On last week’s Question Time on the BBC, there was an exchange between Michelle Dewberry, former Apprentice winner and Brexit party political candidate, and shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy. It is probably the most clear cut example I’ve ever witnessed of where continuity Remain went wrong somewhere around early 2018.
Dewberry starts in on Nandy, chastising Labour for having fielded an openly Remain-flavoured candidate in the Hartlepool by-election. She then moved seamlessly into critiquing Labour as being “more concerned with identity politics than they do about representing what used to be their base, the traditional working class”. A little later in the programme, she asks Nandy again why Labour won’t drop the identity politics bit before saying immediately after: “This is the point – you see Brexiteers as racist, xenophobic idiots”.
Now, I agree with Dewberry that Labour should drop the identity politics routine as it is alienating a lot of voters. I also agree that at times, Labour have insinuated that they rather look down on those who voted to Leave in a way that hasn’t helped them much. Where I disagree is about whether identity politics and leaving the European Union have anything to do with one another whatsoever. In fact, disagree is the wrong way to put it – Britain being in or out of the EU has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the convoluted politics of the current left. Which begs the question: why are these two unrelated things talked about as if they are one and the same and no one but me bats an eyelid?
The fact that it has become a lazy assumption that the new politics of the left – identity politics, defund the police, critical theory – and Brexit are perfect bedfellows is one of the great triumphs of continuity Leave campaigners, post-2017 general election. The natural flip side being, it is perhaps the greatest failure committed by continuity Remain campaigners.
While I think Dewberry is simply being reactive as opposed to consciously trying to carry on this myth, I’m certain someone looking to make sure we left the EU on fairly harsh terms spotted this prize at some point in the wake of the 2017 general election, when the Conservatives lost their majority and suddenly Brexit looked imperilled. It is ingenious, not only because it puts Brexit on the culture war landscape in a very, very helpful way to continuity Leave but because it was so obvious Remainers were going to fall into the obvious trap and play along.
Continuity Remain saw their chance to foil Brexit in the millions of people who were vocally against leaving the EU – a majority of which were on the left and centre-left. They didn’t see the danger in trying to sound like the young, leftist audience they wanted to galvanise, not realising they were handing a potent weapon to their foes. Because once leaving the EU wasn’t what it actually is in reality any longer – the terms upon which we both trade with the EU and also interact as people, i.e. travelling, living and working throughout the EU – which let’s face it, is both kind of boring and not a conversation Leave can win on straight up terms, it became instead something much more alluring. I can lay it out in an equation:
Brexit = rejection of the identity politics, anti-Semitism, sense of middle-class entitlement, hell anything you don’t like about the current left which, let’s face it, for most people is a lot of things
This handed the prerogative to continuity Leave, despite Theresa May spannering about as much as humanly possible, as it turned out to be an incredibly powerful equation for a lot of people. When you listen to uber-Leavers on any form of media these days, you can still hear this idea taken as a basic, underlying assumption. Brexit became symbolic of the fight against all of the most alienating and bizarre elements of modern day leftism, which is way more emotive than the details of trade negotiations. “You don’t want Brexit? Really? So that means you want three years old to be pumped full of hormones because their parents think they might be trans, huh? Why do you hate the Jews so much? Why do you want to live in a socialist country?”
Again, it feels weird to have to say it over again, but the idea has become so ingrained in our culture that it needs refuting in as many different ways as possible. Whether or not the UK is a member of the European Union or not has nothing whatsoever, even in the most tangential way imaginable to do with transgenderism, identity politics or statues being brought down. As for socialism, that does have something to do with EU membership in that it would be impossible to be a member of the European Union and be a fully socialist country at the same time – as long time Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn realised many years ago.
Part of this is that a lot prominent Remain campaigners also were leftie as hell, which didn’t help matters. The proof is in how many of them have turned from fighting Brexit to campaigning for a “progressive alliance” and electoral reform. It’s as if the terms of our relationship with the EU were never really what it was all about for them either – it was just another way to “bash the Tories”.
I often now see very Remainy social media accounts saying in one moment that we need a zero growth economy for a variety of ill-formed reasons – and then complaining about how Brexit has hit growth, without ever realising the irony. Or very left-wing, pro-EU people going on about how they are worried about how bankers and the financial sector will be affected and how the trans-Atlantic partnership must be maintained. It seems like all you need to do to transform a socialist into an FT reading centre-right person of old is to inject a little culture war into the mix – at least for the part of their life when they are still railing against Brexit.
I don’t see a way out of this now but I implore you all to watch for this tendency whenever anyone pro-Brexit starts talking about leaving the EU, particularly when it gets into tricky territory for them, like the customs border down the Irish Sea. They will run for identity politics and defund the police as fast as they possibly can. And while we can’t do anything about Brexit, the least we can do is call this weird and illogical tendency out.
How did this destroy Labour along the way? It’s what someone like Lisa Nandy can’t see, even as Michelle Dewberry spells it out for her on Question Time. It isn’t about Brexit in and of itself; it’s that the culture war and Brexit have become melded into this super-weapon that not only destroys any sentiment for Remain (or even for a better Brexit deal, for that matter), but takes the inverse of the equation I laid out above and adds another layer to it:
Anti-Brexit = Embrace of the identity politics, anti-Semitism, sense of middle-class entitlement, hell everything about the current left = the Labour party for the rest of eternity
That’s what Labour MPs don’t get – it doesn’t matter if you voted for the Brexit deal or how much you shout about how much you “embrace” leaving the EU. As long as you, Lisa Nandy, sit on a breakfast show and defend transwomen competing in women’s sports, the equation goes, anti-Brexit = trans rights extremism = Labour. Saying that, I don’t even know if Labour started to vocally dismiss identity politics and other stuff like it as much as possible – which they would never do as it would lose them their final active voter base – this could now be undone. It doesn’t matter how much they bleat about accepting or even loving Brexit, the equation goes: anti-Brexit = Labour. And they watched it happen to them, done by people who wanted Brexit to take place under their terms and make the Conservative party triumph out of it all to boot. They lost because they didn’t understand the game they were playing – and judging by Lisa Nandy’s very recent Question Time appearance, they still don’t.
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Whether or not the UK is a member of the European Union or not has nothing whatsoever, even in the most tangential way imaginable to do with transgenderism, identity politics or statues being brought down.
Yeahyeahyeah but — it’s not like transgenderism and statues being brought down have much to do with each other. Or as if either of them has any real logical connection to either position on the issue of whether the workers should own the means of production.
Is it pretty arbitrary that the Remain cause got grafted onto the same cloud of positions as Stonewall and BLM? Yes. But not more arbitrary really than that BLM and Stonewall got grafted together in the first place.
And as pointed out, once it’s happened, however a-rational it was, it can’t really be disentangled.
Alex Macfie says
From my limited inbolvement in the 2016 Remain campaign I have to say I didn’t get any sense that the campaign leaders were particularly left-wing. The Remain campaign was rubbish, but this was mainly because Leave appealed to emotions while the Remain compaign was based on boring old facts. There were no street fighters on the Remain side, and Cameron refused to allow any blue-on-blue attacks.
There wasn’t anything particularly left-wing about the continuity Remain campaign either. Jeremy Corbyn, who infamously went on holiday during the referendum campaign, was nowhere to be seen. At one pro-EU march the battle cry “Where’s Jeremy Corbyn” was heard. The 57 varieties of fringe leftist groups, notorious for their noisy presence at protest marches, were also conspicuous by their absence. The movement was quite diverse politically. As well as the “Another Europe is possible” left-wingers, it included liberals, Greens and one-nation Tories (I don’t think Michael Heseltine can be considered left-wing). There was no talk of identity politcs or any of the other things you claim to be characteristic of the modern Left. There is, in any case, a diversity of opinion on most of these issues among the broad left, none more so than trans rights. Which is ironic, because most ordinary voters don’t give a sh*t about trans issues, and these probably aren’t going to sway their votes one way or the other. Whatever the cause of Labour’s loss of Hartlepool, it wasn’t that.
As for antisemitism. the sort of left-wingers who embrace that kind of thinking tend, like Corbyn himself and his apparatchiks, to be Lexiters. I have found no sense that anyone associates opposition to Brexit with that or any other kind of fringe hard left thought.
I’m also sceptical of the idea that Labour lost specifically because it was seen as “anti-Brexit”. Don’t forget that in the 2019 GE, Corbyn and his apparatchiks did their best to play down Labour’s 2nd-referendum stance when campaigning in the Red Well, although they were quite prepared to pretend to be anti-Brexit to Labour’s inner-city and middle-class supporters. In the end, Corbyn’s Janus Man act impressed no-one, and opponents of Brexit voted Labour mainly tactically. Hartlepool voted Tory because of both Brexit and Labour being seen as out of touch with the working class, but voters weren’t and aren’t linking the far Left poshboy revolutionaries with opposition to Brexit.
This was true elsewhere as well. Many Tory-facing Lib Dem target seats stayed Tory in 2019GE because of fear of Corbyn. But this wasn’t because anyone thought the Europhile Lib Dems were linked to far-left Corbynism. On the contrary, they were well aware of the differences between Lib Dems and Corbynistas, but they were nonetheless afraid that Lib Dems would help Corbyn into No 10.
[To be continued as it’s too long to write in one session.]
[To be continued as it’s too long to write in one session.]
Alex Macfie says
So you are lumping together a massively diverse set of opinions that have almost nothing to do with each other, and are certainly not held by the vast majority of anti-Brexit people.
You are also confusing activists, voters, apparatchiks and keyboard warriors. I would venture the opinion that the stuff written by keyboard warriors in the “Remainy” social media groups is not representative of the general public opinion among Remain supporters. And I would also not assume that young people are invariably supporters of the far left. As I you seem to realise, the young voters who once flocked to Corbyn tend to have a very different view on Brexit to the man and his apparatchiks. So there is no reason to assume that they hold similar opinions to far-left apparatchiks on other issues. (And note that I say “apparatchiks”, as the people in the inner circle often have a very different agenda from either the activists or ordinary voters.)
This generation of young people, who tend to be anti-Brexit, are also left-leaning, as in socially liberal, internationalist and concerned about social justice, to an extent that previous generations of young people were not (look at historical opinion polls — the massive gap between younger and older voters in party political affiliation is a new thing; young voters were every bit as Tory-leaning as their elders in the 1980s when the Tories were last in power with a large majority*). But they are not the partisan ideologues you seem to imagine they are. Most of them probably do not particularly support the knee-jerk anti-Westernism, indulgence of left-wing dictatorships and tolerance of antisemitism, or other attitudes common among the fringe of the far left activists. What attracted them to Corbynism in 2017 was not ideology, and they could have been enthused by someone without the hard-left baggage of Corbyn and his apparatchiks, as Charles Kennedy did for an earlier generation of radical young voters.
Alex Macfie says
And ond final point
It’s not at all clear what you mean by this. Although it is often said that people become more conservative as they get older (but as I noted about voting patterns in the 1980s, it isn’t a hard and fast inevitability that young people are more left-wing, so why should the corollary be necessarily true?). But this is mainly to do with views on economics — there is no evidence that people become more *culturally) conservative with age, and if they did, then there’d be no social progress. And the current Tories seem to be putting all their eggs in the culture-war basket, which is (for now) winning them support. But this support is naturally among the older age cohorts, so will dissippate as they die off. Unless they adapt to the more liberal social and cultural attitudes of younger generations, Ithe Tories are living on borrowed time.
Hopefully I can keep this a bit shorter than Alfie! I agree very much with your article, although I’m not sure about the post-2017 date. I’d put it post-2019 election. As remainers ran out of chances to remain they embraced a “slag off Johnson at all costs” approach, and gravitated as you say to PC leftism/identity politics. Fundamentallly, they fell for ideological purism, the zero sum US political culture in which you can’t fail to support Extinction Rebellion without being a climate change denier, you can’t reject CRT without supporting the KKK, you can’t support feminism without being a transphobe etc. I’ve personally cajoled Twitterati many times to avoid assimilating Rejoin to a set of PC policies that the non-committal and soft Leavers despise. I’ve recently given advice to a major Rejoin organisation to this end, and am intending to blog on it in the next few weeks. But they insist on doing so. They avidly argue that Rejoin must come *after* PR, make-believe progressive alliances, independence for Scotland, and in some cases republicanism. But let’s have compassion also for our own side, maddening as they can be. They are traumatised, defeated, just like the left-behinds and angry English who flocked to Brexit as a loser’s win. They prefer the emotional comfort of new indignations, and all the poor arguing techniques of the Brexiteers (false equivalences, hyperbole, ditching principles when it’s expedient, decontextualisation etc) to the boring, hard slog of real politics. There are some of us still involved in that, and it’s our responsibility to find ways to coax the others through. Eventually.
Nick Tyrone, that Brexit is both ideologically and pragmatically wrong seems to have escaped you. You seem to have flipped somehow. Both content and how you express have changed, and not for the better.
I do not think that the notion, you seem to agree with, that Labour should have found a pro Brexit candidate for Hartlepool would have helped Labour one iota. It is bizarre and actually would have been very destructive for Labour.
Practical economics and demographics (also known as reality) are set to make Brexit very hard to sustain. This is true without considering the consequences in NI, Scotland and Wales.
Perhaps you consider why Brexiters such as the one you mention are still behaving as if they had lost. What can they do with their win, when their raison d’être was always predicated on the role of the aggrieved loser?
Post Corbyn, Labour are in a mess. It is hard to see how this could have been avoided and it has little to do with identity politics.
The Liberal Democrats are also in a mess for other reasons, though are more prone to becoming mired in identity politics. Essentially the most significant problem for Liberal Democrats is of being excluded by the success of the SNP.
The SNP are, in effect, the most healthy opposition to the Conservatives. Unfortunately this gives them a free pass outside Scotland.