On 23 June 2016 the British people voted by 52 per cent to 48 per cent to withdraw from the European Union, of which we had been a member since 1973. They did so against the warnings and scare tactics of the Remain campaigners, the advice of so-called expert opinion, and against the predictions of the pollsters and bookmakers. Moreover, they did so in traditionally strong Labour areas decisively despite the fact that the Labour party was campaigning for Remain. For the Tories and for the Union the implications are vast.
For Labour the implications are no less significant. The initial reaction was to precipitate a leadership challenge. Any impartial observer would have to conclude that Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of the referendum campaign was lacklustre. He agreed to campaign for the official party position of Remain, which he inherited on becoming leader last autumn but did so half-heartedly as someone who had long held Eurosceptic opinions. In so doing he has arguably undermined his own rhetoric of the ‘new honest politics’ and ended up pleasing neither the majority Remain side nor the small but ultimately successful Leave side within the party. It would arguably have been better if he had suspended collective responsibility and allowed MPs to campaign for or against membership as Harold Wilson did in 1975. Whether the wave of shadow cabinet resignations will bring about a successful coup remains to be seen. There are two obvious problems. The first is that in a vote of all members and registered supporters Corbyn would be very likely to win for he remains very popular among the grassroots. But, also the frontrunners to replace him would be more pro-EU than Corbyn and would therefore have less credibility than he would in the new post-Brexit Britain.
Another response over the weekend following Brexit, albeit overshadowed by the leadership issue, has been to criticise the result. Labour campaigners for Brexit have been labelled traitors, Labour MPs have said that the people were ‘duped’ or simply did not understand the issues. One has even called for parliament to overturn the referendum decision. This is symptomatic of a deeper issue within the Labour party that it doesn’t appear to trust, or even like, the people it seeks to represent. Evidence of this can be found in Gordon Brown’s notorious comments, which were accidentally picked up by the assembled microphones that Mrs Gillian Duffy was a ‘bigot’ for expressing certain opinions on the issue of immigration. In a speech at the start of the referendum campaign in Liverpool, Gordon Brown was asked about immigration and replied along the lines of it not being a real problem and that people needed reassurance. Emily Thornberry was to post on social media in a very sneering way the image of a working-class home flying the flag of St George. There is a visceral dislike of demonstrations of patriotism and the belief that internationalism – in this instance membership of the EU – is a more ‘sophisticated’ position than loyalty to the home nation.
One attempt to overcome this cosmopolitan liberalism within the Labour party was made by Maurice (now Lord) Glasman and his allies of so-called blue Labour. Advocates of blue Labour argued that Labour politics should be based less on abstract, universalist, liberal principles and more on rooted tradition and lived experience. The working class was fundamentally patriotic and the parliamentary elite should reflect that. This led Glasman to adopt certain positions on the EU and on immigration.
However, in so doing blue Labour threw out the baby but kept the bathwater. Blue Labour was very hostile to the central state which it claimed had supported and reinforced global capitalism and cosmopolitan liberalism and had thus eroded the traditions on which working-class communities are based. The early labour movement had been very much localist, but from 1945 the Labour party had been committed to statism. The high watermark of labourism in Britain was not the NHS, which was an example of the fundamental wrong turn which Labour had made in 1945, but rather the London dockworkers’ strike of 1889 which had been an early example of successful bottom-up labourism which blue Labour desired.
The reason why I think that this was a mistaken course was because Labour needs to reconnect with both elements of the nation state. Labour needs to revive the doctrines and ethos of the post-1945 Labour party, not rejecting them in favour of markets in the case of New Labour nor localism in the case of blue Labour. The party of Attlee, Bevin, Morrison, Bevan, Gaitskell, Wilson, Callaghan, Healey and Foot was firmly patriotic but also believed in the power of the state to do good. Some came to this through local government, others through the unions and others through academia but all realising that only the central state could deliver the kind of society they wished to see. The nation and the state working in harmony for the common good.
What does this mean in practice? Space does not allow for a full exposition of the kinds of policies Labour must now put forward. No doubt those on the right who campaigned for Leave did so for different reasons than those on the left. I spoke to a prominent Tory Leave MP earlier this year and asked if it was the reclaiming of sovereignty in itself that mattered or what you did with that sovereignty. He replied that it was the latter. Taxation, government spending and regulation were still too high he argued. For the left – and here the contemporary Labour party would be wise to look at the ideas of Gaitskell, Douglas Jay and Peter Shore for inspiration – the EEC was a capitalist club which would stop the implementation of socialism in Britain. Things such as free movement of labour drove down the wages of the low skilled, a TTIP agreement would threaten the NHS and the railways could not be re-nationalised under EU rules. Now, outside of the EU, Labour can offer a bold alternative based on promoting economic growth through Keynesian policies instead of more austerity, promote the universalist principles of the welfare state to which everyone contributes when they can and receive support when they need it, and taking back into public ownership and control those vital parts of the economy on which we all depend. Labour can offer a bold alternative to the Tories and people can vote for it knowing that a future Labour government with the will to implement its policies can do so unencumbered by the EU.