The EU referendum was an arresting occasion: for the first time, those who had lost out economically wrestled ownership of Britain’s national story from those who had won. In the hours after the result, for many Remain supporters, the story of Britain dissolved from stone to sand and slipped from their grasp.
To many on the left, the moral price of Brexit has been a high one: division and ill-feeling towards immigrants stoked by disgraceful race-baiting during the campaign; the deception that it would help the economy and the NHS when it would harm both; but, above all, the sense of a future of diminished possibilities. Just as Leave supporters saw a moment when Britain was magnified, many on the left feel they now live in a smaller country.
There is much uncertainty about the future, and many important questions to be answered about the precise shape of our settlement with our European partners. The crucial question for the left’s renewal, however, is whether we can see Brexit’s moral worth, not just its moral price.
Brexit was a moral moment that illuminated the reality of daily life in modern Britain. It was a vote against the status quo of poor prospects, against a life of just managing to get by. Precisely the people the left is supposed to speak for felt they finally had a chance to speak for themselves. It exposed the profound unfairness in our society, and confirmed for the left what Orwell observed when he wrote in Tribune in 1946: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
The vote to Leave was more than merely a rejection of our country as it is in 2016: it was an instruction to build a better Britain, an economy where prosperity is broadly shared across our nations and regions, and across all households from top to bottom. It was a demand that ordinary culture be respected and valued by an elite felt to be globally rather than nationally orientated.
Moreover, Brexit stands as a mandate for progressive reform: a loud message that the current state of society – economically, culturally and socially – will be endured no more.
The slogan “Vote Leave, take back control” is now seen by most people on the left as the central lie of the Leave campaign, as the defining message of betrayal. It is repeated with derision and scorn. But the left should pause for thought. “Take control” is the essence of progressive politics: the belief that society should democratically decide what is in the interests of the people and what the limits of commerce are, rather than letting free markets of labour and capital rip through our social fabric. It is a powerful expression of faith in human agency.
The great irony of Brexit is that the populist right championed a demand for collective politics, and a new Conservative Prime Minister has made a bold claim that she will take up the mantle. As a reluctant Remain supporter, Theresa May has deftly avoided the blame for the damage that Brexit has already done to Britain. Labour has made this possible by vacating the hard terrain of national politics for the marshland of internal confrontation, leaving itself sidelined and humiliated.
It is not only its leadership turmoil that prevents the Labour Party from harnessing the energy of this collective sentiment, though the contest has been extraordinarily revealing. Following one humiliation with another, the post-Brexit leadership contest has exposed the party, showing it bereft of both serious ideas and political ambition.
At the root of Labour’s convulsions is a philosophical crisis for the left in this country and across the Western world. In short, the party is hovering on the edge of an intellectual chasm that it has barely noticed.
For nearly half a century, the left naively embraced Anthony Crosland’s seminal 1956 book, The Future of Socialism. Crosland famously distinguished between “means”, which vary according to historical circumstance, and “ends”, which he saw as eternal. As philosophers from Plato to Hegel so readily understood – and John Rawls and Crosland so easily forgot – political philosophy is necessarily rooted in experience, not prior to it. By claiming that the “ends” were eternal, Crosland provided the intellectual justification for social-democratic intellectual stagnation. Dutifully, the left quit the quest for the good life and the process that Nietzsche (with a different goal, in a different context) termed the “revaluation of all values”. Instead, the left incessantly repeated the same abstract ends – equality, social justice, diversity – unable to express either the common good or the good life.
Political contest was restricted to the means, such as the role of markets in public services, and not an articulation – a vision, if you will – of the society that the left sought to fashion. Moreover, Crosland fatally underestimated capitalism and declared it tamed, prompting the withdrawal of the left from the rules and structures of the economy, and so accidentally paving the way for the Reagan/Thatcher revolution.
If politics is reduced to a debate solely on means, then it is rapidly divorced from what makes life joyful and meaningful. It obliterates what we value in daily life: our families and homes, our work and our communities. It has no reverence for what is ancient and irreplaceable. It eradicates the virtues we look for in each other and teach to our children: love, kindness, compassion, wisdom. Those values and virtues are the foundation stones of socialism.
The old model of social democracy was largely about accepting the right’s argument about the wisdom and efficiency of markets, joined with an attempt to ameliorate the worst impacts through redistribution from rich to poor. The economic rules and structures that determine who gets what to begin with weren’t up for debate. Redistribution was the beginning, middle and end of economic policy for the left. The governing assumptions of neoliberalism – that capital and labour should flow as freely as possible – were left unchallenged.
How on Earth did Labour come to embrace this world-view so completely? How did it forget that the main point of the left is that the principal purpose of markets should be to serve the people, providing a decent living and offering dignity in work, rather than to be a cavalier and callous master?
Labour’s prospects of confronting these deep questions are dim precisely because it has developed a toxic political culture more focused on settling scores than discussing political ideas. Honest disagreements are impossible. It is a bitter irony that a movement that claims to be committed to inclusivity and equality now vigorously polices the right to speak.
Political parties are the intersection of a political project, an organisational project and an intellectual project. They succeed when all three are strong and act in unison. Organisational strength, measured by swelling membership, cannot compensate for political self-immolation or intellectual bankruptcy. The battle the Labour Party should be fighting is for the vision of Britain. What should the economy of 2030 look like? How will we get there? How should the economic rules be rewritten for post-Brexit Britain? In a global age, how can we secure economic justice? A new public philosophy is needed to underpin the answers to each of these questions. Instead, Labour imbibes a heady mix of fantasy spending figures and embarrassingly small ideas.
So, after the referendum will not be the moment for the left. Labour will continue to prosecute a war with itself with extraordinary vigour. It will debate issues far removed from the daily lives of most Britons. And, in the context of the leadership election, loose talk of a split, and the looming threat of deselections, it will propose policies seasoned to the tastes of its members and registered supporters, not those of its voters, and certainly not to the tastes of people who supported other parties.
And there Labour will languish: a political party hollowed out of politics and empty of ideas. A great institution reduced to a fraction of its former self, humiliated twice in a single summer.
In one of his great novels, Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner describes the aftermath of the American Civil War for one of the characters, Quentin: “He was a barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts still recovering, even forty-three years afterward, from the fever which had cured the disease . . .”
After a feverish summer, the question now is whether this moment can cure the sickness of an economy run by the few, for the few, that has left behind the many. The unanswerable question is: just how long will Labour be content to walk by on the other side, and leave others to determine our country’s future?
Tom Kibasi is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). He writes here in a personal capacity
This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times