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 appears in the 06 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers