by Trevor Fisher
2017 will be a more challenging year than 2016, a year when progressives lost on all fronts. In the USA the Democrats lost the Presidency to Trump and in Congressional elections. At home, Labour and pro Europeans lost the popular vote to Remain, and the far right advanced all over the European Union. The trends are ominous.
There is growing evidence that Brexit is now the defining issue in British politics, gridlocking all debates at Westminster and shaping voting attitudes. As commentators have noted, notably the UK in a Changing Europe report, Labour is in danger of slipping into a black hole with pro-Remain Labour voters going Lib Dem, and Leave inclined voters supporting UKIP. Labour could face challenges in England and Wales mirroring those in Scotland, where the political option is now Tory vs SNP on the dominant issue independence.
Some Labour MPs, having noticed a significant number of working class voters opted for Leave, seek an accommodation with Brexit. But there is no political advantage in accepting Brexit. Principled politics already demand rejecting the reactionary Brexit position, but practical politics indicate there is no mileage in betraying the majority of Labour voters who supported its position.
The concerns of those who voted to Leave have to be addressed, but not by accepting Brexit. Keir Starmer and John McDonnell are showing welcome signs that Remain to Reform policy is more than a slogan. But this will be irrelevant unless Labour can hold the line on the key issue – opposition to Brexit.
Political reality is that the vote on June 23rd, while massive, was effectively suicidal for UK politics and Brexit cannot be delivered without severe damage to the UK in general, and working class people in particular. This will become increasingly clear as Article 50 is triggered.
There will be a second independence referendum in Scotland unless Brexit can be defeated, although a Brexit which does not apply to Scotland is an illusion. Britain will be faced with chaos as its internal politics collapses and the chill winds of political reality bite.
While the Leave camp mobilised a narrow majority, its democratic credentials can be attacked. With the triggering of Article 50 likely to show Brexit to be undeliverable, Labour could be in a position to turn politics to its own and the nation’s advantage. Labour and the Lib Dems are consistent in support for both the UK and the EU, but the Lib Dems cannot deliver. May will increasingly have to operate by diktat, to keep the Leave wing of her movement in check, John Major’s bastards, but will do so against increasing turbulence. The smart option is to divide the Tories, many of whom – May probably included – know Brexit cannot succeed whatever voters want.
The outline of politics of 2017 are clear. Reality will kick in and the simple slogan Brexit wrecks it UK will be the order of the day, and not merely on economic issues. In an increasingly turbulent climate, Labour has to become the clear leader of the pro-EU camp. Letting Tim Farron, and Sturgeon in Scotland be the voice of pro-Europeans, is the road to ruin.
Finally, the youth vote is essential. Youth is more pro-EU than age, and the June 23rd vote was won by pensioners. While the grandparents’ vote must not be neglected, they can be won to defending the future of youth, youth is the key to a lasting strategy. The non-involvement of youth in politics is fatal to any progressive future, In the short term, voter registration is the priority. Labour should be working with groups like Bite the Ballot to get youth registered, not to mention the issue of ID which will further reduce already low turnouts if not countered.
Currently there is little sign of an overall Labour strategy. With the Corbyn left split over Europe and the New Labour Right impotent, a new centre left current has to emerge to tackle the challenges. If they are not met – Labour risks suffering major electoral damage. Labour must stick to and develop the position it stood on in June 2016 and defend remaining in the European Union, working with its sister parties across Europe and the USA to defeat the rise of xenophobia. If it does not do so, 2017 could be the year it loses its core vote in England and Wales to its rivals.
Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007