These are dark days for Britain, for the left, and for the Fabian way. The outcome of the referendum was a defeat for Fabianism – a rejection of our internationalism, our collectivism, our spirit of tolerance and openness. It was a defeat for evidence, reason and expertise. On the left, there were individual leave supporters who wanted Brexit for good reasons. But the proposition put to the electorate, and the conduct of the campaign, makes this a victory for right-wing politics: for deceitful populism, close-minded nostalgia and unabated freemarket economics.
Perhaps there is a slim chance that Brexit will never happen, if the UK is offered a terrible deal in the context of deepening recession. But the left cannot proceed on that basis. It must instead aim to shape the future, by offering strong parliamentary opposition to Theresa May’s right-wing cabal of Brexit ministers. On the one hand, Labour MPs must make the case for the UK remaining as integrated with our neighbours as possible (not least so we can remain a single, united kingdom). On the other hand, MPs cannot ignore the public’s verdict on migration, which is the only clear message from the Brexit vote.
Balancing these two requirements demands political acumen, dexterity and rigour – three qualities which the Labour frontbench seems incapable of mustering today. Indeed, as things stand, the party offers no opposition worthy of the name. The Conservatives may have created this crisis, but they have moved fast to crown a new prime minister and preserve their grip on power. By contrast, after a referendum defeat that was not of its making, Labour faces an existential crisis unseen since the early 1930s.
The ultimate source of the party’s problems is its broken relationship with the people it exists to serve. The Labour party was founded to give low and middle earners a voice and a platform, but a clear majority of non-graduates rejected Labour in the referendum and would not vote for it in an election today. Labour has no electoral future unless it rebuilds this relationship. Its current ‘Obama’ coalition of liberal-minded graduates, public sector workers and ethnic minorities is not enough, especially with our current electoral system.
Almost all Labour MPs know this, even though most of them come from the party’s dominant metropolitan milieu. But it seems the same is not true of a growing number of party members and, tragically, of the leadership of the major trade unions. The present crisis has arisen because too many seem intent on putting narrow ideological purity ahead of electoral success, practical social reform and relationships with typical voters.
This is not to say that Labour should be a rudderless vessel for the electorate’s passing whims. But Labour’s civil war is not between true socialists and tepid focus group centrists. Jeremy Corbyn won in 2015 because the rest of the Labour party seemed to have nothing new to say, but that is starting to change. Supposedly moderate backbenchers are now backing radical ideas, from a tax on worldwide wealth to a basic income for all, and Owen Smith’s platform is sincerely collectivist and egalitarian.
The divide is instead about the purpose of the Labour party as a political project: to represent members or communities? To organise as a movement or win parliamentary power? For Fabians, Labour is ﬁrst and foremost a force to change people’s lives through parliamentary democracy and elected government. After all, in 1906, the Labour party was named not by afﬁliated unions or by members, but by its MPs. With such huge divisions within Britain and Europe, Labour must look beyond its own internal troubles, reunite around its parliamentary party and set out a democratic socialist vision for Britain after Brexit.