Politics in Crisis – avoiding the Dog’s Brexit

It can’t come as a surprise that Labour has been thrown into a spin after the bruising it took in the Euro elections. The campaign was a disaster, the message unconvincing and the politics deeply confusing. It was the complete antithesis of Labour’s 2017 general election campaign.

Only the knowledge that the Tories are in even greater disarray offers Labour any crumb of comfort.

The legion of Tory hopefuls wanting to succeed Theresa May will absorb media attention for the time being. In true gladiatorial style, each will tear the other limb from limb, in a race to make it to the final two whose names go to a wider vote by Conservative Party members. By then dead bodies and intrigue will have filled our screens and littered the corridors of parliament. Who needs ‘Game of Thrones’?

What Labour has to avoid is a bloodletting of its own. Shooting the messengers who said the euro message was daft won’t make it any better. The electorate told us that. Do we disenfranchise the public too? The truth is that Labour needs a better analysis of the mess we’re in, and to offer more creative ways out of it. A small dose of Merseyside humour may not be a bad starting point.

I recall the playground joke about a tourist who gets lost on their travels round Ireland. He goes into a local pub to ask for directions and receives a multitude of suggestions; except that no one can agree which is the best route. The debacle finally ends when the landlord takes the tourist to one side, telling him, “Just ignore this lot. The answer’s really simple. If I was you, I wouldn’t be starting from here.”

Not starting from here

Some years later, Edward de Bono’s book, Lateral Thinking, put this in a more theoretical way. He explained how most of our lives are organised around vertical thinking; where each step has to be correct if you want to end up with the right answer. Where there are obstacles, we also prefer to tackle these one step at a time.

The trouble is that the more complex the problem, the more likely it is that vertical thinking comes up with answers that leave you trapped. The only way out is through the more perverse route of intuitive/lateral thinking. This is when answers are only to be found in systems change, not piecemeal change.

Without a method for changing concepts and bringing them up to date one is liable to be trapped in concepts that are more harmful than useful…The need to change ideas is becoming more and more obvious as technology speeds up the rate of communication and progress. We have never developed very satisfactory methods for changing ideas, but have always relied on conflict.” (‘Lateral Thinking’, Penguin,1970, p259 )

Decades later, this is exactly where we have ended up with Brexit.

No matter who wins the Tory leadership race, life inside the parliamentary pub will continue to be a debacle. The painful truth is that all conventional Brexit options take you nowhere. May’s ‘deal’ was a lousy deal, but it did cover huge amounts of detail that would have to be revisited in any ‘follow on deal’ others might wish for.

The same applies to ‘No Deal’. The idea of a ‘clean break’/’just walk away’ option is at best a sad joke; the pipedream delusion of people inhaling the wrong stuff. It would lock Britain into post-divorce negotiations forever. Long before they were completed, Scotland would have gone, Ireland would have its hard border on the coast, and Little England would have disintegrated into fractious regions, squabbling over who exactly was to blame for the disastrous ‘Dogs Brexit’.

Lexit isn’t any better. Lexit’s only saving grace has been in making Europeans laugh. The idea that there’s anyone in Brussels (or beyond) waiting to offer Labour a better leaving deal provokes either derision or convulsive laughter. Nothing, beyond the ‘May Deal’ would be on offer to a Labour government…and not a single European socialist would ask for it.

Ardent ‘Remainers’ may have grasped all this, but they don’t have much to crow about either. The Remain case was as shabby as the Leave one. In the Referendum campaign, ‘Don’t spoil it’ was the best Remainers could muster. No wonder Wigan, Mansfield, Sunderland and a hundred other abandoned areas of the country told Westminster to ‘Sod Off’. Years of neglect and cuts, of poverty and hopelessness, provided the groundswell of anger UKIP tapped into.

Class solidarity

The real criticism of the ‘Remain’ case is not that it is driven by ‘sneering intellectuals’, contemptuous of northern/working class ‘Leave’ voters. The problem is that it lacks any credible engagement with the systems change now needed to avoid climate, economic and democratic meltdown.

The case for a People’s Vote is really the case for a long conversation with ourselves; a conversation that must begin with Left distancing itself from populist xenophobia and racism, and which will end in a fundamental re-writing of economics.

The people have spoken” has been Nigel Farage’s Brexit rallying cry. And parts of the Left became paralysed by it. If the Referendum had been a vote to bring back hanging or to expel all immigrants, most of the Left would have opposed it. It’s response would have been to offer political leadership (and analysis) to counter the class/crime/race divides capitalism was seeking to exploit.

Farage’s ploy is the standard tactic of the Right, seeking to widen class divides rather than end them. You won’t hear Farage using the phrase to defend the NHS (against his own preference for privatised health care). You won’t hear him use it to make the case for radical action to avoid climate breakdown (which he denies). You won’t even hear him acknowledge that there is a world of difference between informed choice and deceit. If Labour wants to hang on to (or regain) Brexit seats in the Midlands and North it won’t do so by dancing with the devil.

Today’s answer, as Extinction Rebellion keep reminding everyone, is systems change, not small change. And this is where the Left divides. One part looks to an old-style industrial revolution that would restore declining industries the North has lost. The other knows this would just race everyone over the climate cliff.

Tomorrow’s economic security will require an industrious revolution more than an industrial one. To replace our current 35 million fossil fuel vehicles with clean-energy ones will involve massive recycling and restructuring of the automotive sector. The continuing need for railways and bridges makes a compelling case for retaining British Steel. But all of tomorrow’s energy intensive industries will have to put their waste heat into localised heat systems if they are to be ecologically sustainable…and none can expect to run on fossil fuels.

This is the industrious revolution the Left must engage with: breaking from ‘growth’ obsessions; running with innovation and net-zero carbon footprints; and delivering tomorrow’s jobs/skill sets to today’s abandoned communities. Solidarity must become visionary rather than nostalgic.

This is where suspending Article 50 (and committing to a People’s Vote) comes in. It is the conversational space Labour has yet to fill. If it ends in a Climate Brexit – with calculations on how Britain can feed and clothe itself, meet its own needs, supply its own clean energy and transport on a stand alone basis – so be it. But the conversation should at least look at events elsewhere.

How Green is my alternative?

To change the terms of the Brexit/economic debate Labour needs its own dose of lateral thinking. One place to begin is the surge of Green/climate political success across Europe. This is where many of tomorrow’s answers will be found.

In the euro elections, the Greens won 9 out of Germany’s 10 largest cities – often by huge majorities. Even in Britain, they forced the Tories into a humiliating 5th place.

In a blog for the Spectator, Fraser Nelson pointed out that

“In France, Les Verts came from nowhere to finish third. Greens came second in Finland and broke into double digits in Austria and The Netherlands. In Ireland, Greens trebled their share of the vote and won their first European Parliament seat for 20 years…”.

All the current haggling between Germany and France, about who will get what in the new EU bureaucracy, masks the most important point: the Greens have become Europe’s kingmakers. Climate will move centre stage in European progressive politics … and the implications are massive.

Look at the lessons from Germany’s Red/Green coalition in the early ’90’s. It ushered in the German Energiewende Programme – committed to the most radical (and democratic) shift into clean energy systems. When Labour introduced its 2008 Energy Act a group of us ne’er-do-well Labour rebels (and a cross-party coalition of nationalists, Lib-Dems and Tories) pinched the German model of Feed-in-Tariffs (FITs) and forced it into the UK Act. It led to the most dramatic growth of domestic, renewable energy generation the UK has ever seen; creating over 100,000 jobs, tumbling prices of solar panels and the platform for dynamic growth in innovative energy storage and smart grids.

It worked amazingly well, at least until Big Energy lobbying got the Tories (and Lib Dems) to pull the plug. The Coalition government shoved FITs into a public spending straight-jacket, excluded community co-ops from tax allowances and blocked moves to allow people to share energy in more local energy systems. Now Britain faces absurd proposals of a 20% rate of VAT on solar+storage, whilst high-carbon fuels get away with only 5% (and/or get hidden subsidies).

Across Europe, ‘green and clean’, ‘democratic and decentralised’ will become the price-tag attached to all coalition governance. The question hanging in the air will be, “So where is Labour?”

If the answer is “Not even in the conversation,” we are in deep trouble. Thinking differently is where we must begin. Fundamental change is what follows.

Alan Simpson

(Next: Politics in Crisis (2) – a different economics.)


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