Labour Got Brexit Wrong – And Is Still Getting It Wrong

As soon as the scale of Labour’s election defeat last week became clear – at 10.00 pm on 12th December 2019 – the party’s Brexit divisions were mobilised once again as ‘explanations’ for the failure of the party under Jeremy Corbyn to win power against a ramshackle bunch of lying chancers in their 9th year of office.

And these explanations are bogus. Labour got Brexit wrong from the start, and how and why it was so mistaken reveals the conservatism at the heart of the Corbyn project.

A referendum on EU membership was in the 2015 Tory Manifesto, so Labour knew that it was on the cards throughout the leadership campaign that followed the resignation of Ed Miliband. The party also knew that the previous year’s Scottish independence referendum had ignited political debate on all sorts of issues way beyond the constitutional question, and ought to have anticipated that a referendum across the UK might have the same propensity to be about something, many things, not on the ballot paper. For whoever was to win the Labour leadership in 2015, the referendum was an opportunity to road test the new leader’s approach.

Corbyn won, and his approach to the referendum was essentially to ignore it. Paying lip service to party democracy, a key element of his leadership platform, Labour remained formally supportive of continued membership of the EU, but in practice the Labour Party under Corbyn opted out of the campaign.

Why they were so lukewarm, to put it mildly, was partly obvious, partly a mystery. The obvious bit was that Corbyn was, and remains, an unreconstructed Bennite. The EU was a ‘capitalist club’, a block on ‘socialism in one country’, went the view behind the scenes. It’s easy to pick holes in that threadbare Stalinist perspective, not least that the world in 2016 was very different to that in 1973. But is it true that unshakeable faith in the old Bennite religion was the primary driver of Corbyn’s inertia in 2016?

Look instead to the clique around Corbyn. The influence of Len McCluskey and his plants in the leader’s office. Perhaps they used the language of the 20th Century British left to justify their position (though they were always too cowardly to make the case publicly, hiding behind the language of ‘party democracy’), but one suspects that other factors were in play.

The first, and this is the weakness at the heart of Corbynism from the start, is a leaden footed inability to respond nimbly to new, unforeseen challenges. Their political playbook envisions a war between top hatted, cigar smoking, factory owners, and heroic male workers in ragged coats and flat caps. Perhaps it can also be clad in the garb of the National Coal Board Vs the miners, but the vision is much the same. ‘Class war’ is, like Premier League football, a game for men (though unlike soccer, a game for white men).

Race and gender don’t figure much in the Corbyn world view, even if both are now deeply entrenched in contemporary politics as much as in the wider world. His supporters made much of his ‘anti-racist’ credentials (and tried to use them as a defence against accusations of anti-Semitism), but the photographs of Corbyn on Anti-Apartheid demonstrations rather made the opposite point. He belongs to a ‘left’ that is more comfortable with the notion of anti-colonial struggles far away, rather than the complications of race and class at home. Other politicians of his vintage, like Peter Hain, managed to be both major figures in the Anti-Apartheid struggle, and in the Anti-Nazi League which took up the battle against the far-right on British streets in the 1970s. I’m not aware that Corbyn was ever a major figure in that movement.

So as the 2016 referendum campaign took off, noisily and nastily, Corbyn and therefore Labour, was ill-equipped to respond. Individual MPs were essentially on their own, ditto party members. There was a major political event unfolding, and the leadership was AWOL. Even the assassination of Jo Cox was treated by Corbyn as a shocking and unexpected event, rather than a consequence of the virtual civil war taking place on the streets and across social media. Why didn’t Corbyn at that point demand that the whole campaign be called off? It had all gone too far, dangerous political currents were being unleashed. Even if legally there was little that could have been done to halt the vote, some proper outrage, and, dare I say it, some statesmanship was needed, but none ever came.

All that has unfolded since goes back to that time. It doesn’t appear to matter to Corbyn’s uncritical supporters that most Labour voters, even in Brexit voting constituencies, were Remainers. Brexit was framed as an authentic (white) working class position, whereas the cities where the most loyal Labour heartlands are, were dismissed as somehow inauthentic, too Gina Yashere, not enough Bernard Manning. That’s not a ‘class analysis’, comrades. It’s something else entirely.

Having decided on their perspective on Brexit, they used it as an explanatory tool to understand everything else. Crucially the 2017 general election.

Labour got a huge 40% of the vote in June 2017. The Tories got 42%. But let’s look at the local elections the month before. The Tories then got a respectable 38%, Labour a derisory 27%. What changed?

Corbyn’s supporters say he had a popular manifesto and ran a good campaign. There is some truth in both, plus there was a fair wind from the media, in that as no one thought Labour had a cat in hell’s chance of victory, they didn’t bother with a serious attack strategy against the party.

For the truth is that Labour’s lack of a clear strategy on Brexit was not a brilliant triangulation to hold together Leave and Remain voters. Remainers, including many tactical voters backed the party as a means of trying to stop May in her tracks. It wasn’t an unambiguously pro-Corbyn vote, it was anti-Tory. It was gained despite, not because of Labour’s position.

And so to the big failure of 2019. Follow it back to the beginning. Labour opted out of the only big political battle that mattered in the period 2016-19. It was absent from the biggest political movement on the streets, its banners missing from marches of a million people. Yet nor was it making the case for Brexit, if that is what the leader believed. It was a party making no meaningful offer to either side, and its late position of trying to ‘bring together’ both sides was a nice try, just either far too late, or far too early, but certainly, painfully mistimed.

For Labour to recover from the election defeat it needs to look long and hard at Brexit. Don’t try to fudge it again, don’t try to pretend that it’s all over now, nothing to see, move on. A proper post-mortem is necessary.

The next Labour leader needs to tell the party that Brexit remains a dangerous project of the hard-right which is not over, not done, nor will it be for a decade or more. The future, whether it’s around trade, the economy more broadly, or the key questions of security and the climate emergency, will require cooperation across borders, indeed the very notion of borders will become increasingly untenable.

Brexit sank Labour because it is useful only to the right. That’s the truth.

The Resistance

The general election of 2019 was like no other. The Tories defied political gravity to emerge with a healthy majority after their 4th election as the largest party in Parliament. Labour was eviscerated, or perhaps was guilty of a massive act of self-harm, and returns as the Official Opposition, but badly shaken and still led by the team responsible for the debacle. The Liberal Democrats got a bigger percentage rise in their vote than even the Tories, but from a low base, and in Commons terms they have shrunk, and are now, perhaps happily, leaderless. The SNP has a load of MPs, and nothing much for them to do, and Northern Ireland may be turning their backs on Westminster sooner rather than later. I didn’t mention Wales. What is there to say?

None of those things actually explain why this election is different. It’s different, because the Tory Party is different. Johnson is mercurial World King at the head of a party of the similarly grandiose and dangerous. And they are planning to ensure that it stays that way, using any means necessary.

The election campaign run by the Tories was far dirtier than that run by any other party. They are a party that wants power for power’s sake. Where there are other centres of countervailing power, they will seek to weaken, sideline, or even abolish them.

In that sense, they’re continuity Tories, Thatcher-style. The over centralisation of power in Westminster was turbo-charged in the 1980s. Powerful centres of local government were abolished completely (the Greater London Council and the Metropolitan Counties), and the others had their ability to decide policy locally around such crucial things as education and housing severely curtailed. Tories have form when it comes to power grabs.

But this time their sights are on the fundamental nature of the state. A professional, politically impartial, Civil Service is set to be weakened further, in the American manner, with political appointments from outside to “shake things up”. International Development is to be turned into a highly politicised tool of, not British, but Tory foreign interests. The House of Lords is first to be packed with stooges, then ‘reformed’ until it becomes nothing more than a pleasant London club for retired Tory Grandees. As for the judiciary, they look likely to be an early target.

For in strength the Tories plan not magnanimity, but vengeance.

Expect a lot of rule changes immediately to restrict the power of the Commons to hold the government to account. They’ll be technical measures, will probably be scarcely reported, but they will change the balance of power, handing No 10 the whip hand over mere MPs.

The courts, and the wider criminal justice system, have been weakened steadily since 2010. Access to justice for the average citizen is now much more difficult, with a loss of legal aid, a raising of fees, the restriction of access to timely redress through the closure of courts, and much else. But all that was merely ‘shrinking the state’, the punitive effects being merely an amusing by-product. Now they mean business.

The abolition of the Supreme Court seems likely. It could merely be made less powerful, but the Tory taste for vengeance suggests that abolition would be more ‘popular’ with right-wing newspapers and Tory MPs and members. Elsewhere expect legislation to limit the power of the judiciary to hold the executive (government) to account.

This is radical stuff, only hinted at in the manifesto, but within the power of a government with a solid majority facing a feeble opposition.

Which is why we cannot wait for other parties to sort themselves out. By the time they have done so, the government will have done a whole raft of things, particularly around electoral boundaries, voter suppression measures, and more. The resistance must begin now.

A lesson of the last few years is that this country has a taste for extra-party political movements with clear goals. The campaigns for another referendum lost, but we were defeated by a rigged system. What we won was a moral authority which ought not to squandered now. Our side marched in our millions, organised local groups which worked their socks off on High Streets and in market squares around the country come rain or shine. We know what can be done, and we’ve all learned skills which are transferable to other political tasks.

We need a Resistance!

The Resistance can happen now. It doesn’t need to wait for the parties to lick their wounds. We need in the first instance to establish some kind of loose convention to come up with things we can agree on, whatever party we support. Defence of the judiciary, the restoration of local government with power to do things, reform of parliament, and a new voting system ought to be on the list.

Personally I’d like to see a wider movement calling for all state education to be secular and under democratic local control, the restoration of a nation-wide professional public library service, and a ‘culture covenant’ to protect local museums, galleries, theatres, parks, and municipal sports facilities, giving them enough money to run properly, professionally, and with free or inexpensive access for all citizens. But even if we just stick to the nuts and bolts of democracy, that’s a start.

For the government needs to know that we are watching them. They are not our masters. They can rig, lie, scheme, dissemble, bamboozle all they like, but we need an amplified voice to call them out, and above all, to spread knowledge of how the system works, to train up active citizens, and to campaign on specific, concrete constitutional demands.

So how do we do this, people?

Apocalypse Now

Who is to blame?

The election that never should have happened is over, and the result, almost every pundit is saying, will gift the Tories the country (or what subsequently remains of it) for the whole of the Twenties, for no Opposition has ever come back from such a bad defeat in a single election.

That instant wisdom may, or may not be true. It’s not even the immediate question. We need to apportion blame before we can work out what to do. Which is where it all gets very tricky. Because who, or what is to blame rather depends on who or what you want to blame. The left, the right, centrists, dads or otherwise, the media, old people, feminists, fascists, immigration, bigotry, fake news, globalisation, take your pick. If you don’t fancy any of those I’ve got plenty more excuses for the fact that the least suitable Prime Minister of my lifetime, and I’ve seen some shockers, is now safely tucked up in Downing Street for five years or more.

So I’m not going to apportion blame to any of the actors in this tragedy. The quicker the losers shuffle off stage, the better. Instead let’s look at the causes of the Tory-Brexit ascendency.

All across the world we see unhappy populations causing political upsets. The Middle East and North Africa is in tumult, from Turkey through Eastern and Central Europe we see people turning to ‘strong men’ promising national pride and traditional values. The Superpowers, (and the ex-superpower with nukes), currently favour leaders with little appetite for democratic norms. Then there’s India, Brazil, the Philippines – the list seems endless. Why should Britain be immune from the contagion?

We aren’t, we can’t. However, what we do have, in common with the USA, is a mature democracy which not even the experience of war has shaken. That’s supposed to be what gets us through difficult times.

And I think that our current crisis speaks to the failure of our democracy.

The British Constitution is a ‘bodge job’, a bit like the Palace of Westminster itself. It looks fantastic. Great location, (fake) Gothic drama, a swoon of flying buttresses, thrones, Woolsacks, Black Rod, Sergeants at Arms. But it’s falling down, not fit for purpose, riddled with vermin, dry rot, flooded basements, crumbling ceilings, and too small for the job.

Walter Bagehot, a Spin Doctor of the Victorian Era, told a comforting tale of the British Constitution evolving to meet the needs of changing times, whilst preserving the essence of government through Parliament. No need for a founding document, no need for revolutions, stable government in perpetuity guaranteed by the Crown in Parliament.

And we’ve all sort of bought into this nonsense. We lobby, we petition, we hold demonstrations and marches, and write to our MPs. If we are in parties we contest elections, thinking, somehow, that we need one more heave, one more twist left, or right, better organisation, more members, more money.

But look honestly at our system. It’s not working.

The referendums of 2014 and 2016 showed us exactly what was wrong.

The binary nature of the votes combined with the nebulous nature of the questions meant that each campaign could be about anything the voters wanted. To be fair to supporters of Scottish nationalism, they have a clear nationalist agenda, and well developed plans for a new Scottish Constitution, and for the challenges and consequences of independence. The Brexiters had nothing. But in 2014 the thrill of the referendum campaign for many voters lay in the fact that they could project anything they wanted onto it. The campaign was frequently a rejection of ‘Austerity’ and a song of praise to the NHS. Neither of which has anything much to do with a major constitutional change.

A similar scenario played out in 2016 in England and Wales, albeit with more savage rancour, and actually, at least in England, with much more vicious nationalism. But what both referendums had in common was that, unlike elections, they seemed to promise fast and major change that would deliver voters from their problems at a single bound.

Because British democracy isn’t working. It is a rigged system designed to concentrate power in the capital, and to ensure almost perpetual Tory rule. This is what has frustrated voters. That meaningful change, and government responsiveness to voters’ problems is so slow and inadequate.

I first reached that conclusion as a canvasser in the 1983 general election, the last election in which the left were in the ascendency in the Labour Party, and in which the party was lucky to survive in second place, narrowly defeating the SDP-Liberal Alliance (the Tories had a majority then of 144 seats). My memories of that election are mainly of arguing with my fellow canvassers about the electoral system. Wasn’t it time for a PR system?

Had Blair won narrowly in 1997 he would probably have introduced some form of PR. It was a part of a constitutional reform programme which included devolution. But a landslide victory swept away the immediate pressure for change, which, for me at least, was one of the reasons for becoming a Blair-sceptic well before the Iraq war.

That was the last opportunity to have a fair voting system. And it has made me sceptical about relying on a political party that wins office under FPTP ever delivering voting reform.

Which is the point of this reflection on yesterday’s nightmare election result.

The Tories and Brexiters, and Labour and the other second referendumers, got a roughly equal share of the votes. The Tories will disappoint their voters, inevitably, and the other parties have also disappointed their voters. The cycle continues, with voting producing earthquakes that usually change little, and power remains centralised, and remote.

However, the last 4 years have seen the emergence of a mass movement resisting Brexit. For all that there were campaigns like the People’s Vote Campaign, and others, mostly the movement was highly localised and grass roots, crossing party lines. Tellingly, nothing comparable emerged on the Brexit side.

So I’d like to make a suggestion to people who want to renew our democracy, and to make it responsive and fit for purpose. Change the anti-Brexit movement into a movement for constitutional change, starting with (but not ending with) voting reform.

12th December was a bad day for Britain. But it could be the point at which things finally begin to change.

Zombie Election

This election is dead. It’s still going to happen (I assume, though take nothing for granted). It’s just that there’s not a flicker of life in the campaign.

It’s not as if the stakes aren’t high. They couldn’t be higher. Brexit blue in tooth and claw, Vs the prospect of escaping via another referendum is quite a choice. And it’s not as if there’s nothing to choose between the parties, despite the persistent lament of the voter presented with a microphone that “They’re all the same. They’re only in it for themselves.” Not true, and the competing visions on offer are starkly differentiated.

That the election matters profoundly only makes it more worrying that the campaign is so flat, the voters so apparently disengaged. What can explain this lack of excitement as we enter the last few days of the campaign?

Including the Scottish independence referendum, we’ve had two plebiscites and three general elections in five years. Polling fatigue might just be a thing. We keep voting, but nothing seems to change. But I’m not at all sure I buy that argument.

There’s the time of year. Winter elections at a time when the days are at their shortest aren’t usually seen as ideal for electioneering. It’s nearly Christmas. We should be disgracing ourselves at the office party, rather than pondering the manifesto of a political party. But that doesn’t explain it, either.

Most elections happen at a time that ‘feels’ right. Whether it’s the four or five year interval and the sense that the time is right to renew the mandate, or, more rarely, when there is an obvious quickening of the public pulse, a feeling that the time is right for change, then the public intuit that a ‘democratic event’ is only right and proper. But this election isn’t like that.

This is a completely unnecessary election. The new Tory leader wanted it badly, because the hard grind of trying to get his Withdrawal Agreement Bill through all the stages of parliamentary scrutiny looked like a lot of detailed work, and no fun. He wants a big majority so that he can put his feet up and let the minions and wonks get on with the boring business of government.

Johnson wanted it, but he couldn’t have got it without the active assistance of the SNP and, crucially, the Liberal Democrats, who ably assisted the Tories in painting Labour into a corner whereby they looked ‘frit’ if they weren’t up for the fight. They should have resisted anyway. The longer Johnson was snookered by his own cleverness in destroying his own majority, the better for the official Opposition. But we are where we are. In the last stages of a campaign actively desired by the ruling parties of England and Scotland (and their useful idiot party), but bemusing to an electorate who have lost interest in anything much.

Even arguments for Brexit amongst voters seem to have dwindled to a plaintive demand that a democratic vote be honoured, rather than any excited expectation that sunny uplands lie ahead.

The lack of enthusiasm suits the Tories. Their electorate of choice is now older, poorer, whiter than it has ever been. The Tory tone of aggressive hectoring and false Johnsonian bonhomie resonates with those voters, and they are voters who are more likely turn out on election day. The YouTube advertisements currently being run by the Tory Party depicting nice, normal looking voters having their lives ruined by shrill, argumentative parliamentarians who won’t shut up about bloody Brexit, and their campaign slogan, ‘Get Brexit Done’ are nicely calibrated to reassure voters that it’s ‘the politicians’ (but not the Tories) who are making something very simple into something unnecessarily complicated. It’s also the perfect lie.

Those three words – ‘Get Brexit Done’ – are freighted with meaning not yet understood by most voters. ‘Get’? A short simple imperative covering an endless legislative, diplomatic, and economic nightmare. ‘Brexit’? In three years it’s gone from magic potion to bitter medicine we must nevertheless swallow. ‘Done’? The one thing we can say for certain is that this thing will never be done.

I’ve said nothing about Labour. What is there to say? It looks like the farewell tour for Corbyn. He and the people around him have concentrated all their energies, over the four years he has been leader, on seizing the levers of power in the Labour Party. So solipsistic is his inner clique that they interpret everything insofar as it conforms to their conspiratorial mindset. Clever and competent MPs are sidelined or silenced, especially in this campaign, for they might outshine the Dear Leader. The unexpectedly good result (though they lost) in 2017 was interpreted as being about the wondrous campaigning skills of ‘Jeremy’ and the brilliance of the manifesto, when to anyone looking objectively at the evidence, they were primarily beneficiaries of some very effective tactical voting where it mattered. Their campaign looks a lot less sure-footed this time, though the tactical vote might still enable them to hold on to their delusions.

The Lib Dems deserve a mention. It was a bad call to push for this election. People who might know about these things suggest that a combination of the European Parliament election results and some optimistic private polling made them think they had nothing to lose and much to gain, mostly at Labour’s expense, from an early and unnecessary election. The polls don’t support that now, though this time they may benefit from Labour voters in the south and south west voting tactically against the Tories. Those of us who want to stop a Tory victory must hope that that happens, but it won’t be an easy thing to do now that all vestiges of Social Democratic Party DNA have been bred out of the party. They look petty, opportunistic and unlovely. Their good luck is that they’re not the Tories. And if they get a leader with more competence, they could begin their rightful task of eventually replacing the Tories as the major party of the centre-right.

This time next week it might all be over. Or only starting. Damned if I know what’s going to happen. But there is unlikely to be a good outcome, only something from along a spectrum of bad outcomes.