Westminster is stuck in a Brexit bubble. The left need to provide an alternative to the washed-up parliamentary politics argues Chris Bambery
It is common currency to say that politicians, their bag handlers and much of the media live in a Westminster bubble. Never has that been truer than currently. Westminster is consumed by Brexit. It dominates every hour that MPs are in the crumbling palace. Yet as one MP, whose time is taken up sitting on a Select Committee trying to question ministers on what is going on, said to me, when he tried to update his constituency party on where matters stood he could see his audience switched off after a couple of minutes. These were passionate Remain supporters.
The problem is simple. What is keeping people awake at night is not the latest cut and thrust of the Brexit negotiations; it’s the problems facing the NHS, the fact that living standards are not recovering sufficiently, housing, work and so on.
Don’t get me wrong. People have strong opinions on the EU but they cannot follow the intricacies of the debate.
What they do know is that Theresa May’s government is a shambles. Its survival must seem a mystery. The divisions inside the Tory Party are as deep as ever and its only their fear Jeremy Corbyn might get elected if there is an election anytime soon that stops the assassin’s dagger plunging into May’s shoulder blades (her Democratic Unionist allies share that fear).
You might think that the opinion polls suggest Corbyn is unlikely to win, or win an overall majority. I think they underplay his support because they miss out people who were unlikely to vote or who did not have the vote, but would back Jeremy.
But it could only help if Labour was to open a second, extra-parliamentary front. The NHS demo in London earlier this month shows there is a taste for this and that there is a widespread feeling May is very vulnerable.
But let’s return to the EU. Corbyn is right to argue the referendum result has to be respected. Those who want to overturn it or impose a second referendum will drive many Leave voters into a frenzy that their democratic vote is just ignored by an elite which is remote from them and cares nothing for their situation.
Inside the Parliamentary Labour Party it’s common to explain the Leave vote as one about immigration and then to conclude it’s necessary to address the concerns of the white working class over it. Evidence suggests that wasn’t the main driving force in the Leave vote, rather it was people kicking back against what’s been inflicted on them over the past four decades by both Labour and the Tories.
If Jeremy and John McDonnell can deliver a message of hope to people in much of England and Wales that they can rebuild an economy which can produce meaningful work and boost welfare they can carry so many of these people.
Scotland and Northern Ireland are different in that they voted to Remain. But here there are dangers too. In last June’s Westminster election the SNP paid a price for appearing immediately after the Brexit referendum as a cheerleader for the EU. About a third of its support had voted Leave (as with Labour this had been policy not that long ago) and many of those could not vote SNP in that election.
But the party seems too much inside the Brexit bubble too. At Westminster the other week Corbyn scored points (not too difficult admittedly) off May over the Carillion collapse. The SNP could have piled in with the damage this episode had inflicted on Scotland but chose to challenge her over… Brexit.
Now Brexit will return to the front of people’s minds, I believe, when it comes to the final deal. The problem then is that we might well be confronted with a terrible choice; a dreadful soft Brexit deal which leaves the UK as essentially members of the club but with no vote or say as to how its run or how the rules are enforced versus a Tory rump of English nationalist Leavers.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland the fall back position is simple. People voted to Remain and that should be respected. In England and Wales we badly need a position which accepts we are leaving but puts forwards an agenda for economic growth, workers’ rights and improved welfare free of both a Tory agenda and the limitations Brussels can impose.
The worst position is that of the likes of Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna who want to Remain even though the UK will have no say. Why? Because it will, as previously said, drive a wedge of Leave voters bonkers, and you don’t need to look far to see what happens when you do that. The rise of the fascist right in Italy is the product of years of a no growth economy, high youth unemployment and a hatred of a corrupt and self-serving political elite. Tragically the collapse of the radical left over a decade ago has left the field clear for the far right.
Of course it does not have to be like this. But here we need to lift our sights over Brexit from the sinking Palace of Westminster. For the left, north and south of the border, we should be building links with those in the German Social Democratic Party fighting to reject a coalition with Angela Merkel in the party wide referendum. With those who demonstrated in Macerata in Italy against the fascist murder of migrants and with championing democracy in Catalonia against the authoritarianism of the Rajoy government in Madrid. That presupposes joining with them to discuss what sort of Europe we want. Because it is not the one Merkel, Macron and co. champion. The one that stays silent as Madrid jails Catalan leaders or as fascists and racists enter government in EU states.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.