Brexit: Where do we go from here?

By Mike Phipps, editor, For the Many… (OR Books, 2018)

“The Causes and Cures of Brexit” is  thoughtful collection, edited by Compass supremo Neal Lawson. The ‘causes of Brexit’ look pretty clear. As Green MP Caroline Lucas says: “A poisonous cocktail of de-industrialisation, the financial crisis and an ideological assault on public services came together in the Brexit vote.” Polarising inequality also played its part.

The thirty regions identified as the worst ‘coldspots’ for social mobility – from Weymouth to Carlisle – all voted Leave. But what she cannot answer satisfactorily is why the far right narrative of blaming the EU and migration was so successful in these areas. Parts of Britain have not so much been left behind as “held back”, Jon Trickett argues.

John Harris writes of “a country so imbalanced it has effectively fallen over.” The same processes that produced the Brexit vote also help explain Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. “Ever since,” writes Harris, “he and his allies had been making the case for a leftward turn in politics that would answer some of the problems that had fed into the Brexit vote. Some of their policy plans – for example, the ‘Preston model’ of using councils to boost local economies – have since been developed.”

So far, so good. Then he adds: “But even with the best of intentions, frontline politicians often seem to be trapped in a political discourse that is big on high-pitched rhetoric and factional conflict, but not very good at specific proposals, and the long view.” I’m not even sure what this last sentence means. It seems to buy into the lazy narrative that ‘frontline politicians’ are essentially the same, fixated on speechmaking and scoring factional points, rather than proposing concrete solutions, like, er, the Preston model. Yet Harris seems blind to his own profession’s responsibility in fuelling cynicism and despair about indistinguishable ‘frontline politicians’ and their ‘high-pitched rhetoric’.

Immigration undoubtedly played a major role in the 2016 referendum. Polling analyst Lewis Baston, noting that concern about this was one of the drivers of the Leave vote, observes that “it is practically impossible to have a successful economy running at nearly full employment that does not attract immigrants.” In other words, if you want to deter migrants, crash the economy. Maybe Brexit will do just that. And some analysts here will say that was intended all along, because, after all, “political ideals can trump economic self-interest”. On this reading, Brexit appears as a deliberate act of collective self-harm.

How to break out of this mindset? Labour did the right thing by adopting a unifying narrative for the 2017 general election. “The best thing a progressive party can do about social conservatism is to make the dividing lines of politics about something else,” argues Baston. “Labour hit on a reasonably successful campaign formula in 2017 by parking Brexit, addressing the public desire for better public services, and speaking to the traditional Labour themes of fairness and compassion.”

Brexit may be less parkable in future, of course. But the cures suggested here – greater equality, decent pay, a plan for national recovery, more devolution, a politics of hope – remain relevant. If class was central to the referendum result, so was region. Measured according to
economic output, the UK is now the most regionally unequal country in Europe. Geography was a key factor in how people voted in 2016. Nowhere was this more evident than in Scotland. John Denham recognises that the Leave vote was primarily an English phenomenon, but his conclusion that “the Brexit vote happened because no one wanted to speak for the English” seems inadequate.

If economic and political marginalisation were drivers for the Leave vote, why did this not happen in Scotland? Do Scots as a nation feel better represented by the SNP, who offer a very different nationalism to that of UKIP? This is the predictable view of Tommy Sheppard, the SNP contributor here.But that feels simplistic. It might have more to do with the fact that UKIP’s emphasis on ‘Britishness’ has little appeal north of the border and this inoculates Scots from the seductive but ultimate dead-end rhetoric of Farage and co, a point Sheppard concedes.

There are some positive policy ideas on offer to tackle the problems exposed in the Brexit vote, some more urgent than others. I would particularly single out the contribution on social security reform by Ruth Lister, who contributed a chapter to my own book For the Many on the 2017 Labour manifesto. Universal basic income is also advocated, as is a return to universalism in basic public services.

But I would be a lot more wary of Atul Hatwal’s proposal to devolve immigration policy to the different regions of the UK. On one level, it’s attractive: regional bodies would have a much better idea than national government about the level of migrant labour required locally and could issue regional work permits in line with priorities.

But does that mean that when migrants come here, they are obliged to stay in the region where they have a valid work permit? That looks like a form of bonded labour, a violation of basic rights and a two-tier workforce, where the value of migration is
reduced to expendable labour.

Overall, the solutions offered here are surprisingly radical, including a four day week, a basic income, capital controls, a land value tax, ending punitive benefit sanctions and a council house building programme. The devil as ever will be in the detail and the costings, but this contribution underlines once again that the debate on future policy takes place from positions that are nowhere near as entrenched or polarised as some of the other thorny issues facing our movement.

You can read the pamphlet here 

Mike Phipps is editor of For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power
https://www.orbooks.com/catalog/for-the-many-preparing-labour-for-power/