A year ago the UK stepped into the darkness after voting for the unknown. We’re now a year into the unknown and no more the wiser of where we are heading. The negotiations over Brexit have only just begun, and the destination is nowhere in sight.
Not that this article is about Brexit. There are no articles about Brexit really. There are only speculative articles about how to think about Brexit, and what the right political position might be. The basic dichotomy is already agreed upon: a ‘soft’ exit with all the good stuff versus a ‘hard’ break with the EU as a whole. But this is all too simple.
As Richard Seymour has pointed out, the dichotomy of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit makes sense only in a defensive context but only insofar as ‘soft’ refers to “damage limitation”. How we define this reflects our priorities. And for the left the priority tends to be the EU version of free movement. Another aspect for the liberal left is the single market, as if open trade seems to go hand-in-hand with open borders.
This was the gist of Chuka Umunna’s attempt to force the government to make British membership of the single market one of its Brexit planks. But what was so strange about Umunna’s outburst was that he had suggested the exact opposite not so long ago. He actually argued that the UK ought to pull out of the single market to curtail immigration (presumably to appeal to “working class concerns”).
It’s almost as if Chuka will say anything. Perhaps this Blairite empty suit doesn’t really believe in in anything. Well, I never. I am shocked. Are you shocked? You should be!
However, the Umunna amendment was just the most recent example of the Blairites trying to use Brexit as a wedge to prise open the Labour leadership and target Corbyn directly. This is nothing new. It started with the defeat of the Remain campaign last year. Once the Leave campaign won, David Cameron fell from power and the Tories were at their weakest in years (until now, that is).
So naturally the Labour right made its move to oust Jeremy Corbyn and close the space for a radical transformative politics. The Blairites quickly came up with the narrative that Corbyn sabotaged the Remain campaign to ensure Brexit went ahead. There was no structural reason for their defeat, it was all down to the sinister machinations of an Islingtonian herbivore. This was after Corbyn had appeared over 122 times on TV calling for voters to back the EU by the way.
Ever since then a strange sentiment has taken hold in some quarters of the liberal left. It’s now regularly said now that Corbyn is for a ‘hard’ Brexit. It’s even said that the Labour leader is anti-immigrant and indulging in Trump-like populism. This is the closest the left has ever been to power in Britain. Yet there are plenty soi-disant progressives who are eager to tear chunks out of Corbyn over Brexit.
It’s not enough that the Labour leader is the most radical voice in British politics right now. He is insufficiently progressive because he could have stopped Brexit. This attributes a great deal more power to one man than he could possibly wield. And it hasn’t helped that since then the Corbyn strategy on Brexit has appeared incoherent and lost. He did try to attach amendments to the Article 50 bill as it was approved. This proved to be a failure in the end, and the three line whip cost JC credibility.
Even still, it was an understandable error. The dilemma that the Labour Party faces is that the twin constituents of the party are both Leave and Remain voters. As a result, Labour has to keep to the parameters of Brexit without taking the ‘hardest’ position possible. This is why the leadership took the view that the government should invoke Article 50 and open negotiations as soon as possible. But it’s also why Corbyn has called for the rights of EU nationals to be enshrined.
Of course, Corbyn’s position on immigration has been fudged by the Labour right forcing him to concede on the EU version of free movement. Yet he has stuck to his guns in the aftermath of the snap election. The lack of clarity on Brexit has actually served Corbyn well. It has helped the party maintain its coalition of Remain and Leave voters. And it may prove to be the best starting point for negotiations.
What was so interesting about the election was the defection of UKIP voters to Labour. It may be that Brexit has liberated swathes of the electorate to consider other options. The prospect of things getting worse under the Conservatives, and the supposed inevitability of May’s victory did not cow people into passivity, opened people up to alternative politics. This could mean anything in the medium-to-long-term.
This isn’t to suggest the Labour social base is divided equally on Brexit. In fact, the Labour Remain campaign was largely successful in mobilising its supporters. The evidence suggests that the party did a much better job of getting out the Remain vote than the Tories did. So it was David Cameron who cost the metropolitan liberal Guardianistas their quite life.
Of course, the liberal europhiles would rather blame Corbyn because they need a scapegoat. It fulfils their basic inclination to passivity and self-assurance. There’s no need for self-criticism and reflection, no need for serious political engagement, discussion and action, if it can all be put down to the dastardly actions of one man and his ‘bad ideas’. This level of non-thinking is deserving of mockery and scorn.
It takes a lot of brains to oppose Corbyn because he did Brexit. I mean by doing so you help keep the Tories in power and ram through ‘hard’ Brexit. It’s almost as if there’s not a lot of political acumen in this view of the Labour leader. The best you can say this is scapegoating, at its worst it becomes a conspiracy theory. There is a cross-section of opinion, where you find people saying “Corbyn did Brexit”, but also you hear them saying “Corbyn is pro-Assad” and even “pro-Putin”.
To be frank, I’m not sure why the Tories haven’t weaponised this narrative and painted Corbyn as a Russian agent. Mind you, there’s still plenty of time. I wouldn’t put anything past Theresa May and her desperate band of nitwits. Fortunately, the constituency for anti-Russian, anti-Assad, pro-Europe campaign against Corbyn is hardly the kind open to May. This herd of liberal minds is going nowhere, while the left is in the driving seat. And that’s all that matters.
Photograph courtesy of duncan c. Published under a Creative Commons license.