Labour crisis, Brexit crisis

Labour’s current turmoil mirrors that of the country as a whole, and lessons can possibly be drawn from this. A common problem is at the root of both: a disconnection between the head and the rest of the body. Brexit is the way this has manifested itself in the country: a large proportion of the population expressed, through a vote to leave the EU, their dissatisfaction with the political, economic and financial establishment. For Labour, the dissatisfaction with their establishment—party grandees and the parliamentary party—was aired in the 2015 leadership contest won by Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn was the anti-establishment candidate, and was voted in on the back of a popular insurgency among ordinary, rank-and-file party members. In the way he dressed, spoke and acted, and in his record as a notoriously rebellious MP who put principle before personal ambition, Corbyn was a man who oozed an anti-establishment vibe. Many of those who voted for him did so because they ‘wanted their party back’—a party that, in their view, had been hijacked by Tory-lite Blairite modernizers and corporate-friendly career politicians. Optimistically, and perhaps idealistically, they hoped that by installing their man at the helm, the rest of the parliamentary head might start connecting again with the body.

The chances of this hope being realized were always remote. From day one of Corbyn’s leadership there were murmurs of plots against him, and it was never going to take much for the murmurs to become a crescendo preceding an attempt by the Westminster politicians to oust him.

The EU referendum and the subsequent Brexit crisis was the opportunity the plotters were waiting for. As a pretext they cited Corbyn’s apparently lacklustre campaign to remain in the EU, attributing to him a large responsibility for the failure of the Remain camp. It is far from obvious that they are right about this—not enough at a detailed level is understood about who voted Leave and why. On the one hand, in a campaign dominated on both sides by overblown arguments, misplaced passion and straightforward mendacity, Corbyn’s more low-key, honest and cogent position was a welcome relief; he presented reasoned arguments, without resorting to a strategy of fear-mongering, and he was upfront in his reservations about some aspects of the EU while making a sensible case for Remain. On the other hand, in a campaign that allowed for little nuance, and in which the stakes were so high, Corbyn’s contribution appears to have been both misconceived and largely ineffective: he looked too much like an informed Remain voter with one or two doubts, rather than an inspiring leader fully committed to his cause (and there are those who believe his lack of commitment masked a sanguine attitude to the prospect of Brexit).

Whether Corbyn conducted a good campaign is open to argument; for his enemies, however, the possibility of reasonable doubt over the matter presented the opportunity they had been waiting for. And so an attempted coup is under way—and a Corbynite resistance is taking shape. How it will pan out is unclear, but it is not likely to be pretty. Corbyn is most likely finished, since his position has become untenable: Labour cannot function in any meaningful parliamentary way when its leader commands so little support among his fellow MPs. At the same time, however, Labour will struggle to function as a party if its anti-Corbyn grandees and parliamentary party fail to connect with the majority of its members. Is there a candidate who can pull it all together? And would the Corbyn supporters among the membership be prepared to transfer their support to him or her? At this extremely early stage the answers to neither question appear encouraging. For it would seem that much of Corbyn’s support comes from people who do not want the ‘same old Westminster politics’, and who are reluctant to embrace a consensus politics if that involves diluting their own ideals. Stand-offs, infighting, haemorrhaging of support may all feature in the weeks and months ahead.

The parallels between Labour’s woes and the Brexit crisis are somewhat ironic. For Corbyn’s position mirrors the Brexit position; and the Labour parliamentary party position mirrors the anti-Brexit position. The former are cast as anti-establishment; the latter (less fairly, perhaps) as establishment. It is of course much more complex than that, and this is only one of many ways in which the current crises—both Brexit and Labour—can be read. And this is much more about perceptions than it is about reality: Brexit is perceived as anti-establishment, and anti-Brexit is perceived as establishment. (I write this as someone who is strongly anti-Brexit and broadly anti-establishment.) But if we do read it in this way, what might we learn? One answer is that the political and financial ‘establishment’ will do just as most of Labour’s MPs have done: they will attempt to step in to end the anti-establishment insurgency carried out by a popular majority.

It is unlikely either ‘establishment’ will succeed, in part because both have been severely wounded by huge hits. But more than that, the game is changing; old rules and certainties no longer apply. Neither the Labour party nor the Westminster and City establishments in their current form are suited to the new game that is emerging. Labour thrived on the old certainties of an identifiable working class, and on a two-party system that fostered loyalty and consensus within ‘broad church’ politics. But society and politics are now fragmented—with divisions that go far beyond class—to such an extent that it is hard to see how Labour in its current form can bring it all together. Of course, one cannot be sure: there may be an inspirational and imaginative figure or movement who is able to build bridges across the divides. But more likely is the prospect of Labour splintering or splitting. And while it could be argued that this disarray and disintegration is limited to the political left, there is mounting evidence that the Conservative party faces similar challenges on the right.

The Westminster establishment, which in essence is built on a whole political system, will similarly struggle in this fragmented political culture. Just as the Labour party may no longer be fit for purpose, so too the wider political system. In the short-term all sorts of battles will be won and lost: the Brexiters may win, or the anti-Brexiters may win; the Corbynites may win, or the anti-Corbynites may win. But these battles, interesting and exciting though they will be, are merely the froth on the surface. Beneath the surface there are wildly changing currents that may result in much more radical developments, tearing down establishments and transforming both national politics and Labour politics.

A reckless and cavalier abuse of democracy: The democratic failings of the EU referendum

The EU referendum has inflicted potentially huge damage on democracy. Superficially it has the appearance of a great democratic event. In reality it risks bringing democracy into disrepute. In the wake of the vote for Brexit, Kenneth Rogoff, a professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University, has written an excellent, thoughtful article on this: ‘Britain’s Democratic Failure’. What follows is largely my own reiteration and comment on his argument.

At the outset it is important to be clear about two things. The first is that I unequivocally believe in democracy. The quotation attributed to Winston Churchill that ‘democracy is the worst form of government apart from all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’ expresses a view that I share. In relation to the referendum the question is not about democracy versus anti-democracy, but about whether the referendum was the best democratic way of deciding the issue of Britain’s EU membership. As I suggest below (and as Rogoff argues) it was actually a fairly terrible way of going about the decision.

Secondly, it needs to be emphasized that the question posed by the referendum was not a typical political issue. The gravity, importance and implications of the result were repeatedly discussed during the campaign—although little of this resonated with the wider public. The overwhelming majority of legal, constitutional, economic and financial experts warned of the dangers of Brexit, both in the short and long term; at the very least, this was an indication that the issue needed to be treated with great care and thoughtful consideration.

It is right that in a democracy questions of such fundamental importance as EU membership are decided democratically. But was a referendum the best way of doing so? And if referenda are in general a good way of making (some) political decisions, was the specific vote over EU membership a good example of a referendum? There are persuasive grounds to answer ‘no’ to both of these questions, and in particular the second of them.

To answer the first question it is important to distinguish between two forms of democracy: direct and representative. Direct democracy involves the people (or, more typically, those people who qualify as citizens) as a whole deciding on policy. There are few examples of direct democracy: the most famous is ancient Athens in which adult male citizens (constituting about 10% of the overall population of the polis) voted individually and directly on all legislative and executive matters. Some modern democracies—notably Switzerland and some constituent states of the USA—resort to direct democracy (through referenda) on various issues, but no modern democratic system can be described as a direct democracy.

The British political system is an example of a representative democracy: citizens do not vote directly on legislative and executive matters, but rather elect representatives to decide these matters. There are very good reasons why representative democracy is vastly preferable to direct democracy. Unlike ancient Athens, modern democracies are not small city-states in which the labour of women, slaves and foreigners enables the small number of citizens to participate in politics; they are large, highly complex societies and economies in which universal participation in politics would be impossibly unwieldy, beyond the capacity of most individuals to make informed decisions, and fraught with political risk. Representative democracy, by entrusting decision-making to elected officials dedicated to the sophisticated and difficult task of politics, is a rational and sensible arrangement for modern society and one that minimizes the risks of direct democracy.

The EU referendum illustrates some of the risks of direct democracy. On an issue of long-term and national importance, a fraction over half the voters (and little more than a third of the electorate) has overruled the wishes of a fraction under half the voters (and nearly two thirds of the electorate). It invited members of the public to decide on an issue likely to lead to national and international instability, with unpredictable risks and dangers both to Britain and the wider world. Many British citizens are educated and well informed, and are capable of weighing up the issues in a balanced, intelligent, critical and careful way. But many more are not. It is clear that many voters had little real idea of the issues; many voters engage rarely, if at all, in political debate, and, in so far as they do, rely on tabloid newspapers for their political information. Furthermore, there is the possibility that extraneous and irrelevant factors—the weather on polling day, the national mood in relation to Euro 2016, prejudice against immigrants that had nothing to do with the EU debate, a vote against Cameron or a vote for Boris (rather than a vote on EU membership), a vote based on no more than instinct or emotion—played a part. Any national vote is liable to be affected by contingency; the national mood now is not the same as the national mood a few months ago or the national mood as it will be in a few months’ time.

The referendum delivered, therefore, a snapshot of a deeply divided public mood on a particular day, and a result that statistically involved only a tiny margin between those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain. And yet the result is likely to affect many millions both in Britain and abroad who did not vote, as well as generations of people to come.

Rogoff comments that ‘the real lunacy of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union… was the absurdly low bar for exit’. In other words, the problem was not so much that a referendum was held in the first place, but rather that the specific EU referendum was fundamentally flawed in its design and conception. Above all, a ‘decision of enormous consequence… has been made without any appropriate checks and balances’. In Rogoff’s words: ‘This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics.’

This is surely right. In a robust democracy, even comparatively minor issues go through rigorous and careful procedures. Checks and balances are built into the process. Legislation is debated and voted on several times; it has to pass through committees and both houses of parliament; and bad legislation can be amended or repealed. Select committees scrutinize the work of the executive; parliament holds the government to account. In other words, for all its problems, idiosyncrasies and weaknesses, parliament works according to procedures designed to ensure political decisions come under thoughtful consideration and are not rushed. Even for minor laws, parliamentary procedure is robust and rigorous, embodying important checks and balances.

The debate over EU membership is far from a minor issue; on the contrary it is the most important in recent British politics. Yet it is hard to claim that the referendum was designed with the robustness and rigour normally found in British political decision-making. To allow a decision of this magnitude to be reached by a simple majority of the public on a single day after a campaign of a few weeks (and of extremely poor quality) would seem laughable if it were not so tragic. The absurdity of this was compounded by the fact that the electorate were offered the option to leave the EU but without any proper debate or information about what would happen if that option was (as it turned out to be) successful. In effect the referendum was offering two paths, but one of which was blind, difficult and lacking in any map or guide.

For all this the Prime Minister bears a heavy responsibility. For it was Cameron who pledged a referendum—not for democratic reasons but in the expectation that by doing so he would end divisions within his own party and see off the threat of UKIP (instead, in a grim irony, he exacerbated divisions and handed victory to UKIP). Worse than his high stakes gamble—he bet the nation, and possibly Europe, in order to win a narrow tactical victory—was the reckless and ill-considered design of the referendum itself. There were various ways in which he could have built checks and balances into the process: he might have demanded a demonstrably clear majority (e.g. 60-40) of the voters, or a majority of the electorate as a whole; he might have insisted that the outcome of a Leave vote in the referendum would simply trigger a second referendum at a defined point in the future, allowing for further consideration and debate as well as a much clearer understanding of exactly what Brexit would entail; he might have required that an outcome of Brexit was only valid if all four constituent countries of the United Kingdom had voted in favour of it; he might have indicated a clearer role for parliament in the decision; or he might have implemented two or more of these checks and balances. But he did none of these things, doubtless fearful of antagonizing UKIP and the right-wing of his own party. The referendum was a hubristic abuse of democracy on the part of Cameron that threatens to bring democracy itself into disrepute.

However, an important note needs to be added to the above. In a campaign of extensive mendacity, the Leave campaign did not have a monopoly on lies: the Remain camp told a few too. Cameron claimed that the day after a Leave vote he would invoke Article 50, thereby irreversibly beginning Britain’s exit from the EU. Not only did this not happen—it was never likely to, and was presumably a dishonest but unsuccessful campaigning scare tactic—but the claim was fundamentally dishonest in the first place. Neither constitutionally nor legally is it in the power of the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50; rather it is parliament’s decision whether and when the process of Brexit begins. We may be grateful that, despite Cameron’s cavalier and reckless abuse of democracy, British constitutional law has within it a potentially vital parliamentary check on the ill-conceived referendum and its disastrous outcome.

Nick Barber, Tom Hickman and Jeff King: Pulling the Article 50 ‘Trigger’: Parliament’s Indispensable Role

Nick Barber, Tom Hickman and Jeff King: Pulling the Article 50 ‘Trigger’: Parliament’s Indispensable Role

This is an excellent contribution by three experts on constitutional law to the Brexit debate, specifically in relation to the issues surrounding Article 50. It presents a clear and convincing case that, both constitutionally and legally, it is parliament rather than the Prime Minister who decides on triggering Article 50 and hence Brexit.

UK Constitutional Law Association

Barber-Hickman-KingIn this post we argue that as a matter of domestic constitutional law, the Prime Minister is unable to issue a declaration under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – triggering our withdrawal from the European Union – without having been first authorised to do so by an Act of the United Kingdom Parliament.  Were he to attempt to do so before such a statute was passed, the declaration would be legally ineffective as a matter of domestic law and it would also fail to comply with the requirements of Article 50 itself.

There are a number of overlapping reasons for this. They range from the general to the specific. At the most general, our democracy is a parliamentary democracy, and it is Parliament, not the Government, that has the final say about the implications of the referendum, the timing of an Article 50 our membership of the Union, and…

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An immediate fightback against Brexit?

Should there and could there be an immediate fightback against Brexit? There are already signs that this is being considered. Some parliamentarians are suggesting that parliament should block Brexit; others are calling for a second referendum; millions have signed a petition against the referendum result; and even some Brexiters are showing hesitancy about triggering Article 50. Right now Britain remains part of the EU, and it is not clear when, or even if, Article 50 will be triggered.

Brexiters will argue that the referendum was a transparent democratic exercise that reflects the will of the people, and that there would be no justification to go against the result. They will plausibly claim that to ignore the result would be outrageously undemocratic, and would confirm how an establishment elite treat the wishes and concerns of the majority of British people with disdain. It is a powerful argument, and one that looks, on the face of it, unanswerable.

But it may be worth, at the very least, thinking through some possible counter-arguments. For this is undoubtedly the worst political crisis in Britain in any of our lifetimes. The country is in a febrile, chaotic, incomprehensible mess, at risk of falling apart, and in danger of legal, economic, political and social turmoil that could take years or decades to overcome, if indeed they will ever be fully overcome.

The following comes with a caveat: it consists of initial thoughts about an unprecedented situation, and one that is likely to remain highly unclear for some time to come. My points are intended primarily as a contribution to a debate rather than as a fully worked out position.

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The referendum numbers are worth considering. In a population of 65 million, 45 million were registered to vote (some, mostly the young, were eligible to vote but were not registered). Of that electorate, more than a quarter did not vote; of those who did, 17 million voted Leave and 16 million Remain. In other words, about 38% of the electorate voted to leave the EU, or 26% of the population as a whole. The lives of 65 million people have been decided by 17 million people. Only one out of every four people on the streets of the UK voted for Leave.

Of course it can be argued that my presentation of these figures is a sleight of hand. For example, a large part of the population consists of children, and it is necessary to distinguish between the population as a whole and those eligible as citizens and as adults to form the electorate. Nobody would seriously work out voting percentages in an election based on the population as a whole.

But the referendum was not the same as a normal election. In a general election, for example, one knows that whatever the result there will be another election in a few years’ time. The teenager disappointed by the 2015 election result at least knows that she will get to vote in the next election; but the teenager disappointed by the 2016 EU referendum result will have no such opportunity. Unlike an election, therefore, the referendum imposes a result upon millions of young people, and countless millions yet to be born, none of whom has any apparent prospect of revisiting, let alone reversing, the result.

It is worth reflecting here on one of the claims for classical conservatism. Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between ‘those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born’, while G.K. Chesterton argued against risking the tradition that links past, present and future by submitting ‘to the arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around’. In the referendum, 17 million people ‘who merely happen to be walking around’ have come to a decision that will affect generations to come.

All of this exposes deep flaws in the referendum process, and for that David Cameron bears a heavy responsibility. Most people, and he above all, knew the enormous risks of a vote to leave the EU, but he chanced it anyway, arrogantly assuming that his gilded life of success would secure a narrow political gain amid his own party problems. He might have allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to vote; he might have insisted that a majority of the entire electorate was required for a decisive result; he might have demanded that all four constituent countries of the UK had to be of one voice. In short, he could have built in some reasonable safeguards to ensure that a vote on such a momentous issue was more inclusive of the population, and required a high threshold for radical and extremely uncertain change.

Instead, what resulted was a referendum determined by a simply majority, and one that was always at risk—and particularly so after a Leave campaign based on populist slogans, dishonesty and base appeals to prejudice and xenophobia—of delivering a result that amounts to the rule of the mob. It is uncomfortable to make this point, but such is the crisis that numerous difficult and discomforting thoughts occur to those of us committed to progressive politics. But it is becoming increasingly clear that many people had little idea what they were really voting about; that many people regarded the vote as a simple protest against the government or the establishment, rather than specifically a vote on EU membership; that some Leave voters even hoped that Remain would win; and that many people were ill-informed and lacked the ability or the will to question critically the many lies and exaggerations of the Leave campaign (and, indeed, the relentless negativity of the Remain campaign).

But one does not have to argue that a dumbed-down political culture, in which, at best, a diet of tabloid junk journalism fuels the political views of large parts of the population, is a reason why there should never have been a referendum in the first place. For how many of us truly grasped the issues?

I can only speak personally here: I consider myself a well-informed elector, someone who has studied and taught on politics, someone who has read many things on the constitution, on sovereignty, on democracy, on the EU, someone who follows politics and keeps up to date with a wide range of commentary, someone whose work and research means I have to possess a modicum of understanding about economics, finance and broad social and political issues. And yet I did not feel truly qualified to vote on an issue of this importance. I have gone on record as saying that I like the EU and believe that it is in our interests we remain a member of it; I have also gone on record as saying that there are problems with the EU, and that some of the criticisms of the EU seem merited. I have been very happy to contribute my thoughts to the debate. But when it comes to making a decision on the issue, as opposed to being part of the important conversation about the issue, there are people, often with direct experience of working with the EU or with a broader perspective on British society and the economy, who are better placed and better qualified than I am.

The democracy we have is a representative democracy. We elect and pay for MPs whom we entrust to make informed and considered political decisions. We give them responsibility in areas over which we have limited competency. We choose them on the basis of their manifestos, and we get regular opportunities to choose someone else. In short, we entrust questions of national importance to parliament. This does not mean that we cannot debate and attempt to influence parliament; we can. But ultimately parliament is uniquely positioned to consider and make political decisions. There seems no good reason why, on the issue of EU membership as on any other political issue, it should not have been the responsibility of parliament to make the decision.

And, constitutionally, the referendum is only advisory on parliament. Westminster could, if it wanted, regard the referendum as an extensive opinion-gathering operation, and it could consider the wishes of 52% of voters as one factor to put alongside their own expertise as they deliberate the future relationship between Britain and the EU. MPs could note the referendum result but decide on continued membership of the EU based on their own understanding and knowledge of the national interest.

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It is only fair to note that the Prime Minister pledged the referendum during the last parliament and that this pledge was part of the Conservative party’s election manifesto last year. The Tory government was elected on this manifesto and it had, therefore, a duty to implement it. The process has been transparent and democratic. Any suggestion that the referendum result should be ignored or overturned undoubtedly risks looking like the complaint of ‘bad losers’. Democracy always involves some people not getting the result they want, and the expectation that they accept that. I would only reiterate that the referendum may not, for the reasons I mention above, be strictly comparable to normal democratic exercises.

Politically any attempt to sidestep the referendum is fraught with risk, so much so that I suspect it highly unlikely to happen. The popular fury and political turmoil if the result were ignored might be dangerously uncontrollable. On the other hand, almost all the possible paths ahead are full of risk. The fact is that the referendum has generated a crisis in which normal politics, and the old political rules and certainties, may no longer apply.

Post Brexit: First thoughts

Tragedy, disaster, catastrophe—over-used and frequently mis-used words to be sure. But in relation to Brexit they are appropriate. For this is, without doubt, the worst and most destructive event in British politics in my lifetime (and I’ve lived through some grim and bleak nights of Tory election victories). After a campaign characterized by fear and negativity, and above all by dishonesty, xenophobia and racism, a terribly misinformed and historically bad decision has been made that will affect millions of people now and many more millions into the future. Just because it was a democratic decision does not make it wise or right. If ever there was an example of democracy making a disastrous error of judgment, then the EU referendum is it.

Brexit is many things. It is a political deed that will have countless consequences, most of them bad, for the politics, economy and society of Britain, and quite possibly for wider Europe and the world too. It is a bleak and dispiriting expression of how Britain sees itself and its relation to the rest of the world—as disengaged, closed off, turned inward, and, with an absurd and misplaced grandness, ‘special’. And it is a historical moment that decisively marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one.

It will take some longer than others, but ultimately reality has to be faced. Brexit is irreversible; Scottish independence is highly probable; Britain and England will be diminished and suffer. Tough times lie ahead. The pain that Britain will endure is less important than the need to ensure wider international stability. Europe should focus on containing and limiting the risk of chaos and the spread of nationalism; that is far more important than showing any favours or sympathy for Britain. In political terms it is right to accept a tough and unsympathetic EU if that is in the interest of the greater good of Europe. Boris Johnson’s ‘pro having my cake and pro eating it too’ stance should be exposed for the infantile wish that it is: if Britain refuses to cooperate and engage constructively with Europe, then we can hardly expect Europe to cooperate and engage constructively with us.

But despair needs to be resisted. In the immediate aftermath of the vote I certainly felt this. The temptation simply to give up, to find a way of leaving Britain, to disengage from politics in a life of higher contemplation—all of this was strong. But I’m an historian, so I know that historical turning points do not mean the end of history. Life goes on and politics goes on. I also know that few things are inevitable. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, Britain (or more accurately and likely England) has decided to turn away from Europe. And right now internationalism, progressive politics and the Left are in disarray, while nationalism, irrationality and xenophobia are marching ever more successfully and triumphantly. It is a critical point, a crisis. More than ever it means that those of us who believe in progressive politics need to engage, and to strive for clarity and purpose in that engagement.

Little, of course, is clear at this moment. Brexit is the manifestation of many complex things, some specifically British, many European or global in nature. It raises questions about the way politics is conducted, about the nature of debate, the media and political culture. It exposes deep divisions and faultlines in Britain as a society, and within British politics: the Tories are deeply divided as they attempt a reincarnation as UKIP; Labour and the Corbyn leadership look increasingly like a busted flush; and where now for the moribund Liberal Democrats? There is much to explore and understand historically, politically, socially, culturally and intellectually—and all with a view to trying to shape the next chapter in British and European history.

What I hope to see is the following: the EU address the implications of Brexit in ways that lead to reforms and to a reinvigorated European integration; Scotland to achieve independence and continued membership of the EU, so that at least one part of Britain remains engaged with Europe; a concerted resistance to neoliberalism, xenophobia and nationalism in England, and the revival of a meaningful and relevant progressive politics.

If there is one silver lining to Brexit, it is this: the establishment (among whom are numbered Johnson and Gove) will now find anti-establishment anger directly at their door, rather than at the EU’s door. They can no longer blame social injustice and the democratic deficit on the EU; and they may find that the misplaced anger at the EU is concentrated upon them, as questions are raised about how socially just neoliberalism is and how democratic Britain is. They have unleashed one revolution, but are they ready for the revolutions to come? It is a critical moment, and the far right will undoubtedly try to exploit it. Hence the importance of the liberal and progressive left to reflect, regroup and re-engage.

Ultimately I hope that a progressive England will rejoin a reformed EU, an unlikely short-term achievement, but a reasonable medium- to long-term goal.

Let’s not party like it’s 1899: On Brexit, Remain and the EU referendum

chris_riddell_cartoonI shall be voting Remain in the EU referendum. Unlike Boris Johnson, I have not had to agonize over this decision. Like Jeremy Corbyn, my intention to vote Remain is 100% but my enthusiasm for the EU runs at about 75% (give or take 5%). But the nature of the referendum, and certainly the impoverished and shrill campaigns on both sides of the debate, does not allow for nuanced positions. There is no scope for a ‘Remain, but’ vote. This is a zero sum game in which a stark in/out choice is presented. Unable to pick and mix among the Remain and Leave arguments, we have to choose one side or the other. Given this, Remain is the obvious choice.

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There are positive and negative reasons for voting Remain. The referendum campaign has been dominated on both sides by negative arguments. Fear is a relevant factor in many of our political choices, and there is nothing wrong with voting for one side out of fear of what may happen should the other side. (However, scaremongering—using exaggeration, distortion and untruths deliberately to raise fears—is less virtuous. Both sides have indulged in it, although the Brexiteer claims about immigration have been especially dismal examples of it, and Brexit has been characterized by ‘dishonesty on an industrial scale’.) One does not have to be an expert on economics to realize that there are benefits to membership of a single market that will be lost by leaving that market; nor to surmise that a comparatively small island in the Atlantic with a diminishing manufacturing base may struggle in a world dominated by vastly more powerful economies and large trading blocs. Unlike Michael Gove, I am prepared to listen to the economic experts and to accept the consensus that leaving the EU will negatively impact on the British economy (and may well lead to wider international economic instability).

It is certainly fair to say that, while one cannot be certain of future disaster following from a vote to leave, Brexit is surely a chancey leap into the unknown. The economic risks are clear, but what is unclear is the path a post-Brexit Britain might follow. Many Brexiteers have made leaving the EU the defining issue of their political lives, and yet when tasked with mapping out a coherent and plausible idea of their long-desired post-EU Britain they provide only vagueness and confusion. Norway, Switzerland, Canada, blessed isolation, or none of the above, have, with varying degrees of incoherence, been posited as models. But for the most part the Brexiteers tell us with rhetorical airiness not to worry, because (in what amounts to an equivalent to Donald Trump’s ‘make America great again’ fluff) Britain is ‘a great nation’ and the British ‘a great people’ and that as long as long as we keep believing this then everything will probably work out. When Boris Johnson exhorts voters to believe in Britain, he has the air of an Eton schoolboy rousing his team on the rugby field rather than a politician of substance who might be a serious and responsible Prime Minister. Back in the days when undergraduates used to listen to me, I was always keen to encourage self belief and to remind students of their many abilities and great potential; but I also thought it important that they had a clear plan about how their studies would progress, since good university degrees are not achieved on self belief alone. Brexiteers (when not indulging in their own campaign of fear) offer little motivational nuggets but precious little of any substance. We may well find at the end of the Brexit rainbow nothing more than a pot of fool’s gold.

So we know where we are with the EU; but we have little idea where we would be post-EU. For many it is clear that the EU may not provide the perfect relationship for Britain. There are bills, arguments and a lack of real passion, and some parts of the house need renovating—but there is also security, occasional common purpose and frequent fondness, and some parts of the house are lovely. Upping and leaving may may feel like a racy, exciting idea, but it could well end up as life in a lonely, damp bedsit. Given this, the only rational choice for wavering voters is to vote Remain: Britain can leave the EU at any point (for, no matter what the Brexiteers like to say, the UK retains full sovereignty on its membership of the union), but it would be almost impossible to rejoin it again after Brexit, and certainly impossible to rejoin it on anything like the favourable terms of its current membership. Bremain now, Brexit in the future, is not an inconceivable scenario; Brexit now, Breturn (or Brejoin, or whatever ‘Bre-‘ word might be coined) in the future, is inconceivable. Unless one can be sure of the benefits of a post-Brexit Britain, then the only sensible and rational vote is a vote for Remain.

Much has been made of the irreversibility of the referendum decision, of how this vote is a ‘once in a lifetime’ choice. But it is only truly irreversible if Brexit is the outcome. Should Remain win, Nigel Farage and UKIP and Euroscepticism will not suddenly disappear for good. They will continue to campaign, and, like Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, they will push for another referendum. A British government will be free at any time to call a second referendum should it wish. Certainly it would be unlikely to happen any time soon, but politics can change quickly: if in a few years the EU looks like an irredeemably failing project, then nothing stops Britain from exiting. But should Leave win there will be no going back: if in a few years time Britain is struggling while the EU flourishes, there will be no easy route to regaining membership.

It is, however, unlikely that Britain will struggle for long following Brexit. Far more likely is that Britain will cease to be. Given that Scotland will vote to Remain, it is hard to imagine how the Union will hold together in the event of an overall vote to Leave. Brexiteers champion British ‘independence’, but what they will get is Scottish and English independence (and a lot of problems in Northern Ireland, as well as a possible resurgence of Welsh nationalism). There would be no obligation to grant Scotland either a second referendum or independence, but quite how Westminster could resist understandable Scottish fury over Brexit, possibly accompanied by widespread civil disobedience, is difficult to see.

So a compelling reason to vote Remain is the fear of where Brexit may lead. Economic instability, in Britain and abroad, is to not to be embraced lightly. Nor is the prospect of the break up of Britain, and a diminished country which, in order to attract inward investment and compete, may move towards becoming a large offshore tax haven with a lightly regulated financial sector and employment laws that favour employers over workers. There are some who warm to that vision—there is a reason why most Brexiteers are on the neoliberal political right, for they look forward to the day when Britain (or, more likely, England) will no longer be shackled (as they see it) by inconveniences such as EU regulations on workers’ rights or the protection of health and safety.

None of this is to suggest that the EU is perfect. There are certainly flaws in the EU, but there are flaws in any large political or economic system. Brexiteers on the left criticize the EU as a neoliberal capitalist enterprise, and there is some truth in what they say (it is this aspect of the EU that qualifies my enthusiasm). But Britain is also a neoliberal capitalist enterprise, and a more egregious example of it. Furthermore, Brussels is not a perfect model of democracy or accountability, although it measures up quite well to Westminster. Brexiteers trumpet British democracy over EU bureaucracy: this, presumably, is the British democracy that includes an unelected head of state, an unelected second chamber, a First Past the Post voting system that delivers majorities to parties voted for by fewer than 40% of the electorate, and a government in which unelected special advisors and media and business lobbyists play a prominent role; in many respects the European Parliament is a far more impressive example of democracy than the British parliament.

But there is much to love about the EU, and more generally about Britain being part of an integrated Europe. Two cartoons on the referendum campaign resonate with my own reasons for voting Remain this coming Thursday. In the midst of the campaign, and in the wake of Prince’s death, The Guardian published a Chris Riddell cartoon that depicts Boris Johnson and Michael Gove heading off to ‘party like it’s 1899’ (at the head of this post). On the final weekend of the campaign, the Sunday Mirror published a cartoon that combines a Philip Zec original from 1945 and a Charles Griffin ‘remake’ of the Zec original, the former proclaiming the possibility of ‘Victory and peace in Europe’, the latter ‘Stability and a place in Europe’.sunday_mirror_cartoon

History has not been invoked often during the campaign. (But there is a Historians for Britain in Europe group.) The most notable occasion on which it has, and the one that attracted most media attention, was when Boris Johnson compared the EU with Nazi Germany; in Johnson’s view, the aims of Brussels and those of Hitler are not dissimilar. Given that the underpinning ideal of the EU was to construct an economic and political arrangement in Europe that would bring lasting peace and put an end to the national rivalries that had come close to destroying the continent, Johnson’s claim is bizarre to say the least. Although I am no expert on Nazi Germany, I am fairly sure that an equivalent to the EU’s robust defence of human rights and working conditions did not feature highly on Hitler’s agenda; nor have I seen much evidence that the EU is intent upon implementing racial laws, genocide and global war. Of course, one should not be surprised at Johnson’s playground tactic of comparing something he does not like to the Nazis: Johnson will say or do anything as long as it serves his personal political ambitions, and has a proven track record of concocting lies about the EU. As a guide to history, as on so much else, Johnson is hardly a trustworthy voice.

But 1945 is relevant to the discussion. War has been endemic throughout European history. For example, I once calculated that between the beginning of the sixteenth century and the early eighteenth century there were only a handful of years (four was the answer I came to) in which there was not a war being conducted somewhere in Europe. In the years when there was not war countries were invariably recovering from the previous one or preparing for the next one. It is no surprise that both the world wars resulted from European rivalries. And as new and ever more sophisticated ways were found to destroy one’s neighbours and carry out mass murder, so, with a logic that ought to have been obvious to the heirs of the Enlightenment, by 1945 Europe had almost succeeded in destroying itself.

It was this long history of European warfare in general, and the more immediate aftermath of World War II in particular, that provided the context for the establishment of European union. When great cities have been reduced to piles of rubble, when millions are displaced and scarred, or lie dead across the continent, then understandably some will put their minds to ensuring this never happens again. At the heart of what was to become the EU lay the idea that by forging union—by creating a necessity of mutual cooperation within an integrated European economy—countries would no longer have either the motivation to wage war on one another or the means to do so. It was the ideal of securing peace, stability and prosperity, and a Europe based on cooperation rather than conflict, that led to the formation of the European Steel and Coal Community, which evolved into the EEC and then EU.

Europe has not been free from war since 1945; one only need look at the Balkans for evidence of that. But among the EU member states—and above all in relation to the Franco-German rivalry that was the source of so much earlier conflict in western and central Europe—there has been the longest period of sustained peace in European history. Whatever criticisms may be levelled at the EU, it is this securing of a Europe based on cooperation rather than conflict that represents its most impressive outcome. Both as one of the key ideals of the EU and as a real achievement, it should be embraced.

The vision of many Brexiteers is based on an ideological commitment to a world of independent, non-integrated nation states. Riddell’s ‘party like it’s 1899’ cartoon captures the reactionary nature of Brexit—and indeed the hopes of many Brexiteers (Gove in particular) that a vote for Brexit will lead to the disintegration of the EU as a whole. They want a return to the structure of international relations as they existed in the early twentieth century. And while it certainly cannot be said that Brexit will lead to war, it can be said that Brexit is likely to result in greater international instability, and a heightened potential for the return of crisis in Europe.

This misremembering of the supposed, largely fantasy, virtues of an earlier age in British and European history is characteristic of the deeply reactionary nature of the Brexit position. For the EU is based on a modern and reforming vision (and arguably even on radical and revolutionary ideas). Its architects and supporters recognize that in many areas of human concern and activity the independent nation state is no longer fit for purpose.

For better or worse we live in a globalized world; many of the most pressing social, cultural, political and economic issues of our idea are transnational in nature. Terrorism, crime, poverty, inequality, migration, climate change, communications, technology and science transcend the nation state. How we confront and solve some of the most fundamental problems in the world today and tomorrow require transnational approaches. Organized crime and international terrorism, for example, thrive in a world of uncooperative nation states, but have a much harder time of things when nation states cooperate on integrated policy. To take one instance: cyber crime, surely the most appealing career choice for criminals of the present and future, is most robustly addressed when states work collectively on intelligence gathering and sharing, on policing initiatives, and on legal responses.

Or to take another example: migration crises. The response to the Syrian migrant crisis may not have been the EU’s finest hour, but that has more to do with a refusal to cooperate on the part of individual member states (the UK being especially difficult) than it has with the EU itself. Would an EU-less Europe have dealt with the crisis better? Or would countries have been even more inclined to focus only on what they thought were in their own national interests, ignoring the international context of the crisis as well as the human suffering and moral issues it raised?

There are sensible reasons for allowing competency in certain areas to an institution such as the EU. Brussels has not led to the end of the nation state; Europe is still made up of numerous nation states, among which the UK is one. But as a collection of nation states in which economic, political and legal integration is a feature, the EU is better placed than a post-Brexit Britain to deal with transnational problems.

* * * * *

In so far as I have any ideological leanings, they tend towards anarchism. I value freedom, independence, democracy and accountability; I tend to be suspicious of the state and of corporations. I have no wish to see an EU superstate (nor do I think it remotely likely that such a thing will happen), and there are many criticisms that can be levelled at the EU as a political and economic institution—although in my view not as many as can be levelled at the British political and economic systems. But both Britain and Europe have generally benefited from the EU, far more than they would have done had there been an EU-less Europe over the past few decades.

Above all I’m an internationalist who believes that integration and cooperation are fundamental to international relations. Brexit is a manifestation of a surge in nationalism; another variant of it is Donald Trump’s language of walls and borders, his rhetoric of division and conflict, and his rejection of openness. I hope Trump is defeated in the US and Brexit is defeated in the UK. If Brexit wins, then Britain will become a less open, a less engaged and a less cooperative country, and a much poorer and more unstable one too.

Finally, I’m an historian. I’ve studied and taught on both British and continental European history. I have not travelled extensively in Europe, but the social, cultural, intellectual and political history of Europe has given me a strong sense of being European, of being part of something that is a lot bigger and more important than Britain on its own. The EU, for all its imperfections, is one of the more impressive episodes in European history. Europe is better for it, and Britain is better being part of it.

Tory neoliberalism

There is a very good chance that by the time the Tories are eventually voted out of office (2020 at the earliest, but more likely 2025 or even later) most existing public institutions will have been largely or fully dismantled, either through cuts or through privatization. The welfare state is rapidly being eroded; privatization of the NHS is likely to be extended; education policy will, by design, result in more schools taken out of local authority control and into the hands of private companies; central funding of higher education and the arts, already decimated by cuts, will almost certainly have been slashed further; the BBC is facing a relentless attack on its role as a publicly funded broadcaster; despite denials from the government, plans have been drawn up to privatize Channel 4. Apart from parliament itself, the royal family and the armed services, we may find that within a decade almost nothing will be left of publicly funded institutions.

The budget deficit is the government’s convenient but dishonest rationale behind this programme. The reality, of course, is that the cuts are driven by an ideological commitment to neoliberal economic principles. It is interesting to consider why the government will not admit this, instead choosing to depict itself as having to make unfortunate but necessary decisions to (as the myth goes) clean up the mess created by the previous Labour government. There are understandable presentational reasons for this: in general, most people are suspicious of ideology but fond of practicality (which helps explain why the Chancellor of the Exchequer preferred to be seen wearing a hard hat rather than reading economic theory for his election campaign photo opportunities); and it is a lot easier to communicate via social media and tabloid newspapers an idea as simple as ‘sorting out a mess’ than complex economic theories.

But perhaps the primary reason for playing down the ideological nature of the policies is that the government knows full well that at best the policies are highly risky, and at worst they simply do not work (or at least do not work in the way many of their most enthusiastic proponents would hope). It is worth acknowledging, even for those of us on the Left who oppose the government’s policies, that neoliberalism makes a serious claim to be the best and most rationale way of organizing society. There is no lack of weight or sophistication to neoliberalism as a set of ideas, and to reduce it simply to an ideology of greed or hatred of the poor is an intellectual dead end. Certainly neoliberals maintain that profit, self-interest, competition and, if you like, greed are key motivating factors behind human action, and they positively encourage inequality not only as the most effective way to ensure that merit is justly rewarded but also as a dynamic that stimulates productivity and economic growth. Whatever one thinks of the neoliberal analysis, there is no doubt that it presents a body of psychological, philosophical, political, social and economic theory that demands serious engagement.

Like many ideologies, however, neoliberalism works better in theory than in practice. At the heart of neoliberal thought is a belief in laissez-faire capitalism, free markets, deregulation and the excision of the “dead hand” of the state. It is supposed that markets, unlike governments or the state, know best; therefore, markets that are fully free (i.e. that are subject to no government intervention through red tape, regulation, or state ownership) will, it is argued, work efficiently and in the interests of everyone. The economic laws of supply and demand, so long as they are left to operate freely, will benefit society as a whole.

As a theory neoliberalism is seductively persuasive—as long as one accepts that there are economic laws as true as scientific laws. But there is little hard evidence that neoliberalism works well in practice. As its name indicates, neoliberalism is a modern reworking of classical economic liberalism. Associated particularly with the politics and ideas of the nineteenth century, above all in Britain, classical liberalism has impressive intellectual credentials stemming from the thought of, among others, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. The history of nineteenth-century Britain is instructive for some of the strengths and weaknesses of economic liberalism. On the one hand, liberal policies (e.g. lack of regulation) helped the phenomenal economic growth set off by industrialization; on the other hand, they also generated some truly dreadful social conditions. In theory, by maximizing profit and increasing wealth, everyone will benefit (or, rather, all those who deserve to—the lazy and the workshy, for example, will deservedly not benefit); but this is not how it turned out in practice. For example, although profits are increased from, for example, the employment of cheap child labour, what resulted was not only suffering children but also depressed adult wages and increased adult unemployment. Such was the moral outrage at the social effects of economic liberalism, that the only remedy was for the state increasingly to intervene in the social and economic sphere, by regulating working conditions and alleviating poverty and its results.

The neoliberal Tory vision of society has clear echoes of liberal nineteenth-century society. David Cameron’s idea of the ‘Big Society’ (which still occasionally sees the light of day in his pronouncements) is in essence a modern take on the nineteenth century: promote laissez-faire capitalism, rein in government and state intervention in social and economic regulation, and encourage philanthropy, charity and human kindness to fill in the gaps. It’s an optimistic vision, but one for which the evidence is hardly encouraging. There were certainly philanthropists in the nineteenth century, but philanthropy and charity on their own had a minimal impact on the alleviation of social problems. In the US, the most neoliberal of all western countries, there is a long tradition of philanthropy, but American society is nevertheless beset by levels of poverty and inequality—and increasing ones at that—that dwarf those of western Europe. When, during the election campaign, the Tories unveiled a policy that would, through statutory paid leave, compel employers to enable workers to undertake voluntary and charitable work, it was perhaps an unspoken acknowledgement that neoliberalism may not work.

Austerity and the ‘shock doctrine’ so beloved of the IMF (and US) have similarly provided little real evidence that they work. As has been well documented (by, for example, Joseph Stiglitz and Naomi Klein), despite repeatedly failing to achieve the desired results, the IMF has for decades nevertheless relentlessly pushed on with its blinkered neoliberal policies, convinced that the rarefied theories of the Chicago School economists trumps the actual evidence before its eyes. In so far as problems were acknowledged, these were usually attributed to the failure of countries to move to a fully free market quickly enough, or to the continuing intervention of governments in economic policy. Even in cases where the IMF policies had some success, it was only a small part of society who benefited—not a surprise to critics of the IMF and neoliberalism, but not the anticipated outcome expected by the IMF and neoliberals themselves.

Neoliberal ideologists (among whom much of the current government can be included) tend to be dogmatic in their approach. And there is nothing wrong with that, provided the evidence supports the dogma. But the evidence invariably points the other way. In a recent essay discussing the life and work of the social scientist Richard Titmuss (a strong believer in the importance of public institutions), Stefan Collini discusses Titmuss’s final book, The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy (1970), in which Titmuss considered the provision of human blood to meet medical and scientific needs.* In the US, a neoliberal approach was adopted as the best response: market principles should apply, according to which the demand for blood will be met by supply, and a price mechanism will develop which will satisfy all concerned. In short, leave it to the market. Consequently a commercial trading system developed: for donors there were financial incentives to give blood, and there were profit incentives to encourage companies to trade in and supply blood. In the UK, however, the publicly-funded National Blood Service (part of the NHS) was established, which relied on voluntary donations of blood. A neoliberal would assert that the US model should prove to be the most effective. But as Collini describes, Titmuss’s work demonstrated ‘the greater efficiency of the [UK system] as measured by all the relevant criteria: purity of blood, availability and reliability of supply, cost and administration.’ (As further subsequent confirmation of this, one may note that it was blood sourced largely from the US and infected with Hepatitis C and HIV that was at the centre of the ‘Tainted blood scandal’.)

It is not simply its invariable failure to work in practice and its often calamitous social effects that makes neoliberalism such a disastrous ideology. Just as corrosive is its moral bankruptcy. One of the more interesting moments of the election campaign was when Cameron was confronted by an audience member on Question Time about the fact that he spends all his time talking about the economy but never about morality. The Prime Minister gave a good answer in the context of the debate: he argued that getting people into work and improving their economic security and prospects were above all moral issues, since it was only by doing this that poverty could be reduced. Indeed, his answer probably sums up neoliberal moral theory: assuming laissez-faire capitalism works, then the society that emerges will be morally good. But, as I’ve suggested, laissez-faire capitalism does not work. The dogmatism of neoliberals makes them blind to the bankruptcy of their morality.

The effects of this dogmatism and moral bankruptcy are hugely damaging, for they result in an impoverished moral culture. Even if we accept that public institutions such as the NHS, or the welfare state, or the BBC, could be run more efficiently according to market principles (and according to narrow economic criteria they almost certainly could), this would nevertheless miss an important point about their existence. Throughout Titmuss’s work there was, as Collini explains, ‘a governing preoccupation…: the need for societies to give effective institutional expression to non-economic values in the face of the tiresomely corrosive power of the profit motive.’ It is this ‘institutional expression to non-economic values’ that matters so much—and it is this which will be lost as the Tories dismantle the welfare state and drastically cut back on public funding. The NHS may well be a bloated, inefficient organization, but its importance lies not only in the healthcare it provides but also in the values it represents: the belief that society should look after all its members, the idea that we are collectively responsible for looking after one another, the valuing of care over profit. When a museum or gallery allows free access, this is an important statement about the value of making heritage, art and education available to all. Even if charges did not lead to declining museum attendance (as the evidence indicates they do), by implementing those entrance charges we would nevertheless be replacing a non-economic value with an economic value. Profit and efficiency may be increased by such charging, but at the cost of abandoning the shared moral value that education and heritage should be universally accessible.

When the Tories talk about values, usually specifically ‘British’ values, conspicuously absent are such things as compassion, caring, and sharing. This is hardly surprising: neoliberals tend to be sceptical about these types of virtue, not because they don’t admire them but because they do not fit well with their narrow economic theories. For neoliberals, first and foremost should be a focus on free market principles; in so far as compassion, caring and sharing have a role, these will emerge naturally from the wonderful society that laissez-faire capitalism will create. But it may well be wondered what happens when a government consistently emphasizes economic virtues over moral virtues. If, for example, the message is consistently sent out that economic inefficiency is a more pressing concern than the damage caused by poverty, then society is likely to internalize this message—to value wealth and profit, and to devalue welfare and caring. A cynic might of course argue that such internalization of the profit motive at the expense of welfare is precisely the intention of the Tory neoliberals.


London Review of Books, vol. 37, no. 19, 8 October 2015, pp. 29-33.

Tory Totalitarian Daydreams

David Cameron’s response to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader was to tweet that ‘The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.’ Other Tories have been filling the airwaves and the newspapers with similar dire warnings of just how much danger has suddenly descended upon Britain. I haven’t left my flat today to check, but I imagine that up and down the country supermarkets are scenes of mayhem as terrified people fight to load up on provisions in order to bunker down and survive this threat. On the other hand, my own economic security (and that of my family and most other people I know) has got so much worse since 2010 that there really isn’t much left to be destroyed.

The Russian Embassy tweeted a reply to Cameron: ‘Just imagine UK media headlines if Russian President called a leading opposition party threat to national security?’ Indeed. There would be lots of discussion about Putin’s totalitarian tendencies, about how such language is the first step to banning opposition. This is how totalitarian regimes, dictatorships and military juntas start out: opposition parties are labelled as threats to security, justifying their suppression.

I do not think that the Tories have a Macchiavellian plan to outlaw the Labour party, but it is interesting how ready they are to adopt the language of totalitarian aspiration. I suspect that Cameron and his party are genuinely appalled by the idea of one-party states and dictatorships (even if not by living examples of such states, with whom they are more than happy to do business); but I also suspect that they have such a deep sense of entitlement to power that the language of dictators comes to them naturally and without thinking. For how else does one explain a tweet as ridiculous as that of Cameron—and a tweet that in many other countries would be rightly regarded as sinister?

My guess is that, while Tories would not want to suppress Labour, they do like to daydream about hobbling the opposition in such a way that Britain does become in effect a one-party state. (And we’re all allowed our utopian fantasies, even if we wouldn’t base our tweets or media interviews on them.) Thus, some Tories have been talking gleefully about how the election of Corbyn presents the opportunity to destroy the Labour party, and the Left more generally, for good. One might have thought that politicians committed to the idea of democracy would welcome the spectrum of debate provided by a diverse opposition rather than attempt to shut down debate by raising absurd spectres of threatened security and openly hoping to wipe out an opposition party. But the Tories are not the most convincing democrats: yes, they fight elections, but they do so in ways that avoid any genuine democratic debate. In truth, the same thing could be said about all the main political parties, but the Tories, with their deeply rooted Establishment interests, have always believed themselves to be the natural party of power and hence the least sympathetic to a truly vigorous democracy.

So it has started: the Tories, and the Tory-dominated media, have begun their crude attack campaign on Corbyn. It will maximize hyperbolic rhetoric, it will play on fear, it will be unashamedly demagogic, and it will be tinged with nationalism. Labour will be portrayed at every opportunity as anti-British, anti-family, anti-work. There will be little attempt at any real debate and little that resembles a vibrant democracy in which ideas and policies are freely and openly exchanged and discussed. And, without any hint of irony, we’ll be reminded by the Tories and their media friends how fortunate we are to be living in the great ‘cradle of democracy’ that is Britain.

Thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s Leadership Victory

Jeremy_Corbyn
The future Prime Minister…

On General Election night earlier this year, as the political disaster was gradually unfolding, I had the bleak thought that Labour was finished as a party of the left. This year was the first time I had voted Labour since 1997. The party’s direction under Ed Miliband’s leadership hardly pointed to a leftist’s dreamland, but it did seem to signal a slight veering away from the rightward drift of the Blair and Brown years—enough, at least, to win my vote. But back in May I was convinced that the scale of the electoral defeat would prompt a more thoroughgoing lurch to the right than anything in previous Labour party history. The lesson I guessed that many in the Labour movement would take from the defeat was the need shamelessly to steal as many Tory clothes as possible. Initially, nothing about the subsequent leadership contest altered my prediction. Jeremy Corbyn got onto the ballot paper at the last minute, with minimal support and with the almost open acknowledgement that his participation was simply to ensure that an alternative voice was heard. I expected him to come a very distant last; Corbyn and his supporters probably expected the same. But then politics got as surprising and exciting as I’ve known it in my lifetime: Corbyn won by a huge margin, and the Left suddenly seems alive again as a mass movement with electoral possibilities.

Of course many will say (and are already saying) that Corbyn’s victory really will finish off the Left. His leadership, it is suggested, will turn out to be a disaster as the Labour party descends into internecine war and electoral oblivion. And that may indeed happen. Although Corbyn’s democratic mandate is comprehensive, and there can be no question about his legitimacy and popularity as leader, I imagine the internal party plotting against him has already begun—and there will be many who are resigned to biding their time and waiting for what they believe to be the inevitable implosion. And right now it is genuinely hard to see how a Corbyn-led Labour party can make any electoral inroads. His numbers in winning the Labour leadership are impressive, but those numbers are a fraction of the overall electorate. If the fairly tepid leftist manifesto of Miliband was rejected, often comprehensively, in seats that Labour should be winning, then the prospect of a more resoundingly left-wing programme gaining traction with voters seems remote.

But in fact I think there are grounds for optimism about Corbyn’s leadership—even about the possibility of Prime Minister Corbyn. This despite the gloomy predictions of politicians and commentators, even as early as the morning after Labour’s defeat in May, that Labour were finished as an electoral force until at least 2025. For many, even in the Labour movement itself, this is still the default view. Yet predictions in the immediate aftermath of what was without doubt an impressive Tory success and a traumatic Labour failure are hardly to be given much weight. The current government has been up and running for only four months and the road to the next election is a long one. Right now the Tories would win again, and easily, but I would hesitate to suggest the same might be said in four years’ time.

Consider how unimpressive the Tories are as a government, and how potentially disastrous are their policies. Their commitment to austerity is not only based on some highly dubious economic ideas, but even if successful in its own limited terms will almost certainly increase poverty and inequality (already among the highest levels in Europe). Inequality extends to many areas: protection for employers is being extended at the expense of employees; cuts to legal aid mean that equality before the law is gradually becoming a thing of the past; access to education, health and welfare will become increasingly hard for a growing proportion of the population. A programme with those outcomes is a risky venture; the Tory rationale of divide-and-rule can backfire if the divisions do not work out as they plan. The neo-liberal ideological commitment of the current government carries plenty of electoral risk. Tuition fees and student debt, already the highest in Europe, are likely to increase over the next four years; insecure housing and homelessness will rise; dependence on food banks and charity are likely to become an engrained feature of British society. The Tories seem set on dismantling the BBC; they may well dismantle the Union; they are likely to damage Britain’s relationship with the EU; and they seem enthusiastic for secret trials, overseas assassinations and backdoor routes into military conflict. None of this commands obvious popularity.

About the only satisfying aspect of this grim litany of the likely impact of the Tories on Britain is the realization that it could all go disastrously wrong for the Tories themselves. Just because the electorate narrowly voted for all this a few months ago (and with little enthusiasm one suspects—the Tory election campaign was the most resoundingly negative campaign I can ever remember, entirely based on attacks on Labour and fear-mongering about the SNP) does not mean that the electorate will accept the even more stark results of austerity that are likely to be apparent in four years’ time. A lot can happen in four years, and it might not take a great deal for the inequality, injustice and poverty that were just about acceptable to the third of the electorate who voted Conservative earlier this year to become increasingly unpalatable to the same voters in 2020. And that’s not even to factor in the possibility of crises such as Black Wednesday, the Credit Crunch, high political scandal, Middle Eastern wars or refugee crises that have the potential to derail any government.

Things could of course go badly wrong for Labour too, above all if the party looks inwards rather than outwards. There are interesting things going on in politics all over Europe that suggest some tectonic political shifts are happening: the emergence of Syriza in Greece, the rise of Podemos in Spain and the remarkable success of the SNP in Scotland point to a growing disenchantment with traditional politics. (Nor is this exclusive to the left: the Front National in France, the Danish People’s Party, Jobbik in Hungary, even the modest success of UKIP in Britain, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Golden Dawn in Greece, indicate that disenchantment is having transformative effects on the Right too.) Corbyn’s campaign, which rapidly evolved into a movement, should be seen in this wider political context. The trick for Corbyn (and Labour), of course, will be to sustain the movement’s momentum and ultimately to broaden it further.

There is much talk about how Corbyn, for all his qualities, is simply not cut out to be a party leader, let alone a Prime Minister. Corbyn entered parliament in 1983, at around the same time that I became really interested in politics, and until this year I cannot recall anything in his career to suggest that he would want to be, or was suited to be, anything other than an often impressive, maverick, independent-minded backbencher and campaigner. I always had a lot of time for his politics and approach (and that is not me jumping on a bandwagon—I remember, for example, being impressed by his views on Northern Ireland back in the 1980s, or his consistent opposition to nuclear weapons, or his prominent role in the Stop the War coalition). But if anyone had suggested he would make a good party leader I would have thought that person mad. Yet now may actually be the ideal time for a leader such as Corbyn—in other words, a leader who embodies none of the traditional leadership traits. Corbyn lacks the PR polish of a Blair or a Cameron, but that may well be a surprising strength rather than a presumed weakness. His down-to-earth style based on principles and passion and his unconventional emergence from a career on the backbenches may contrast rather well with the schmoozing, back-scratching and back-stabbing, deal-making, spin- and style-obsessed path of political ambition that has traditionally forged Prime Ministers. As political movements reject traditional politics, so they are likely to reject traditional political leaders. Corbyn may well look rather good next to Cameron—and for all the Tory jubilation at Corbyn’s victory, there is a real possibility that the Conservatives will unwisely and complacently dismiss him as an opponent. Cameron and the Tory government may experience discomfort in the emergence of a type and style of politics with which they are unfamiliar.

Above all, Corbyn’s chances of success will depend on his policies. His greatest challenge will be taking the parliamentary Labour party with him—that is evidently the main danger to his leadership, and no doubt there will have to be considerable finesse in the way he combines his policy programme with his leadership of the opposition. That could well end up a mess. But if Corbyn can avoid trouble there, what I hope is that Labour sets out a clear, consistent and radical left-wing agenda from the outset. It is inevitable that Corbyn and his policies are going to take some huge hits from the Tories and the media—it will be brutal and fierce. But he’s got four years to make his arguments and win over the sceptics, and there is more chance of being successful in the long run if the message and arguments are consistent from the start. So, for example, it looks likely that the Tories will immediately begin hammering away at Corbyn’s views on nuclear weapons; much as they used the supposed threat from the SNP as an unsubtle bludgeon during the election campaign, so they will use the argument that Corbyn is ‘a danger to national security’ as a crude and sustained attack on Labour. This will probably resonate with the public in the short term. But if Corbyn, and more particularly the Labour party, remain firm in their position in the face of this, consistently and clearly pointing out the contradictions and fallacies of the Tory idea of ‘security’ and the strengths of their own position, then I see no reason why the argument cannot be won. It won’t be won quickly, and it won’t be won at all if Labour become flaky about their own position. And that applies to everything, from opposition to austerity, to policies promoting equality and social justice, to reducing tuition fees, to supporting the welfare state: there is a great opportunity to make a coherent, clear and persuasive argument for all these, but one that would be squandered if Labour become jittery in the face of the relentless Tory and media attacks.

How confident am I that Corbyn will become next Prime Minister? In all honesty, not very. Over the years I have seen how formidable the Tories—and their corporate and media allies—are at attaining electoral success. But for now I am delighted that British politics will have a clear party of the left—I think our politics and political culture will benefit from that, far more than it would from two main parties following broadly similar centre-right austerity programmes. And, as I’ve suggested, I do not think it impossible that over the next four years the political landscape will alter in ways that make a Corbyn victory at the 2020 general election a realistic possibility. At any rate, Labour will likely, and rather surprisingly, get one vote in 2020 that, without Corbyn, would otherwise have gone elsewhere. My election night assumption that Labour would lurch to the right was accompanied by the thought that it would become a party that I could never vote for again. Yet quite unexpectedly I may not only find myself voting Labour again but also, and for the first time since 1992, doing so with some enthusiasm.