There is a tendency when uncertain to look over and see how the rest are doing it. The art of politics after all is to learn from history and current affairs, and see what you can do better, or at least less disastrously. That is what a lot of British leftists were doing after the performance of the Democrats in the US midterm elections, which included taking control of the House of Representatives.
The danger of course is ignoring the different nuances that make each political culture and system different. The theologian John Milbank tweeted that the Democrats needed to “go Blue Labour, make a radical communitarian offer to working people of all races and faiths and dump the identitarian politics.” This is unlikely to take place in a country where the president ran on a campaign soaked in extreme white nationalism and attacked blacks, gays, Mexicans, women and Muslims.
Milbank’s suggestion would carry more weight in Britain where a mixture of left-wing populism and socially conservative views on things like immigration and security suggest that perhaps a version of Blue Labour politics (which emphasises mutual responsibility, community and family) might work. Before some see this as some sort of support for the faction itself, this is not. Blue Labour remain a little too conservative and idealistic. But they have a brand of politics that appeals to the average voter’s sense of insecurity, both economically and culturally. If anything could underline this, it’s the high possibility of Leave winning a rerun of the EU Referendum.
This might be seen as a dubious point to make. Polls floating around indicate a surge for Remain should there be a rerun. The handling of departing from the EU has been extremely messy, from trade deals to the Irish border to the future of European migrants. The Leave euphoria has slightly faded but hate crime rose in the aftermath of Brexit.
And should there be a second vote, I would once again vote Remain, more so as a realist than an ethical socialist, and with minimal enthusiasm. Britain is an unfairly unequal society, one in which the gap between the rich and poor has ballooned since austerity. With a shortage of council homes and hospitals squeezed for funding, this has felt like a country suffering from a collective insecurity. But in today’s globalised world, it’s not easy to build socialism alone. It requires a multilateral approach to tackle issues like tax avoidance, climate change and excess corporate power.
And yet, this feels like the prelude to the same result. Remain are still anchored in the technocratic and materialistic politics that sells the message that there are no concerns with globalisation, that voters are simply persuaded by materialistic interests.
The main problem for Remain is its seeming reluctance to talk to communities for whom globalisation has not brought exclusive success. Whether people like it or not, globalisation threatens the bonds of community and what makes it. This is not a feeling simply felt by westerners, but would be felt by anyone if rapid change suddenly unleashed on their doorsteps. Even in London, economic and cultural gentrification of East End has left many queasy about where old communities with decades of roots are being pushed out to. After spending a long time dismissing immigration concerns as immediately racist, I noticed my own hypocrisy when feeling uneasy about what I perceived London’s working-class culture quickly disappearing in middle-class gentrification.
Writing in The Times, Stephen Kinnock and Joe Jervis explained that consecutive governments had failed “to even stem the decline in manufacturing that has left communities and individuals bereft of meaningful work, pride and identity.” The policies of Margaret Thatcher and then succeeding governments left behind crippled trade unions and entire towns starved of meaningful work. For many of them, the only answer was to move to London. This is something James Bloodworth articulated in his book, Hired where he talks to people across various communities bogged down in insecure work lacking in basic security and dignity. The old feelings of solidarity and certainty provided by old blue-collar jobs, despite their own hazardous conditions, are absent in today’s society atomised by neoliberalism and globalisation. There has to be economic support for shared spaces like pubs and libraries, but also for local town businesses with roots that go for years.
Yet the creation of a close small-knit community isn’t simply founded on material factors, necessary as they may be. It requires strong support of cultural cohesion in which patriotism and pride in nationhood, tradition, culture and history isn’t sneered at. Few would ever chastise Indians or Nigerians for expressing cultural affiliation yet have displayed sneering contempt towards English patriotism. This is something that Leave understood better than Remain. The latter saw English patriotism and identity as one rooted purely on ethnic lines, understandably perhaps due to its association with the far-right. But it should have little to do with skin colour and name, and more a sharing of pride and love of their home. This is an element of why national security matters intensely to a lot of voters. As Kinnock and Jervis wrote, the left has to be about “community, security, reciprocity as much as individual liberty.”
At the moment, this doesn’t feel like a question that Remain have looked at. The areas in which it lost heavily, places like Stoke or Sunderland, are they any closer to reclaiming? And even if a victory was to happen, it would be as narrow as Leave’s 52-48 and what then? What is to stop Leave demanding as many referendums as they like if Britain’s economic situations do not radically improve, which for the record was still poor during our time in the EU?