The last few weeks have offered a smorgasbord of increasingly absurd proposals on how Brexit might be stopped. This began with calls for a government of ‘national unity’ peddled by – among others – MPs so disposed to compromise they voted against a customs union in March. During his leadership tilt, Liberal Democrat Ed Davey kicked things off by claiming Labour’s Hilary Benn or Yvette Cooper could assume the mantle of prime minister in such a situation – before extending Article 50 and calling a general election. This is hard to imagine: Benn’s most senior role was secretary of state for international development, while Yvette Cooper’s constituency voted to leave by a significant margin. Benn hasn’t the credentials for the role, while Cooper – almost certainly after any subsequent election – wouldn’t have a seat.
Davey’s suggestion was as sensible as things got. Last week the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee proposed Margaret Beckett for the role of leader, a ‘unity’ candidate presumably because most of the country would be united in not knowing who she is. Then there was Andrew Adonis whose contribution was apposite – after all, he served in a government despite never actually being elected. He proposed several names including Sir John Major for the top job, his inclusion signifying that status as a member of parliament is no longer necessary to lead a government. What next for the fairyland cabinet fantasists? Exhuming the liberal heroes of yore? Perhaps a ‘dream team’ of John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft as prime minister and chancellor respectively – with David Lloyd-George at DEXEU?
While we’re not quite that far – yet – the recent suggestion proffered by the Green party’s Caroline Lucas came close enough. Her proposed cabinet of ‘national unity’, outlined in the Guardian, was so diverse it was entirely comprised of white women who voted to remain.
There were a number of shortcomings with Lucas’s suggestion, all particularly grating because the Brighton Pavilion MP is often an adroit and inspiring politician. The most commonly highlighted, rightly, is that while she chose to include women who are nowhere near positions of leadership, such as Heidi Allen and Yvette Cooper, she overlooked Labour’s Diane Abbott – a shadow home secretary who represents a heavily remain constituency. The most reasonable explanation as to such a slight is simple: it expressed an unconscious racism.
Of course the entire premise of an all-women cabinet was absurd. Men, for our many faults, aren’t solely responsible for how Brexit has unfolded. Yes the last campaign was primarily led by men, and we are statistically more likely to have voted for Brexit (and the Tories to our great shame), but such an analysis is ridiculous given the last prime minister, who was singularly incapable of compromise, was a woman. It is similarly outlandish to maintain that the likes of Ann Widdecombe, Andrea Leadsom or Priti Patel are more enlightened, collegial voices than their male counterparts. Being a political reactionary can defy both gender and race.
The proposal also exemplified the manner in which liberalism often tries to find political shortcuts to substitute for the hard work of persuasion amid difference. In Britain this is most frequently deployed in the debate around electoral reform (which I personally support). “If only we had a fairer electoral system”, you often hear, “then the Tories wouldn’t win!” While this has been true in the past, it’s important to highlight that the Tories and Ukip won 50% of the popular vote in 2015. It is perfectly possible a similar result would occur in any election involving the Tories and the Brexit party. Yes, we should have a more representative system than we do – but the right could still win.
Another example of this logic is the idea of ‘compromise’ as a panacea. “If only we could work together”, the cliche goes, “because politics is about compromise”. But a compromise has to start with competing interests, values and ideas, otherwise what exactly is there to compromise about? This for me explains the desiccated ideology which defined Change UK – a project always doomed to failure because it too was premised on the incorrect assumption of a political shortcut: being neither left nor right meant inevitable popularity. Just before they disbanded, their polling average was 0%.
“If only we had women deciding things”, the precis of Lucas’s proposal similarly went, “then we wouldn’t have Brexit!” And yet the two politicians least disposed to compromise in recent decades, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, were women. Perhaps, because Westminster is intentionally designed to reproduce the toxic politics long established by powerful men, the women who have thrived in such an environment have had to possess certain traits – particularly within the Conservative party. It is strange for Lucas to argue that exclusively women MPs are the answer when she has previously called for citizens assemblies. It belies a theory of change which is incoherent; either the parliamentary system can provide the solutions to our problems or it can not. I incline to the latter perspective – which is why I believe necessary change is impossible without a deep democratisation of the Labour party, in turn connecting it to the wider public. That’s true with or without proportional representation.
Most instructive of all was how Lucas’s cabinet included no socialists – the exception being Emily Thornberry, who would happily admit to coming from a different wing of the party to the likes of Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.
This matters because what was presented as an exercise in cooperation and openness aimed at precisely the opposite. There was an obvious absence of working class voices as well as BAME ones; none of those invited were from a trade union background, while even Northern Ireland’s Sylia Hermon supported remain three years ago. No amount of window-dressing can obscure this for what it was: the call for an undemocratic solution entirely bereft of race or class politics – and which included only those who already agree with one another. In other words, it was liberal ‘inclusion’ in a nutshell.
Such political timidity is a far cry from the Lucas who was arrested while protesting against fracking and nuclear weapons; who decried the many failures of free market globalisation, and who has played a critical part in putting climate change on the national agenda. And yet, at the precise moment environmental politics is going mainstream, it’s most valuable parliamentary campaigner is cosying up to politicians like Jo Swinson – who in office helped dismantle green industrial policy and accepted funding from individuals connected to oil and fracking. Worse still, Lucas is actively assisting their political rehabilitation.
As Labour finally offer a meaningful response to climate change, with this year’s conference likely to be defined by the campaign for a ‘Green New Deal’, the Greens are going in the opposite direction. As Ellie Mae O’Hagan eloquently put it: “The liberal anti-Brexit establishment is using the Greens as a foil to distract from its own regressive credentials”. By aligning themselves with remain-centrists over socialists, the Greens – and in particular Lucas – provide credibility to people entirely undeserving of it.
At a time when eco-socialist arguments have never been more necessary, and with a national audience waiting to hear them, it is strange that the Green party, and its primary figurehead, have adopted such an approach. If their historic role is to revive a genre of centrist politics which is ambivalent about climate change at best, they will have sacrificed any progress they have achieved for pathetically little. Rather than advancing the cause of green politics, they would, in fact, have obstructed it. It’s time for them to decide what they really stand for.
Aaron Bastani is co-founder of Novara Media and author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism.