With the defeat of the Remain campaign in the recent EU referendum, the left has to learn its lessons and begin the fightback against Britain’s lurch towards the intolerant right.
Britain has voted to leave the European Union. This is a mistake for our country, economically, politically and socially, yet it has happened. We cannot go back; instead, the left has to evaluate why we were defeated. Brexit has allowed the hard right to “take back control” against the advice of financial experts, most businesses and the leaderships of our largest parties. This is no longer the pet project of a handful of fanatics – 52% of voters chose to support Leave. The British electorate is the only judge that matters in politics, and we failed to convince. Understanding why this came to pass is the first step in the long walk home to succeed again.
So why did Remain fail? Firstly, because of immigration. The depths of public disdain for the levels we have seen for the last decade have not been understood by anyone on the left. Most people knew Brexit would make them poorer – they just didn’t care, seeing curbing immigration as more important. The disgusting wave of hate crime we have seen since the referendum bears testimony to the racism that fuels the hatred of many; it is the clearest indication yet that there lies something festering and rotten at the heart of England. But 52% of the electorate are not bigots, and suggesting that they are only digs us deeper into the pit which we have dug ourselves for the past ten years. It was unclear, and remains so, if the Brexit camp genuinely can find a way to curb immigration apart from crashing the economy.
As has become increasingly obvious however, ignoring fears about mass migration does not make them go away. If anything, they become exacerbated: the poorest in our land ignored by the richest, a bitterness that grew until Cameron willingly chose to unleash this Pandora’s Box by holding a referendum. By failing to assuage the reasonable concerns of some about rapid social change or integration, the left guaranteed that millions of people would look elsewhere for an answer. The tide of distrust and thinly-veiled contempt the right have for our migrant populations will guarantee that it will be the most vulnerable who pay for the mistakes of the Remain campaign. Rather than offer an alternative to the right’s prejudice, the left offered business as usual, thereby gifting the referendum to the clueless and the cruel.
Social considerations too played their part in the left’s defeat. By presenting themselves as champions of the many, Farage et al. won vital support from those areas complacently designated as the left’s “heartlands”. This is one of the greatest acts of deception successfully perpetrated by a political leader in recent years. But when the people would rather listen to Johnson (Eton) and Farage (a former commodities broker) than union leaders or the top figures in the Labour party, we have to understand the depths of the public’s disdain for the established order. Every expert on the economy, European politics or the big picture on immigration was ignored: rationality died beneath a storm of protestation.
Simply telling the people that they are idiotic and should shut up and do as they are told was a terrible idea: deference is the opposite of democracy, and looking down your nose at others simply teaches them to hate you. The offer to “take back control” chimed brilliantly with the disenfranchised and forgotten, drowning out the awful reality of Project Hate (as Sadiq Khan dubbed the leave side) and allowing for the messages of the Remain campaigners to be called Project Fear. Never again can the left afford to be in a campaign accused of ignoring the hopes and wishes of the many and trying to sell a shabbier version of the past as the future through threats and intimidation. Instead, we have to develop an alternative to the poison of the right, whereby we admit the problems of the status quo and pledge to solve them in line with our principles and the demands of the electorate.
The role of the Labour leadership too must be criticised. As an activist who spent hour upon hour on the doorstep with other party members (who as a whole were strongly for Remain), I like many others was sickened at the revelations that Corbyn’s team consciously sabotaged the Remain campaigns. There is only one word to describe this: betrayal. By refusing to co-operate with the campaign heads, watering down the message and making damaging remarks about immigration, Corbyn betrayed his activists and ensured that half of Labour voters were unsure of the party’s strong pro-EU stance. This may have tipped the balance; there are many voters who trust their party and will support it despite personal misgivings. The strong Leave vote in many of Britain’s most neglected areas can be partly explained by this choice of Corbyn and his team. He must go and as soon as possible; he arrived with golden promises, yet quickly turned out to be nothing but a lead weight, dragging the party down into the depths of electoral oblivion.
How can we begin the fightback? An alternative immigration policy, one which rejects the divisive bigotry of the right yet curbs numbers of arrivals is necessary if the left are to wrest back control and the public’s respect. We have to have the maturity to accept public concerns over mass immigration’s impacts on society, and the tenacity to resist the rising tide of racism in this country. Above all, we have to listen. If we fail to convince, we must accept it calmly and try something new, rather than tell the disenfranchised to simply swallow the status quo of a London-centric, poverty-ridden and divided nation as the way the world will ever be.
Despite everything that has happened in the past week – Brexit, government paralysed by Tory infighting, the childish insistence of Corbyn to stay in office after utter failure and above all losing 2-1 to Iceland – we should remain confident and optimistic. Reality will bite sooner rather than later for Johnson, Gove and Farage: their victorious honeymoon will fall to bits as soon as the impossibility of getting a better deal out of the EU becomes apparent and the economy tanks. If the left can find competent leadership willing to listen to the many and not just the hummus obsessed elites of Islington North, then a new strategy will triumph. But for now, we must watch as we see what happens when the left fails to do everything in its power to win: an intolerant nation, abandoned to the abuse of the hard-right of the Conservative Party, with a downgraded credit rating and a diminished place in the world. Out of touch and out of ideas, we on the ill-led left must evolve to survive because the poorest, many of whom voted for Brexit, will be made to pay for our failures: as we have sowed the wind, we will reap the whirlwind.