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4 April 2017updated 18 Apr 2017 6:32pm

Can the Labour party rise to the task of challenging Brexit?

Without strong parliamentary leadership and clearer direction from Labour, a broad-based challenge to hard Brexit will be impossible.

By Nick Pearce

In the celebrated “New Times” edition of Marxism Today of October 1988, the issue of the future of Europe was simply posed. It was not a question of “if” but “how much” and “with what outcomes”. Retreat to the nation state was unimaginable. Thatcherism had transformed the landscape of Britain’s political economy. The project was now to extend market liberalisation to western Europe, not withdraw from the common market. The British left had no choice but to engage on European terrain.

Fast-forward three decades and Thatcher’s heirs are pursuing Brexit to complete the tasks that she left unfinished. They aim for the total dismantling of tariffs, further deregulation of labour and product markets and corporate tax reductions. Britain will be reinvented as the “world island” of its imperial imagination, only this time buccaneering without the gunboats: east of Suez reborn as an entrepôt for east-Asian capitalism.

This is the hardest of all Brexits, one in which the UK leaves the European Union without a deal. It is a political project being pursued by an emboldened faction within the Conservative Party that is now powerful, not marginal. Its transformation from a cranky, obsessive fringe, roaming the wilderness during the New Labour years and kept safely quarantined during the coalition, to a significant force in British politics occupying high office has been remarkable. It is also deadly serious. The “World Trade Organisation option” – until recently inconceivable beyond the pages of think-tank pamphlets – is now canvassed as a plausible national ambition.

Yet, if Thatcherism was a project of the “free market and the strong state”, as Andrew Gamble memorably wrote, the unionist nation state will be tested to destruction by a Brexit on these terms. Northern Ireland has lost its unionist majority for the first time since partition. It will not tolerate the return of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. Scotland has a determined, strategically astute nationalist leadership. It threw down the independence gauntlet to the Prime Minister just as she sent Article 50 up for royal assent. A hard Brexit made in southern England could yet break the Union.

How has it come to this? The trade unions are introverted, their attention elsewhere. Capital is strangely quiescent, its different sectors working out their options. The old Tory industrial interests have long since withered, leaving only the Macmillanite grandees of the party to issue rebukes to their government. And, in sharp contrast to the early 1970s when Britain joined the common market, the conservative press is now almost wholly, often viscerally, Eurosceptic. The hostility to immigration that it has nurtured for years is now widely shared in society, emboldening the Prime Minister to elevate immigration control to priority boarding in national policy.

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Politically, the biggest factor is the weakness of the centre left in England. The Lib­eral Democrats are still recovering from catastrophic defeat. They are spirited and their pro-Europeanism has the merit of authenticity. Yet they cannot lead a liberal fightback on their own. It is Labour’s death spiral that truly enfeebles progressive Britain. The party is divided on Europe once again, but this time it is a paltry kind of division: electoral, not principled or ideological. Its MPs face in different directions depending on which parts of the country they represent.

The Conservatives’ electoral supremacy appears assured, in large part because it is unassailable among the crucial voting bloc of older voters, for whom Theresa May’s conservatism of unfussy solidity and ordered hierarchy is tailor-made. The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up. Infighting aside, Corbynism is invisible now. It has no secrets to conceal.

Without strong parliamentary leadership and clearer direction from Labour, a broad-based challenge to hard Brexit will remain out of reach in the near future. Absent a parliamentary bloc capable of uniting Labour MPs with Scottish Nationalists, Liberal Democrats and Remain Conservatives, the terms of Brexit will remain an internal argument in the Conservative Party, communicated in WhatsApp groups of Eurosceptic MPs. The political dynamics will only change once the real negotiations start, after France and Germany have new governments and the economic reality of what Brexit means start to bite.

But whether Brexit is hard, soft or reversible, the UK will not be hammered back into unitary shape by an intransigent Conservative unionism. That is a statecraft that preferred suppression to accommodation over Irish Home Rule, and it will fail now, as it did then.

The UK needs a new, quasi-federal settlement, involving not just greater devolution to Scotland and Wales and significant flexibility for Northern Ireland but national recognition for England and decentralisation of power to English cities and counties, rather than a technocratic, ahistorical regionalism. Elections in May will produce a new crop of English city and county mayors. They need to give voice to a progressive Englishness and help rebalance the Brexit debate.

At root, the problem facing progressive parties across Europe is how to unite the new middle class of sociocultural professionals with working-class voters and sections of the private-sector middle class. The challenge is unusually tough in the UK, where social class and age inequalities in voter turnout are pronounced. There are small signs of revival in Europe. Portugal has shown that a coalition of the broad left can govern successfully, while contesting eurozone austerity. Under the leadership of Martin Schulz, the SPD is mounting a strong challenge to Merkel’s hegemony in Germany. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron may succeed in rousing a centrist liberalism in France.

Like 1968, 2016 was a defining year in global politics, a moment of punctuation in historical time. We are now living through the messier, more complex aftermath. In these new times, politics will be highly charged and deeply contested, just as they were in the 1970s. Building coalitions – intellectual and political – will be imperative. Otherwise, the emerging new constitutional and economic settlement for Britain will be shaped, once again, by the right. 

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition