As an MP I met lots of constituents who had just lost someone close. Bereavement and grief took many forms. Some wanted a shoulder to lean on. Some wanted failures in the care system to be put right. Some wanted compensation. Some wanted redress. Most wanted their loved one back and their grief to lessen. The most difficult were those caught somewhere between anger and despair. Politically, this is the space Brexit has taken us into.
Delusions chase after frustrations. Anger and bitterness look for someone to lay the blame on. Increasingly, people begin to shout and cease to listen. All political parties share the blame for this. Stripped of hope, this politics will end up tearing the Conservative Party asunder. I shall not weep. But I would do if it does the same to Labour.
Losing the plot
For the Tories, there is no way out of this mess.
Writing in the New York Times, Pankaj Mishra lacerated the Conservative Party for having “plunged Britain into its worst crisis, exposing its incestuous and self-serving ruling class like never before.”
Even the Economist lamented that Britain is now “governed by a self-involved clique that rewards group membership above competence and self-confidence above expertise.” All this is true. Brexit merely revealed that the whole Referendum debacle was little more than an internal battle between yesterday’s ‘Toffs’ and today’s ‘crazies’.
Empire or class
Some external commentators have rushed to compare the crisis with Britain’s post-war collapse of Empire and the shambolic mess our colonial ‘leaders’ left behind in Africa and the Indian sub-continent. Others describe Brexit as “a crisis of Englishness – a national identity in search of a story”. We need to be careful in how we far we push such imperial explanations of the Brexit debacle. They play to a UKIP view of politics but not to anything more mature.
Amongst ‘Leave’ constituencies in the Midlands and the North it has been poverty, not empire, that provides the common strand. What bloody jobs? What pay rises? What housing prospects, skill training, decent healthcare, transport infrastructures and education prospects can you find round here? Ethnicity and nationality are scapegoat explanations, not structural ones.
Only charlatans like Rees-Mogg (who has moved his Business base to the Republic of Ireland whilst championing the rights of ‘True Brits’ to national self-determination) and EU freeloader, Nigel Farage wave the banner of Englishness. Neither mention the latest Oxfam report showing that, in 2018, the world’s 2,200 billionaires grew 12% wealthier while the bottom half of humanity got 11% poorer. It doesn’t come up in the Davos discussions either.
To be fair, this wasn’t a point New Labour had been keen to dwell on. But it is where Labour’s problems begin. For the Tories aren’t the only ones in crisis.
Jeremy Corbyn is currently trapped between a Party membership that wants a Second Referendum and parliamentary comrades (in seats that voted ‘Leave’) who fear voters won’t forgive them if they do. More reflective Members know that this could be the least of Labour’s worries.
Theresa May is playing a brinkmanship game. Corbyn was right in refusing to talk to someone who isn’t there. May”s invitation was wrapped up in all the ‘red lines’ that were comprehensively rejected by the House of Commons. Plan A is still her only plan.
But the Prime Minister’s claims are now closer to pantomime than policy. Europe has told her ‘Don’t bother coming back and asking for more’. And when she says she will “renegotiate the Good Friday Agreement”, Ireland emphatically replies “No we won’t”.
May intends to take this whole farce to the wire; hoping to force a choice between ‘No deal’ and ‘Her deal’. This is where Labour’s problems are rooted.
Either of these options would be catastrophic for Britain. All of the disgruntled (including many who steadfastly voted ‘Leave’) would blame Jeremy Corbyn for the mess that follows.
‘Lack of leadership’, ‘indecisiveness’, ‘a closet Brexiteer all along’; all of these would emerge as stinging rebukes, not from the rabid Right, but from those who believe in ‘the Corbyn Vision’ of transformative change.
Corbyn’s enemies – those wanting to form a new Centre Party but knowing no one will follow them – would see this as their moment to force a split. Others would use it to launch a leadership challenge. But the inspiration – the hope underpinning the Corbyn revolution – would become lost in ambiguities. Jeremy will need to grasp the moment before it passes.
Time to talk
As the deadline rapidly approaches, suspending Article 50 becomes imperative. To do so is not within the UK’s grasp. Unilaterally, the UK could revoke Article 50, but only the EU can suspend it. Britain needs to ask, and Jeremy should be the one to do so.
There is no ‘national betrayal’ in such a move. If we need more time to talk (to ourselves) we should grasp it. It is a sign of strength (not weakness) to refuse to be bounced into absurdities. What Labour then has to address is where and how do we open up a new conversation with our own ‘bereaved’ communities
The starting point is not that Labour’s ‘Leave’ voters were lied to. Nor that ‘stand alone’ delusions are just that. What matters is that anger and resentment have currently taken the place of reason. Abandoned voters wanted someone to blame. Europe/immigrants/ bureaucracy became the fall guy. Labour has to shift the conversation into a politics of hope.
To begin with, Labour should thank ‘Leave’ voters for giving the system the kicking it so desperately deserved. They were right to be angry about the disappearance of secure jobs, the collapse of skill training, the dearth of social housing, the PFI privatisations-by-stealth that dominated spending in health and education, and the transfer of tax obligations from the rich to the poor.
It wasn’t the non-English who got us into this mess, but we will need them to help us get out of it. To avert the looming threat of climate breakdown we all need a new starting point; a different politics of ‘common wealth’. Corbyn’s Labour could write this, but not on a stand alone basis.
A one-planet ‘common wealth’
A good starting point is the climate politics of energy. The UK press is in a flurry about the latest nuclear pipe-dream project to collapse in Wales. In a world of tumbling renewable energy prices, these were always the most absurd (and expensive) solutions on offer (even before you got to questions of foreign ownership of the UK energy infrastructure). Britain has to cut its carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and nuclear was never going to do that.
In the short term, completing UK interconnectors with Denmark and Norway (and increasing those with the Republic of Ireland) would provide the breathing space in which to develop the UK’s own renewable energy infrastructure. Technically this is easy. Politically it would involve a big row between those who see interconnectors as tomorrow’s speculative trading mechanisms and those who see them as public safety nets. Labour has to back the latter. This is where European ‘partners’ become important.
It applies just as much to food security. A year of extreme weather events has resulted in the UK producing 50% less potatoes and 30% fewer root vegetables than expected. Other harvests around Europe have been equally disrupted. We all need a new conversation about common food security; not to reward large land owners but to feed large populations, without destroying the soils needed to do so.
The UK alone cannot answer Oxfam’s criticism of the global chasms between rich and poor. Davos’ offerings of increased philanthropy from the super-rich won’t do so either. They are just variations on the ‘enlightened despotism’ of the Middle Ages. The real answer is international redistribution (on a massive scale) and localisation/democratisation as the means of making this accountable to communities rather than corporations.
Anyone thinking through the Corbyn/McDonnell mantra about transformative change – decarbonisation, democratisation, decentralisation – will know this is the shape tomorrow’s sustainable politics is going to have to take. Anyone listening to the appeals from European Left parties will know this is what they are looking for too. They just want Labour – as the biggest Left of centre party in Europe – to give a lead.
This is the biggest argument in favour of a Brexit rethink; our ability to write a bigger, better politics of tomorrow. Across the Atlantic, this is beginning to take shape around the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ proposals for a ‘Green New Deal’. At some point they will look for a European connection. Corbyn’s Labour is the natural starting point, but not if we’ve left the European stage on which it must be built.
At the moment, parliament is obsessed with the petty, bitter, politics of division and despair. Corbyn has always stood for something much bigger and better. Now is the time for it to deliver. Those who cannot/will not do the journey with him just need to get out of the way.
There is no future to be found in Little Englander, bereavement politics. It’s time Labour said so.
Alan Simpson, Jan 2019