I chaired an event last night in a House of Commons committee room entitled “Brexit: what’s next for the Left?” with panelists Femi Oluwole and Cathleen Clarke from OFOC, Khalid Mahmood MP, shadow minister for Europe (which I have to admit, I was unaware of pre-event. Wait, why does Labour even have a shadow minister for Europe now? There isn’t a minister for Europe anymore, so who is he shadowing?), and Stephen Kinnock MP. It was a good chat, and everyone’s contributions were thoughtful. However, what I personally took away from it was that Brexit might be an even bigger problem for Labour than I thought coming into the evening. And considering I thought it was going to be pretty big already, that is saying something.
Stephen laid out the likely scenario in parliament: it will all happen very quickly, with the “deal” if it emerges to be voted on first. Then several substantive motions are likely to follow, including one from the ERG on a no deal Brexit and another on a second referendum. No one has any grasp of what the numbers on those options look like, other than feeling fairly certain no deal definitely does not have a majority. Just as I think there is a feeling in certain portions of the Right that a really bad Brexit can be blamed entirely on Brussels with no blow back for the Conservative party, I think the Left feel that the blame for a bad Brexit would fall entirely on the Tories with no blow back for Labour. I’m not so sure about this.
I also think Europe could become the issue that really splits the Left over the coming years, particularly if the initial break is painful. There are other possibilities: Kier Starmer could lead the way on the People’s Vote amendment from the Labour benches when the time comes, and Corbyn might feel like he has to get behind it in order to not be outflanked by Starmer. Perhaps it flows rather neatly from there. But again, I don’t feel so sure this is the way it will all unfold.
Unresolved on the Left is why Remaining in the EU is good from a left-wing point of view anyhow. It rests perfectly on the fault line of the current British Left, and from where all of the infighting over the past few years stems: is international liberalism more important as a value set, or is socialism more important? Many on the Left will argue that you can have both, but inevitably, the two rub against each other: enthusiasm for EU membership is as perfect an example of this as you can imagine.
As for what’s next for there Left on Brexit, my own feeling is that the Left needs to start taking its own brewing civi war on the issue a lot more seriously. Last night’s meeting was a great start, but there needs to be many more conversations like it.