The EU referendum campaign was a pretty dismal and dispiriting affair. This was essentially a nasty cock fight between two wings of the Tory party, ably assisted and abetted by UKIP and some minor Labour MPs. It was also as people like Anthony Barnett pointed out very much an English affair. Little positive about the EU was heard from the Remain side. So it was hardly surprising that a majority voted to leave. Not in Scotland I am pleased to note. All local council areas in Scotland voted to remain. A very positive result.
However across most of England and Wales a clear majority voted to leave the EU. Much of this vote came in what were regarded as Labour heartlands, the north of England, the midlands and Wales. Which is why for me, this dreadful outcome is primarily a failure of the left.
Step forward the Labour party itself. I am not going to indulge in blaming Jeremy Corbyn or his team. The rot at the heart of Labour predates Corbyn by decades. In particular I charge the Labour party with two massive failures. The first was its failure to mount a serious and vigorous challenge to the austerity and the neoliberal economic policies relentlessly pursued by the Tories since 2010. Labour weakly and without a fight, accepted the false accusation that it was too much government spending by the previous Labour government that was to blame for the crash in 2008. By effectively admitting to this, Labour was unable to mount any kind of credible challenge to the ongoing austerity that the Tory government imposed on the country.
Austerity that impinged most on working class parts of the UK. The parts of the country that had traditionally looked to the Labour party to protect them. But Labour offered no real alternative to the wage stagnation, the rise of precarious, low wage employment, culminating in zero hours contracts. Nor to the swingeing cuts in public services that again impacted most severely in former Labour heartlands.
With nothing much in the way of a positive alternative from Labour, it is hardly surprising that more and more people began to listen to the siren voices from UKIP, blaming all their woes on the EU and immigration.
This leads to the second charge against Labour. Faced with the rise of UKIP and Tory eurosceptics blaming everything on immigrants and the EU, what did Labour do? Why, indulge in their own brand of immigrant bashing. Remember this highlight, or lowlight from the 2015 election?
Truly dreadful, with predictable consequences for us all. Brendan Cox, writing in the Guardian pointed out that mainstream politicians, “in most cases are clueless on how to deal with the public debate (on immigration). Petrified by the rise of the populists they try to neuter them by taking their ground and aping their rhetoric. Far from closing down the debates, these steps legitimise their views, reinforce their frames and pull the debate further to the extremes.” Thus when immigration was thrust to the fore during the referendum, Labour was left exposed and unable to suddenly mount a positive and credible defence of immigration and the free movement of people.
As the second largest party in the UK, Labour must take the lion’s share of responsibility for Brexit. However others have unwittingly contributed to this outcome. I refer to those on the progressive left who voted remain, but nevertheless made very public their hostility to the EU.
Lots of people contributed in this way, but here are three who by their language, made a remain vote much more difficult to achieve. Here for example is Adam Ramsay writing an article headed in blood – I hate the EU. But I’ll vote to stay in it. His first sentence informs us that, The European Union is an undemocratic corporate stitch-up. Then we have George Monbiot boldly telling us that, The European Union is the worst choice – apart from the alternative. Finally, Paul Mason informs us that, The leftwing case for Brexit is strategic and clear. The EU is not – and cannot become – a democracy. Instead, it provides the most hospitable ecosystem in the developed world for rentier monopoly corporations, tax-dodging elites and organised crime.
With friends like the above, who needs enemies? They may like to console themselves that theirs is a very sophisticated and hard headed analysis. Fair enough, but this is not the way to influence doubters. What they see is some prominent Remain campaigners confirming loud and clear exactly what Leave is saying – namely that they hate the EU, which is undemocratic and moreover unreformable. What on earth did they think would happen as a result of these comments? Reinforcing the key claims of your opponents does not seem to me to be a wise tactic.
The UK has become a nastier place as a result of this nasty referendum. The main responsibility rests with the right, both the Tory party and UKIP. However the left in large measure contributed greatly to this dreadful outcome. Thankfully, here in Scotland we have a way out of this mess. Onwards to indyref2!