The liberal left has gone through various forms of disbelief since the Brexit vote. (I include myself in this.)

First, we thought, let’s try to have another vote. Second, let’s try to subvert the outcome of the first vote through parliament. Third, let’s hope enough Leave voters wake up feeling remorseful, see the light and switch sides, especially when they realise how unattractive Britain will become. Fourth, let’s try to belittle the working-class people who voted for Brexit by suggesting: a) they are racist; b) we will all go to Stoke-on-Trent to listen to what they have to say (because being listened to by us will make them feel better); c) they fell for transparent lies because they are a bit gullible; d) we will give them some more money through state transfers, because if they had more money, they would be happier – that is what a new, fairer political settlement amounts to.

Such responses seem to underestimate the scale of the challenge. People voted Leave for many different reasons. At one end were people who are clearly racist; at the other were utopian liberal internationalists. For much of the working class, however, I think that it came down to five things. These are made for the left to respond to – if only we could work out how to bridge the gap between metropolitan, cosmopolitan progressives and working-class voters who believe in solidarity and community.


1. This was a vote for meaning, rather than money

The Remain campaign was all about money and how much people would lose if Britain exited the EU. The Leave campaign was all about restoring a semblance of meaning to people’s lives, despite not having much money. As a vote for something more than money – for pride, belonging, community, identity, a sense of “home” – it was a rejection of the market. We might not much like some elements of this “vote for meaning”, but it was a vote with the heart, rather than the wallet. The result was a reminder that people need something in their lives that feels more important than money – especially, perhaps, when they have little prospect of having much. Above all, they need a sense of narrative.


2. It was a vote for democratic decision-making over opaque and distant power

The European Union has a distant, opaque and ineffective decision-making process. Understandably, people want decisions made closer to home. Read Martin Wolf in the Financial Times or the Harvard-based economist Dani Rodrik: globalisation, democracy and the nation state are incompatible.

Nationalism may be the price that we have to pay for a sense of democratic control over our lives. This was a vote to reassert nation state democracy in a time of global markets. That may be romantic and naive but it was a vote for democracy over global forces. There is nothing wrong with people wanting control over their lives: that is what social democracy was supposed to provide. Jacqueline Rose explored this subject in her book States of Fantasy, which examines how politics is driven by a shared public fantasy. (US political life is devoted to the pursuit of the “American Dream”, not the “American Reality”. The vote on 23 June was for a kind of “British Dream” – though it may yet turn out to be a nightmare.)


3. This is high-energy politics

People have become more engaged in political debate, and it truly matters to them for the first time in years. Impassioned conversations are being had everywhere, between all sorts of people, about what kind of society we should be and what a good society is. The long-established political systems are in decline. Politics is seen as procedural, distant and untrustworthy. Yet all voters feel that they have something at stake in the outcome, something they want to defend or stand up for.

The left-wing philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger called for a “high-energy” politics to take over from the exhausted forms of representative democracy in his book What Should the Left Propose? – and this is it. Having more people politically engaged should be good for progressives, because they believe in the power of democratic politics to shape markets.


4. Objects of public love

National symbols are still the most potent objects of public love. North of the border, the Scottish National Party seems to have fashioned a forward-looking civic nationalism. If only England, led by the left, could do something similar through localism – real devolution of power to cities, towns, wards and neighbourhoods – and a new civic activism.

Most leaders of social-democratic politics are schooled in the tradition of John Rawls, which reduces the search for a fair society to a set of equations. A cheque in the post has become a substitute for human solidarity. The US legal theorist Bonnie Honig argues that as a result proceduralism – politics as a process of allocating rights and responsibilities, rather than a forum for substantive discussions about what makes for a good life or society – has replaced real engagement.

Honig’s antidote to proceduralism is a politics that is tumultuous, unpredictable, contingent and fragile, driven by passions and fantasies. She is more interested in a politics that destabilises existing procedures and leads to new forms of political power. Welcome to the Brexit world. Suck it up. Learn to adapt to it.

According to Honig, part of the answer is the creation and defence of “objects of public love”, which are the icons of our common life. These help make us a society, because we see ourselves reflected in them. In 2012, a public campaign prevented the privatisation of British forests, which became objects of public love. The 2012 London Olympics were and remain an object of public love for people in the UK, although they now feel more like a long-lost holiday romance (one involving Boris Johnson). The NHS is an object of public affection and loyalty, if not love.

Politics across Europe is now driven by a sense of loss and so such objects are more about the past than the future. If the left wants to win back the Leavers, it needs to create more civic shared objects of public love that can be draped in the Union Jack and earn our loyalty, but which also embody the values of tolerance, openness, solidarity and fairness.

A distant, top-down state of a social-democratic kind cannot create these shared objects. The left would have to embrace the decentralisation of power and expressions of the good life and relinquish statism. It is worth thinking what this would mean, for example, for the funding of arts and culture.


5. This was a vote for a version of equality

People who think that they have little to gain from globalisation voted for a new Brexit settlement in which those who already gain would find it harder to do so. The beneficiaries of a globalised, network economy will struggle now to do as well as they once did. That they will find life harder and the economy may grow less quickly matters little to people in industrial towns left stranded and with no growth in their incomes for two decades. House prices in London will fall. High earners may flee. The creative industries will suffer.

The truth is that, for a while now, growth has failed to deliver its moral dividend alongside its economic one because the increased prosperity has not been shared fairly. It should be no surprise that those who have spent years feeling overlooked and neglected by both the market and politics should now feel such resentment and so little sympathy for people with wealth, who might feel, for the first time, that the world is slipping away from them. On the contrary, it might be cause for celebration and satisfaction.

In recent times, economic growth has not delivered many dividends at the bottom of the income pile. Will slower growth after Brexit make much difference? The country may be poorer but it could become less unequal. It will almost certainly become uglier.


The postwar settlement was founded on Keynesian principles, a welfare state and an industrial, fully employed economy. The Thatcherite settlement was about the individual, the private and the market taking precedence over the collective, the public and the state. It was complex because it combined a belief in the strong state and the open market, and yet also a national purpose. We now stand on the verge of a Brexit settlement that will redress the relationships between Britain and Europe, between the white working class and immigrants, and between the cosmopolitan and urban and the communal and provincial.

Seen from this perspective, there should be a lot for the left to work with in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. People want more meaning in their lives. They want more democracy. They want an engaged, high-energy politics. They will rally around objects of public love if they are attractive and meaningful. They want greater equality and more of a sense of community. They want lives that have a narrative, and they want national pride to be a part of that. They want a sense that they can exert some control over what is going on around them.

This is everything that the left should stand for. We just need to show how all of this is made more possible in a UK that is a part of Europe and, like countries such as Norway and Canada, unafraid of the free flows of people, trade and ideas that also make us rich, diverse and exciting.

Charles Leadbeater is an associate of the Centre for London and the co-author of “Hollow Promise: How London Fails People on Modest Incomes and What Should Be Done About It”

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers

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On civil liberties, David Davis has become a complete hypocrite – and I'm not sure he even knows it

The Brexit minster's stance shows a man not overly burdened with self-awareness.

In 2005, David Davis ran for the Tory leadership. He was widely assumed to be the front-runner and, as frontrunners in Tory leadership campaigns have done so enthusiastically throughout modern history, he lost.

The reason I bring up this ancient history is because it gives me an excuse to remind you of this spectacularly ill-judged photoshoot:

“And you're sure this doesn't make me look a bit sexist?”
Image: Getty

Obviously it’s distressing to learn that, as recently as October 2005, an ostensibly serious politician could have thought that drawing attention to someone else’s boobs was a viable electoral strategy. (Going, one assumes, for that all important teenage boy vote.)

But what really strikes me about that photo is quite how pleased with himself Davis looks. Not only is he not thinking to himself, “Is it possible that this whole thing was a bad idea?” You get the distinct impression that he’s never had that thought in his life.

This impression is not dispelled by the interview he gave to the Telegraph‘s Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester three months earlier. (Hat tip to Tom Hamilton for bringing it to my attention.) It’s an amazing piece of work – I’ve read it twice, and I’m still not sure if the interviewers are in on the joke – so worth reading in its entirety. But to give you a flavour, here are some highlights:

He has a climbing wall in his barn and an ice-axe leaning against his desk. Next to a drinks tray in his office there is a picture of him jumping out of a helicopter. Although his nose has been broken five times, he still somehow manages to look debonair. (...)

To an aide, he shouts: “Call X - he’ll be at MI5,” then tells us: “You didn’t hear that. I know lots of spooks.” (...)

At 56, he comes – as he puts it – from “an older generation”. He did not change nappies, opting instead to teach his children to ski and scuba-dive to make them brave. (...)

“I make all the important decisions about World War Three, she makes the unimportant ones about where we’re going to live.”

And my personal favourite:

When he was demoted by IDS, he hit back, saying darkly: “If you’re hunting big game, you must make sure you kill with the first shot.”

All this, I think, tells us two things. One is that David Davis is not a man who is overly burdened with self-doubt. The other is that he probably should be once in a while, because bloody hell, he looks ridiculous, and it’s clear no one around him has the heart to tell him.

Which brings us to this week’s mess. On Monday, we learned that those EU citizens who choose to remain in Britain will need to apply for a listing on a new – this is in no way creepy – “settled status” register. The proposals, as reported the Guardian, “could entail an identity card backed up by entry on a Home Office central database or register”. As Brexit secretary, David Davis is the man tasked with negotiating and delivering this exciting new list of the foreign.

This is odd, because Davis has historically been a resolute opponent of this sort of nonsense. Back in June 2008, he resigned from the Tory front bench and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice & Howden constituency, in protest against the Labour government’s creeping authoritarianism.

Three months later, when Labour was pushing ID cards of its own, he warned that the party was creating a database state. Here’s the killer quote:

“It is typical of this government to kickstart their misguided and intrusive ID scheme with students and foreigners – those who have no choice but to accept the cards – and it marks the start of the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all by stealth.”

The David Davis of 2017 better hope that the David Davis of 2008 doesn’t find out what he’s up to, otherwise he’s really for it.

The Brexit secretary has denied, of course, that the government’s plan this week has anything in common with the Labour version he so despised. “It’s not an ID card,” he told the Commons. “What we are talking about here is documentation to prove you have got a right to a job, a right to residence, the rest of it.” To put it another way, this new scheme involves neither an ID card nor the rise of a database state. It’s simply a card, which proves your identity, as registered on a database. Maintained by the state.

Does he realise what he’s doing? Does the man who once quit the front bench to defend the principle of civil liberties not see that he’s now become what he hates the most? That if he continues with this policy – a seemingly inevitable result of the Brexit for which he so enthusiastically campaigned – then he’ll go down in history not as a campaigner for civil liberties, but as a bloody hypocrite?

I doubt he does, somehow. Remember that photoshoot; remember the interview. With any other politician, I’d assume a certain degree of inner turmoil must be underway. But Davis does not strike me as one who is overly prone to that, either.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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