Me, I probably would have voted for Remain—stay in Europe to combat neoliberalism and make each country and the continent as a whole more democratic. But my close friend Stephen Whitefield, Tutor in Politics, Rhodes Pelczynski Fellow in Politics, and Professor of Comparative Russian and East European Politics and Societies at Oxford University, disagreed with me. He voted in last week’s referendum in favor of exiting the European Union. Here, in a letter he submitted to the Guardian immediately following the results, he presents his reasons why and the opportunities for the Left moving forward.
My father used to say of politics that when things can’t carry on anymore then they have to change. The landscape of British politics has now moved seismically. It is the most significant moment to reshape our country for better or worse since the War. I believe that this moment opens up real possibilities of progressive reform. That is why I voted Leave, one of the few academics I know to have done so. There will be big constraints on what can be done, externally and internally. There are many ways in which change might happen that are frightening. The task now is for the centre-left to win the political battle that is about to commence. I believe that it is well-placed to do so.
Let me state the obvious, or what in the light of the vote should now be. The era of neo-liberal political economy is over, and the challenge is to build something new. Neo-liberalism brought about vast increases in inequality and curtailments in democracy to protect the interests of transnational corporations and other elites against what citizens might do. The European Union was part of that. While there was growth, some of the worst effects of inequality could be mitigated by using taxes on welfare and supply-side policies in education and training. Following the Crash, and failing growth, that strategy of the centre-left is gone, in the UK and in Europe. Neo-liberalism also entailed an open door immigration policy within the European Union that completely ignored the strains it would put on many voting citizens, while the Crash and the euro wreaked such destruction on many economies that migration to the better-off countries became incredibly attractive. This combination is what produced the Leave vote in England.
That old neo-liberal order has collapsed, thank goodness. Now we can turn to changing things. Brexit will happen, this is not a nightmare we will wake from. So, the questions for the country as a whole now are: What kind of Brexit do we want? This is also a way of asking, what kind of Britain do we want? And it includes at last, after a complete failure to engage in the Scottish Referendum, what kind of Union, if any, do we want? These issues are now up for grabs and progressive political forces can take advantage of the Brexit opening.
Cameron has gone and the Tories will have a new leader—Boris Johnston presumably—by October. We must expect a general election in November. We rightly fear what the Tories will offer at that point. On the one hand, I expect them to support more austerity and neo-liberalism in domestic economic policy, to “reassure the markets” and “drive our competitiveness” by further cuts in wages and benefits at work, including employment protection, along with cuts in services and reform of the NHS. Watch out for the return of Liam Fox and his US health care partners. On the other, they will offer a variant of Faragist nationalism and dog-whistle anti-immigrant rhetoric to appeal to the old Tory constituencies outside London and to what they think might be a market in Labour voters inclined to UKIP.
If Labour is paralysed this programme might win. Labour needs to act with great urgency if the election is to be won. But Labour can win. The key thing to note about the politics after the Referendum is that a near majority that voted for Remain need now to move on to the next question. There is a bedrock of 48% who voted for Remain who can and must now surely be motivated to support the best possible form of Brexit we can find. That constituency must be brought together with those who have been marginalised by neo-liberalism but who must fear the swinging cuts in public services that a Tory austerity-heavy government would bring. I think the outlines of a policy that can bring these constituencies together should be clear. We must deal with inequality; have a sensible immigration policy that includes controls on numbers but also emphasises internationalism; defend our public services; and maintain a liberal outlook. That can be Labour’s position to win by building a new political coalition.
Some part of that, in my view, will require new leadership. I simply do not believe that Jeremy Corbyn is up to the job. He lacks strategic vision, an ability to communicate with voters, has political commitments that will make it very difficult for him to get on board with a new set of policies, and of course he is widely perceived to lack leadership ability in the country as a whole. He should go and go now, while being recognised for his commitments to good and noble causes, particularly to peace and disarmament. There is a new leadership team that can unite, I believe, around a set of policies that will marginalise the Conservatives. Tom Watson as leader can represent those positions and will have credibility in the electorate; John McDonnell can be an effective Chancellor.
There are certainly great uncertainties and things beyond the control of all parties now that Brexit has won. We face the hostility of the EU, who may wish to punish us or who might even see advantages in our leaving. I think European leaders who take that perspective face potential political disasters of their own. I hope that sensible and constructive negotiations will take place, though these are far from guaranteed. But a progressive response from Britain about Brexit is surely the best way forward.