Labour cannot ride the Brexit wave to socialism, it must fight the nationalist right

The party will never win a genuine mandate for a progressive programme without unambiguously challenging Leave’s anti-immigrant narrative.

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Has the pro-Corbyn movement lost a sense of energy and direction over the past year or so? Yes, of course — to an extent. Brexit is fundamentally not an issue that most Labour members want to be forced to campaign on, one way or another, and yet it is at present the defining issue in UK politics. So it was rather inevitable that Labour would lose some momentum at this point. But it is also true that the Labour leadership has been pursuing a strategy that, while wholly understandable and credible on its own terms, has been unpopular with, and uninspiring for, party members. 

So what should happen, and what should Labour’s strategy be? 

The free movement problem

The most popular answer to this question among prominent Corbyn supporters is still that Labour should pursue the “Norway-plus”, or Norwayish, strategy of promising to execute Brexit while remaining in the single market and a customs union with the EU. Although this proposal continues to provoke scepticism in many quarters, I don’t think that it can be ruled out. There has always been a strong case that this was the most obvious expression of the actual referendum result: a very narrow vote for Brexit. From Labour’s perspective, Norway-plus/minus is an attractive option because much of the Remain-voting portion of its electoral coalition (and membership) would see this as an acceptable alternative to any harder form of Brexit, while it would enable Labour to claim that it had honoured the referendum result. 

However, the problem with the Norway model is that it would require a commitment to free movement of people. And, as Theresa May keeps saying, it is clear that the principal thing that the electorate thought they were voting for when they voted Leave, was an end to free movement. Labour’s ultimate position on free movement is still vague, still apparently deferred to some unspecified moment in the future when we will have negotiated a deal with the EU that executes Brexit, keeps us in a customs union but also “takes back control” of national immigration policy.

Nobody really believes such a deal is possible. I think that many Labour strategists have more or less assumed that eventually we will have to give up on free movement, and that most of our members and supporters would accept this as the price of a Labour government.

But there are two major problems with this. One is that it is absolutely clear that we will not get single market membership and a customs union without free movement; and the political costs of failing to do so will be high. The other is that the ideological commitment of Labour’s membership  — and of the metropolitan section of its voter coalition — to free movement is much stronger than many commentators realised. It is a typical feature of British political commentary to believe that, somehow, the identitarian commitments of white people in small towns are stronger and more authentic than those of the rootless cosmopolitans of the cities and the professional class. This has never been true. Londoners are just as committed to their cosmopolitanism as nationalist Leave voters are to their little-Englandism. This is a complicating factor for Labour strategists and one reason that holding this electoral coalition together is proving so difficult.

The problem with free movement  — and the cosmopolitan commitments of Labour members  — is that were Labour to accept a Brexit deal that included free movement, there is no question that the same tabloids and other right-wing forces that have promoted anti-immigration politics for decades would make it very, very clear to Leave voters that this is what Labour was doing. Under these circumstances, there seems very little chance of Norway-plus appeasing Labour’s pro-Leave voters. 

Are there many non-xenophobic Leave voters?

I do know experienced Labour campaigners who believe that this analysis is mistaken. They suggest that large numbers of Leave voters don’t seem to have been particularly motivated by an anti-immigration  stance. They voted Leave because they wanted change and were desperate for the sense of exercising any kind of democratic agency. It is these voters, they believe, who will feel appeased and democratically represented by even the softest of Brexits, and who will not be particularly attracted by the politics or aesthetics of the nationalist right; and it is they who can be kept on-side by Labour if, but only if, the party is not seen to renege on its commitment to respect the referendum result.

The problem with this position  — as with almost every attempt to solve the Brexit conundrum through some clever process of triangulation and difference-splitting  — is that it assumes a steady-state political universe, in which opinions and attitudes will not move or change direction. Even if it is broadly correct at present, there can be no question that, in the case of Labour advocating or attempting to implement a soft Brexit, it is precisely these voters who would be the main object of attention for the nationalist right (including the print and digital media empires of Murdoch and the Daily Mail), who would do everything in their considerable power to persuade those voters that soft Brexit was a betrayal  — not taking back control at all.

So even if we accept that there are a significant number of Labour/Leave voters who are not committed already to an anti-immigration politics, it is still the case that if Labour does ultimately commit itself to free movement, then it will have to fight hard to retain their support for such a policy.

And who is really convinced that there are many of these imagined non-xenophobic Labour/Leave voters around? Of course there is a vociferous and articulate constituency of left-wing voters who have been hostile to the EU since the days when Tony Benn campaigned for us to leave. But there is little statistical anecdotal or qualitative evidence to suggest that they exist in great numbers, however influential they may be on current Labour strategy. So whatever happens, unless Labour were to commit itself to a position that accepts an end to free movement  — and so an end to a Norway-style deal — then Labour would have to campaign hard to win at least some of its pro-Leave voters away from their anti-immigration positions. 

Taking the fight to the enemy

But I think Labour could do this. There is good evidence that the position of working class, Leave-voting, Labour-leaning voters is the result of them having been sold a story about immigration being the cause of declining living standards. Classical racism, and even virulent xenophobia, remain comparatively weak amongst the British working class (not absent, but weaker than among most comparable populations). It’s an economic narrative that they have been convinced by, which means that they could be convinced by a better economic narrative. Vigorous campaigning and popular education could win many of these voters to a progressive position: taking the fight to the enemy (specifically, the tabloid press) on a scale that Labour never has before.

Sooner or later, the party is going to have to campaign explicitly against the anti-immigrant narrative of the Daily Mail and the Sun in order to win over a section of its working class base from a reactionary position, rooted entirely in misinformation and prejudice. There is simply no shirking this historic task if Labour is to have a hope of actually winning a popular mandate for a progressive programme. The reasons why this is not a good time to begin that task are obvious. But it looks increasingly unlikely that anything can be gained by deferring it for very long. 

How should we fight neoliberal hegemony in Europe?

Internationalism is a proud tradition of the Labour left — in theory. In practice, the part of the left spectrum that the current leadership is mostly drawn from (Bennites, still resentful of the pro-European soft left’s “betrayal” of them in the 1980s; Communist Party loyalists, never attracted by the internationalism of their Trotskyists rivals) has always struggled to actualise an internationalist politics in any meaningful way. We can see the results today — no obvious international strategy at all, and little evident grasp of the problems posed by capital’s own international reach.

This is the basic problem with “Lexit”. Advocates of this position like to present themselves as hard-headed Marxists. In fact, it seems to me, their position is entirely “institutionalist”. They appear to believe that leaving the EU will magically liberate us from the complex global configuration of power relations of which the current politics of the EU is merely one expression. It doesn’t seem to occur to them for a moment that European finance capital will be just as powerful the day after we leave the EU as it was the day before and will be just as hostile to Corbyn’s domestic agenda.

They constantly point out that the EU has certain neoliberal (or, at least, ordoliberal) features hardwired into its institutions and structure. But exactly the same is true of the institutions of the British state and yet they propose to build socialism in the UK by occupying those institutions. There is no argument against remaining in the EU, and fighting with our allies to transform its politics, that cannot be levelled against the very idea of electoral politics as a socialist strategy on any scale. 

From this perspective, the fundamental political question that will face any left-wing UK government is not “Brexit or no Brexit; soft Brexit or hard Brexit?” The question will be “how do we pursue our agenda in the face of persistent neoliberal hegemony across Europe?” And the only realistic answer will be “we can’t: we must organise with allies in Europe to break that hegemony”. The question then is “will leaving the EU make it easier or harder to do that?” Nobody has presented a convincing case that the answer to that question is “easier”. 

So many of the pro-Lexit narratives that one encounters are basically fantasies of a UK government being able to implement social democracy without having to worry about neoliberal hegemony in Europe. It’s not an accident that these mostly come from economists or people in the think-tank world. These are brilliant people doing their job and their job is coming up with grand blueprints for what they would do in government. But their jobs and their skill-sets don’t generally make them experts at analysing the complex political sociology of the situation in which they would actually have to try to implement those plans.

At its worst, Lexit is a version of what I always call “the Fabian fantasy” — the belief that somehow a group of clever and well-intentioned policy-makers will be able to implement a plan for social reform, without having to mobilise a movement or challenge entrenched concentrations of power in the process. Even in its least naive iterations, Lexitism proposes to challenge the concentrated power of European finance capital by withdrawing into a siege economy. But how will the UK government contend with the power of the new giants of platform capitalism without international allies? No single government on Earth has been able to regulate Google, Facebook or Apple. Only one institution has come close to doing so, in fact, and that is the European Union.

Carried to its logical conclusion, the Lexit position simply amounts to a refusal to face up to the political reality: that the biggest challenge facing the left today is the fact that capital is an entirely transnational force, while our domestic political imaginaries remain entirely rooted in the “national-popular”. This is a fact, and it is one that presents an obstacle to all political progress today and so it must be overcome — it cannot be simply avoided, or deferred to.  

There is no Right Answer, so let the members lead

There are two more things to say about all this. 

One is that all propositions about Brexit are ultimately speculative. Nobody really knows what the effects will be if we leave the EU or if we remain. But what we do know is that Labour must be a vehicle for the expression of its members’ views and wishes — or else it is nothing. That is why, ultimately, the members should be leading on this — and we all know that if that were happening, then Labour would be campaigning for a “Remain and reform” position, arguing for a second referendum, but also arguing strongly that the EU must change political direction. 

Instead, right now, we find ourselves in a situation that is depressingly analogous to the days of New Labour. A certain section of the leadership (most notably, left-wing MPs representing heavily Leave-voting constituencies in the North of England) are convinced that the pro-Remain sentiments of the members are out of touch with the anti-EU feelings of the voters, and so they (the MPs) must retain control of the political strategy in order to prevent the naive members from alienating the voters. 

This seems to rule out the possibility that the members might be allowed to go and talk to the voters and try to change their minds. Given that this is exactly what happened in the 2017 election, it is strange that the leadership are apparently not interested in allowing the same thing to happen again. But this is partly because a number of them actively want Brexit to happen.

It’s also because they believe that Brexit is such an entrenched and symbolic issue for those voters that campaigning Labour members would not be able to change their minds. This may well be true with some, or even with most Leave/Labour voters, but we don’t need to win over all or even most Leave voters in in order to secure a majority for Remain and for a Labour government. And there is no reason to think we can’t win over enough of them. 

Overall, the complexity of the situation, and the fact that it is so difficult to discern any course of action for Labour that does not carry immediate costs, demonstrates that there simply is no pragmatic, tactical response to the situation available. Under such circumstances, what is needed is not parliamentary game-playing, but vision and strategy, led by the membership rather than by a handful of apparatchiks in the leaders’ office. Trying to figure out a strategy that doesn’t carry significant dangers for Labour is just a waste of energy — there obviously isn’t one. 

Having said all that — do I think that Labour should at this moment declare itself for a “People’s Vote”? No. Even if the strategy I am recommending here were to be adopted, it would clearly need as much time as possible to have a chance of proving effective. So it is probably right that Labour carry on as it has for the next month or so, and if (or when) it still can’t get an election, it should support delaying Article 50 for as long as possible. At that point, we have got to start building our campaign to neutralise the Daily Mail Brexit narrative that has come to dominate British political culture if we are going to recover anything of the momentum of 2017.

The other thing to say — again — is that even Lexiteers must acknowledge that hardly anyone voted for Brexit because they are radical socialists who believe that the EU is an institutional obstacle to the implementation of socialism. Almost everyone who voted Leave did so because they believed a narrative coming from the extreme nationalist fraction of the British ruling class (who control the press), according to which the EU and immigration are the causes of austerity, rapid social change and the crisis of liberal democracy.

It is obvious that we will never win a proper mandate for a progressive programme without challenging this narrative — which is evidently not something that the Lexiteers propose to do. They propose to ride the Brexit wave to socialism. It should hardly need pointing out that this is highly problematic. To think that you can found a progressive project on a mandate that has been won for you by the extreme right is obviously tendentious. To believe that anything but a negligible fraction of the Leave vote has come from authentically Lexit-minded voters is delusional and, demonstrably, empirically wrong. So even if we believe in Lexit, it is surely politically necessary to challenge the right-wing Brexit narrative publicly, on the doorsteps and in our communities. We have not been doing that, and we cannot put it off forever.

Ultimately, one conclusion of these arguments is that Brexit is not the overriding issue that we should be concerned with. If Labour wants to form the first genuinely progressive government in half a century, then we have to build up a political position that enables us to challenge the right-wing explanation for austerity, social breakdown and the democratic crisis, and we have to develop a political strategy for challenging neoliberal hegemony across Europe.

It is possible to imagine all that taking the form of a pro-Brexit position, which is why I think the Labour leadership have convinced themselves that all of their parliamentary tactics and triangulation could lead to a place where they manage to hold together the party’s electoral coalition and get to implement their programme in government, without having to change the worldview of significant sections of the electorate. It is also completely understandable that many activists on the left wish to distance themselves entirely from what political theorist Alan Finlayson calls “Remainerism”: that particularly moronic version of centrist ideology that is horrified by Brexit and yet also convinced that it is somehow Corbyn’s fault. But it is not possible to imagine the Labour membership putting the kind of energy into winning the fights the party will have to win if they have been forced to accept a position on Brexit that they fundamentally don’t believe in (as Paul Mason and others have argued).

Finally, what is the conclusion of all these ruminations? It is that there simply is no Right Answer for Labour in its current situation. Its coalition is hopelessly divided over Brexit and the pro-Remain half of that coalition has turned out to be less willing to accept the political necessity of pandering to the other half than many commentators and strategists expected. Every clever formula for getting out of this dilemma, without taking the fight to our enemies on the ground, winning new ground for progressive politics, is demonstrably incapable of actually solving the problem.

Labour showed in June 2017 that when the current rules of the game leave you no room for manoeuvre, you can always change the rules of the game. But it also showed that there is only one way for Labour to do that: by unleashing the collective power of the membership. Triangulation, caution and parliamentary tactics gave us New Labour and the 2015 election result. Until the membership are allowed to campaign for a politics that they actually believe in, the process which began in 2017 will remain stalled, if not permanently halted.

These remarks were originally written in response to some questions from Stefan Howald. A German translation of the responses can be found here.

Jeremy Gilbert is professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London

Jeremy Gilbert is professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London.