Abi Wilkinson: Labour MPs can't afford to be blocking Brexit

Written by Abi Wilkinson on 4 November 2016 in Opinion

Now that right-wing populism has taken hold, it’s too late for Labour to wind back the clock.

It’s become something of a cliché to bemoan the impact the EU referendum has had on political discourse in our country. In some cases this has meant romanticising the pre-Brexit era to the point of absurdity. Xenophobia and racism didn’t begin with the vote this summer. The rabid headlines and immigrant-bashing front pages published by certain right-wing newspapers aren’t actually a huge departure from their usual output – though the frequency of the attacks seems to have been stepped up a notch.

Something has changed, though. The best way I can describe it is as a sense the balance of power has been tipped. For quite a while now liberals have believed they are in charge. It was a reasonable assumption, as until fairly recently every major political party had converged on the same socially and economically liberal consensus. Cameron’s version of the Conservatives had more in common with Blair’s Labour than with the more socially conservative tradition of his own party.

Though the rise of Ukip was considered a cause for concern, there was a feeling that certain battles had already been won. Liberals knew there were people out there who resented things like immigration, equal marriage and ‘progressive’ principles in general – they didn’t take seriously the possibility that those people might actually take over.

Now, there are regular media attacks on anyone who dares to even suggest that leaving the EU might not be socially or economically beneficial. A few months after pro-migrant MP Jo Cox was killed by a gunman who gave his name in court as “death to Traitors, freedom for Britain”, high-profile Brexit supporters are chucking around the same “traitor” accusation with wild abandon. Today, the Daily Mail published photos of three High Court judges on its front page and branded them “enemies of the people” after they ascertained that Article 50 must legally be triggered by Parliament.

When I speak to mates still living in my hometown of Sheffield – one of the largest cities where the majority voted out – most tell me that the referendum result didn’t come as a surprise. Amongst my friends in London, though, many seem to be in a state of shock. They talk about not recognising their own country. About feeling alienated and isolated in a way they never have before.

It has become clear that the apparently liberal consensus was never as solid as it seemed. For many people in the country it was experienced as something top-down and imposed, and the EU referendum offered an opportunity to stick two-fingers up at the people they considered responsible.

As in the US with Trump’s support base, there’s been a lot of discussion of communities where people feel “left behind”. When you look at the demographics most likely to have voted leave, it seems that regional economic decline and neglect is a contributing factor but not the whole story. More than anything else, this is a culture war – and many of those kicking out against the liberal (former) status quo are middle-class and affluent.

What the neglect of many working-class communities has enabled, however, is the rhetorical sleight of hand pulled by Brexiteers like Nigel Farage. Despite being, by any reasonable measure, about as much of an “establishment” figure as is possible, the career politician and former commodities trader has managed to present himself as the leader of a people’s revolution. What is, essentially, a long-running inter-elite conflict has been cleverly framed as a battle between “the people” and their liberal overlords. (Non-white working-class people, the majority of whom voted to remain in the EU, are either conveniently ignored or explicitly lumped in with “the enemy”.)

When the traditional party of working-class interests strays too far from that role, it allows nefarious interests the opportunity to plug the gap. Though the referendum itself was the product of Tory infighting, in many ways the result was Labour’s failure. Despite what his opponents claim, the fault doesn’t really lie with Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s complacent attitude towards its core vote far predates his leadership.

Now that right-wing populism has taken hold, it’s too late to wind back the clock. It’s unrealistic to hope that the party can return to liberal centrism and repeat its victories under Blair. The terrain has changed. The best hope for Labour is to try and develop an anti-racist, left-wing and less exclusionary form of populist politics – and to provide convincing answers to voters’ genuine problems.

Almost certainly, this will fail if the party attempts to block Brexit in Parliament. Though many Labour MPs have well-founded concerns that leaving the EU will have a negative impact on their constituents, attempting to oppose it in this way allows them to be written off as out-of-touch elites. Because remain voters are disproportionately concentrated in a comparatively small number of constituencies, if Labour adopts an official anti-Brexit stance it’s likely to lead to electoral wipe out.

Without a strong counter-narrative, though, the financial hardship created by actually exiting the EU could well serve to strengthen the xenophobic, populist right. The left needs to get its act together, and fast, or things are only going to continue to get worse.


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