As the People’s Vote marches for another Brexit referendum, Dr Marina Prentoulis argues that Labour can make a divisive difference in the debate.
Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party is on a path towards a left-wing populist strategy. It can connect the diverse demands of the British people, who have suffered years of austerity and decades of neoliberalism, creating a clear demarcation line between them and “the establishment” – the defenders of neoliberalism in both the Labour and the Conservative party.
What hinders this strategy is Brexit. The people are divided and Brexit is, in itself, a way to blame the harmful policies supported and promoted by the British establishment on the European Union. Labour cannot play the waiting game any more. It’s time to create a new left narrative that challenges the neoliberal paradigm, not only nationally but also in the EU. Labour has to embrace a people’s vote and allow a remain option to appear on the ballot. That remain option can become the vehicle for change within the EU.
It has been two and a half years since the referendum – and everyone has by now realised that things are far from what the Conservatives had promised. Brexit is not going well. And, referendum aside, much has changed in British politics since the vote, too.
Rethinking the first vote
Referendums are strange beasts and in many cases highly divisive. They oversimplify complex questions. In the case of the 2016 vote, no meaningful change was actually on offer. The choice was between remaining, in which case everything would have stayed the same, or leaving in order to be free to further deregulate and liberalise the financial market.
The 2016 referendum effectively came about to resolve divisions within the Conservative Party. A ruling party may call a referendum to force through a policy that wouldn’t make it through parliament, to bypass internal divisions and splits – or even to avoid responsibility for controversial issues. An opposition party has even better reasons: it is a way to force an issue onto the agenda – to rally support around popular issues or even to damage the governing party itself.
So referendums can serve many political purposes other than direct and participatory democracy. The 2016 referendum was one way for the Tories to sort out their differences. But it hasn’t worked out that way – as the final weeks of negotiations near, they are as divided as ever.
The opportunity is now there for Labour. It could really transform British, and potentially European, politics. But for that it would need another referendum.
Labour has set a series of six tests for Brexit, pledging to vote against the final deal in parliament if they are not met. It’s already clear that remaining as close as possible in the single market and the customs union will be the only deal that will not have a negative economic effect on the UK. Even in this case, Britain will have no say in EU matters. Labour should find the political will to speak for the people of Europe and change the course of the neoliberal EU. Even if a deal is brought to parliament by May, Labour should vote it down. May will try to blackmail Labour by arguing that if her deal is voted down there will be no deal at all. Labour must not give in.
This will be the opportunity for the party to create a truly left populist narrative. It can challenge the transnational operations of neoliberalism and financialisation, reject the orthodoxy of austerity in Britain and in Europe and reject the scapegoating of migrants. It can choose a narrative that promotes transnational cooperation and solidarity, equality and inclusiveness at the European level.
So far, Labour has avoided a clear position on Brexit and not without reason: it allows the divisions between the Conservatives to play out and weaken them.
But there is the waiting game and there is time for political leadership. One of the key ideas in left populism is the idea of “transversality” – challenging the rules of the game.
Labour must mediate between the two poles of the referendum campaign, between Leavers and Remainers, arguing that the fight against neoliberalism can only really happen at the transnational level – and that means staying in the EU. Transversality is not about trying to “catch-all”, it is about changing the terms of the game. Pushing to remain in the European Union does not have to be seen as a betrayal of the “will of the people”.
A people’s vote is an exercise in the continuing participation of the electorate in the critical process of decision making – for the UK and Europe. Labour should not only campaign for a people’s vote but also redefine the Remain position: a Remain that is not about accepting the status quo but about challenging both domestic and transnational neoliberalism. Labour’s should be a remain that is more of a revolt and aims to radical reform.