Brexit’s bruises on the British Left burn bluer than ever

, by Madelaine Pitt

Brexit's bruises on the British Left burn bluer than ever
Current Labour leader (pictured Labour) campaigning with former leader Jeremy Corbyn (pictured centre) in 2019. Photo credit: Flickr

Residents of the coastal Durham town of Hartlepool probably didn’t expect their 90,000-strong community to make so many headlines. Yet it has become somewhat of an unlikely battleground in British politics. In the local elections on Thursday 6th May which have taken on a decidedly national flavour, the Conservative government and its opposition are having their first temperature check since the UK left the European Union. Scotland and Wales are also electing their national assemblies, while Hartlepool also held a by-election to pick a new parliamentary representative. The port town has a proud history of Labour support, but has returned its first ever Conservative MP amid a flood of abstention. And no one is surprised.

The results of the local elections are still trickling in, but the early calls look disastrous for Labour, with large losses predicted all over the country. The debate over EU membership has soured opinions on the party up in the “Red Wall”, the band of Midlands, Northern, and North Wales towns which have traditionally been Labour strongholds. Hartlepool delivered an almighty Leave vote of almost 70% in 2016 and has since become something of a symbol of a community to which Labour no longer knows how to appeal.

With a Prime Minister mired in accusations of sleaze, heading an increasingly authoritarian Conservative Party festooned with corruption scandals, the Labour Party should have crunched the ruling powers for breakfast. Yet the latter finds itself as incapable of providing a coherent opposition as it was five years ago, in the rocky run-up to the referendum which changed Britain and Europe forever.

Divide and (don’t) conquer

Calm-faced barrister Keir Starmer was supposed to be a steady pair of hands at the head of the Labour Party in a turbulent time. A small snag: no one appears to know what he stands for. He is quite good at dismantling Boris Johnson’s arguments and character in the cold empty theatre of Parliament, but unfortunately for him, no one seems to care. It’s a far cry from Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, who managed to establish a strong vision but not enough broad, sustainable popularity. Starmer appears to have neither.

The British left has long consisted of two main fractions arguably embodied by these two politicians. A disquieting proportion of my Twitter feed is filled with two types of left-wing commentator which currently do little but sneer at each other. Admittedly, this appears to be what Twitter is designed for, but even outside of the virtual realm they sometimes appear to be doing a better job of opposing each other than the benches opposite.

The more mainstream, centre-left branch is more pliable in its ideology and has a more pragmatic approach focussed on electability. It sees Labour’s role as ousting the Tories and thinks the harder left branch is too radical to be electable. To many, Starmer was their best hope of recapturing the kind of middle-ground popularity they enjoyed under Tony Blair.

On the other hand, the more decisively left-wing branch deplores the unambitious centrism of Starmer and demands deep-rooted societal change of the variety envisioned by Jeremy Corbyn. It demands a vastly more equal society, free education including for university students, renationalisation of energy and – at least on Twitter – tends to rather self-righteously claim the moral high ground. Its policies particularly caught the enthusiasm of many young voters who had never before seen their hopes for a fairer society represented in politics.

Labour’s Catch 22

Brexit drove a chasm between the two fractions which might be here for good. The centre-left branch contains some of Britain’s most enthusiastic pro-Europeans, including many Rejoiners. Some of the further left are pro-European, but it’s not the hill they are going to die on. For many of them, the question of Europe is at best irrelevant and at worst a distraction from implementing real change in society.

Yet Labour has long been wrong on Europe. Rather than point out that Britain had a huge influence in how the EU was run – as one of the most populous member states, it enjoyed the influence of 73 MEPs, and, as the second-biggest contributor to the EU budget, its interests could hardly be ignored – it saw the EU as a handbrake on a socialist Britain. “Lexiteers” – left-wing people who supported Brexit – failed to grasp that leaving the EU would most hurt the people they most claimed to want to protect. Instead of indulging Tory-led Euroscepticism, they should have advocated a more social Europe from within. Further, they should have embraced the European project in public discourse and informed voters about the single market, cohesion policy, and workers’ rights – all while fighting for meaningful change within society that, contrary to what some of them believe, the EU in no way prevents.

Now, it’s too late. Labour found itself within a catch 22 from which it may not escape for decades. It has failed to provide a good enough alternative to Tory Brexit and its helpless bye-standing on the devastation of British farming, hits to manufacturing, chaos in fishing, the pain of the UK-based EU citizens stranded without documentation, and loss of international influence will not help them win back any type of voter at all.

Here to stay

Meanwhile, the right is riding a riptide of luck. The economic crash that would have resulted from the ragged, under-scrutinised Brexit deal was usefully enveloped by that of the global pandemic. Buoyed by the unquestionable success of the vaccine rollout, the Tories’ earlier bungling of the pandemic has faded in importance in voters’ minds. The left is running out of chances to make the case that Brexit is a project by the right, for the right: and that it matters. Its hesitation only boosts Conservative credibility among Leave-supporting Labour voters and makes closer relations with the EU harder in future.

Caught, as ever, between two fractions, the British left is facing a dual ideology that might not be so irreconcilable – but for the issue of Brexit. The further left is furious that Corbyn has come and gone without power, blaming the distraction of Brexit. The centre-left is incensed at the catastrophe that the party did not do enough to oppose.

Neither of the halves has a plan to win back the Red Wall, including towns like Hartlepool who have lent support to the Conservatives for the first time in their history. Without Brexit, they would in all probability have continued to support Labour for many years to come. The bruises sustained by the British left are here to stay for a while. The left, like the country, is only getting bluer.

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