If the Labour Party had accepted the referendum result, had embraced it, we would have left the EU by now and might also have a Labour government. There would also be less social division abroad than is currently the case. But they have reneged on their election promise of 2017, perpetuated and fed off the social division and set their teeth against Brexit from the Momentum foot soldiers up to the leadership. They now campaign for a second referendum, against a no deal option and there isn’t a deal they would vote for save their own which would leave us in the customs union and the single market, i.e. in the EU. In doing so they have not only betrayed their overwhelmingly working class leave constituency but democracy itself. And it’s a historic betrayal, not only in the sense of its magnitude but also in the narrative of the wider labour movement’s struggle for universal suffrage beginning at the Putney debates and spanning the centuries to the suffragettes. It is a rejection of the principle that ordinary people should strive to exercise political authority through the vote. We have now a Left in Britain that likes to toddle off to see Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo and then despair in the pub afterwards at the poor of 2019 who voted for political independence.
In the Labour movement that I was part of from the late seventies until a few years ago opposition to pan European economics and government was mainstream. Now it is extremely marginal, virtually extinct. By the very definition of the term (see the French Revolution) the Left side of politics is about widening access to political power and the Right is about the narrowing of authority. The EU by definition is a project of the Right. At my final Labour Party branch meeting I was roundly booed for saying I had voted leave and was called ‘Tory scum’ by a member who looked to be in the midst of retaking his A levels. Many in the room were completely unaware of the social democratic case against the growing power of the EU, nor were they aware that until very recently Corbyn had been an opponent of the EU for all of his career, hanging on to the coat tails of Tony Benn. I went to see Corbyn at Leeds during his first leadership campaign. Half way through he told the more than 2000 assembled, ‘…if the EU isn’t delivering for ordinary working people we will consider our membership.’ I wasn’t the only one who stood up to clap. Now the serial rebel is imposing the whip on MPs to stop Brexit. So how did he and the rest of the labour movement learn to love the oligarchy?
In Corbyn’s case it is because he has become increasingly opportunist and sees frustrating the Brexit mandate as a means to force a general election. It seems obvious to him to put party above country, above democracy. The Left has always been a curious cocktail of principled stands and popular posturing. I joined the Socialist Workers Party at the time of punk and the Anti Nazi League, a lot of teenagers did. Initially I didn’t understand why thereafter ‘the party’ made a virtue of unpopularity. But Corbyn wants power. To his credit he is far more serious about it than Miliband was. He and his shadow cabinet appeared so intoxicated by the scent of it during the 2017 general election that the following morning he repeatedly proclaimed Labour had won. What was darker was his response to the atrocity of the Manchester bombing which took place during the campaign. I was in Sydney at the time and was aware that the Prime Minster had called a halt in campaigning. We switched on ABC to see Corbyn proselytising to reporters that Britain’s foreign policy was to blame for the murder of 22 mainly teenage girls at the Manchester Arena. The fact that the bomber was the son of a refugee taken in by Britain is only part of the point here. What I saw was a politician so desperate to make ground he was prepared to exploit an atrocity before the names and scale of the victims were even known, during the nearest this country ever gets to mourning. Corbyn has put in a shift on the back benches and now at last he feels cometh the hour. The 2017 manifesto was an un-costed utopian basket case that had students queueing to have their debts written off. Now he is mapping every move back and forth across the Brexit board game. A former comrade said to me “Jezza is playing a blinder on Brexit.” The most radical domestic political event of our lives isn’t something Labour leaders should be playing with.
To explain the wider Left’s opposition to leaving the EU, even after the referendum result, you have to go back to the Thatcher years, from 1984 onwards. After the defeat of the miners and a second Tory election victory the Left had to reconcile themselves to the fact that the emancipation of the working class was not an act of the working class itself, but was something that the council might do on their behalf. Then Thatcher’s legislation and Kinnock’s purge put paid to that so they looked to Brussels instead. Whilst in Britain workers were reading tabloids, crossing picket lines and buying Filofaxes, the French and other continentals were electing socialists. Europe was cool and was providing European law to protect workers in Britain in place of the unions. There was TUPE for when you were privatised, the working time directive when you needed a break from your VDU. I was a shop steward during this period and was sent on day long courses by my union to gen up on European health and safety law. I became a full time irritant to management not because I had a militant workforce behind me but because I had a handbook of progressive regulations to quote from. A Bleak House version of Scargill.
In the face of declining working class support the Left became managerial in outlook and the Labour Party increasingly a party of managers in spirit if not in occupation. Fast forward to Corbyn’s Labour Party and the influx of numerous ex Trots in mid-life, a lot of young people and an aggressive form of identity politics. Prioritising and defining all things by race or age or gender etc is inherently managerial and undemocratic. It is not hard to see how the party membership gets behind the House of Lords, John Bercow or Gary Linekar to support what is in effect an anti-democracy movement.
Democracy has never been something the Left has valued for its own sake. The very idea has always been viewed as a sham. Believing instead that the real contest lies in the power relations of capital or as Corbyn refers to it ‘a rigged system’ doesn’t lend itself to respecting the result of plebiscites. Furthermore one is taught early on that the voters are rigged as well, that they possess a ‘false consciousness’. In short everyone who disagrees has been brainwashed. Politics for the Left and the managerial classes is not a matter of opinion, of real and perceived interest, it is a matter of right and wrong. Throw in the Left’s new Stalinist handbook that states unless proven otherwise white working class people are racist and leave voters are obviously nothing more than malign and stupid. A discussion with them regarding the merits or otherwise of the EU goes nowhere. If you want to end the free movement of labour because it suppresses the wages of those in unskilled work, you’re a racist. If you’re concerned about unprecedented and unsustainable population growth in the UK, you’re a racist. If you think people should be governed by consent, you’re a Tory. In many ways the contemporary Left bear many of the hallmarks of the far Right. They are censorious to the point of banning speech, books and removing paintings; they make a virtue of segregation based on race and gender and many loathe and fear the working class. The Guardian ran an article in the wake of the referendum arguing that voters should pass an intelligence test; the very same strategy that was used to disenfranchise black people in America.
“Intellectuals are more totalitarian in outlook than the common people. Most of them are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history, etc. so long as they feel that it is on ‘our’ side.”
The vilification of the leave constituency has been unprecedented and the vast majority of the barrage, indeed the worst of it comes from the Left. In many of the missives if one replaced the words leave voter with Jew, Muslim or Gay there would quite rightly be outrage. But there isn’t. A colleague of mine who works in arts production was hounded out of work when he spoke up for Brexit. I know others who work in the media, including the BBC, who realistically fear being sacked if management find out they voted leave. Some remain voters I speak to think this is fine. My impression of much of the wider remain vote is that it was based on fear of economic catastrophe. Much of the Left’s motives boil down to a matter of self-image, of virtue signalling as being anti-racist, pro-immigration for its own sake rather than any analysis or understanding of how the EU operates and what it means for democracy across the continent. For if Britain cannot leave the EU, a wealthy island with a commonwealth, then how can the landlocked?
Corbyn will lose votes in Leave constituencies, he may well lose constituencies. He knows this but has decided to throw his lot in with the pro EU middle classes. Brexit was a working class revolt. Labour’s betrayal of its election promise feels like a watershed but there is a much greater schism upon us. Millions of us have come to the conclusion that the UK is no longer a democracy. The system is rigged and it is Labour who have helped to rig it. They have run to the House of Lords to Macron and to the EU to prevent Brexit. The Speaker of the House, a man who has a Bollocks to Brexit sticker on his car bumper has today found a caveat from 1605 that says we can’t leave the EU. Corbyn happened because of Iraq; Brexit happened because of Iraq. The electorate do not trust parliament, politicians are self-evidently not people of their word and they are impossibly remote. I predict a riot and I predict a sharp fall in turnout at the next election, if as it seems, we don’t leave the EU. If voting doesn’t change anything, why vote? People will find other ways to make their point.
The hope here for me, as Winston Smith put it, lies with the proles. Despite approaching three years of EU propaganda from the political class and the state broadcaster, the leave constituency hasn’t buckled, if anything it has grown as many who voted remain have become disgusted with the behaviour of the establishment. I suspect that increasing numbers of people want to leave the EU, want the House of Lords abolished. All the advances toward universal suffrage were as a result of demands by the people. It may be that we will have to revive the struggle once more. But while I no longer think politicians can be trusted I still think the people can.