Labour’s task is to arm its working class supporters with a narrative of hope

The 200,000 who marched at the Durham Miners Gala need a clear vision of post-Brexit Britain.

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There were three, mass political events last weekend. Around 250,000 people marched in London against Trump. The next day more than 50,000 marched against him in Edinburgh. The third event was, on a population basis, the biggest: “upwards of 200,000” reported the Mirror, drawn mainly from a region of just 2.5 million people.

What was its name? If you only watch the national news you won’t know, because it wasn’t covered. The answer is, the 134th Durham Miners Gala.

At the “Big Meeting” people line the city’s medieval streets from 8am, cracking cans of lager and raiding trays of sausage rolls, while one former mining village after another marches past, headed by a brass bands, bagpipes and the ancient banners of the mining lodges.

At the end of it all, the panjandrums of the labour movement get to address a crowd double the size of Wembley. Because he spoke at both London and Durham, Jeremy Corbyn was given a unique, bird’s-eye view of the challenge facing progressive politics.

On the Friday he addressed a quarter of a million people in thriving London, most of whom hate Trump and want Britain to stay in Europe; the next day he addressed a similar number, but in a region whose traditional industries have been destroyed, and where all but one district voted Leave in 2016.

I barely need to list the demographic contrasts: London was diverse; Durham was mainly white; London was metropolitan; Durham revelled in the symbolism of village, work and Christianity. In London there was an entire women’s march; in Durham a contingent. Though women were there in equal numbers, they mingled with their families and communities.

But here’s what might surprise you, if you’ve read too much liberal academic bullshit about the “white working class". Opposition to Brexit, and the xenophobia that’s come with it, was strong in Durham.

Many people were wearing “Bollocks to Brexit” stickers. A contingent of firefighters marched wearing the green scarves that’s become a tribute to the victims of Grenfell. A giant balloon calling for the Kurdish left leader Abdullah Ocalan to be freed from jail floated above the crowd.

This was mainly white, working class people refusing to adopt the reactionary identity of the “white working class”, invented by liberal pundits in response to Trump. Instead they were asserting the labour movement culture into which they were born. You only have to read the messages on the banners to understand how deeply the ideas of philanthropy and internationalism are rooted in that culture: “Do unto others…” “Suffer little children…” “All men are brothers…”

The men who first painted these slogans had fought a battle for decency in an industry where life was brutal and cheap. Even as their great-grandchildren become immersed in Love Island and Candy Crush Saga, they are never allowed to forget what came before.

The problem? As one activist put it to me at a Momentum meeting the next day: “we are swimming in a sea of racism”. In the pubs and clubs of small-town England, working class Labour activists have, since the rise of UKIP, been forced to fight a rearguard action against right-wing populism.

You know the language: “we want our country back”… “muslim Paedo gangs”… “fuck Europe and walk away” … “Corbyn’s a terrorist” … and the tabloid-fuelled identification of experts as effete “luvvies” who “think we’re all thick”.

Well the Durham Miners Gala was an assembly of 200,000 people who’ve had to suffer these sentiments, day in day out, and are now in a position to turn the tide. Because the fantasy of hard Brexit is over.

Millions of working class voters bought the idea of “taking back control”: that if only East European migration ended, wages would rise; that £350m a week could be switched effortlessly from Brussels to the NHS. People who spend their weekends at the rugby, football, cycling or martial arts know it’s best to do everything with commitment: hard and fast. And that’s how they expected the government to negotiate.

Instead it’s been slow, soft and catastrophic. The OBR confirms there will be no “Brexit dividend” for the NHS. In all circumstances short of a no-deal Brexit, Britain will actually lose control of its trade and regulations. May, meanwhile, is in a panic-stricken funk.

The immediate loss of four-points across all opinion polls is the headline result for the Conservatives. Some of that has gone to UKIP, and will fuel the betrayal narrative that the far right is trying to stoke up. But anyone who has canvassed a Leave-supporting area knows that’s not the end of the story.

If the politics of the salariat and the major cities has remained stable for the past two years, the politics of left-behind towns is volatile. Now hard Brexit is impossible, and the Tories are fighting like rats in a sack, what do we do now? That’s the conversation going on in thousands of pubs and workplaces.

It is to Corbyn’s huge credit that, as last weekend showed, he is the only major political figure who can speak and resonate among both demographics: in the left-behind town and the buzzing global city.

But with the evaporation of the Tory rebellion over Brexit, a tactical period ends. Whether you want a second vote, or a straight reversal of Brexit, or customs union, the only way to achieve it is to bring down Theresa May’s government and install Corbyn in Downing Street. 

Labour’s task is to arm its working class supporters with a narrative of hope; and to energise its voters in the big cities and the public sector with progressive solution to the Brexit crisis.

To do this, Labour should commit to negotiating a Norway-style Brexit, warn the British people that the resulting deal might be worse than staying in, pledge to put the outcome to a straight yes or no referendum once the negotiations are complete, with no meaning we stay in Europe. Since this is the dilemma May secretly confronted her ministers with at Chequers, it is the only legitimate choice. No civil servant or central banker could legally sign off a no-deal Brexit and Parliament will not allow one.

Labour’s tactic of refusing to spell out a Brexit endgame, and pulling May towards softer solutions incrementally, has worked: it has torn the Tories apart. But it is time now for a different tactic: a clear vision of a post-Brexit Britain that puts the party unmistakably on the side of the working class people who marched in Durham, and arms them politically to resist the far-right led insurgency that’s coming.

The phrase “a jobs-first Brexit” should be scrapped. It's PR-speak. The only possible Brexit strategy Labour could go to the polls with looks so like Norway Plus that we should stop dithering and call it Norway Plus: a customs union, a single market, a reformed internal labour market to deter wage suppression via migration, with clear bilateral guarantees on the ability to do state aid and state ownership.

For much of the past two years, Labour hoped that by talking about jobs, housing, health and welfare it could drown out the conversations going on in every pub and club about migration, Europe and sovereignty.

It worked – but with a rolling governmental crisis, EU negotiators turning up the heat, and far right money from America pouring petrol on the flames, everything is going to be about Brexit until May is ousted.

I want the party to offer a Norway-style Brexit and a second referendum on the final deal. I want this because I know it can give the people on the streets in London and Edinburgh a common project with the people on the streets of Durham, and would allow Corbyn’s Labour to hegemonise progressive politics.

And I want Labour’s conference delegates to get a vote on it. 

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His bestselling book Postcapitalism has been translated into 16 languages. His play Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere was televised on BBC Two in 2017.