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Where would the Left be without Brexit?

Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

March 18, 2019   4 mins

What would Britain’s national conversation look like today if Brexit had remained a mere glint in the eye of a few Tory backbenchers? And, more specifically, where would the Left be?

Without Brexit, parliament would presumably be dealing with the myriad problems that confront the country – rather than obsessing over something called a ‘backstop’.

Yet no Brexit presupposes no David Cameron as prime minister – at least beyond May 2015.

Cameron called the referendum in order to appease Eurosceptic MPs in the forlorn hope of uniting the Conservative Party. And then he disappeared. Without Brexit, David Cameron would likely have disappeared from the scene a little earlier…

It is 8 May 2015, and Prime Minister Ed Miliband has just emerged from a car outside Downing Street to make his first speech.

Of course, the Left would soon grow frustrated at what it saw as the timidity of a Miliband-led social democratic government which, like all governments, would be forced to make compromises shortly after assuming office.

Throughout his time as leader of the opposition, Miliband was, after all, assailed by the ideological purists of the far-Left for his purported timidity in taking on the Tories. Occasionally this was warranted. But the chorus of discontent was so incessant that it arguably cost Labour votes at the (actual) 2015 election. As James Morris, a former advisor to Miliband, put it in 2014, “We are too worried about Left-leaning commentariat and the party”.

Yet had the centre-Left won power in 2015, it would have been the Right-wing press that Miliband sought to appease. Labour promised, had it won in 2015, to “cut the deficit every year”, something even George Osborne didn’t manage. Brexit or no Brexit, a Miliband government would likely have zig-zagged between appeasing Left-wing activists on the one hand, and trying to assuage hostile media voices on the other.

Of course, there are real things the broader Left could have achieved in a Brexit-free administration. One of these is tackling the scandal of low-pay and precarious work.

Over recent decades the life has been sucked out of smaller towns in Britain. Jobs have relocated overseas or to the larger cities, and young and educated folk have followed in their wake. Town dwellers have subsequently been ‘left behind’ – as a thousand comment writers discovered the morning after the Brexit referendum result.

A centre-Left government could have begun to seriously tackle this issue of regeneration. Labour’s 2015 manifesto committed, for example, to establishing a British investment bank and an ‘apprenticeship guarantee’ for school leavers.

In the process, they could even have partially pulled the rug out from under any future campaign to leave the European Union. Though far from a purely economic issue, the absence of opportunity in these forgotten communities clearly contributed to the support for Brexit.

It has become something of a cliché to share – to the sound of great mirth – a tweet David Cameron sent a few days prior to the 2015 election, warning of “chaos under Ed Miliband”. The implication being that without Brexit – which would never have happened under a Miliband government – we would have little of the upheaval that has subsequently followed.

Yet realistically, the Left would be facing its own travails – with or without Brexit. To some extent this is a question of the limitations of government. Indeed, a Corbyn-led administration will likely face the same challenges should it ever win power.

The question that hangs over any Left-leaning government these days is this: what can really be achieved in a global capitalist economy where wealth can be moved elsewhere in a heartbeat? State socialism is a dead end; so what is the Left’s function in the twenty-first century?

There is of course the protectionist course, dissected unsparingly by Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts in their critical account of Corbynism. A Britain that ensconces itself behind tariffs and trade barriers is a Britain that becomes significantly poorer as a result.

Then there is the moderate course: a slightly more tepid version of New Labour.

It is unlikely that a Miliband-led government would have taken the first course. For one thing, the centre-Left is less driven by the ideological fervour that animates the Corbynistas. Which is not to say there wouldn’t have been headlines in the Daily Mail accusing Miliband of wanting to turn Britain into Venezuela – that’s par for the course for any Labour leader.

What might have brought down the British centre-Left – in the event of a Miliband government and no Brexit – is indecision. Radical governments almost have it easier in this respect, at least when it comes to economics. Ideologues care not whether their citizens become poorer; instead they worry about whether the correct ideological course is being pursued. The mainstream on the other hand must at least pay lip service to what works.

The experience of Francois Hollande in France is telling in this respect. Elected on a Left-leaning prospectus, Hollande pursued a course that vacillated between radical-sounding rhetoric which spooked the markets, followed – as surely as night follows day – by screeching U-turns that satisfied nobody.

The radical Left has been nipping at the heels of the centre-Left across western democracies in recent years. The British Labour Party has been turned upside down by this phenomenon, and so it is hard to see how the hard Left would not have continued its resurgence even without Brexit.

In this no Brexit scenario Jeremy Corbyn would still be a backbench MP, but I suspect he would nonetheless be an increasingly influential one. He would have been spared the forensic dragging over the coals by the press that has accompanied his rise. Instead, he would be a regular guest on alternative outlets such as Novara media, where he would be presented as a Left-wing national treasure on a par with the late Tony Benn.

We on the other hand may at least have been spared from those cranks who proliferate online and share their hero’s obsessions and proclivities. Without a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party, there would undoubtedly be less antisemitism in public life. The manhole cover which sits atop that sewer would have remained firmly shut – for the time being at least.

A 2015 Labour government might have been short-lived – it may even have been propped up precariously by the Scottish Nationalists. Yet it would at least have had a chance to tackle some of the pressing issues of the day. At present, we are barely talking about the things that really matter – rising in-work poverty, a spike in homelessness, the dilapidation of the country’s infrastructure – because we are so consumed by Brexit.

Anything which might have pre-empted that – as well as the rise of comrade Corbyn and all the residual nastiness that he has brought with him – would arguably have been a deliverance.

The Left would almost certainly be in far better shape today were it not for Brexit. By now it might – in government – have some real achievements to its name. That’s a lot more than can be said for the Corbyn movement.

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.


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