14 Dezember 2019

The Failure of the Left to Grasp Brexit

Thursday’s General Election was a bad day for the Labour Party, it spelled the end of Remainism and signalled a historic defeat for the Left. There needs to be serious reflection on all of this because the repercussions are severe and wide-ranging, and broader lessons must be learned, not just for the UK but elsewhere. It turned out, contrary to much expert assessment, that the 2016 referendum was, in fact, binding. The Left failed to grasp this and the underlying disconnect it signified.

Two initial responses have been predominant, some blaming Corbyn’s leadership, others focusing on Brexit itself. The truth is that both are to blame – they cannot be disaggregated, since Corbyn ultimately has to take responsibility for capitulating to the promise of a second referendum. If any further evidence were needed in Labour heartlands that its leadership represented just another version of a metropolitan elite that has become so utterly distrusted, this was it. John Macdonell’s rapprochement with New Labour’s Alistair Campbell and his explicit embrace of Remain was a moment that will live long in the memory.

The disconnect between the Labour Party and working class voters of course reflects a decline taking place not over months, or years, but decades. It has no easy fix. But the irony is that within the Labour Party, Corbyn was almost uniquely placed to put his weight behind a ‘Lexit’ agenda, his life-long Euro-scepticism giving him a credibility that was simply never utilised, undermined when he decided to campaign for Remain in 2016 and effectively abandoned through further concessions to the Remainers both inside and outside the Party. The tragedy, in short, is that Corbyn, and many of those around him, have gone down fighting for a cause they didn’t believe in. 

The result was clearly bad for the Labour Party, which, after doing unexpectedly well in 2017, attaining 40% of the electorate on a socialist platform and with the promise to respect the outcome of the referendum, fell to around 32% of the vote, with a similar programme but revoking its Brexit promise. Although the scale of defeat has been grossly exaggerated (Labour got more votes than under Miliband in 2015, Brown in 2010 and Blair in 2005), it can only be described as a failure. If this spells the official end of Corbyn, in truth, ‘Corbynism’ was already over once Labour capitulated to its Remain wing on Brexit, effectively giving Labour Leave voters little option but to defect to the Tories or the Brexit Party or to simply abstain. In the end, Labour lost a quarter of its Leave voters to Conservatives and 52 out of the 54 seats it lost in England were in leave-voting constituencies. 

The concessions to Remain were presumably made in part due to internal pressures and in part on the basis of some electoral calculation, the fear of losing votes to the LibDems eclipsing concern over defection to the Tories or the Brexit Party. The apparent preponderance of Remainers amongst Corbynistas themselves, along with the influence of groups such as Another Europe is Possible, meant Corbyn essentially fighting with one hand tied behind his back. From this angle, Corbyn’s position might have been justified as an attempt to perform an increasingly precarious balancing act. 

But a balancing act was not what was required. The scales had already been weighed; Remain had lost in 2016. This is such a simple point it seems extraordinary that it could have been lost from sight. No doubt, the fear of losing seats to the LibDems was real. But the real shock from this election is the complete failure of Remain as an electoral strategy, not only for Labour but for LibDems, which had turned itself into a single issue stop Brexit party but reaped scant reward. 

If the decisive victory of Johnson spells the end of Remainism, it does not, however, present an obvious path forward. Johnson’s victory was not based on a surge of enthusiasm, the Tories achieving only one percentage point more than under Teresa May. The apparent success of Johnson’s slogan of ‘Get Brexit Done’ is matched only by its emptiness. It is unclear that Johnson’s Tories has a plan of any political substance, which is not to doubt the substantial damage they may do. And if the path to leaving the EU is now open as a matter of Parliamentary arithmetic, obstacles lie ahead, not least the issue of Scottish Independence. 

The historic defeat of the Left is a more difficult proposition to outline because it requires a deeper excavation of the underlying materials. The first and most straightforward point is that there was a near-total failure of leadership on the Left either to prepare for Brexit, or less excusably, after the referendum, to take advantage of the opportunity that it provided. By 2019, a Left programme that took exit seriously had three years to mature – not on a speculative terrain, but on a terrain primed by the electorate against political and economic elites, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a rupture from the status quo. The failure is all the more extraordinary given that over the last decade since the financial crisis, across Europe, and further afield, the conjuncture has delivered up the slow-motion collapse of social democratic parties attached to EU-style centrism. It is astonishing that the same Left that witnessed the total capitulation and then defeat of Syriza could, with some notable exceptions, have evaded this historic task. 

The Labour Party has avoided Pasokification, no doubt partly due to the UK’s electoral system, but also due to the robust social movements that have grown inside it. But there is the temptation now by some on the Left to double down on the disconnect from working class communities, dismissing the electorate as ignorant, stupid or simply racist. Apart from the folly of that position in terms of constructing a viable opposition moving forward, it overlooks the fact that this dismissal had already occurred, sealed with the promise of a second referendum, writing off half the electorate at a stroke – and possibly many more when adding in Remain voters who think the outcome of the first should have been respected. 

There is a counter-argument, which points out that class is now more complex, and that a Lexit position would alienate a new core of the young, urban, cosmopolitan Labour support. There are a number of problems with this argument, even assuming it is based on accurate assumptions. Most concrete is the electoral arithmetic, which suggests that a position to respect the referendum could have cost some seats to the LibDems, but would have saved far more from the Tories. More fundamentally, this appeal to identity politics is a dead-end for the Left, not least with the problematic conflation of a Remain identity, however real that may be, with a simplistic desire to overturn a referendum. Most basic of all, however, is that Remaining in the EU should be understood for what it is – remaining in a neoliberal straightjacket, a regressive polity that not only suffers from all the defects of its various Member States but aggravates them through structural democratic deficits.

The condensed diagnosis of this conjuncture is that Labour appear to have forgotten the democratic part of democratic socialism. Not only in the trivial sense, of failing to respect a democratic mandate. But in the more complex sense of assuming that the electorate, and particularly its working class constituency, understood in all its complexity, could simply be bought off by a top-down socialism rather than advancing through their own political empowerment. 


SUGGESTED CITATION  Wilkinson, Michael: The Failure of the Left to Grasp Brexit, VerfBlog, 2019/12/14, https://verfassungsblog.de/the-failure-of-the-left-to-grasp-brexit/, DOI: 10.17176/20191215-060444-0.

15 Comments

  1. Martin Holterman Sa 14 Dez 2019 at 19:03 - Reply

    What are you talking about??? Remain parties won this election, at least in the sense of having received more votes. The same is true for the previous General Election and for the European election this spring. So in what sense is remainism dead?

    Now, of course one might argue that a different strategy might have won Labour the election. Then again, that different strategy might just as easily have been a real commitment for remain, which would have won them a lot of voters who now went to the LibDems (the Party that won 3,696,423 votes) and the SNP (1,242,372 votes).

    But it utterly mystifies me why democracy should require that „the left“ should engage with the pet project of the populist right, which is supported by a minority of British voters, rather than trying to promote the interests of the working classes.

    • Weichtier Sa 14 Dez 2019 at 19:20 - Reply

      But its a pity that the working classes are to ignorant to perceive their interests.

      • Martin Holterman Sa 14 Dez 2019 at 22:47 - Reply

        Yes, indeed.

        If only they had competent journalists to separate the lying politicians from the truth-telling ones, maybe they’d do a better job of it.

        Either way, I’m not sure why you think it’s bad to say voters don’t understand certain things. Of course they don’t, neither do I. That’s why I seek professional help if I am sick or want to litigate in court. Except that doctors and lawyers have honour, and professional bodies to punish them if they lie. Politicians don’t have either anymore, and so the voters are being taken advantage of. That’s not the fault of the voters, but the fault of the politicians.

  2. Mark Anthony So 15 Dez 2019 at 00:04 - Reply

    This general election was mooted has the second referendum on Brexit, to then apply a dated and undemocratic ‚first past the post‘ approach was nothing less than pathetic. Proportional representation has been denied to the British public, a majority of which, who are now, clearly not convinced on the so called benifits of Brexit. As Martin Holterman states in his post, remainism is alive and kicking but once again Joe public has been shafted.

  3. Bill So 15 Dez 2019 at 00:59 - Reply

    You say that Corbyn “gave in to the remain wing”? The “remain wing” as you do put it, was 72% of his vote in the referendum and they (myself included) trusted him with our vite at Mays snap election. Corbyn did better than expected with our vote, then the day after that election ruled out a second referendum.

    That was the point that he lost a lot of us. First he dithered, trying to keep both sides happy, this pleasing neither.

    Then he reluctantly went kind of with Remain. Top little too late. His bullying leadership made him seem like a dictator.

  4. Matthias Ruffert So 15 Dez 2019 at 15:47 - Reply

    We non-British often wonder why that country could bring itself in an utterly uncomfortable situation such as Brexit. In this regard, the present article deserves great attention (and readers’ gratitude) for its explanatory value. If part of the Tory party’s hostile position toward European integration has always been enigmatic to us, perhaps best personified in somebody like Jacob Rees-Mogg whose political perspective really does not have an equivalent ‘over here’, the basis of the failure of the other side (to quote from the title chosen by the author) is known all the better ‘on the continent’. It is the constant talk of the “neoliberal straightjacket“ of the EU which is not less quasi-religious than the ‘take back control’-mantra of the right wing Brexiteers, with its gods (extensively quoted in the articles hyperlinked by the author), heresies (probably austerity) and devils (mostly identified in the negatively worshipped effigy of the Viking/Laval-case law). A closer view on the law and the facts, however, unmasks the core of such erroneous belief. In Germany, we are lucky that there is no similar accidental coalition between the extremes, although similar positions exist. It may have reasons in German history that the far Left never found a decent arrangement with European integration. But this is another point. So: Thank you for the open clarification!

  5. Bulent Gokay So 15 Dez 2019 at 19:26 - Reply

    Agree with the point that when Corbyn accepted, under pressure, the second referendum idea reluctantly the party lost those former working class constituencies in the Midlands, North and the Wales. This was so obvious to us, living and campaigning in the north. 9 out of 10 local people I spoke was concerned about the remain position. Perhaps 2 or 3 mentioned Corbyn. Almost noone critisized the manifesto. Indeed almost everyone’s first question: is Labour candidate in favour of brexit or remain? When we summarised them the official LP position, i.e. 3 months to prepare a new deal and then another referendum, they refused to listen any further.

  6. P.T.Poprock So 15 Dez 2019 at 23:49 - Reply

    Brexit is for the but stupid, loyal but treacherous, perceptive but gullible that have sucked in to the mantra (take back control!!!) that the days of British empire can be regained without the EU but with fantasticoco trade deals with the USofA and other countries and all this has been posited by those vile cancerous publications such as The Sun/Express/DailyMail/Telegraph/Times (owned by you-know-who).
    Goodbye.
    Goodbye, Little England.
    I am off to eat scones and honey and watch the Spitfires circling overhead.
    Goodbye, Little England. I wish you and your progeny nothing other than misery soon and disgrace in the decades to come.
    Sadly the billionaires who duped you will neither sweat nor fret… until you come for them. Johnson, it is said, sees himself as Churchill in the making. He may not come to be, as others say, Hitler or Stalin but he is very similar, many people feel, to Mussolini.

    • Oooh lalala Mo 16 Dez 2019 at 16:50 - Reply

      Mussolini was one of Churchill’s favourite ’statesmen‘. Until he turned against the now defunct British empire. Bozo knows this quite well, but he likes to play the part of the bulldog and knows how to throw red meat to a large enough section (though not the majority) of the electorate. The opposition helped by bickering on how to divide the weapons in the trench.

  7. John S Johnston Mo 16 Dez 2019 at 05:33 - Reply

    I would say it’s more of a failure of the EU to grasp the need for change that caused Brexit, the notion that twenty one member states can exist and thrive under one umbrella and keep all dry is fasciae at best.

  8. Francesco Pennesi Mo 16 Dez 2019 at 12:04 - Reply

    I am always perplexed when I hear Italian constitutionalists saying that the European Union is a „neoliberal project“ preventing public authorities in Italy to „exit the neoliberal and capitalistic paradigm“. In the western world, Italy is by far one of the countries where the State is the most active. Public authorities are heavily involved in every economic activity, and free-market rules are rarely allowed to function (we save banks, airlines, steel factories with public money). When the Brexit debate started to spill over the rest of Europe, I realized with great sadness that such ideological traps had captured many people in UK as well. But interestingly, in UK the EU was targeted by both sides: the right accused the EU to be a „soviet project“, responsible for regulating everything (oh my god, the shapes of bananas!), the left blamed the EU for exactly the opposite (we cant create a socialist heaven with those state aid rules!). I do agree that the relationship between European constitutionalism and national political processes is a subject deserving scholarly interest. I also agree on the fact that EU law restrains certain national political choices, and it is necessary to discuss the legitimacy and democratic foundations of such limitations. However, this debate on the „neoliberal straight-jacket“ is so heavily ideological that its contribution to the discussion tend to be minimal. What is neoliberism? Is there neoliberism in UK and Italy, and to what extent the EU is to blame? Those questions cannot be answered by lengthy articles and books heavy (only) on political and philosophical disquisitions, but they need to be supported by economic data. Given the degree of participation of the Italian State in the Italian economy, where is this straight-jacket to be found?

  9. Oooh lalala Mo 16 Dez 2019 at 16:41 - Reply

    Despite the genuine euroscepticism of some on the left (Corbyn, McLuskey, etc.) Brexit is a right-wing construct based on a culture of British exceptionalism, alien to the left. The British electorate would have never trusted Labour to deliver on it in the sense it was sold to the electorate in 2016 (shutting down borders, erecting as many barriers as needed to stop funding European cooperation and strike neoliberal trade arrangements with the ‚rest of the world‘.

    It is only fair that those who invented and patented Brexit have a first go at it. I expect them to fall on their sword of lies and hubris quite soon. Or, more likely, to ditch ideological ERGism and work out a Norway style deal, appeasing thus the British industry but betraying once more the winning 43% of the electorate who has voted for blood.

  10. The View from Ireland Mo 16 Dez 2019 at 16:41 - Reply

    Ho hum – the usual innumerate Lexiteer arguments.

    Some 17 million people voted for parties that supported at least a referendum on a concrete version of Brexit, as against about 14.9 million who believed the big lie of ‘getting Brexit done’, and voted for Brexit-supporting parties.

    The fact that the absurd electoral system of the UK allows a party with well less than 50% of the vote can get well over 50% of the parliamentary representation has far more to do with the result, than the poor to middling attempts of the British Labour Party to navigate the swamps of Brexit.

    The long term support of Brit Leninists and Bennites for withdrawal from the EU served to strengthen and essentially right-wing project of parts of the Tory party, which led the their narrow success the the referendum.

    From then on in, class politics was always going to be swamped by the distractions of Brexit. Lexiteers are partly responsible for forming this terrain.

    Still, at least it has taught us in the rest of the EU never to go down that road.

  11. Dave Wilkinson Mo 16 Dez 2019 at 18:15 - Reply

    The Labour „heartlands“ which abandoned the Party were all solid Leave areas, so no real surprise there, as the Party is predominantly for Remain. The question is, why would such poor powerless people believe Leaving EU was good for them? The Referendum was for these people to complain about Tory austerity having trashed areas already blighted by the closure of traditional well-paid industries. Ironic therefore that the Political benefit falls to the architects of these disasters. Ironic too, that those who will pay the price of Brexit are the poorest and most powerless in society. Those who believed Johnson that EU contributions would be diverted to the NHS etc, still believe in his mantras. Now Johnson says he will invigorate these areas. Well, don’t hold your breath, the cost of doing so would be trillions and he ain’t going to spend big, particularly as Brexit leaves not only the poor poorer, but Government coffers too.

  12. Jeffrey Stanford Mo 16 Dez 2019 at 18:15 - Reply

    How easy it is to forget that the only Labour politician to have won 3 elections consecutively was from the centre ground.All this posturing by Corbyn supporters is just hot air.

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