The Labour Left Is Poised to Take Power If It Can Move Past One Roadblock: Brexit

The Labour Party’s left flank is preparing for its best shot at governing in a generation. But the Brexit dilemma threatens to fracture the party’s electorate.

Cole Stangler

Labour's radical manifesto shows the party's left flank is leading the way. (Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)

BRIGHTON, UNITED KINGDOM — On September 22, the Grand Brighton was invaded by socialists. On the ground floor of the four-star Victorian seafront hotel, hundreds of Labour Party supporters packed a conference room for a rally organized by Tribune magazine that boasted a retro yet earnest title: For Victory and Socialism.”

“Socialism is not a pipe dream, but an urgent political necessity,” boomed Laura Pidcock, a Labour MP.

Beneath a sea of red union banners hanging from the ceiling, the crowd erupted into applause, roused by the fiery speeches and free drinks. The event stood as a much livelier scene than the one prevailing inside the Labour Party’s official annual conference at the nearby Hilton Hotel.

Socialism is not a pipe dream, but an urgent political necessity,” boomed Laura Pidcock, an MP from North West Durham, the heart of England’s former coal country, who concluded her speech at the Tribune rally to a standing ovation. It was one of many throughout the evening.

The giddiness flowed from a simple fact. It’s not just that general elections are likely on the horizon in the United Kingdom, and that the Labour Party has a chance to win them. But much to the delight of the party’s left flank, this time, it would actually be calling the shots — with socialist Jeremy Corbyn serving as prime minister. In office, Corbyn would be expected to carry out a platform including sweeping proposals like transferring 10% of shares in large companies to workers, hiking taxes on the ultra-rich, expanding tenant rights and boosting state investment to tackle climate change.

If only it were so easy. While the next few months offer arguably the opportunity of a lifetime for the Labour Left, they’re also riddled with complexity — in large part, because of Brexit.

The UK’s divorce from the European Union (EU) is currently slated to take effect October 31, but is widely expected to be delayed further, assuming the EU agrees to a future request for an extension. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lost his majority in Parliament over the issue, which means that general elections are expected to be imminent.

Unfortunately for Labour — whether the party likes to talk about it or not — Brexit threatens to fracture its electorate: Recent polls show the Tories with a comfortable lead. A large chunk of voters are drawn to parties promising to keep the UK inside the EU — namely, the Liberal Democrats. Labour, which has seen its support plummet, has committed to a second referendum with voters choosing between Remain and a new exit accord, but not until after general elections.

The issue continues to trigger debate within Labour ranks: Should the party do more to target such voters and adopt a stronger position in favor of remaining within the European Union? Or should it stick to a more middle-ground stance, keeping Brexit on the table as an option to be addressed after the party hypothetically takes power? The answer could be pivotal to Labour’s prospects of both winning elections and governing.

The Brexit dilemma, explained 

Many Brits are sick of Brexit — of the debate, the delays and the relentless bickering it’s provoked across seemingly all levels of government. Still, the topic remains unavoidable. A march in Brighton organized on Sept. 21 by the People’s Vote campaign — a group calling for a second Brexit referendum — was a reminder of just that. A handful of Labour Ministers of Parliament joined thousands of protesters in a demonstration that concluded in front of the party’s conference.

Sue, a primary schoolteacher from Bexhill in attendance, told In These Times that she voted for Labour in 2017, but was frustrated by the party’s waffling over Brexit, which she opposes. She wants another referendum — immediately. I’m a member of the Labour Party and I love his social policies but he annoys me so much on Brexit,” Sue said of Corbyn. I want another referendum, and then a general election… because at the moment, if you have the general election before the EU referendum, Brexit will take it over and there’s so many other issues: education, social services, austerity. If we had an election after a referendum, then all of the parties could concentrate on those other issues.”

Mention of People’s Vote — which tends to attract a decidedly white, middle-class crowd — often provokes eye-rolling among the Labour Left. Nevertheless, the campaign’s line is shared by a non-negligible share of the British electorate. For now, those voters are being wooed by the centrist Liberal Democrats: A recent YouGov poll placed the Tories at 33%, Labour at 22% and Lib Dems at 21%, with the hard-right Brexit party at 13%. Another recent study even put the Lib Dems just ahead of Labour, by one point.

Politics is changing — it’s no longer about left or right,” Beatrice Bass, a Lib Dem candidate for Parliament hoping to capture the constituency of Hove and Portslade from Labour, told In These Times. Either you are pro-remain, pro-immigration, pro-diversity, pro-equality and an internationalist — these core liberal values that represent the Lib Dems — or you’re populist, for Brexit, nationalistic, anti-immigration, anti-equality. These are the two polar options. Labour is [floundering] somewhere at the moment in undefined grounds.”

While few Labour supporters would agree with Bass that the left-right divide no longer matters — a notion that’s increasingly popular across continental Europe — some believe the party can’t shy away from tackling the culture war. The left-wing writer Paul Mason has argued that Labour needs to rethink its base of support. Instead of trying to appease its minority of Leavers, who tend to be low-income and concentrated in the north of England, Mason argues the party needs to pivot toward the sort of middle-class professionals and the vast majority of youth who, having grown up in the EU, are attached to their European identity and the freedom of movement it entails. (A paltry 9% of British youth who have come of voting age since the 2016 Brexit referendum support leaving Europe.)

For the many, not the few” 

Others within Labour caution against reading too much into the polls and insist the party ought to stick with its bread-and-butter: a platform aimed at the working class that transcends the Brexit divide. After all, in 2017, the party defied the odds — and the polls — by picking up its greatest gains in an election since 1945, finishing just shy of a majority. In 2019, the thinking goes, the party needs to double down on its ambitious manifesto, entitled For the many, not the few.” Over the weekend, party conference attendees appeared to do just that. Labour’s platform now includes the elimination of private schools, the creation of a four-day work week within a decade and a Green New Deal plan to reach zero net emissions by 2030.

At a panel organized by The World Transformed, a four-day festival that runs alongside the official party conference, Labour left-wingers defended their approach. Ali Milani, a 25-year-old Muslim immigrant running against Boris Johnson in the suburban London constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, argued that the party needs to stay focused on its platform and its broader narrative. I don’t think there’s anything that’s too radical,” Milani said. I have this running belief that elections and the campaigns that we fight are actually quite simply stories — who can tell their story the best?”

I think people have had enough of being asked to vote to stop something or to vote for something not to happen,” Milani continued. It is a far more powerful story and message to say vote for a transformative Green New Deal that’s going to tackle climate change, vote for a free and accessible education from cradle to grave, vote for workers to have a stake in the business they put their labor in, vote for [more social housing].’”

A tricky road ahead

Still, even if Labour manages an excellent election score, another uncomfortable fact looms: It’s unlikely the party can govern alone — something that risks cutting the knees out of its bold reform program.

Britain’s first-past-the-post system greatly advantages the Conservative Party (in 2017, the Tories won 49% of seats in Parliament with just 42% of the vote), meaning Labour must significantly outperform the Tories to win an outright majority. If it fails to do so, the party would be all but forced to consider the possibility of a coalition government. In that case, the most preferred partner would be the left-leaning, pro-EU Scottish National Party (SNP), which is committed to a fresh referendum on Scottish independence. That’s a tricky sell for a couple of reasons: In the short term, a coalition with the SNP would risk upsetting the Scottish Labour Party, which in 2015 lost 40 of its 41 seats in the Scottish parliament to the SNP. In the long-term, Scottish independence is likely to deprive the UK of a progressive majority for years to come.

If Labour still needs more votes to construct a majority, it would then have to consider the Liberal Democrats. For some on the Labour Left, such a coalition is impossible. In a ruling coalition with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015, the Lib Dems infamously broke a campaign promise not to raise tuition fees for university students and embarked on painful austerity economics that the UK is still reeling from today. In reference to the party’s color, they’re known in some left-leaning circles as Yellow Tories.” Even setting aside the question of Brexit, it’s difficult to imagine the Lib Dems backing much of Labour’s economic agenda. (The party already opposes putting Corbyn at the head of a temporary caretaker” government if Parliament were to cast a vote of no confidence against Boris Johnson.)

It all makes for a tricky road ahead. And it also explains why much of Labour’s left flank sees little choice but to go all-in on the campaign trail if it wants any shot of implementing its platform in office. In other words, forget the talk of a coalition or of Brexit, just focus on the ideas. As Ali Milani put it, There is no middle ground, no suburban area, no Tory area that we can’t win.”

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Cole Stangler writes about labor and the environment. His reporting has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Republic and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at] Follow him @colestangler.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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