As pressure builds on Jeremy Corbyn to support a People’s Vote, Labour’s Brexit contortions continue to cause bewilderment. A second referendum is backed by Labour members, Labour voters, and much of the electorate. And yet – even with every other option exhausted – Corbyn won’t embrace it.
We can brush this aside through talk of the ‘long-game’ or a ‘better deal’. But, ultimately, Corbyn’s Euroscepticism is obvious.
This is partly because he thinks the EU is a capitalist club. But it’s also because the two sides of the left – ‘Lexiteers’ and ‘Remoaners’, ‘Corbynistas’ and ‘centrists’ – have fundamentally different instincts when it comes to change, progress and decline.
To understand this, let’s rewind to an ancient spat between two comics.
Way back in 2013 – back when ‘Brexit’ was still showing as a typo on Microsoft’s spellchecker – the New Statesman published a controversial essay by Russell Brand. As readers may recall, Brand discouraged people from voting – something Peep Show actor Robert Webb took him to task about.
The argument exposed conflicting world views. Laden with nostalgic and apocalyptic language, Brand’s article said society was “ambling towards oblivion.” “Our government triangulates and administrates, ensuring there are no obstacles to the agendas of these slow-thighed beasts, slouching towards Bethlehem.” He longed for a pastoral, cloth-capped Golden Era, based on “protection and survival.”
Webb, in response, asked Brand to consider, “What were the chances, in the course of human history, that you and I should be born into an advanced liberal democracy? ... I recognise it as an unfathomable privilege.” He accepted that some issues had moved backwards; that many advances were in danger. But he still acknowledged progress.
Both Russell Brand and Robert Webb were left-of-centre. Both saw themselves as optimists (Brand’s essay repeatedly made this claim). But on the question of decline, they parted ways. Brand was optimistic that a U-turn could avert the coming dystopia. Webb saw a society that had achieved much and was capable of further progress. You could term these two sentiments as ‘revolutionary’ optimism and ‘evolutionary’ optimism.
The routes both comedians took over the subsequent years – as left-wing splits emerged – are no coincidence. Robert Webb backed parliamentary democracy as the route to change; Russell Brand advocated social and spiritual ‘movements’. Webb supported Yvette Cooper (and quit Labour thanks to online abuse); Brand endorsed Corbyn. Webb has frequently criticised Brexit; Brand didn’t even vote in the EU referendum.
This small case study shows the power of decline narratives. Whether you think we’re ultimately in descent (moving away from a socialist Golden Era) or in ascent (moving towards one), is a pretty decent predictor of where you sit in Labour’s civil war.
The far left feels society has become more right-wing on every front; that we must undo the damage and return to Year Zero. The centre left feels the pros of change outweigh the cons – or, if they don’t, that the pros are meaningful and real, and must be salvaged. Even more crucially, the centre left acknowledges what the far left does not: that many shifts to the left and to the right – internationalism and globalisation, for instance – are hard to disentangle.
One can see this difference on many issues. It determines whether you identify more with Corbyn – a politician supposedly on the right side of history in resisting most changes since the 1970s – or more with Tony Blair, who “did not want to turn the clock back for a single second.”
It explains why the term ‘neoliberalism’, which is a far left shorthand for a society drifting rightwards on every issue, is greeted with bafflement by the centre left.
It reveals why, in the US, some Bernie Sanders backers went as far as to switch to Trump, with his anti-globalisation pitch, once their first-choice candidate was out of the race. (Polling found that declinism, not radicalism, was the characteristic that distinguished Sandersites from Clintonites).
It unpacks why, for Corbynites, the money spent on the Harry and Meghan Royal Wedding showed “how far we’ve travelled away from the compassion shown by Diana” (as Labour MP Emma Dent Coad put it). And it explains why, for many on the centre left, the wedding demonstrated the opposite – revealing advances “no diversity campaigner would have dared to dream of” (as former Labour advisor Ayesha Hazarika proclaimed).
This brings us back to Brexit. For disciples of Corbynism, like Ken Loach, the EU embodies ‘neoliberalism’, symbolising the departure from Spirit of ’45 socialism. It represents an interconnected, capitalist direction of travel, that must be halted.
But for others – those, perhaps, who subscribe to the Robert Webb view of human progress – the EU is an opportunity to shape globalisation in a left-wing direction. It can help us multilaterally address climate change and inequality. Remainers don’t, ultimately, see the 1970s as a socialist Golden Era we can or should return to.
The Brexit fudge reflects this abiding conflict. To address it, the left needs to abandon the idea of some pure, ‘original socialism’, and assess what’s really happened in the last 40 years. How can we keep progressive gains – living standards, diversity, social liberalism, peace – without also accepting regional inequality, growing wealth gaps, and the behaviour of some multinationals? Can socialism and globalisation co-exist?
Whether or not Labour eventually backs a People’s Vote, these questions aren’t going away.