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30 May 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 4:47pm

An appeal from Old Labour to Corbynite Labour

By Robert Colls

“Political problems do not primarily concern truth or falsehood. They relate to good or evil.  What in the result is likely to produce evil is politically false; that which is productive of good, politically true…” (Edmund Burke, 1791)

The Dilemma 

Labour is split from top to toe. Party MPs don’t say much because the split stretches far beyond Brexit into their own hard won seats. Many Labour MPs can’t get along with their constituency parties or their voters, while many in the leadership can’t get along with their voters or their MPs. Caught either way but desperate to put clear water between themselves and the Tories, Labour is in a dilemma. It has tried standing for all possible opportunities, but opportunism works best in predictable situations. In unpredictable situations it just looks like a mess. Sometimes history and instinct work better.  

The Appeal

1. Labour must move closer to the British people as they are, and not as they would like them to be. For the first time in a hundred years Labour faces a working-class electoral base that it doesn’t understand and doesn’t know.

2. There is no ”Labour Brexit” any more than there is a ”Tory Brexit”. There is only an EU Brexit intent on teaching its member states a lesson in not leaving. Whatever Theresa May’s failings, this is Brussels’ deal as well hers, and Labour shadow ministers might bear this in mind when they presume how much easier their re-negotiations are going to be. The only easy negotiations will be Remain negotiations.  Brexit means hard ball.

3. Brexit has become a political question before it is an economic one. If Labour commits to a politics people understand, they will accept it. May’s deal was not a deal so much as 585 pages of political equivocation and adjournment. At £39bn, it’s also expensive. Only Tory self-preservation gave it a chance of succeeding and even that wasn’t sufficient reason. Labour should come out in favour of a clean break Brexit that says enough is enough. Deal making, it would seem, only promises to prolong the national agony. Let’s get clear and new talks can begin.

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4. Labour’s old left position was always Eurosceptical. The EU has its origins in the 1952 European Coal and Steel Community. There is no way Clement Attlee’s Methodistic Labour movement would have agreed to joining an organisation conceived by Catholic conservatives devoted to rationalising coal and steel. Hugh Gaitskell talked about joining Europe and losing a thousand years of history. Peter Shore, Bryan Gould, Michael Foot (and George Orwell) talked about socialism as the national genius. Tony Benn warned of the Commission’s anti-democratic instincts mixing with an establishment taste for secrecy.  He called the original act of joining a coup d’etat against parliamentary democracy.  In essence, this has been Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s point of view over the years, but New Labour, their New Labour, finds more in sophistry abroad than solid achievement at home, and the Labour leadership find themselves stuck with it.

5. We find ourselves in the unprecedented situation of having a parliament not only unable to express itself, but unable to express that which it asked us to express on its behalf. The country is not stupid and knows this, but without representation it needs a lead, a style, a lyric, to make itself known. Call it patriotism if you like. There are only so many speeches the Labour leader can make about human rights in the world and expect to be heard when it matters here. Labour must cut through the endless calculation and speak to the country as a whole.

6. Tory Leavers saw no deal as the only way out of the Brussels mess. But this ceased to be wise for them the moment a stalled trade deal in Belgium turned into a major constitutional crisis at home. That the crisis could have happened under any government is true, but that it happened under a deeply unpopular and divided Tory party and government is Labour’s best chance. The Tories now face a melt-down that encompasses cabinet, party and electorate. Their new leader is going to find himself (if it is a him) sitting in a pool of water, unable to go forward or back.  A general election is the only constitutional solution, and Labour must be ready with a clear but realistic line that confronts Nigel Farage as a one trick pony and the Tories, however they reconstitute themselves, as a dead horse flogged.

7. So many MPs talk about what they learn ”on the doorstep”, you wonder why they never get into the kitchen where people really say what they mean. I look at the Commons’ benches and wonder how so few can claim to represent so many. The trust between the British people and the House of Commons is so slender, so long lived and so – all things considered – effectual, it must be some sort of political miracle. But so many years ignoring majority wishes on core issues (too many to count) has eroded the trust of people in parliament to such an extent that the consequences of a second referendum could be terrible.  Nobody would have a clue as to what the vote really indicated, and a second referendum will be seen as a spectacular rebuttal of democracy. Burke reminded us that the idea of a People is the idea of a corporation made “like all legal fictions”, by “common agreement”. Once the legal fiction is exposed – once, in other words, Humpty Dumpty falls, he might not be put back together again.  I’m being as light hearted as I can on this very serious matter.  It’s astonishing that supporters of a second referendum can be so blind.

8. All that said, in spite of all the talk of humiliation and disgrace we are accused of heaping upon ourselves, it is worth noting that through it all there have been no civil disturbances, the markets have remained steady, and the economy continues to grow.  No other EU country has offered its people what parliament (for whatever reason) offered us and that, with all due humility, might be reason for a bit of pride.  MPs might have endangered constitutional government with their March usurpation of the parliamentary agenda, but far from feeling humiliated at scenes in the Commons, there are times when I have felt elated – elated at the smash and grab, the eye to eye exchanges and the blistering performances from people I never normally think about – Gove for instance, or the Attorney General.  Can you imagine Juncker coping at the dispatch box?  EU debates look stilted in comparison. The European Parliament in Strasbourg, for instance, is designed so that all look to the front (while hiding behind banks of screens).  Whatever side they’re on, it’s harder to imagine tyranny when MPs are personally known, accountable, and free to speak face to face. There are times when democracies have to war with themselves just to show they are alive.  Whatever the agony, at least we are alive and kicking. It’s silent regimes we should fear rather than barnstorming ones.

9. This has not been a good time to be prime minister. But, as we Young Marxists used to say, ”objectively” speaking, May inherited a political conjuncture of deep contradictions – inside her cabinet, her party, and her parliament. The best time to kick a prime minister is when they’re down, and May has had to deal with her fair share of inverted snobbery and sly misogyny along the way. Now she’s gone, it’s time to take a political risk with a “New Deal” Brexit. This would entail a general election and a clean break from the European Union, with a Rooseveltian programme of public service, greater equality, an end to austerity, and a new constitutional settlement with more power (and more money) for local government and the regions. Labour should argue that nobody wants a hard border in Northern Ireland, so there won’t be one.  Equally, Labour must return to the old common sense politics that no country without borders can be a country, let alone a social democracy.  

If only. There is, of course, no chance of New Labour taking heed of any of this. Any of it. They are a middle-class party now, and the shock of going for Leave would frighten just about everyone from the Blairites to the Momenta. It’s hard to see Corbyn explaining his change of plan to the metropolitan commentariat. 

But you never know. Mine is an “If only” appeal. If the Guardian’s “If only Labour would come out unambiguously for Remain” is feasible, so is my “If only Labour would come out unambiguously for Leave”. More feasible actually, given Labour’s history and instincts. Politics is about lesser evils rather than greater truths. In his 1791 Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs Edmund Burke lost his standing in the party by appealing against its support for the French Revolution. But the revolution ended in terror and autocracy, and Burke was proved right. Contrary to first impressions perhaps, politics is a long game.

Robert Colls is the author of George Orwell: English Rebel (Oxford University Press)