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23 June 2021

How Brexit changed us: For Labour, leaving the EU is a no-go zone which it can neither embrace nor reject

By refusing to back Brexit, Labour joined the death march of social democracy across Europe. 

By Maurice Glasman

At the time the EU referendum was called, it was assumed that it would divide the Conservative Party. David Cameron and George Osborne would suffer the same fate as Margaret Thatcher and John Major, unable to reconcile Tory divisions. The referendum itself was viewed as a reckless act of internal party management.

In common with much received wisdom, the opposite proved true. It was Labour that lost its covenantal bond with its faithful base and the Conservatives who built a new class coalition and identity around national renewal and democratic sovereignty. For Labour, Brexit has become a source of unrelieved grief, a no-go zone which it can neither embrace nor reject. For Labour, it became a source of rupture, not with its members, but with its voters.

It is good to remember the circumstances of five years ago. Jeremy Corbyn, a life-long Bennite Eurosceptic in the tradition of Michael Foot and Aneurin Bevan, had endured a listless campaign in which he nominally supported Remain but did so with no conviction or energy. Another left tradition, “administrative methods”, was adopted, in which the leader’s office would not respond to invitations, sign joint declarations or even agree to speeches. This was in stark contrast to Corbyn’s response to the vote itself, when he hopped around like an over-excited pixie urging the government to trigger Article 50 immediately.

I have been asked what I got wrong, and I believed that Corbyn would lead Labour towards Brexit as a democratic tribune of the people, embracing the space it opened up for industrial policy, state intervention and democracy. Up until the 2017 general election it looked like he might go that way, but he didn’t.

Corbyn, and Labour, could not make the case that the EU, after the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties, had become committed to an eternal form of capitalism, in which democracy was subordinated to treaty law. It could no longer distinguish between globalisation and internationalism. It could not understand that the nation state remained the most important actor in resisting global capital and that it was the working class that lost the most in the new settlement. It was Labour that could not reconcile the competing claims within its coalition and belatedly joined the death march of social democracy across Europe. And as with grief, far from being over, it has only just begun.

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Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the Common Good Foundation

This article is from our “How Brexit changed us” series, marking five years since the referendum.

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