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Pandering Won’t Solve Labour’s Brexit Problem

Every marathon ends in a sprint. The result of this election will be the culmination not of the six weeks that preceded it, or even the three years since the EU referendum, but the decades of disenchantment and austerity that form its real backdrop. And yet, to win from behind, Labour will have to pull out all the stops in the final few days. It will have to take risks and act decisively, mobilising its base and fighting to win over specific segments of the electorate.

In the final days, it is absolutely rational for Labour to focus on the task of defending the northern and midlands seats under threat from the Tories. Organically, many London-based activists are already heading out of the capital ahead of polling day. And the party’s emphasis, too, has changed – with the launch of regional manifestos promising massive investment, and a large chunk of the remaining campaign being fronted by northern voices.

But there is a danger, as this shift takes place, of a simplistic narrative about Brexit gripping the debate. Unite leader Len McCluskey’s bizarrely public posturing about Labour’s support for a second referendum being its main problem among northern working class voters might have much more to do with internal politicking than offering a serious strategy to win the election, but it does need to be examined.

It is true, after all, that Labour’s vote has consistently weakened amongst the old, men, the socially conservative and those living in small towns in the north, while getting stronger among the young, the more formally educated, women, and the working class in large cities. As well as being the trend for centre-left parties across the western world, these trends map pretty well onto the divide between leavers and remainers – and the patterns are clearly connected. But it does not follow that Labour’s support for a public vote is the problem, and it certainly does not mean that ditching it would have helped the party.

The electoral arithmetic behind a Labour Brexit has always been dubious, with a majority of Labour’s voters – including in leave seats – having voted remain. In many of the seats Labour is fighting to defend from the ‘get Brexit done’ juggernaut, squeezing the Lib Dem and Green vote will be crucial. And the big problem with Labour’s Brexit policy is that – despite being perfectly rational and easy to understand – it is the result of a series of carefully calibrated compromises, rather than a bold vision. Anything that comes across as trying to shift the policy mid-campaign carries the risk of looking like just another handbrake turn – which is why it won’t happen.

If the Conservatives manage to win this election by winning over working-class traditional Labour voters, they will have pulled off perhaps the greatest heist in recent political history. After nine years of austerity, the popularity of rightwing economics is at an all-time low and the public is craving investment and public ownership. The Tories are running a born-to-rule Etonian for prime minister, who promises a future of endless gaffes and a cosy relationship with Donald Trump, and who thinks that working-class men are “likely to be drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless”. To understand how on earth this could be happening, we clearly need to look a lot deeper than Brexit.

Thatcherism destroyed livelihoods and the working-class communities that depended on them, but its primary aim was political. When the British labour movement, once the most militant in Europe, was crushed in the 1980s, the organised left went into open retreat. The left shriveled in places where once it had had a strong presence. On a national level, Labour shifted rightwards, becoming professionalised and technocratic, and adopting ‘tough’ rhetoric on crime and immigration. And so when politicians and the tabloid press drip-fed poison into the national debate – on immigration, benefit claimants, asylum seekers – no one was there with the antidote.

The Brexit moment can best be understood as a battle of narratives over who is to blame for the crisis. For many of the people who will decide the outcome of this election, Thatcherism never ended. After 2008, post-crash austerity turbo-charged the falling wages, declining public services and the housing crisis. By the time of the 2016 referendum, one year on from Labour’s infamous ‘immigration controls’ mug, a rightwing nationalist response to this crisis – blaming foreigners either here or abroad – had evidently already become hegemonic. Its success owes much to the collapse of class politics and a sense of community and belonging, especially among a generation of people for whom the world had both stopped working and stopped making sense.

Now, Labour is running to catch up. It is only since the election of a leftwing leadership that Labour has finally rediscovered the tools it needs to win. Rather than putting forward a shopping list of moderate policies, Labour can tell a story about what has happened, put forward a programme which offers real solutions, and mobilise an army to campaign for it. By definition, only a radical manifesto can address the deep damage done over decades. Labour’s activist army is energised by the radical politics and, yes, by the promise of a route to stopping Brexit.

Labour’s problem is that in order to tell a convincing story, you need clarity of narrative. Last minute pronouncements from McCluskey and others about the need to deliver Brexit, or to end free movement, might win over some socially conservative leave voters, but they may alienate others living in the same seats – and they do damage to Labour’s wider task. They represent not an ‘authentically working-class’ left perspective, but the ghost of the old Labour right.

Ultimately, pandering to the rise of rightwing nationalism can only ever be part of the problem, not the solution. If Labour is ever to win convincingly, rather than just denying the Tories a majority, it will need to brace itself for a long-haul push to defeat ingrained rightwing attitudes, not just for the sprint finish.

Michael Chessum is a leftwing activist and writer, and has been active in social movements and the Labour left. He is currently national organiser for the leftwing anti-Brexit group Another Europe is Possible.

Published 8th December 2019

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