Britain was broken long before Referendum Thursday. It just took the EU vote to force us all to face this ugly reality.
The electorate gave everyone a kicking, but most of all they kicked the Establishment – the metropolitan, middle-class, political elite that has sucked the life out of a ‘One Britain’ politics for the last 20 years.
So, before Labour launches into a Let’s-kick-Corbyn act of passing the blame, we need to look at some wider, and more painful, home truths of our own.
The Blair Delusion
Labour’s Referendum failure began back in the 1990’s. Throughout the New Labour era, critics like myself were told that Labour’s core voters no longer mattered: they had nowhere else to go.
Now we know they do; in northern towns and cities, in Wales, and (previously) in Scotland they went to UKIP, the Nats and finally to BREXIT.
Oblivious to where this politics would land you, New Labour in the 1990’s went in pandering pursuit of Worcester Woman and Mondeo Man. It was an insult to the intelligence of both, but it played to the New Labour script that ‘class’ was passé and inequality a sideline. Only aspiration, individualism and opportunity mattered.
Blair’s obsession with the rich and powerful was certainly behind this, but so too was Brown’s economics. Labour MPs drooled over fatuous claims to have ended the cycle of boom and bust. Those warning that we were just turning the economy into a casino – based on off-balance-sheet accounting, financial deregulation and the replacement of public (infrastructure) debt with private credit debt – were scoffed at … until the crash came.
Housing shortages (particularly in the South), and 125% mortgages, became tools for boosting Exchequer revenues. As house prices spiralled, tax revenues from Stamp Duty did too. Did it matter that Labour had stopped building council houses? No, the poor were not going to be buyers anyway. And, in any case, they had nowhere else to go.
Did it matter that instead of building schools and hospitals out of taxation, Labour went for Mickey Mouse PFI schemes – saddling the public with decades of exorbitant debt, for assets that were no longer theirs? No, because the poor would be grateful for any signs of improvement, even if these debts were to drive the next round of cuts.
Did it matter that Britain became obsessed with making money rather than things, creating an economy in which only £1 in £10 now comes from making anything? No, because everyone could live on credit, or zero-hours contracts. Everyone’s child could find work as a ‘barista’…until they couldn’t.
A succession of Labour MPs lived (well) off the delusions of this ‘better economy’, but the poor did not.
It was never going to matter to the Tories that the divides between rich and poor were widening by the day; but it should have mattered to Labour. Perhaps this is where people like me must shoulder the greatest share of the blame … We simply didn’t fight hard enough to trash the New Labour delusion.
‘Another Europe’ was never in the ring
But Jeremy stayed at it, offering the more generous, inclusive vision Labour had been missing for over a decade. That was what swept him into office, and that is what the PLP (and half the Shadow Cabinet) have been punishing him for ever since.
Those keen to heap all the referendum blame on Corbyn need to face up to the obstacles thrown in his way. Corbyn and John McDonnell had to fend off a succession of calls to share platforms with Cameron and Co, in what would rightly have been derided as a Lab-Con love-in. They faced blockages on picking fights with the Tories over the corporate fiefdoms that have reigned free within the European Commission.
Corbyn could not get agreement to say openly that Britain should block any TTIP Treaty that gave corporations the right to sue citizens for putting the planet, or public interest, before corporate profiteering. He even had to fight off Party efforts to endorse the Single Currency (for which we must genuinely thank Brown for keeping us out of).
Nor could he take the campaign into spaces where the UK was the villain of the piece, not the EU; where it was our own government that watered down EU Directives delivering benefits to other EU citizens but not to Britain.
Labour got heckled from fishermen over the loss of their fishing quotas, but never retorted that it was the UK government – not the EU – that gave two thirds of the UK quotas to 3 multi-million pound companies, who registered big chunks of the quotas in the name of a dingy that never goes to sea. It took Greenpeace to blow that gaff.
Nor did Labour deride the Tories for weakening EU proposals to halve deaths from Air pollution, or for blocking inclusion off-shore trusts in anti tax-evasion proposals, or demanding that the UK settle for lower renewable energy targets than the rest of Europe, and virtually ignoring the 2010 Energy Efficiency Directive, committed to delivering ‘near zero energy buildings’ by 2018.
Each and every one of these would have made a difference to the lives of Labour ‘core voters’; those left to live in constituencies without decent homes, secure jobs, clean air and fair taxation.
In the end, those who must live without hope easily turn to hate…or at least resentment. That is how we ended up with a referendum campaign that rarely reached beyond ‘fear’ and ‘immigrants’.
Don’t blame UKIP. Throughout history, the Right only feeds in the spaces vacated by progressive, inclusive politics. Where jobs, homes and decent schools are plentiful multicultural communities flourish. Look at affluent areas to see how this works. At least on the Labour side, much of the ‘Leave’ vote has its roots more in poverty than in prejudice. And this is where Labour must begin.
Broken Britain: the repair
If Labour is looking for credibility it will find it in radicalism not reaction. If the looming recession that Britain is heading into calls for a new round of Quantitative Easing (QE) by the Bank of England, Labour must demand the money goes to the poor, not the banks –
Paying local authorities, to build and repair council housing.
Putting a 20 year freeze on student debt repayments; allowing young people to get qualifications, earn a living and find a home without sinking in debt first.
Financing the skills (and jobs) that a ‘clean energy revolution’ needs to deliver within the coming decade, and
Funding new ‘sustainable’ infrastructures that can withstand the floods, droughts and food insecurity that our neglect is already wishing upon us.
This, rather than the head of Jeremy Corbyn, is what Labour MPs should be demanding.
Labour cannot kid itself that building a wall around Britain – with or without Donald Trump’s endorsement – is the answer. The challenge of our time, as the Pope neatly pointed out, is to build bridges, not walls.
(Energy and climate campaigner, former MP, and currently Advisor on Sustainable Economics to the Shadow Chancellor)