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Leader: Labour and the common good

A vibrant democracy depends on strong opposition.

If this was meant to be the “Brexit election”, it has not lived up to its billing. The defining issue of our times – Britain’s departure from the EU and its consequences – was ignored in the early stages of the campaign and resurrected only after Theresa May’s poorly received manifesto unsettled her party. The real story about Brexit will begin to be told only after the election is over.

But this campaign has been illuminating all the same, revealing the motivations and priorities of our political parties and the scale of the change with which they must grapple. There is not much that unites the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition but both would agree that the political and economic consensus of the past 25 years was rejected in last June’s referendum, which for many Britons was less about voting to leave the EU than sticking two fingers up to a remote and complacent political establishment.

Jeremy Corbyn is a determined and resilient campaigner and he has conducted a spirited campaign. The Labour manifesto has many popular (even populist) tax-and-spend policies: free tuition fees, nationalisation of the railways and the mail, more funding for schools and the NHS, more funding for the police, and so on. All of this would be paid for by higher taxes on those earning £80,000 a year or above and by raising corporation tax. He has defended his idealistic programme with passion and (mostly) good humour.

However, in bitter truth, and in spite of its uptick in the polls, Labour has fought a largely defensive campaign: seeking to bolster its core vote while failing to reach out to the constituencies the party once held and would need to win again if it had any chance of returning to power.

Mr Corbyn does not seem to understand why 1970s-style state socialism has been rejected throughout the world. He is uncomfortable with the institutions of the British state. He is instinctively against the Western powers and struggles to support the multilateral institutions (such as Nato) that created the postwar liberal world order and prevented another world war.

One of the enduring weaknesses of the liberal left is a sense of moral piety: we assume that our values are superior, that we care about the weak and the vulnerable more than the other side does. Indeed, many people on the left believe that the Conservatives are nefarious, which, in effect, condemns the millions who vote for them.

Another weakness of the left is an addiction to crisis. The Labour Party is dying, we are told. It has lost its sense of historic purpose. It will collapse if it loses on 8 June.

This is nonsense. This dismal general election campaign has shown that there is a deep desire for an alternative to the Conservatives in England and Wales and indeed to the Scottish National Party in Scotland. More than ever, Britain needs a purposeful and unified main opposition party, ­especially as it negotiates its fraught departure from the ­European Union.

A vibrant democracy depends on strong opposition, as we argued in our widely noticed issue of 31 March. Labour has always been a plural party, never in thrall to a particular section or faction. Labour is a patriotic internationalist party: the party of Nato and the United Nations. It was the postwar Clement Attlee government that commissioned Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. Labour is the party of the great social reforms of the late 1960s – reforms that legislated against sexual and racial discrimination. Labour is the party of the National Health Service, the welfare state, the minimum wage, comprehensive education, the state academy schools programme and Sure Start.

Above all, Labour’s historic mission is to redress the power of capital and defend the labour interest for the common good. The mission of the Conservatives is to be the party of the moneyed interest and to defend the market state.

“A large constituency of working-class voters,” said the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel in a New Statesman ­interview with Jason Cowley last June, “feel that not only has the economy left them behind, but so has the culture, that the sources of their dignity, the dignity of labour, have been eroded and mocked by developments with globalisation, the rise of finance, the attention that is lavished by parties across the political spectrum on economic and financial elites, the technocratic emphasis of the established political parties.”

The rise of Corbynism is a response to these feelings. But a leader who cannot command the support of his parliamentary party is no leader at all. This is not to dismiss those who voted for Mr Corbyn in two leadership contests: his candidacy in 2015 unlocked something long repressed on the left and his rivals for the leadership offered nothing but a barren, technocratic politics or a return to Blairite progressivism. Mr Corbyn promised to erase the shame of the Iraq War and liberate the party from the tortuous triangulations of Ed Miliband.

We have never supported Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership or Corbynism. But this is not a Conservative or a Liberal journal, nor has it ever been one, even though J M Keynes was our chairman in the 1930s. Today, our politics are liberal, sceptical and unpredictable, in keeping with our founding mission, which was to campaign for a more just society.

And yet, for all our criticism of Mr Corbyn, we do not want to live in a one-party state, in England or in Scotland. And we desperately want effective opposition, in England and Scotland. (Labour is in power in Wales.) We do not want a return to the politics of the 1930s, when Labour had been routed, and the country experienced hunger marches and the rise of fascism. And we want all traditions of the Labour Party to be represented in the leadership and shadow cabinet.

Britain does not have a presidential system. When we cast our vote at an election we do so for an individual candidate in a particular constituency. Many admirable Labour candidates are struggling to hold on to their seats – including, at random, Jon Cruddas in Dagenham, Holly Lynch in Halifax, Jess Phillips in Birmingham Yardley, Alison McGovern in Wirral South, Peter Kyle in Hove and Wes Streeting in Ilford North – because of the invidious position they have been put in by the party’s leadership. So when you cast your vote on 8 June remember that you are voting not for a party leader but for an individual candidate. That distinction matters.

A Tory landslide victory will only embolden the free-market fundamentalists, self-satisfied politicians such as Boris Johnson, and the virulent right-wing press. The best instincts of Theresa May and her estimable co-chief of staff Nick Timothy, who has thought deeply about the causes of inequality in Britain, are coming under attack from a coalition of libertarians and Cameroons. The Prime Minister’s panicked U-turns raise doubts about her ability to take on the Tory right, the press and the party base (as she will need to). A campaign designed to showcase her strength has ended up highlighting her flaws.

Mrs May and Mr Timothy are offering a critique of the failures of capitalism, but from the right. It is silly to describe them as “lefties”. But we should take them at their word when they say, as they do in the much-maligned Conservative manifesto: “We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality.” Believe them: but then hold them to account. Challenge them to prove that their actions are equal to their words.

As for Labour, if Mr Corbyn loses on 8 June, he should resign. The party will need to learn lessons from politicians such as Sadiq Khan in London and Andy Burnham in Manchester, elected mayors who have shown how to win popular mandates. It will need to disavow faddism and create a social contract in which responsibilities are as important as rights and a job is not an end in itself, but a means to a life of dignity and fulfilment. Instead of seeking to govern a country that does not exist, Labour should renew itself by attempting to understand the British people, who they are and what they want. As George Orwell wrote of Britain in 1941, anticipating the transformations to come, “it will change out of all recognition and yet remain the same”.

It is this enduring sense of intergenerational and institutional wisdom, the desire to change yet also to conserve, that is the defining characteristic of the British nation. This is the invisible thread that binds the nation and creates the spirit of fellow feeling we have witnessed in Manchester in recent days. In upholding its best traditions, but finding new ways to serve the common good, Labour must change and yet remain the same. Only then will it win again. 

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear