Two nations… within one party
The Labour party does not have a right to exist and after yesterday’s vote there is no guarantee of its long-term survival as a national political force. The referendum has divided the nation in two, delivering a more socially and geographically polarised result than any election in recent times. And that division has split Labour supporters right down the middle, in spite of the party’s clear support for ‘remain’.
For Labour to prosper it must rebuild trust and connections with the millions of people who voted ‘leave’, but without walking away from its ‘remain’ supporters. It must unite everyone who shares its commitment to economic and social justice, wherever and whoever they are – be they cultural ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’. Some of that can be done by changing policies, but the greater challenge is for Labour to change how it sounds, looks and feels, so that it offers a natural home for people from every background and walk of life.
In electoral terms, the challenge Labour faces is not to defend a few ex-industrial constituencies from the UKIP insurgency, it is to win hundreds of seats again in Scotland and in the bell-weather seats of middle England and Wales. That requires a ‘one nation’ politics of patriotism and social progress – coupled with convincing leadership and economic credibility – which binds different sorts of people together.
A mandate for change, but no clear path
The people of Britain have rejected the status quo, but they have not endorsed a particular path for where the country goes from here. Labour may not have chosen Brexit, but the left can and must now seize the initiative to shape the UK’s future. Only one thing is clear. This result is an instruction to place a limit on the free movement of people between the UK and the rest of Europe. But beyond that, there is no reason why Brexit Britain should not be rooted in the left’s values of openness, solidarity and internationalism. In particular, Britain should retain the close links it has with the EU today, including as many of the benefits of our existing economic, security and diplomatic cooperation as possible.
The left must lead the fight against free-market versions of Brexit, which seek to sacrifice social and environmental protection. It must make the case for controlled but continuing migration so that newcomers can work in vital industries, study in our world-leading universities, seek sanctuary and join their families. And it must fight and win the case for an internationalist version of Brexit built on cooperation and integration with the EU and, through that, a central place for the UK in world affairs. Only that version of Brexit, along with a new relationship between the nations of the UK, will convince many in Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain part of the union.
In the stormy economic waters ahead, Labour must also make the case for government activism, as the only way to secure shared prosperity for the people of Britain. Even before this vote, the UK’s economic fundamentals were a cause for grave concern, and the short-term shock and uncertainty arising from the Brexit decision will make matters worse for some time. Free-market economics weren’t working before this decision, and they certainly won’t work now.
If economic intervention is needed to prevent or mitigate recession, it must not just be the banks who are the beneficiaries this time. Labour must make the case for large-scale public investment, in every corner of the country, and for policies that put money in the pockets of ordinary families, as the twin pillars of a post-referendum economic response. This vote must mark the end of austerity and the dawn of new fiscal policies based on the long-term needs of the economy.
A new national identity
The economic challenges are serious enough, but the greatest long-term dilemma facing the country is to create a new, unifying understanding of Britain’s sense of itself and its place in the world. Only a minority of people have ever been true Europhiles (although the membership of the Fabian Society has always included a good number), but for half a century the UK’s place in the EU has defined who we are as a nation.
Now that is no more, who are we? What does our diverse and divided community want to be and to become? The ‘leave’ campaign has wallowed in the nostalgia of Empire and ‘little England’, offering no forward-looking story – except for a divisive economic libertarianism which few Brexit voters themselves support.
Again, the left must lead. Britain needs to forge a new national identity based on both a civic patriotism – which encompasses the whole UK without dismissing English identity – and a sense of common endeavour with our international partners. Each must be based on Labour values of solidarity, tolerance and respect, for the alternative is a fractured, disintegrating union, without friendship or influence around the world.
The task now for the left, is to shape Brexit in its image.