Outside the Supreme Court in London this week, two groups stood opposed: the Brexiters and the Remain camp. They were positioned on opposite sides of the court entrance, and supposedly, on opposite sides of the political spectrum. “Brexit is racist,” claimed one group. The other chanted: “The people have spoken.” Although they disagree on issues such as sovereignty, these groups have more in common than they acknowledge. Still there are wide social schisms across the country. In such circumstances, how will Labour regain support?
Fifty two per cent of voters wanted to Leave the EU and 48 per cent voted Remain. The divide over Brexit doesn’t bode well for the electoral prospects of any political party. The Secretary of the Labour Party constituency of Chippenham, Andy Newman is well aware of the difficult electoral conditions. Speaking to Westminster World he explained: “The country voted to leave, and the Labour Party believes that the vote must be respected. If the vote is disregarded, as some argue for, that would create a crisis of confidence in our democracy.” Around 13 per cent behind the Conservatives in the polls, Labour are at more disadvantage than they ever have been at this point in the electoral cycle. But Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott claimed that Labour will be able to catch up with their competitors in 12 months. The Left will struggle to achieve that.
Some argue that a second referendum is the answer. Others, including the Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, have stated that they will support Article 50 being triggered. Labour MP Geraint Davies is one of those who has argued that another chance for the people to vote on the issue “should and will happen.” This poses another problem for the Left; the difficulty of gaining support without consensus even within their own party.
To top it all, Labour has lost a huge proportion of working class backing, a report for Socialist organisation the Fabian Society found. Last week, talking to the London Labour Students, SOAS Economics lecturer and ex-Syriza MP Costas Lapavitsas lamented that the Left did not talk to working class people enough during the referendum, contributing the their loss in support. He said: “The Left was absent or much of the Left wasn’t there.” Instead, he claimed, UKIP and Conservative MPs engaged more with working class people. “The Right adopted the language of dept, went to working class areas and elsewhere, spoke to the working classes about no jobs, no future, no income, class conditions, and sovereignty.” Labour must work hard to regain support from working class people who they have misunderstood and ignored.
Uniting voters over sovereignty
Instead of clawing at the possibility of a second referendum, Lapavitsas argued the party should collectively accept the Brexit vote and shape it in the interests of working people. Uncontroversial? No. But well reasoned? Yes. He suggested that by leaving the EU and returning sovereignty to Britain, the country will be able to shake off the controls imposed upon them from Brussels. He said: “We need to say boldly, ‘control the market, control big business, control big capital.’ With more democracy and popular sovereignty, with command over the areas where we live, with welfare, schooling and everything else, then see whether populism won’t work, see what happens with the votes.”
Brexiters would agree that sovereignty is the main reason to leave the EU. Outside the Houses of Parliament last week, grassroots campaigners for Brexit protested the Supreme Court hearing on who has the right to trigger Article 50. Hugh Dawson, a protester from Bath said, “We have to have our own sovereignty. We have to have our own laws.” For him this was the main reason for leaving the EU. Likewise, another protester, Amoree Radford from near Bristol said: “It’s all to do with the supreme court which isn’t supreme because the EU courts overrule all our courts and this is the point we are trying to make.” UKIP councillor and parliamentary candidate Diana Coad was also at the protest. She said: “Our sovereignty, the right of the government of this country to make our laws and to govern the people of this country: that is the main issue for me.”
Clashes over austerity and immigration
The Left might benefit from adopting the Brexit supporters’ stance on self-governance, suggested Lapavitsas. He proposed that Labour should discuss the problems caused by austerity to promote Euroscepticism. For Left wing Leave supporters such as Lapavitsas, Brexit would be an opportunity to undo the damage by spending cuts to social, education and health provisions. “We need to lift austerity. We need a programme of public spending that will provide for people to keep the economy going,” he said.
Protesting outside the Houses of Parliament, Coad described problems attributable to austerity: “A friend of mine had to go to the hospital the night before last, to the local hospital and they turned him away because there was no room in the hospital, no room in A&E. He was sent up to Charing Cross hospital in London. What’s going on? Everything is crumbling. We can’t cope.” But Leave voters such as Coad, are unlikely to tie these problems to spending cuts. They think migrants have caused their plight.
“We’re trying to put more and more people in what is actually a very small, densely populated island,” said Coad. “We need a moratorium on immigration so that we can rebuild, get our services up to scratch, build enough housing for people.” The other protesters voiced similar view: concerns about housing, healthcare and education, as well as worries that our “tiny island” will sink into the sea due to the masses of people arriving.
In his talk Lapavitsas acknowledged British people’s concerns about immigration. He said: “I was very struck by my brother in law who voted for Brexit. I asked him why he voted for Brexit and he said: ‘Because when I go to the local GP because my wife has hurt her leg, there are 20 people waiting and 15 of them are portuguese.’” His answer to the hostility towards migrants was not free movement of people. “Open borders?” he asked. “Is that the serious issue of the Left? So acquire half a million people without facilities, without the ability to house or school them?”
Instead Lapavitsas offered a plan for how the Left can win back support by drawing working class people’s attention to the everyday effects of austerity. He suggested the Left should offer better provision of services, health care and welfare. He argued for better wage protection and rights to employment. But most importantly, Lapavitsas urged the Left to speak to working people in terms of “Concrete, specific arguments. You can’t just generalise about austerity.” He said: “Most people would understand what austerity means in connection with the NHS for instance. Then they will see that austerity is a problem because we’ve had austerity for six years in this country.”
Lapavitsas had ended his talk with a plea: “I hope you believe me, because that’s where the new ideas will come from.” At first it appears that the Left has an impossible job of harmonizing the irreconcilable views of Remain voters and Brexiters. Yet Lapavitsas is optimistic that this can be done. “There are large blocks of working class people who voted Leave and large blocks of working class people in London who voted Remain. We need to start from their own specific class interests; jobs and prospects for their children.”
Outside the Supreme Court the two protest groups represent the problem Brexit poses to the Left: two extremes who appear to be entirely opposed to one another. If Lapavitsas is right that the Left needs to embrace Brexit to move forward, and if Labour accepts such ideas, they have a lot of convincing to do.