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THE script isn’t Tarantino. Theresa May is hardly Mrs Blonde. But Britain’s Brexit debate is becoming a painful form of national torture that could have been plucked straight from Reservoir Dogs.
Labour might mock the civil war and political disintegration of the Conservative government. The Nasty Party is back with a vengeance.
One-Nation Tories are as much of an endangered species as Yazidi Kurds. Parliament is gridlocked by daily recriminations that fill our newspapers and TV screens. But the issues at stake are too big to be left to the politics of derision.
For me, all serious options point towards a “People’s Vote.” This doesn’t mean the outcome would be any different. The nation is apparently divided a third, a third, a third, but there is a principle at stake. It is the trade union principle that negotiators negotiate, but the final say (on the final deal) always rests with the members. I don’t expect William Rees-Mogg to grasp this principle, but Labour ought to.
The inability to embrace this threatens to turn Brexit into Labour’s own “Ukip moment.” David Cameron triggered the original referendum supposedly to spike Ukip.
Now Labour is dogged by the same fear — that if it doesn’t stand by the anger, confusion and delusions behind the original vote it too will lose many of the 170 seats that voted Leave.
Blairites who mock this view duck the fact that they, not Europe, are the source of Labour’s dilemma. The vast majority of Leave voters I canvassed during the referendum intended to do so out of a sense of anger and betrayal. Neither Brussels nor immigrants figured most. It was the brazen hypocrisy of an appeal to defend a “prosperity” that had never reached them.
Look at the towns John McDonnell visits in his Left Behind Britain tour. Look at the thousands Jeremy Corbyn addresses around the country. Every street corner, every town centre screams out: “What bloody prosperity, mate? It never made it here. Your fat cats in the City may have squirrelled away millions, but we’ve had nowt.”
New Labour’s pursuit of Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman, its embrace of PFI-style privatisations and deregulated markets, created a divide that years of spending cuts were to rub salt into.
In the last eight years 800 libraries have closed, zero-hours contracts have proliferated and Britain now has the highest level of in-work benefits dependency in its history. Don’t talk to the working poor about “prosperity.” Leave voters intended to give Westminster a bloody nose as much as anyone else. And they did.
Where do we go from here?
For both the left and right the next steps involve shedding some painful delusions, and facing up to even more painful realities.
The Tory delusions begin with the free-trade fantasies of Brexiteers. These MPs live in abject denial of everything climate science is screaming at us.
A year of extreme weather events is set to become the new norm. Food crises, famines, floods, droughts, uncontrollable fires and forced migrations will become permanent parts of the global landscape. Chasing cheap food deals around the world would make matters worse; fuelling the carbon emissions that lie behind the emerging crises.
Either the era of deregulated free trade dies or we do. The real debate is about what should replace it.
Another Europe needs to be at the heart of this. Tomorrow’s security will be found within a framework of reclaimed interdependencies, or not at all.
It is a world in which we rediscover the safety of standing together, and located in an economics that treads more lightly on the only planet we’ve got.
‘Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right’
None of this registers with the rabid right. Financially fuelled by the world’s biggest polluters and greediest corporate interests, the right dress up post-Brexit dream worlds as though Armageddon will be the new Valhalla.
The tragedy lies in how little this delusion is being challenged. In part, it is because some of the left would like to live there too.
This is the belief is that — in or out of the EU — a rosy future awaits us within a new era of global trade agreements.
It won’t. Neither a hard Brexit nor May’s Brexit will get us out of the hole we’re in. May’s alternative may avoid tariff barriers but it would leave Britain as a horse tied to someone else’s wagon.
A hard Brexit would push the wagon off a cliff. Fortunately, the parliamentary arithmetic means that neither can secure a parliamentary majority.
As long as Article 50 can be suspended or revoked Parliament will have to look for other options — including a People’s Vote.
Stuck in the middle with EU
I’m under no illusions about where a no-Brexit vote would leave us. The EU is a horrible, horrible mess. The only thing worse than being in it is not being in it. Without the UK, Europe will be dragged towards the divisive mire of the Vizigrad right.
The same politics that tore Europe apart over a century ago will play themselves out again. There is no way Britain could detach itself from this. Better to avert the problem than repair its horrendous consequences. Labour cannot do this from outside.
In reality, the EU-27 are not going to reopen Brexit negotiations with a Labour government. They are bored with Britain’s shenanigans. Only the remain negotiations would be open, and this is where it gets interesting. It would revert to the position Corbyn and McDonnell tried to argue for in the original referendum — remain and reform. Perhaps this time the party won’t scupper their efforts.
In the last referendum Corbyn did more public meetings than the whole of the shadow cabinet and Remain campaign team put together. Throughout, he was blocked from running the “reform” part.
Both Corbyn and McDonnell wanted to openly campaign against TTIP — an agreement that would have given corporations the power to sue citizens for interfering with their right to extract profits from anything that moved.
The party hierarchy would have none of it. Corbyn and McDonnell wanted to put public ownership of privatised services at the centre of the Labour campaign. Nope. Labour ended up mimicking a Tory campaign that was lost on the left-behind.
Now the ground has changed. Several EU member states have precisely the free movement restrictions Britain had asked for. Public ownership will not be an obstacle. And more important than anything, institutional change — along the lines set out by Another Europe is Possible — is increasingly recognised as perhaps the only way of holding Europe together.
This would involve dramatic increases in coordinated approaches to money laundering, tax evasion and climate security — all spheres in which a Labour Britain could lead rather than obstruct.
But “leading” also involves ditching myths and delusions.
There’s been lots of huffing and puffing about sovereignty. Much of this is garbage. “Making our own laws” and “not being bossed about by Brussels” are largely there within existing subsidiarity agreements. What makes me laugh, though, is the ire reserved for the European Court of Justice.
I want European arrest warrants. I want stronger European laws to prevent the money laundering and tax shifting that steals from all our economies. And I can’t bring myself to rail against the common obligations that go with it. Pause a moment and run the argument past football.
England have just qualified for next summer’s Nations League finals. The trouble is that Uefa, not the FA, write the rules. Sure, we get a say in this (as part of Uefa) but we don’t own it. So do we pull out? Should we do the same with the World Cup? And other European club competitions? And what about foreign players?
If a breathtaking future of matches only between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland doesn’t fill you with excitement, Brexiteers would have you believe there’s a another world out there just waiting to play on our terms. Trumpland has been their favourite port of call.
Donald would be delighted. He’d just insist on chlorinated goalposts (with spikes on), genetically modified shoulder pads and a right to play the man not the ball. Even the purgatory of unending games with the DUP may then be a more attractive option.
We live in a world of pooled sovereignties. And in this world it is better to have a voice and a vote than none at all. It is a world that also cries out for new “leadership.”
The extinction imperative
By 1945, the old international institutions were defunct. Keynes’s vision (only partly accepted by the US) needed new institutions to deliver post-war reconstruction and reach out to the developing world. We have to do the same today. Climate crises and social polarisation leave us little choice.
Europe has no appetite for new national taxation to tackle these problems, but a European “Tobin” tax (on speculative capital movements), on tax havens, on aviation, shipping, pollution and climate damage might get through — providing the resources needed for a genuine “People’s Europe.”
Corbyn and McDonnell could be the ones to deliver it. Those thinking such choices can be put off till later are in for a rude awakening.
Look at some of the lessons from Germany. The SPD has just crashed in the Hesse regional elections. The left vote migrated to the Greens. Christian Democrats may want to chase votes from the xenophobic right, but SPD supporters were looking for something more visionary on the left. Corbyn knows this too.
British politics are structured differently. Our seismic upheavals will emerge in social movements long before they reach Westminster corridors. Parliament may be in a Brexit logjam but climate politics is no longer waiting.
Extinction Rebellion hasn’t just taken to the streets. Their decision to occupy the Greenpeace offices — Greenpeace! — was a sign that the action is now chasing “inaction.”
If Extinction Rebellion has begun with the climate activists, don’t expect MPs’ offices, homes and meetings to be far behind.
When a hunger for bigger, faster, more profound change takes off, politicians of all shades will be forced to wake up. Brexit or no Brexit, Labour will have to choose whether to lead this or get hit by it too.
Alan Simpson was Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992-2010. He now advises John McDonnell on environmental policy.
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