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What Brexit Means for Social Justice

24/06/2016 15:54

My son's observation on the referendum was acute: "So, who are they going to blame now?" Politicians have moved from blaming immigrants, disabled people, the poor and now even Europe, for the results of a financial crisis that was created by the greed and stupidity of our elite ruling class.

The bitter irony will be that by making Europe the scapegoat for our woes we have unwound the cords tying the United Kingdom together. Scotland will seek independence in order to remain part of Europe. In Ireland the case for integration will become stronger as people face the prospect of border controls running through the heart of Republican areas.

There will certainly be a vicious fight for power in the Conservative Party, but it seems likely that some Labour MPs will also use this as a chance to unseat Jeremy Corbyn. Their apparent logic is that Labour should have done better at 'getting its vote out' or that it have should done better at persuading its voters of the benefits of the European Union. Extraordinarily some in the Labour Party even seem to believe that Labour would have 'done better' if they had behaved more like the Conservative Party and taken an anti-immigrant stance.

Putting aside the extraordinary paternalism that assumes Labour voters are puppets of the party machine, there are some very obvious problems with these claims:

  • The turnout was very high - so we did come out to vote
  • The areas that voted to leave are the areas where the social and economic interests of Labour voters have been ignored for decades
  • The strongest vote for Remain was in Scotland where the government is pro-immigration and anti-Austerity

The conclusion that the Labour Party should draw from the referendum is that they need to rethink their approach to the economy and to social justice - quickly. Further timid acquiescence to the dim-witted assumptions of our elites will leave them increasingly weak. They need to reconnect with the hearts and minds of ordinary people who have been ignored by an increasingly divisive political regime. They need to develop policies that promote hope and are based on a commitment to justice.

But we seem blinded by our ignorance of some basic realities. The United Kingdom is the most unequal country in Europe. What is more this inequality has been very bad for us. We are now one of the poorest and least productive countries in Europe, yet one that works very hard indeed. We've pulled off the unfortunate trick of being both hard-working and poor by being very inefficient. We are inefficient because we've made labour cheap by a mixture of low benefit levels and low wages. It is not Europe that did this - we did it to ourselves.

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If we can take any comfort from the difficult times ahead it is that now is a good time for more radical thinking about social justice. Europe did provide institutional arrangements to support social justice, although our own leaders have typically tried to opt out of these provisions in order to worsen terms and conditions for workers. So now we must begin to ask fundamental questions about the kind of society we want to create and the kind of constitutional arrangements we need to defend our basic rights.

The welfare state was developed after World War II as the guarantee that we could end the profound economic insecurities that created fear, war and terror. However, as I describe in Citizenship & the Welfare State, the welfare state was designed at a time when we had enormous faith in the quality of our politicians and when the interests of the poorest were well defend by political and trade union groups. Today the elite has demonstrated that it cannot be trusted, and the organisations that once protected the interests of people in places like Bolsover (who voted 70.8% to leave) are now weak or non-existent. Poverty has been privatised and politicians have washed their hands of it.

So we must redesign the welfare state. It must become better protected and more focused on income equality and universal securities. We must reform the tax and benefit system to create a basic income system. We need to return power and democratic control, not to the mythical Northern Powerhouse, but to Bolsover, Barnsley, Bolton and all of the towns and villages of the country. We will need to reform Parliament and put economic and social rights at the heart of a new constitution.

If we took these measures then perhaps we could grasp victory from the jaws of defeat. The current Conservative Party may be unlikely to take up any of these challenges, but perhaps others might seize this opportunity.

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