The Brexit vote is an ‘I told you so!’ moment for many on the left. Aside from a handful of ‘Lexit’ advocates, the left’s position on the EU referendum was that only the right could benefit from Brexit: Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage would sweep to power, ushering in radical neoliberalism, racism and xenophobia. Better, the left argued, to stay within the EU: despite its admittedly undemocratic and brutal nature, it at least locked in free movement, workers’ rights and environmental protections. Essentially, the left doubted that, given a free choice in an unfettered national democracy, the British people would maintain these rules. Now, left commentators say, their warnings are coming true.
This defeatist analysis is not simply wrong. It is potentially disastrous for the future of democracy.
First, as TCM has recently argued, if the left is in disarray, so is the right. Stating that the left was too weak to lead people towards a progressive Brexit was a self-fulfilling prophesy, sacrificing leadership of the referendum campaigns – and thus debate over Britain’s future – to the right. Nonetheless, the referendum has clearly not empowered a coherent, right-wing project. Warnings of anti-immigrant pogroms have proven unfounded: despite a small statistical increase in reports of racist incidents, the country has not been suddenly consumed by a wave of violent xenophobia. Meanwhile, Leave leaders are caught in the headlights, furiously backpedalling on their commitments and proposing to secure as tight a relationship with the EU as possible. The Tories – already deeply unpopular – are in disarray. The ogre Boris Johnson, whom the left told everyone to be so afraid of, is already out of the race to be prime minister, fleeing from responsibility. He was also apparently betrayed by fellow Leave campaigner Michael Gove, who has declared his own candidacy – despite repeatedly saying in the past that he is not suitable for the top job. It now seems likely that quiet Remainer Theresa May will emerge from this political bloodletting as party leader – when a majority of Tory supporters voted to Leave. The left, however, is in no position to take advantage of this shambles as a result of putting itself on the losing side of the referendum.
Second, the EU has clearly provided no safeguard against neoliberalism or other unfavourable policies. On the contrary, the EU is itself a neoliberal project, deliberately removing economic policy from political contestation and constitutionalising a continent-wide neoliberal order. For those worried about the National Health Service (NHS): what exactly did the EU do to stop the shift towards ‘private providers’ since 1989? Have leftists forgotten that the EU was negotiating – in secret – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which would have accelerated NHS privatisation? For those worried about universities: what precisely did the EU do to prevent the introduction of tuition fees, their tripling to £3,000, or their further tripling to £9,000? Or the intensification of the audit culture and marketisation? The weakening of quality controls and the massive, state-subsidised entry of ‘private providers’? What did the EU do to arrest the privatisation of railways, telecommunications, post services, social housing, and every other public legacy of postwar Keynesianism? How did the EU stop cuts in welfare spending on the poor, the disabled or the unemployed? To even ask these questions is ridiculous in light of the EU’s actions in Greece, which is now experiencing 57% youth unemployment, rapidly worsening working conditions, wages and social security, rising homelessness and a massive public health crisis. Similarly, those suggesting that the EU was a bulwark of ‘free movement’ might remind themselves of the tens of thousands of Africans and Middle Easterners lying dead at the bottom of the Mediterranean.
Third, and most importantly, the left strategy of hiding from the population inside the EU is an attempt to evade the crisis at the heart of British democracy, and ultimately to evade democracy itself. It is this evasion (and not ingrained racism) that is the reason for the rise of the populist right. This crisis can no longer be evaded: it must be confronted head on, and sooner rather than later.
The root of this crisis, as TCM has consistently argued, is the void that has opened between rulers and ruled over the past four decades. Historically, political parties channelled the interests and ideologies of competing social forces into the state, resulting in genuine political contestation. Following the capitalist crisis of the 1970s and the intense social conflicts that lasted into the 1980s, European political parties have retreated from the forces they once represented into the state itself. The parties of the trade unions abandoned their commitments to full employment and state intervention in the economy. With the labour movement politically neutralised, the old rationale for mass conservative parties also vanished. The parties severed their links to social constituencies, membership declined as they became dominated by professional politicians and policy wonks, gradually dwindling into mere electoral machines. They have coalesced around around identikit, neoliberal policy platforms, to which, they openly proclaim, ‘there is no alternative’. The signs of this malaise have been clear for decades: declining party membership, collapsing electoral turnout, the dwindling of serious political participation, the erosion of trust in public officials and institutions, and an ever growing sense that the new political class represents nothing but itself and its own interests.
The EU reflects and entrenches this widening divorce between rulers and ruled. As political elites retreated into the state, they found new sources of support in similarly isolated rulers elsewhere in Europe, and began drawing legitimacy from their relationships with each other, rather than their relationships to their own electorates. State apparatuses were networked across state borders and policymaking shifted from representative, democratic institutions to inter-elite bureaucratic and diplomatic networks. The project of European integration simply deepened the void in domestic politics, as ordinary people were increasingly left behind.
The illusion was to think that this arrangement was indefinitely sustainable. The signs of growing popular dissatisfaction were everywhere. National referenda repeatedly rejected further EU integration – but were then ignored. Most seriously, populist forces began stepping into the void created by the transformation of political parties into technocracies. Populism works by channelling diverse grievances into a generic, anti-elite project. It therefore flourishes where grievances go unheard and people feel unrepresented, where elites appear homogenous and divorced from the people. Contrary to leftist suggestions, then, the EU was never a safeguard against the rise of xenophobic, nationalist populism: it was its breeding ground. The EU reflected and entrenched the very conditions that fomented populism – which is why it is rampant across Europe, and typically far worse on the continent than in Britain.
The left’s consistent instinct has simply been to recoil from this – to sneer at ‘bigoted’ people, to incant the platitudes of anti-racism. Governments have pandered to and fostered growing xenophobia by pledging to curb immigration, and constructing Fortress Europe, thereby creating the very siege mentality for which they are now being punished. EU officials have no idea how to close to void, proposing instead legal measures and economic sanctions to block any right-wing populists from taking power. Remain campaigners also did nothing to close the void or even defend the EU, relying entirely on economic blackmail.
The Brexit vote has starkly revealed this ever-widening void between rulers and ruled, a void whose true emblem is the elitist disdain for Brexit voters. The left must recognise the historic failure that has led to this outcome. It is not the result of a few weeks of nasty campaigning and dog-whistling. It is the result of the steady collapse of representative democracy – symbolised now by the disarray of both of Britain’s historic ruling parties.
Advocating remaining in the EU was an attempt to evade this fundamental crisis, to kick the can of a decaying democracy down the road. It did not work. Even if it had, it would only have left the void there to widen further – as it will if the result is overturned, as some are still hoping. It would have become increasingly difficult to withstand populist challenges. Increasingly desperate mainstream parties, structurally incapable of offering any alternative, would simply have continued triangulating their way rightwards. Right-wing populists would be kept out of power only at the expense of embracing their policies and resorting to increasingly authoritarian measures to keep the show on the road – measures that will almost certainly accompany the Remainers attempts to frustrate the result.
Leaving the EU offers an opportunity to lance this boil now. The urgent task for political leftists is to restore representative democracy by re-engaging with the people. This does not mean giving ground to their ‘legitimate concerns’ over immigration. It means changing the terms of the political argument. It means arguing that it is not immigrants who are the reason that far too few houses are being built, not immigrants who are failing to create long-term, secure, decent jobs, not immigrants who are failing to revive depressed areas, not immigrants who are sitting back and enjoying the benefits of growth while half the country is left to rot. Of course, this is far easier said than done; but it is simply not a task that can be indefinitely postponed.
For those arguing that the left, or the country, is not ready for this struggle, the question must be: when would it be ready? By what mechanism was a better left leadership meant to emerge? The last 30 years have offered no basis for optimism that, a few years from now, the left would be better placed to exploit Brexit. Within the EU, the left has only retreated further from the masses and avoided confronting the demos. The same left commentators now saying ‘I told you so!’ had no positive response to the void, merely rejecting both Brussels and Westminster. Faced with neoliberal economic constitutionalism, mainstream left politicians also have no reason to devise radical solutions to close the void. It is only now, when confronted with its inescapable reality and urgency, that political leaders have any incentive to do so.