By Alan Simpson
When Tory Minister, Chris Grayling, warns that if MPs block or weaken Brexit it would provoke a surge in neo-Nazi, extremist groups in Britain, he misses the central point. This is exactly what Brexit has already done.
Those neo-Nazis chanting “Nazi” at Anna Soubry MP, and harassing Owen Jones on the streets, are testaments to how shallow and ugly British politics has become. It is the angry, disempowered face of Britain that the ‘Leave’ campaign appealed to all along.
Today’s Brexit debates barely mention the rich-poor divide Tory policies have opened up through austerity politics. Europe (for all its myriad faults) was set up as the straw man to be blamed for the collapse of everything – jobs, prospects, skills, housing … hope – even where EU funding turned out to be the only thing keeping these in place.
We don’t need to wallow in how much of this campaign was rooted in lies, frustration and division. The most urgent need is to focus on what we know now.
Leaving the EU will not throw an extra £350 million a week into the NHS. There are no ‘trade deals’ waiting in the wings to restore jobs, prosperity and security to the people of Britain. There are only 3 certainties:
1. a ‘no deal’ exit would be a disaster; delivering traffic jams, shortages and further job losses.
2. May’s ‘deal’ wouldn’t be much better; saddling Britain with a big bill, no say in policies we would be bound by, and no answer to the Irish border conundrum, and
3. like the Emperor’s New Clothes, Labour’s ‘Lexit’ delusions would turn out to be just that.
It is the last of these that most troubles me.
When you’re in a hole
I have trawled through contacts and comrades on the European Left, looking for any interest in Lexit (a Labour exit deal). There is none. The European Left would open all sorts of doors if Labour wanted to stay, but their kindest comments about Lexit were … “No one is interested in offering Labour a better leaving present. If you’ve gotta go, just go. But don’t blame anyone else for the mess that follows.”
Jeremy Corbyn gets this. So does John McDonnell and half the Shadow Cabinet. The trouble is that the other half don’t. So how do you keep the show on the road? Platitudes only take you so far. Worse than this, it appears the Leadership is more boxed in by Labour’s ‘corridor politics’ than by PLP hostilities.
Not splitting the Left internally risks splitting the Party nationally; most notably amongst those drawn into the Party by the radical vision offered by Corbyn’s Labour at the last election.
Beyond the brown shirts
In the mess we are now caught up in there are no easy answers… but there are honest ones. These must begin with a confrontation of the ugly. Those harassing People’s Vote campaigners are not ‘yellow vest’, anti-austerity campaigners. They are Brexit’s ‘brown shirts’. The anger they trail round would destroy us all.
I have no doubt they can find support in every one of the constituencies that voted ‘Leave’. It doesn’t mean they have an answer that would make Britain better. MPs who say we must respect the will of the people forget they would take a different position if the xenophobic ugliness behind the ‘brown shirts’ position was spelt out more clearly within ‘the people’s will’ position.
One thing the Channel 4 drama/documentary made clear was that the original Referendum was a contest between the Tory Grandees and the Tory Right. Labour barely got a look in; and Corbyn’s ‘Remain and Reform‘ platform got none.
If UKIP had got their way it would all have been about immigrants and foreigners. Slogans such as ‘No blacks in the Black Country’, ‘No Eastern Europeans on the East Coast’, ‘No Muslims in the Midlands’, ‘No niggers in the North’, would have littered the campaign. As it was, they did so from the sidelines. The official ‘Leave’ campaign settled for ‘Take Back Control’. Euphemisms covered the ugliness that lurked behind.
There was no Labour backlash confronting the divides that years of deregulated profiteering had opened up. Those left behind by the neoliberal pursuit of ‘cheap’ – with its haemorrhaging of jobs, the collapse of skill training and decent pay, by the profiteering that shipped wealth offshore – had every right to be angry.
Labour’s task is always to address this anger without falling into for the trap of allowing ‘the outsiders within’ to cop the blame. No contest, waged between the Tory Grandees and their Ultra Right should ever be permitted to dress itself up as ‘the will of the people’.
On a less emotive level, there is another way of confronting Theresa May’s claim that a Second Referendum would be ‘a betrayal of the British people’. Supposing you (the people) decided to risk a parachute jump, only to find the final choice doesn’t quite turn out as you’d thought.
Jump or no jump
Several thousand feet up in the sky, the instructor informs you there aren’t any parachutes. The good news, though, is that he’s negotiated a deal with the pilot and they’ve tied their coat sleeves and handkerchiefs together as a makeshift alternative. Rejoice! You can still do the jump… But would you?
Telling the pilot to get the plane back on the ground would be an act of sanity, not betrayal. This is what the People’s Vote campaign has been trying to tell politicians for ages. It is the position Labour has to shift to, and quick; for this is wheln the real problems begin.
The neoliberal legacy
Labour’s ‘Remain’ campaign had been a jackass endorsement of the divides New Labour itself had opened up. The years in which our core voters didn’t matter – they had nowhere else to go – were all coming home to roost. Being a laggard in most of the EU’s employment and environmental rights initiatives didn’t help either. New Labour wasn’t a leader in anything.
Even Labour’s flagship Climate Change Act looks more suspect in retrospect. Once you realise Britain’s carbon reduction achievements have been based on exporting jobs, importing cheap goods and ignoring the climate footprint of the aviation and shipping needed for both, our carbon reductions fall to… zero. Not something to write home about.
The reality is that we’re in a mess… all of us. A second vote might just allow us to see this, and allow Labour to become the architect of some of the answers.
Learning from the past
European politics could be dragged by the Far Right into pre-1914 divisions. Solidarity could disappear just at the point where we desperately need better common safety nets.
Last year’s extreme weather events have already become this year’s food shortages. Events that nudge us towards climate breakdown will threaten social breakdown too. This is the space that Labour – now Europe’s biggest Left of centre party – has to fill; with an agenda that leads and unites not divides and poisons.
As parliament heads towards its own Brexit gridlock, Far Right cries of ‘betrayal’ will ring out even louder. Spittoons will fill. Bile will flow. But throughout it all, Labour should remind itself of the cautionary words of Roger McGough –
Beware of fascists
Pretending to be humanitarians
Like cannibals on a health kick
Eating only vegetarians.
• Alan Simpson was Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992 to 2010, and is now an environmental adviser to John McDonnell
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