Rebecca Lowe is Director of FREER — a new initiative promoting economic and social liberalism, based at the IEA, where she is a Research Fellow. She is also an Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.
I’m going to use this column to address two incorrect Brexit assumptions. I don’t know exactly how widely held these assumptions are, but they are definitely held by some, which is too many, already. To me, these assumptions are clearly incorrect — they’re simply not true — but there are other related or contingent assumptions, the incorrectness of which is more debatable.
The first of these assumptions is that Brexit is a right-wing, or Conservative Party, thing. The second is that supporting a second referendum is a left-wing, or Labour Party, thing. By “thing”, in both cases, I mean entirely and exclusively so. I’ve written before about the problems of relying on a “left-right” spectrum. And there could also be reasonable disagreement about the various necessary and sufficient conditions of something being a Conservative Party, or Labour Party, “thing”. However, I think I can address the two assumptions’ flaws without getting too much into any of these meta discussions.
The first assumption seems as if it should be easy to disprove. It’s really only because Caroline Lucas came out with it so publicly that it seems relevant. Ok, not everyone is into psephology, but the reliable calculation that around 60 per cent of Labour seats were majority Leave voting — and, indeed, the sheer number of people, within all political and non-political groupings, who voted Leave across the UK — surely implies there’s widespread awareness that it cannot be the case that all Leave voters are Conservative supporters, or even that all Leave voters could possibly describe themselves as fitting somewhere on the right side of the spectrum.
Beyond those practical matters, comes the strong recent history of UK left-wing Euroscepticism, reaching from Tony Benn and Peter Shore, to, yes, Jeremy Corbyn (and many of Lucas’s Green friends). It can be seen in Labour’s historic distrust of the EU, its predecessor entities, and various other pan-national economic alliances. It can be seen within left-wing organisations. And, in value-based terms, in a distaste for what are too often described as the EU’s “neoliberal” trade policies, in a frustration with its formal opposition to nationalisation and industrial strategy, and in a nervousness about the anti-democratic nature of its decision-making. Many on the left have come to terms with all this for reasons ranging from a utopian quasi-internationalism, to an overwhelming attachment to the ECJ’s labour-law rulings. But, basically, fundamental EU characteristics, such as “neoliberalism” and anti-democracy, stand counter to traditional leftist hopes and goals.
Again, I’m keen to avoid the meta, but by “leftist”, I mean a range of positions that broadly overlap with grounding concerns about societal equality and the distribution of resources, and related ideas coming from some kind of adherence to socialist positions (and I mean “socialist” in a sense wider than Marx’s). None of this should be surprising to anyone interested in UK politics, or anyone with any left-wing acquaintances.
The secret that Jeremy Corbyn is a lifelong Lexiteer is so well known that it’s not a secret. Yet the lack of discussion about, and acceptance of, the cross-party nature of the Leave vote has stoked the divisions understandably set in place by the binary referendum itself. This is more than depressing; it is negligent. And Jeremy Corbyn is by no means the only guilty party. It’s not too late to change the narrative, however. It’s not too late to recognise there were many honourable reasons to vote for Brexit. And that there are many good people who did so it in good faith that their private vote would be respected by the government of their democratic nation.
The UK Left used to pretend to have a monopoly on democracy. At this critical moment, the overwhelming silence, not only of its leading representatives, but also of so many of its everyday supporters, is deeply sad. Lexit arguments — most eloquently put by Harvard’s Richard Tuck, and by Baywatch’s Pamela Anderson (seriously, read her piece from last weekend) — may not completely resonate with non-left-wing Brexit supporters. They may include alien premises and hopes. But they form an essential part of the wider argument — an argument made here through a national vote, and throughout the countries of the EU in polls, frustrations, and, sadly, even riots.
The part of the second assumption I want to focus on is the idea that the Left is in favour of a second referendum. (I’m no fan of the term “people’s vote”: firstly, the people have already voted on this topic, both in the referendum and in the 2017 general election; secondly, this kind of use of “people” — see also, DPRK, PRC, etc — tends to mean “I’m speaking for the people” rather than “I’m listening to them”.) The assumption that the Left would support a repeat referendum on EU membership — effectively what’s being demanded by the various campaigns — is clearly incorrect for several reasons.
If we take the Left to mean Labour, by proxy, then the assumption is incorrect, not least because its leadership and key influencers are certainly opposed. I don’t believe Corbyn is much of a democrat (if he gets into power, don’t expect him to go away anytime soon), but he would never stand in the way of the UK leaving the EU. If his undying Euroscepticism were to falter on the grounds of political expediency (the man who was chosen for having principles — any principles — may not be so principled, after all), then he still wouldn’t stand in the way, because he’d know Labour would lose too many parliamentary seats. Having lost its Scottish heartlands, it’s already practically impossible for the party to win a majority; it cannot without its Leave seats. Corbyn has proven incredible at playing Leavers off against Remainers, but when it comes to it, he won’t risk overturning the Brexit vote. The same goes for his coterie: Len McCluskey’s opposition to a second referendum is explicit, Seamus Milne’s Euroscepticism is unshakeable, and so on. The People’s Voters need Labour’s whipping power, but they won’t get it.
Moving out, beyond the Labour leadership’s lack of support for a referendum rerun, we return to the arguments above. There is a bond between the left and an overwhelming concern for the people — all of the people, not just the many — which has often, in this country although not in others, translated into a bond between the left and democracy. This runs strong. Sure, some might claim all this would change were a second referendum to be based on the choice between “no deal” and May’s deal (or a similar cop-out deal). But that would still be an affront to any true democrat, left or right. Anyone assuming that Labour — or the Left — represents the natural, or actual, supporters of a second referendum is missing these key points.
It’s increasingly easy to identify the catastrophic mistakes of May’s approach to Brexit, but — aside from putting democracy in the firing line — few mistakes have been so disastrous as stoking the divisions a true unity leader could have begun to heal.