Brexit and its fallout will naturally dominate the next few years of British politics. It would be absurd to imagine that this and its importance can be dismissed or understated.
As much as Labour and the Tories would like this to go away it won’t, like a stray dog you petted once but now find is chasing you everywhere. The government cannot find a Brexit deal that respects the referendum’s outcome, delivers a deal with solid economic footing yet also appeases the more militant Leave politicians in their party. Swing to the other side and confusion and turmoil have rained on Labour’s brief surge of optimism after the last election. There’s increasing support coalescing in the party to support a ‘People’s Vote’ which data indicating a huge vote swing potentially in offer. With Brexit increasingly looking like a car veering aimlessly off a cliff, it would be ludicrous to not do a cost-benefit analysis both economically and politically regarding this. But at the same time, any decision involving overturning Brexit brings with it the risk of permanently alienating former Labour heartlands.
On this note, a degree of sympathy can be extended to both the leaders of the political parties in that it’s not an easy task, though that should not excuse either of them for the intellectually impoverished approach they have both taken. Brexit should not be glorified as a patriotic achievement clinched for true British people; nor should it interpreted as a socialist blow against a supranational neoliberal entity. There is nothing patriotic about the political shambles currently defining the country and socialism will never be achieved by making the country considerably poorer. But it is a decision taken by a large portion of the working-class who have felt increasingly alienated from power and wealth. To that extent, Labour’s 2018 conference in Liverpool was correct to hum to the theme of rolling back austerity in a recognition of where the national mood is swaying.
John McDonnell set the ball rolling at the conference which included firms giving workers ownership of shares up to £500 and taking the water industry back into public hands. This followed hot on the heels of his pledge to reconfigure the workplace conditions of those in the gig economy to “restore the balance of power in the workplace” as he described it. Whether plans of nationalisation can work in context of a negative Brexit deal is extremely doubtful and it would be shameless politics to pretend otherwise. But in pledging to improve workers’ rights and wages, Labour are wholeheartedly embracing the image of being the party opposed to austerity.
This should have been the theme of the next election and it’s certain it will play a decisive role. Insecurity produced by austerity is being recognised as something in need of being addressed. People no longer feel like stakeholders in their society, swept underneath by the powers of the free market. It’s not only Labour who recognise this as to some extent the Tories have identified this as damaging, at least for them politically. In promising to invest £2bn into social housing, Theresa May’s regret that social housing residents were shamed was a recognition of her party’s risk of falling even shorter of a majority government at the next election. This comes some months after she insisted that renters were also humans. News to the rest of us.
It accentuates the sense of the country shifting towards post-austerity politics, or at least sniffing with less pessimism. For the last seven years, the strains of cuts to public services and welfare matched with failure to build homes has squeezed British households. Majority of the impoverished are in work. There are millions of children now in poverty, plenty dependent upon food banks, others forced to go cold so they can eat. Tax credits have become the subsidy of employers who can get away with leaving their workers trapped in poverty because they know the state will pick up the tab. The institutional crisis facing the NHS, depleted severely, is well-chronicled. Throughout all of this is a feeling of insecurity produced by politics that atomises us and shreds that sense of community and society. There’s a real anxiety in not becoming homeless due to the shortage of affordable homes and high rents, anxiety in poverty hovering at the doorstep relentlessly. This is not a country where there is a net to catch those who fall. That exists for those at the top. Take a stroll through the streets of London and you’re certain to find more than one homeless person every few minutes.
To that end, Labour have made some positive signs in restoring the sense of society. But a communitarian argument would be that the sense of belonging part of a wider family and community isn’t just rooted in the economical but also the cultural, a sharing pot of values and customs. This is something, particularly in the age of Brexit and a soul-searching crisis for liberalism that has been difficult for progressives to answer. One solution is not to dismiss working-class communities anxious about swift economic and cultural changes as racist.
Regardless, if the tones of the Conservative Party regarding housing and Labour’s statements around empowerment of workers is anything to go by, it means both parties have recognised that austerity has produced a nationwide insecurity which must be tackled.