Dark days

Andrew Harrop

These are dark days for Britain, for the left, and for the Fabian way. The outcome of the referendum was a defeat for Fabianism – a rejection of our internationalism, our collectivism, our spirit of tolerance and openness. It was a defeat for evidence, reason and expertise. On the left, there were individual leave supporters who wanted Brexit for good reasons. But the proposition put to the electorate, and the conduct of the campaign, makes this a victory for right-wing politics: for deceitful populism, close-minded nostalgia and unabated freemarket economics.

Perhaps there is a slim chance that Brexit will never happen, if the UK is offered a terrible deal in the context of deepening recession. But the left cannot proceed on that basis. It must instead aim to shape the future, by offering strong parliamentary opposition to Theresa May’s right-wing cabal of Brexit ministers. On the one hand, Labour MPs must make the case for the UK remaining as integrated with our neighbours as possible (not least so we can remain a single, united kingdom). On the other hand, MPs cannot ignore the public’s verdict on migration, which is the only clear message from the Brexit vote.

Balancing these two requirements demands political acumen, dexterity and rigour – three qualities which the Labour frontbench seems incapable of mustering today. Indeed, as things stand, the party offers no opposition worthy of the name. The Conservatives may have created this crisis, but they have moved fast to crown a new prime minister and preserve their grip on power. By contrast, after a referendum defeat that was not of its making, Labour faces an existential crisis unseen since the early 1930s.

The ultimate source of the party’s problems is its broken relationship with the people it exists to serve. The Labour party was founded to give low and middle earners a voice and a platform, but a clear majority of non-graduates rejected Labour in the referendum and would not vote for it in an election today. Labour has no electoral future unless it rebuilds this relationship. Its current ‘Obama’ coalition of liberal-minded graduates, public sector workers and ethnic minorities is not enough, especially with our current electoral system.

Almost all Labour MPs know this, even though most of them come from the party’s dominant metropolitan milieu. But it seems the same is not true of a growing number of party members and, tragically, of the leadership of the major trade unions. The present crisis has arisen because too many seem intent on putting narrow ideological purity ahead of electoral success, practical social reform and relationships with typical voters.

This is not to say that Labour should be a rudderless vessel for the electorate’s passing whims. But Labour’s civil war is not between true socialists and tepid focus group centrists. Jeremy Corbyn won in 2015 because the rest of the Labour party seemed to have nothing new to say, but that is starting to change. Supposedly moderate backbenchers are now backing radical ideas, from a tax on worldwide wealth to a basic income for all, and Owen Smith’s platform is sincerely collectivist and egalitarian.

The divide is instead about the purpose of the Labour party as a political project: to represent members or communities? To organise as a movement or win parliamentary power? For Fabians, Labour is first and foremost a force to change people’s lives through parliamentary democracy and elected government. After all, in 1906, the Labour party was named not by affiliated unions or by members, but by its MPs. With such huge divisions within Britain and Europe, Labour must look beyond its own internal troubles, reunite around its parliamentary party and set out a democratic socialist vision for Britain after Brexit.


  1. Derek Emery

    Western economies are designed to work just for the top few percent who today have a massive share of newly created wealth leaving many from the middle class down as either no better off after decades or even worse off allowing for inflation. In the US today far more see themselves as working class than middle class. Existing political parties in the west are being seen as bought men working for the interests of the richest few percent.
    Globalisation today is seen by the public as internationalism which is working directly against their interests.
    The western public are not moving left in response (towards internationalism) but to the right (nationalism)
    In the US Bernie Saunders represents the interests of the middle class down for Democrats as does Trump for Republicans and putting America first with a reducing US world role features for both.

    Throughout Europe the public are turning right against internationalism http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/05/22/world/europe/europe-right-wing-austria-hungary.html?_r=0

    I doubt there is any real answer to the ever rising wealth of the richest few percent as that is how the western economic system works, This is at the expense of the rest so inequality will continue to increase and with it political dissension and far right parties.
    Politicians pretend there is trickle down and that by them making the rich richer then all benefit. This is the old horse and sparrows theory used by politicians since the 19th century to justify increasing inequality.

    Unless somebody has a magic wand to change the western economic system then the public in the 21st century will move further right to be as far as possible from globalisation and internationalism.

  2. Eddie Clarke

    The big question is how to save the parliamentary Party. This was always part of the wider labour movement, but with the specific local coalition-building and persuading roles you clearly outline with a view to gaining parliamentary and government power. And making real changes for the better. Despite the slanders of some of our new “members”, it has a proud history of achievement.
    Now Jeremy wants to abolish its distinctive role and merge it in the wider “movement”, largely concerned with rallies and other forms of street celebration. There are many thousands in the party, even among recent members, who see the dead-end in this, but they need leadership, which Owen is trying to give. Sadly, these historic times may be more appropriate for Jeremy’s approach, as they are for Trump, Farage, Nicola, Johnstone, Le Pen, etc., though the latter have skills in communication and leadership which Jeremy sadly lacks. Sad days.

  3. ian woodall

    Agree…. but how?

    How can progressive ideas flourish in any party tun by McDonnel and Corbyn. They are shaping up for a red terror after Corbyn wins.

    Its time to actively reconsider realignment on the left. Before progressive ideas disintegrate for good and our water is taken by something darker and nastier. Either from the left or the right.

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This is the leader column from the forthcoming summer issue of the Fabian Review.