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 October 8, 2019

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.”

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.
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