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Let’s be alarmist: Brexit could take us back to the very worst of Europe’s intolerant past

Just how bad could it be? Let’s be alarmist: really bad. Twentieth-century European history bad. Recessions, pogroms, the lot.

Things must be atrocious when, as a Labour supporter, you end up yearning for the Michael Foot era. Yes, he was to the left of the public in an electorally untenable way. Yes, his presentation made him a sitting target to a hostile press. Yes, he led Labour to defeat. But he wasn’t Corbyn. He understood that the Labour Party exists to win power and put itself in the service of the country. He was principled – something that means a bit more than “committed to endlessly calling Tony Blair a war criminal”. He respected Parliament as an institution, too, and when he finally lost his MPs’ confidence after the 1983 election, he went.

He was a great speaker, writer and intellectual too. My favourite of his lectures is published in a 1983 pamphlet called Byron and the Bomb. In it, he makes the seemingly unlikely claim that poetry should be one of our first resources in opposing nuclear weapons: we must “grasp and imagine what a nuclear holocaust might mean . . . we must use our imagination in a way that has not been attempted before”, he writes.

If politics is to be more than glorified management, it demands people who can imagine better possible worlds and work out how to get us there. It demands people who can see absolute hell coming as well, and help us to avert it.

I didn’t see it coming last Friday. Of course, I knew it was possible that Remain could lose – the polls were extremely tight – and thought that Leave had run a vastly superior (and immensely dishonest) campaign. But on balance, I thought the result would be a narrow victory for staying in the EU. And one of the reasons I thought that was because the negative economic consequences of leaving had been so clearly laid out. When it came to the polling booth, why would a majority of Britons vote for that?

Well they did, because they didn’t actually believe it would be that bad. In the defence of Leave voters, nor did I. Because if I’d actually foreseen everything Brexit has caused over the last week, I would have been doing much more than cheerfully sharing articles on social media and looking forward to the least thrilling campaign in British political history being over so we could all go back to normal. I’d have been leafleting furiously. I’d have been prophesying at bus stops. I’d have been marching down the high street with a placard saying: “I have had visions of the Brexpocalypse and Project Fear isn’t the half of it.”

It was a total failure of political imagination on my part. Of course, I knew that a Leave vote would probably send the pound crashing; I knew that the constituent parts of the Union might want to fly in different directions if the individual countries had very different results; I knew that the Leave campaign had mercilessly exploited latent (and not so latent) British racism, and the consequences of that could be savage, whatever the result. But all those horrors came after the incomprehensible if of the result, contingencies hanging on contingency.

In my own defence, neither the architects of the Leave campaign nor the Prime Minister who called the referendum put any more serious thought into life after Leave than I did. But now the bomb has gone off, we have to apply our imaginations to it. We have to understand the full possible proportions of the disaster, if there’s any hope of avoiding the worst destruction.

The mixture is stunningly toxic. Our economy will shrink. There has already been a 50 per cent increase in hate crimes: in a breath, the word “leave” has been turned around against anyone perceived as an immigrant. The politicians claimed this was about getting Britain out of Europe, but a lot of people who voted for it would equally like to get anything they perceive as “non-British” out of Britain. And if the Union fractures, identity becomes even more fraught. A state that loses its boundaries rarely becomes more relaxed about the purity of its own population.

A populist-nationalist party like Ukip lives on the impossible ideal of excluding sinister “outside influences”, but it’s not alone in our politics. Centrist, inclusive Theresa May’s bid to lead the Tories included a promise to control migration; meanwhile, Labour’s (still) leader Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t launch a report into the antisemitism in the party without Jewish MP Ruth Smeeth receiving abuse from one of Corbyns supporters, who accused her of colluding with the media. 

A tanking economy, an absent government, a collapsed opposition with a leader who is no longer even trying to work with Parliament but instead appealing directly to his mass support – and a public increasingly willing to put its resentments and anxieties into racial terms, and to put those terms into violent practice.

A week before the referendum, the compassionate internationalist MP Jo Cox was killed by a man who gave his name in court as death to traitors, freedom for Britain. A week after the referendum, accusations of treachery and frantic grabs for “freedom” are everywhere.

Just how bad could it be? Let’s be alarmist: really bad. Twentieth-century European history bad. Recessions, pogroms, the lot. It feels impossible, but then the last fortnight has felt impossible too. Lots of people would like to take lessons for Labour from Michael Foot, but the one that matters to all of us in our current political nightmare is this: we can only build better, safer futures if we’re brave enough to imagine – and ingenious enough to escape – the very, very worst.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Will Jeremy Corbyn stand down if Labour loses the general election?

Defeat at the polls might not be the end of Corbyn’s leadership.

The latest polls suggest that Labour is headed for heavy defeat in the June general election. Usually a general election loss would be the trigger for a leader to quit: Michael Foot, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband all stood down after their first defeat, although Neil Kinnock saw out two losses before resigning in 1992.

It’s possible, if unlikely, that Corbyn could become prime minister. If that prospect doesn’t materialise, however, the question is: will Corbyn follow the majority of his predecessors and resign, or will he hang on in office?

Will Corbyn stand down? The rules

There is no formal process for the parliamentary Labour party to oust its leader, as it discovered in the 2016 leadership challenge. Even after a majority of his MPs had voted no confidence in him, Corbyn stayed on, ultimately winning his second leadership contest after it was decided that the current leader should be automatically included on the ballot.

This year’s conference will vote on to reform the leadership selection process that would make it easier for a left-wing candidate to get on the ballot (nicknamed the “McDonnell amendment” by centrists): Corbyn could be waiting for this motion to pass before he resigns.

Will Corbyn stand down? The membership

Corbyn’s support in the membership is still strong. Without an equally compelling candidate to put before the party, Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP are unlikely to initiate another leadership battle they’re likely to lose.

That said, a general election loss could change that. Polling from March suggests that half of Labour members wanted Corbyn to stand down either immediately or before the general election.

Will Corbyn stand down? The rumours

Sources close to Corbyn have said that he might not stand down, even if he leads Labour to a crushing defeat this June. They mention Kinnock’s survival after the 1987 general election as a precedent (although at the 1987 election, Labour did gain seats).

Will Corbyn stand down? The verdict

Given his struggles to manage his own MPs and the example of other leaders, it would be remarkable if Corbyn did not stand down should Labour lose the general election. However, staying on after a vote of no-confidence in 2016 was also remarkable, and the mooted changes to the leadership election process give him a reason to hold on until September in order to secure a left-wing succession.

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