Britannia Waives the Rules

With Labour's attempts at securing a Brexit compromise apparently dead, there are no easy answers for Jeremy Corbyn in deciding what to do next.

From a socialist standpoint, there wasn’t much to cheer in the recent round of elections to the European Parliament. Europe’s social-democratic bloc, the Party of European Socialists, shed 38 seats to finish with 153. The socialist left, tragi-comically divided between a plethora of ‘unity’ projects, also made little impact, with the left-wing GUE/NGL bloc losing 14 of its seats. In Britain, Labour endured a torrid time following an ambivalent campaign promising limply to “bring our divided country back together”, earning just 14% of the vote and finding itself pushed down into third place. The picture was especially grim for the party in Scotland and Wales, where it finished fifth and third respectively.

On a brighter note, the Conservatives did at least suffer their worst showing at the polls since 1832, the year of the First Reform Act, when they were buried under a Whig landslide. Though there was no Whig landslide this time – Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party comfortably topped the poll, eating massively into the Tory vote – their modern-day heirs, the Liberal Democrats, were certainly jubilant at their second-place showing: having done so much to create the conditions which led to the Leave vote of 2016 in the first place, it appears that for now at least they have successfully managed to use the spectre of Brexit to make many people forget about (or at least overlook) their record in the coalition government. The Greens also succeeded both in capitalising on Labour’s discomfort over Brexit and building on the recent resurgence of environmentalism, nearly doubling their vote to 12% and adding an additional four MEPs to their previous tally, bringing them to seven in total. Several of their sister parties elsewhere in Europe did similarly well. But despite the differences in composition, the bigger picture of the European election in Britain quite closely reflected the current situation in Parliament: one of deadlock, with relatively little to separate the hard Remain and hard Brexit groupings.

Brexit threatens to spawn interminable culture warring indefinitely, of the kind which has polluted US politics for so many years. Socialist cultural engagement is indispensable for enhancing popular self-confidence and expanding horizons, but Ronan Burtenshaw is right to argue that to approach Brexit as a binary Leave versus Remain culture war would represent a disastrous abandonment of class politics – which would come as a great comfort to elements in both camps, providing in its stead an endless, aimless spectacle. With the fragility of his coalition exposed by the deepening Brexit crisis, Jeremy Corbyn is under renewed pressure to adopt a more vocally pro-second referendum and pro-Remain stance, and may need to do so simply to hold that coalition together. It is less clear whether this change of tack will necessarily win him a general election, nor is it clear where a Commons majority for a referendum will come from without one. The Labour Party’s previous line – pursuing a soft, single market Brexit intended to be mutually acceptable to enough people on both sides of the divide – appears, as Ash Sarkar has commented, to have “run out of road”. However well intentioned, this attempt at compromise, she adds, now seems to be simply out of step with “the spirit of the times”.

There are genuine and serious attempts being made on the pro-Remain left to get at Brexit’s concrete root causes, all the better to combat them. Perhaps the most rewarding, challenging and stimulating of these so far is Anthony Barnett’s The Lure of Greatness,1 which is resolute in its opposition to Brexit and alarmed at what it might portend, but which nevertheless makes a valuable effort to understand what led to it and to map out how society might collectively move on. He proposes a project of radical constitutional and social reform in its place, one extending democratic participation in new ways across national borders. Refreshing in its honesty and impressive in the breadth of its sweep, The Lure of Greatness is a vigorous and lively polemic which – thankfully – eschews any comforting sloganeering or glib pseudo-explanations for the rise of Brexit and Trump, which it approaches as twin phenomena.

The CBCs’ weightless hegemony

Throughout the book, Barnett is unflinching in his criticism of the European Union’s neoliberal trajectory, which he sees as threatening the entire European project. He is scornful of its role in “making entire nation states powerless… with rules decided elsewhere in the corporate stratosphere of investment frameworks and the Eurozone”, citing the brutal subjugation of Greece as “the most glaring example”. He condemns the cloak-and-dagger manner in which the European project has gone about extending its remit, which he argues has made the modern-day EU into “a thief in the night, created in defiance of popular assent”. While the EU’s predecessor entities were themselves “pre-democratic”, they did facilitate a remarkable expansion of exchange (cultural and social as well as economic) between European citizens, and as such enjoyed a good deal of popular legitimacy. The post-Lisbon EU, by contrast, is “globally ambitious, calculatedly anti-democratic and unpopular”, even though there remains in spite of this a remarkably persistent loyalty to the European idea among the continent’s peoples.

The Remain campaign of 2016 likewise comes in for acidic, and penetrating, criticism. Its complete inability to offer any inspiring, constructive and positive case for Britain’s future in the EU condemned it to defeat against an opposition that at least appeared to dangle out the prospect of a kind of disruption to the prevailing political stasis, and the opportunity to deliver a dressing-down to a despised and discredited political elite. With the resistance to both Trump and Brexit fronted by unpopular and deeply unattractive establishment figures, neither the Remain campaign nor that of Hillary Clinton could compete with what Barnett calls “the jailbreak factor”, as supplied by the other side. In Barnett’s reading, so dismayed by and alienated from the political process had so many people become, “the sheer lure of agency” and the opportunity to at least have some impact on it proved irresistible to millions on both sides of the Atlantic in 2016.

Barnett sees Trump and Brexit as marking the decisive defenestration of a political caste epitomised by what he calls “the CBCs”: the Bushes, the Clintons, Blair and Cameron. As Michael Rustin has pointed out in his review of the book, however, there is a certain ‘O’ missing from this list, whose absence goes unexplained. Nevertheless, Barnett argues that the discontent generated by the misrule of the CBCs was extensive and deep-seated: he singles out in particular the carnage unleashed in Iraq and the devastation of the global financial crisis after 2008. These twin disasters, based as they were on falsehoods and fairy stories about weapons of mass destruction, democracy promotion and ‘the great moderation’, combined with the total unwillingness of this political elite to hold anyone effectively accountable for them after the fact, culminated in “a palpable and historic breach of trust”, which was followed in the years after by a “widespread withdrawal of consent” on the part of electorates.

In the end, neither the movement against the Iraq war nor the Occupy movement could topple the CBCs from their lofty perch. While it is certainly true that, with the rise of Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the US, many have come to look to the left to forge a better future beyond neoliberal stagnation and badly-managed decline, the primary beneficiary of the CBCs’ faltering hegemony up to now has been the populist hard right; Barnett recounts how “a chauvinist element of the 1 per cent itself, resentful of cosmopolitanism, contemptuous of tradition, profiteers of shock and misrule” came to capitalise on popular discontent, despite having fully supported the wars and economic looting that did so much to generate that discontent to begin with. By exploiting the fears and prejudices exacerbated by the ‘war on terror’ and then turbo-charged by a financial crisis that left many people more open to the appeal of xenophobic and racist demagogy, it was this elite fraction that “helped bring the era of the CBCs to an end”. The conservative-liberal centre, itself long complicit in the scapegoating of migrants, was in no position to argue back, and has since drawn exactly the wrong conclusions.

A full appreciation of the liberal centre’s role is crucial in understanding how we got here. Liz Fekete, in Europe’s Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right, contextualises (like Barnett) the recent revival of the populist far right in the aftermath of the ‘war on terror’ and the global financial crisis.2 Fekete, however, devotes particular attention to the specific part the conservative-liberal centre has played in making the far right’s political obsessions more salient. She traces how the latter’s arguments have been steadily mainstreamed over the course of many years, resulting in “convergences across the political spectrum on cultural policies towards minority communities”. Preoccupied with culture rather than economics (beyond some mood music about economic nationalism, it has “no radical critique of transnational capital, and has no economic or employment programmes beyond more nativism”), the modern far right has enjoyed considerable success in dragging the political centre towards it; so much so that by the early 2010s, performative denunciations of multiculturalism and its alleged failure had become standard fare for leading figures on the European centre-right, including David Cameron and Angela Merkel. And as David Renton has added, the centre-right has responded to the threat of the far right by conceding ground to it and echoing its rhetoric, but the centre-left combats forces to its left with an extraordinary tenacity.3

There was never any prospect of these same people mounting any credible fightback against the migrant-baiting of the populist right as it reached fever pitch in 2016. Sticking timidly to economistic arguments, the Remain and Clinton campaigns alike offered little either to debunk far-right myths or to inspire any positive enthusiasm for its own cause (it is indicative that a mass Remain movement only emerged subsequently, rather than being brought into being during the original referendum campaign). The Remain campaign in particular restricted itself to “narrow, transactional advantage” and shied away from setting out any alternative vision for popular democracy or sovereignty within Europe for fear that engaging on this terrain would cost it support. The Labour In campaign was little better, likewise failing to engage with these issues and instead hammering away at the theme “that the EU is on balance preferable for workers, in terms of their rights and the economy, without any larger sense of continental solidarity”. For both wings of the campaign, arguing for EU membership in these restricted terms “was a visionless perspective even if true”.

Cameron and the Tory liberals around him treated the EU referendum as if there was no great issue of political principle at stake (a concept with which they would, in any event, be unfamiliar), just business interests: “for Cameron’s circle, Remain was a matter of convenience. The Brexiteers believed in getting out.” Cameron’s superficial project of post-Blairite modernisation and social liberalism, meanwhile, had put down only shallow roots in the Tory Party and failed to retain the allegiance of a serious grassroots base within it. Forced to call an in/out referendum simply to ward off the threat posed by UKIP, Cameron and his cohorts “were running the government against the grain of what was left of their own party, modelling themselves on the Blair trajectory, lacking a political hinterland”. The rapid collapse of the Cameron project in the aftermath of the referendum and the marginalisation of the dwindling band of Tory liberals in Parliament – not to mention the parade of grotesques that comprises the party’s ongoing leadership contest – illustrated just how weak its foundations were. Much like their Blairite counterparts in Labour (whom they greately admired), the Cameronites could only exert “a weightless hegemony” over their party, one always liable to evaporating as soon as it failed to deliver the results at the ballot box.

Standing in stark contrast to this was the visceral appeal of Leave. The Brexiteers’ rhetoric about change, however bogus, proved highly potent against a rudderless Remain campaign that could offer no substantial argument – beyond prophesying economic doomsday – to win over an alienated and frustrated electorate, especially one subject over many years to the pernicious influence of a furiously jingoistic and nativist popular press. Boris Johnson, despite his own opportunism in backing Leave, ridiculed Cameron for his inability to mount a full-throated defence of the EU. Barnett notes that the appeal of ‘take back control’ as a slogan was double-edged; it gestured towards reclaiming powers from the EU but moreover, “to restore to us something we once had” (i.e. control over borders, effective parliamentary sovereignty, phantasms of racial homogeneity). Thus it combined a frisson of danger and apparent rebelliousness against the status quo with a backward-looking attraction: that of “reassuring restoration”. Much the same can be said, Barnett adds, of Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’. The Democrats’ hopeless riposte that America was “already great” therefore proved to be exactly the worst possible response, implying that it was sufficient simply to keep everything much the same as it was.

Barnett takes care to reject flattening narratives about the Leave vote, recognising its complex, confused and often contradictory nature, and stresses the diversity of regional and local political cultures, but at the same time he acknowledges that its ability to attract support in many traditionally Labour-voting towns (often brutalised by years of deindustrialisation) was crucial to getting Leave over the line. He rightly insists that “middle-class Conservatives were Brexit’s centre of gravity”, and we should always remember that despite how they are often portrayed, these post-industrial towns are not in the least bit monolithic, either politically or socially. However, Barnett emphasises that Leave strategists had to find a way of appealing to enough people in these struggling rust-belt areas across the North of England, Midlands and Wales if they were to win. Decades of grievance-mongering towards Brussels (and, of course, migrants, the two commonly being conflated) on the part of Britain’s popular press had already “laid the ground” for this, enabling a campaign with reactionary Tory interests at its spearhead to successfully reach out beyond party binaries, and into areas where in previous years many Conservatives had often feared to tread.

He also argues against resorting to the coping mechanism of “denying legitimacy” to the votes for Brexit and Trump. It is greatly to Barnett’s credit that despite the long series of traumatic reverses suffered by the left in recent decades, his faith in popular capacities remains apparently undimmed. He therefore bluntly warns that simply dismissing Brexit and Trump voters as ill-educated is dangerously anti-democratic: “The subtext is that the thick and stupid lack the necessary faculties to decide a country’s future.” Some observers draw comfort from telling themselves that “the more lumpen they are the less we need to regard them as agents”, but such borderline misanthropy holds no weight with Barnett. Most people are capable of seeing clearly enough that political elites do not inhabit the same lifeworld as them or care for their interests, without there being any need for Russian bots to tell them. This is why, in Barnett’s view, terms like ‘left behind’ fail to capture the reality of what has taken place; it implies passivity and “evaporates agency and responsibility on both sides”.

The Leave campaign was notable primarily for its rank xenophobia and general backwardness, and the result of the first referendum only served to bolster the aggressive jingoism of the Tory government. Yet at the same time, the opportunity to vote Leave appeared to present people with “a way of busting open the lack of choice” in a stifling context of what Colin Crouch has called ‘post-democracy’.4 Indeed, it is hard to imagine the 2017 general election panning out in quite the way it did had the referendum of the previous year not caused such obvious cracks to appear in the facade of Britain’s political establishment. This is why it is imperative, says Barnett, that instead of simply shoring up the unsteady position of the old ruling caste, those who oppose both Brexit and Trump undertake a careful and patient effort to construct the alliances that can channel social discontent into a far-reaching democratic reconstruction.

Movement-building and the constitutional question

Yet the roots of Brexit, in Barnett’s view, are much more fundamental than mere discontent towards the indifference of a callous and self-absorbed political elite, or even the legacy of industrial decline. For Barnett, the British state itself is “the deep cause of Brexit”. English resentment (or at least English resentment outside the metropole) towards the EU is, in Barnett’s reading, “a displacement of feelings for their own elite”. Unable hitherto to liberate themselves from the absurdities and anachronisms of the British state, English voters instead take aim at ‘Brussels’, on which they tend to project that which discomforts them about their own nation state and its antiquated governing apparatus.

Popular consent for the mechanisms of the British state has been weakened further by those who have attempted to modernise it. New Labour’s incoherent efforts at constitutional reform have, Barnett argues, only served to exacerbate the British state’s deepening crisis of legitimacy, and “generated a sense of vulnerability and defensiveness, especially for the English who had seen the old one dismantled around them”. The higgledy-piggledy nature of Blairite constitutional reform – the effective subordination of the Commons to the party whips, the unwillingness to either democratise the Lords (potentially putting it on a collision course with the Commons) or abolish it (reallocating its responsibilities for scrutinising elsewhere, forcing the Commons to take legislative detail more seriously) and the effective elimination of Cabinet government by Blair – has created a fundamental conflict between its constituent elements: “the disintegration of the parts mean[s] each starts to work against the other”.

Barnett points out that where Scotland, Northern Ireland and London each voted Remain by a wide margin, it was “England-without-London” that proved decisive in securing the win for Leave (he acknowledges that several other major English cities voted Remain while Wales narrowly voted Leave, but skirts around this somewhat, perhaps because it would overly complicate his polemic). Only by Scotland and Wales taking their leave from what Tom Nairn has called ‘Ukania’ can the English “emancipate themselves from the integument of the British system”. Barnett envisages the House of Commons serving as the de jure basis of what he asserts it already is de facto: an English parliament, allowing for the emergence of a looser and healthier form of Britishness, enduring in the form of “the many sites and sources of British identity… and doubtless in shared institutions as well”. Barnett supports regional devolution and decentralisation, but insists that English progressives must address themselves to “the national question”. In this way, he believes, England might yet resume its place at the heart of Europe to play a full and positive role in its democratic renewal.

Yet even Barnett still seems to find it difficult to imagine the English accepting such a new, modernised liberal-democratic settlement and the apparent diminution of their own national status it would involve, “because it seems unthinkable for the English to be on their own” – in other words, they find at least some meaning and satisfaction in keeping Scotland and Wales inside the British fold, subordinate to themselves. Of course it is not the responsibility of the Scots or the Welsh to save their English neighbours from their own follies. But the departure of Scotland and Wales from the Union, far from liberating the English to assume an enthusiastic role as engaged Europeans, would surely be far more likely to produce a sullen nationalist reaction, putting rocket boosters under the reactionary culture wars already proving so suffocating, as well as dramatically narrowing the scope for progressive politics south (or east) of the border.

Also imprisoned by its devotion to the Union is the Labour Party. Barnett argues that its attachment to its Britishness is umbilical to Labourism, reflecting its multinational heritage and that of the wider working-class movement in Britain: “the Labour Party was co-created by Scottish and Welsh leaders alongside English ones… the island’s working class was formed by Clydeside and the Welsh valleys as much as by the Black Country and the London docks”. Barnett surmises that this has left its leaders in more recent years unable to come to terms with the re-emergence of Englishness, while “an absolute commitment to governing alone, that is built into winner-takes-all Westminster politics” prevents it from reaching out to potential allies who may be able to help it achieve its aims.

Barnett recognises that Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the Labour leadership represented a far healthier rebellion against the neoliberal consensus than Brexit or Trump and welcomes it to that extent, but he is still equivocal about the man himself and his personal politics. Corbyn’s political outlook (which Barnett differentiates from that of Momentum and large elements of his support base) is ultimately dismissed as “regressive radicalism”. Barnett highlights in particular Corbyn’s apparent constitutional conservatism and his reluctance hitherto to address the question of the British state; to this end, Barnett despairingly quotes Corbyn’s undeniably tone-deaf rebuke to the SNP, delivered at Scottish Labour conference in 2017: “You can’t eat a flag.” Barnett sees Corbyn as “a Labour tribalist, opposed to electoral pacts even in by-elections”, and as such, inevitably against the introduction of proportional representation at Westminster. In this respect Corbyn is, for Barnett, restoring the traditional Labourist framework after the deviation of Blairism.

In addition, Barnett laments Corbynism’s “asphyxiation in the leather benches of Westminster” and ascribes this to Corbyn’s own “antique origins”. But this somewhat flattens the actual history of Labour’s New Left, of which Jeremy Corbyn is a product, and its healthy if inchoate scepticism about the limitations of parliamentary democracy (for which Corbyn has been repeatedly traduced, with Neil Kinnock once hilariously accusing him of harbouring “syndicalist” sympathies). Writing as he was prior to the 2017 general election, Barnett states baldly that “Labour can never win power on its own again, even with an electoral miracle”, and that a progressive alliance encompassing Greens, nationalists and apparently even Lib Dems is instead required. Barnett questions why Labour has so far demurred from embracing electoral pacts with other left of centre parties, but without interrogating these and their potential suitability as partners to a socialist-led government; instead, he puts it down to “Labour’s unrequited adoration of Great Britain… the love affair its supporters cannot relinquish”.

What is needed here, however, is a critical appraisal of the forces a Corbyn-led government is expected to partner with. There are legitimate reasons, beyond simply being a stuck-in-the-mud on the constitutional question or a party tribalist, to be sceptical of the prospects of a ‘progressive alliance’ holding firm in government, especially in carrying through both a left-wing economic programme and constitutional reform. Events following the European elections, which have provided the opportunity for yet another round of attacks on Corbyn’s leadership, have demonstrated once more that the Labour Party itself barely hangs together as a progressive alliance. Adding the nationalist parties, Greens and Liberal Democrats to that already volatile mix is hardly a cure-all. Nor are the hostilities between these parties only one-way. Vince Cable in particular has already made it clear that far from being prepared to support a Corbyn-led government, he would sooner work with right-wing Labour backbenchers to prevent one. Besides, the Lib Dems can hardly be said to have pursued electoral reform with too much zeal when in government, securing a referendum on a system that even Nick Clegg didn’t want, and then losing it by a landslide. Admittedly, their price for any arrangement with Labour would probably not be so modest.

In any case, it is insufficient to discuss progressive alliances as electoral pacts alone, without also considering what sort of alliances it might take to develop a robust counter-hegemony. The level of radical and socialist political consciousness remains very low; hardly surprising, given that before Corbynism, the dreaded S word had all but disappeared from British political discourse. Yet without addressing this fundamental weakness and re-establishing socialist perspectives as an everyday cultural presence, the most any left-wing government can realistically hope to obtain is a tenuous grip on power. In pursuing a programme of extensive social reform, any such government must expect and be prepared to face bitter and unscrupulous opposition. Cobbling together a parliamentary majority is necessary, but on its own it is a long way from being sufficient for the colossal task ahead. The often splenetic reaction against Corbynism, which Barnett doesn’t address, despite its presently modest demands ought to have made this apparent enough.

What disturbs Corbynism’s most intransigent opponents is less its existing programme of social reform and more its potential for further radicalisation, including with regard to the state. Hilary Wainwright’s account of the backlash against Bennism in Labour: A Tale of Two Parties5 makes it clear that in attempting to subject sitting MPs to mandatory reselection, the Bennites were implicitly calling the prerogatives of the British state into question. What they were rejecting was “the closed, class-based character of the British state”, and “the long tradition of British rule from above”. They might not have consciously realised the gravity of all this themselves, but the parliamentarians and their allies certainly did, and hence they appreciated that this challenge from below represented merely the “thin edge of… a very dangerous wedge”. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys likewise concur with Wainwright that while the Bennites’ ideas in this area were “mostly speculative and incomplete” – as are those of the Corbynites today – their critical, adversarial stance towards the British political establishment nonetheless proved highly unsettling for it, and in posing even this half-formed threat they incited a furious reaction.6 The pursuit of more substantial constitutional change can expect to meet with an even fiercer response, and this is why it needs the support of a firm popular movement behind it, with solid roots in the working class.

The constitutional question is certainly a long way higher up the political agenda in Scotland than it is in England, where in recent years (despite the best efforts of some, including Dan Hind) it has barely been broached on the left. There unavoidably remains, therefore, a long process of consciousness-raising and movement-building to be undertaken before Corbynism can stand any real chance of advancing meaningfully beyond the limitations of its existing brand of left social democracy. In particular, this requires a radical renovation of the labour movement itself, and the development of new ways of engaging with and relating to its various social constituencies. Social movement activity – despite the nascent revival of environmentalism – remains generally weak, however, and Corbynism’s grassroots support has struggled to establish a consistent campaigning presence outside of general elections and the leadership campaigns of 2015 and 2016. The Labour Party itself remains a narrowly-focused electoral machine, whereas it needs to become (having never consistently served these functions in a history stretching back well over a century) a vehicle for socialist political education and the development of popular capacities. Only in this way, furthermore, might it succeed in waging an effective ideological struggle against racism and nativism.

Without such a renewal, it will be impossible for the labour movement to properly grasp the nettle, and challenge the alienation and disaffection so prevalent in the “England-without-London” Barnett discusses and into which, it has to be said, continuity Remain still appears largely unwilling to venture. Incidentally, instead of raising over £400,000 for billboard posters of people’s tweets, continuity Remain would likely be in a stronger position had it crowdfunded for community organisers. To understand the strength of the reactionary right in so many post-industrial areas we need to appreciate, first, the breakdown of post-war social democracy and then the subsequent disappearance of the Labour Party and the trade union movement from everyday working-class life. The institutions of the labour movement once formed what Ralph Miliband called a “world of labour”, encompassing “parties, trade unions, cooperatives, a labour and socialist press, associations and groups of every kind”. As this world of labour withdrew from the communities it once helped to sustain amid a welter of defeats for the wider labour movement, so reactionary alternatives fell upon increasingly fertile ground. Leo Panitch has put it succinctly: “The appeal of less taxation, law and order and chauvinism can be a strong one, even if only temporarily, when reformism has little else on offer.”7

Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to see such a transformation through, enabling the labour movement to construct a new world of labour equipped for the challenges of the 21st century, is legitimately open to question. It may well be that after nearly four years of enervating struggle simply to obtain some sort of grip on the party apparatus, the ambitions of Corbynism have settled on the implementation of a programme of modest amelioration, alleviating the worst damage of almost a decade of austerity but going little further. It is far from clear that the Labour Party is at present equipped even for this modest task. But if it is to lay the foundations for more fundamental social change in the future, Corbynism has to be prepared to radically change the way Labour operates, and to find new ways of engaging with movements and campaigns outwith the institutions of the official labour movement, as Barnett hints at. Discussion of prospective progressive alliances therefore needs to go well beyond electoral pacts, to deal with establishing the labour movement as a pole of attraction around which an array of social movements and campaigning groups might coalesce, without surrendering their own autonomy or subordinating themselves to Labour’s immediate electoral concerns.

Remain and reform: a study in ‘constructive ambiguity’

Barnett is clear that any attempt to restore the pre-Brexit and pre-Trump status quo as if nothing had happened is setting itself up for inevitable failure, and that at best it could only recreate the conditions which initially produced Brexit and Trump. He adds that the Brexit project, however, was always doomed to run aground as its contradictions became apparent; Theresa May’s sloganeering about how Brexit meant Brexit succeeded for a time in holding together an apparently formidable electoral bloc, but this could only break down as soon as she was forced to elaborate further. As Barnett puts it: “The fruits of Brexit cannot satisfy the contradictory passions of its rag-bag of supporters.” Beholden to an increasingly Poujadiste popular base hankering after the hardest possible Brexit, and simultaneously subordinate to corporate interests mostly petrified of the idea, May could not reconcile the two – and her failure to do so both ended her own career in frontline politics and opened the door to Farage once more.

Having said all this, Barnett observes that ‘the 48%’ is riven with contradictions of its own. The continuity Remain campaign continues to be dominated by hangers-on to the CBCs (with Tony Blair and his equally ghoulish former mouthpiece Alistair Campbell insisting on personally haunting proceedings), exploiting their fulsome financial backing and their easy media access to the full: “its leading voices are still largely Blairite and Cameroon, representatives of a deceitful, undemocratic past clinging to the hope of restitution”. It is indeed clear that many among the old centrist establishment are relishing the opportunity Brexit has provided them to appear to be on the side of the angels, after years of meek acquiescence if not giddy support for austerity, war and privatisation, while also discombobulating their adversaries to their left. Any Remainers hoping that the old guard would simply retreat into the background and hand over the reins to the likes of Caroline Lucas in a second referendum campaign therefore appear to be in for a nasty shock. Thus Barnett argues that “those of us who voted Remain need to prepare for the break-up of our alliance, which is at least as shaky as those who supported Leave, to reach out to the democratic anger behind the Brexit vote”. ‘The 48%’ as currently constituted only survives as long as a degree of quietism endures and its most progressive elements acquiesce to a predominantly liberal leadership; a state of affairs which Barnett apparently does not see lasting indefinitely.

While Barnett appreciates that only a radical project of democratisation can counter Brexit effectively by addressing the demand for change and the underlying “jailbreak factor” so crucial in motivating an influential section of the Leave vote, he is less clear about what form that project might take in Europe itself. Of course, he is far from alone in this: it is a wider shortcoming of the anti-Brexit left as a whole, and it would be unreasonable to expect Barnett to personally lay out a full blueprint. ‘Remain and reform’ has become the watchword of the anti-Brexit left (and after the European elections, there are renewed demands that Labour adopt this as its firm position), but there continues to be a distinct hesitancy when it comes to actually levelling with people about the scale of the struggle any effective ‘Remain and reform’ project would entail. It is one thing to oppose Brexit on the grounds that it is overwhelmingly being led by deeply reactionary and regressive forces; this is incontestable. But unless it is prepared to concretely spell out what it would mean to democratise the European Union, the anti-Brexit left risks leading its supporters up the garden path. Discussion of European institutions and the future direction these might take was notably absent from the recent election campaign in Britain, though it is true that the campaign was a truncated one.

Labour has frequently been accused of deliberately cultivating a degree of ‘constructive ambiguity’ with regard to its positioning on Brexit, but in the absence of further detail and a viable strategy, the label might equally be applied to those pursuing a ‘Remain and reform’ line. This lack of clarity bodes ill for any second referendum. Certainly, Lexit was not on the ballot paper in 2016, and the narrow Leave vote can hardly be said to provide any mandate for it; without a left government (as a bare minimum condition) the question of Lexit is moot in any case. While the Lexit critique of the EU has important merits, and its proponents are right to doubt that the EU is capable of the extensive democratic reform envisaged by left Remainers, the political and organisational foundations have clearly not been laid for a rupture of this magnitude. But it would be disastrous for socialists or indeed any consistent social democrats worth their salt simply to cling to Europe’s tottering neoliberal status quo, which would be totally counter-productive even as a defensive strategy against the oncoming threat from the far right: to regard the EU as any sort of bulwark against this is, as Enzo Traverso has warned, “a dangerous illusion”.8

Just shy of three years on from the 2016 referendum, opacity still surrounds the precise form ‘Remain and reform’ might take, and how the firm multinational alliances necessary to put it into practice might be developed. Urte Macikene, writing as a partisan of the anti-Brexit left, has acknowledged that it “struggled from the start to articulate a public position independent from free-trade liberals”. In the absence of such an independent position, far from leading the liberal centre in a radical, internationalist alliance for drastic democratic reform of the EU as it aspires to do, the anti-Brexit left is instead likely to find itself relegated to playing second fiddle. The significance of this is unlikely to be lost on the liberals. The sight of the ludicrous Guy Verhofstadt, having seen the far right consolidate its position across Europe, cockily hailing the May elections as a triumph for European liberalism only indicates once again that the entirely unwarranted complacency of their counterparts on the continent remains incredibly resilient.

Rather than being a matter of sending well-intentioned MEPs to Brussels, to meaningfully democratise the European Union would require enormous mass mobilisation and political militancy from below, and a dramatic shift in the balance of class forces in Europe. Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval have emphasised the immense difficulty of this task,9 about which the anti-Brexit left has been far from clear. Dardot and Laval insist that the absence of effective popular democracy at the European level cannot be reduced to “some ‘deficit’ that could be remedied by an institutional supplement”. Instead, to create a meaningfully democratic, social Europe would be “to break with the whole treaty system”, a process which can only be driven by “a transnational democratic citizenship”. It is this coherent European demos – a prerequisite in order for any popular movement to assert its will effectively against the current direction of the European project and steer it on a new course – which is lacking, and to the development of which existing European institutions have not proven conducive.10

Though some recent opinion polls have indicated that Labour might be on course for a possible Commons majority, albeit on the back of a low share of a fragmented vote, it would be very optimistic to put much stock in them. Whether the Brexit Party will be a factor at the next general election remains to be seen. A betrayal narrative, in addition, could prove incredibly powerful both as a cudgel to be wielded against Labour in general and specifically as a grievance for the far right to nurse. It goes without saying that this is not an argument against a second referendum in itself – nobody should hand the far right a veto over democracy – but the danger of this potential backlash has scarcely been taken seriously into consideration, let alone adequately prepared for. Nobody who experienced the first referendum should expect a second to provide any sort of healing process or an opportunity for reconciliation.

Unhelpful as ever is the brazen opportunism of the Labour right, which only increases the chances of a chaotic hard Brexit and greatly complicates the imperative of mobilising a broad popular movement against its likely implications if such an outcome materialises. The right is determined to use Brexit as a wedge issue to separate the party leadership from its grassroots base, which it attempted to do during the 2016 leadership contest with rather less success. Daniel Finn is justified in suggesting that many of the Parliamentary Labour Party’s loudest anti-Brexit voices would be only too happy if Labour’s likely pivot to Remain cost Jeremy Corbyn the chance to become Prime Minister, and People’s Vote has served as an important staging post for sorties against the Labour leadership. Tom Watson’s Damascene conversion to the Remain cause is particularly difficult to credit, with Watson having mocked the Liberal Democrats as “Brexit deniers” two-and-a-half years ago for taking a similar stance to the one he has now adopted. Even if Corbyn were to get the general election he has spent so long calling for, any attempt to govern with a PLP more or less unchanged from what it is at present would risk a debacle.

Interviewed in the wake of the European election results, Diane Abbott indicated strongly that Labour will now prioritise the pursuit of a second referendum, but in doing so the party must take great care not to hamper its own ability to broaden the discussion onto wider issues of social injustice. It must also redouble its efforts to rebuild trust in those working-class areas that voted Leave and put forward a constructive socialist alternative to the politics of insularity and resentment. This has to include, at long last, taking a much bolder stance in support of migrant solidarity and freedom of movement, recognising and actively opposing the brutality of Europe’s external border regime as well.11 The Labour leadership has triangulated for too long on the issue of migration, and one possible upside of a second referendum is that this could provide it with an opening to make the positive and internationalist case which it should have been making consistently from the start.

Were Corbyn’s Labour to prostrate itself before a second Remain campaign run along the same liberal lines as the first one, however, it would deprive itself once and for all of the “insurgent spirit” that provided it with such vitality in 2017, and to which Nigel Farage is now fraudulently laying claim. Having two politically distinctive Remain campaign vehicles (one firmly leftist, one liberal) might be an improvement on last time, but the campaign with the superior finances and more extensive media contacts will tend to drown out the other. It is certainly a fallacy to breezily suggest, as so many pundits do, that there are any easy answers for Labour from here, rather than a search for the least worst option.

  1. Anthony Barnett, The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit & America’s Trump, Unbound 2017. 

  2. Liz Fekete, Europe’s Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right, Verso 2018. 

  3. David Renton, The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right, Pluto Press/Left Book Club 2019, p16.  

  4. Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy, Polity Press 2004. 

  5. Hilary Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, Hogarth Press 1987, p49-57. 

  6. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour, Verso 2001, p9-12. 

  7. Leo Panitch, Working Class Politics in Crisis: Essays on Labour and the State, Verso 1986, p21. 

  8. Enzo Traverso, The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right, Verso 2019, p8-9. 

  9. Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Never-Ending Nightmare: The Neoliberal Assault on Democracy, Verso 2019, p97-8. 

  10. Costas Lapavitsas, The Left Case Against the EU, Polity Press 2018, p114-5. 

  11. For a study of Europe’s external border regime and its effects, see Antonis Vradis, Evie Papada, Joe Painter and Anna Papoutsi, New Borders: Hotspots and the European Migration Regime, Pluto Press 2018.