After the election: confronting Brexit
Richard Rawles dissects Labour’s failure to stop, or even in parts oppose, Brexit, and argues that although Remain has lost, the values of Remain must prevail.
So, that was that. We lost the election, the hideous Boris Johnson and his party (no longer really a conservative party — more an English nationalist party these days) won. Naturally the overwhelming feeling is grief and dismay.
I don’t intend to indulge too much in a post mortem here. It is enough to say that while people have some reason to say that the problem was we lost majority-leave seats, it does not follow that being more Brexity would have helped us. We would have lost other seats and other votes.
Perhaps more importantly, what I shall call the “spirit of Brexit” was never one to which Labour could appeal in its present shape. Even while Labour (or anyway its leader) was studiedly neutral on how to behave in a second referendum, we were committed to extending the franchise to all UK residents. We were not willing overtly to oppose Freedom of Movement relations with the EU, even while we lacked the courage overtly to favour them (the only way to get the kind of Brexit the leadership claimed we wanted).
Whatever we said about the specific issue of how to leave the EU, we were not presenting ourselves as a party to appeal to the nativist and anti-immigration sentiments that the Brexit vote represented. Nor should we; nor could we.
Our manifesto simultaneously appeased Brexit specifically while opposing everything it stood for. The voters aren’t stupid. They knew that if they were committed to Brexit as a first order issue Labour wasn’t their party, and that is a sign we were in the right place, because we shouldn’t win by conceding to the nationalist right. We needed to win by advocating other values; and we did not succeed.
Meanwhile something else has happened. To a large degree behind Labour’s back, a huge swathe of liberal, left-wing and progressive-minded Britain has made this the country with the biggest pro-EU movement of any. The ‘Remoaner’ cause is the biggest thing to hit the streets since the Stop the War movement of 2003. Like the Stop the War movement, it lost — and it’s still there.
We can’t stop Brexit now, because a minority of voters has elected a majority government to deliver it (don’t like that? rethink Labour’s position on electoral reform, then…). But we must think about how to respond to the new situation.
Some things are, in my view, unchanged.
We need people to come here and work here (especially but not only in Scotland) and we must not let nativist sentiment stop us from welcoming those who would make their home and work among us.
When it comes to nativist sentiment, we can’t win. “Immigration mugs” didn’t help us (nor should they have done). Gordon Brown was one of the most eloquent of Remain campaigners but his “British jobs for British workers” line was part of an accommodation with nativism which helped to provide the conditions for our present difficulties. There are many others who were rightly for remain who still bowed to xenophobic rhetoric when it suited them. It never worked. Nor should it have done.
The party is naturally focusing on the seats where we made shocking losses in the general election, and (probably in a simplistic way) relating that to our Brexit policy. But we must have an eye to our whole coalition. In the end we cannot be a “Britain first” nationalist party. We have to hold on to our ideals and faith in our cause.
Above all, we have to remind ourselves of the perpetual and greatest question: “Who is my neighbour?”. If Labour is not the party which can clearly identify those living around me and those I work with — Scots, English people, Italians, Germans, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, people from different parts of Asia and Africa, from across the EU and the world — as “my neighbour”, we are failing and we deserve to fail.
So: Remain has lost. But the values of Remain must win. For us as a socialist party this is the only way.