Editor's note: this article was written in October 2019. Look out for our next issue for diagnosis and discussion of December's general election calamity.
Writing: Max Hunter
In this game of protracted national psychodrama, perhaps Jeremy Corbyn has held his nerve the best. The 2016 referendum conjured up a fresh round of doubt amongst the parliamentary Labour party as to the worthiness of his leadership. The ‘honest man’ of politics was put in the awkward position of having to campaign for our EU membership- an institution he has a long track record of ambivalence or even hostility to. Can we be surprised that he did a lacklustre job? This record stretches back to his voting ‘no’ in 1975; to speaking and voting against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993:
“primarily because it takes away from national Parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers who will impose the economic policies of price stability, deflation and high unemployment throughout the European Community.”
Many on the left will recognise the prescient wisdom of these words; indeed when it comes to the EU, Corbyn has been right more often than they have.
As Labour leader Corbyn had to balance his own views on Europe with those of his party which is overwhelmingly in favour of the EU, especially within the PLP. However, another balance had to be struck: with the millions of Labour voters who voted to leave. The culture war into which we have now descended: with metropolitan fighting provincial, globalised liberal fighting nation-state loyalist, threatens to tear apart the electoral coalition on which Labour’s success has always relied. It is a party that has always claimed to speak for the downtrodden masses: the industrial proletariat. However, to do so it has always relied on the urban literati. Not only for votes, but also for policy direction. One can point to the dominating influence of the technocratic, moderating Fabians on the ideological DNA of the party at its formation in the early 20th century. One can also point to Remain’s urban armies: the SJWs of the right’s fevered imagination.
Corbyn’s prevarication on Brexit has got him a lot of harsh commentary, largely from the Guardian-reading Remainers that have the largest media voice within the labour movement. Until recently it seemed that his refusal to support a pro-Remain strategy was punishing Labour at the polls. The May 2019 European parliament elections seemed to vindicate this criticism. Labour’s Remainers flocked to the Liberals or the Greens and her Leavers to the Brexit party. Labour’s subsequent victory over the Brexit party in the Peterborough by-election served to bolster his position somewhat.
Commentators have turned to this central dilemma: which tribe should Labour choose (if, indeed, it must choose)? The younger, networking, socially liberal, university educated and overwhelmingly urban voters that detest Brexit or the party’s more traditional constituency: the working class of Britain’s beleaguered, post-industrial regions? The choice is a fallacy: Labour cannot choose one or the other. It needs both and it must speak for both. The culture war into which we have sunk is a distraction from what should be the meat of politics. Whether you hate globalisation or love it, what matters is that we have a just social contract for the coming age. We need a politics that focuses on economics and not on culture. We need solutions for the ingrained structural problems that our society faces.
We face an imbalance of wealth and economic power that is unprecedented in human history: an imbalance of educational, economic and social opportunities within Britain’s regions that make the shared political life of a nation state all but impossible. And that is why we are tempted to see the logic in Corbyn’s recently adopted ‘neutral statesman’ position. Labour will be the only main party offering the people a final say on Brexit and pledging also to deal with these deeply ingrained problems which in truth lie at the heart of explaining a populist upsurge like this one.