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.
While I’m here, I’ve got a new book coming out in the autumn entitled The Patient. It’s about a woman who goes into the hospital to give birth to her child, being two weeks overdue….and ends up staying in the hospital for a year, still pregnant the whole time. If you want to find out more, here’s where you can have a better look.