Yesterday was not so much the “dawn” of democracy as the lights flickering back on after a lengthy and thoroughly miserable power cut. It was a day of exhilaration, which saw a majority of voters in this country reject the advice, predictions, and sheer mentality of the middle-class status quo. It was possibly the greatest blow for democracy since the fall of the Berlin Wall (Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution of 2011 was in essence, as Tychy has previously argued, a military coup).
Yet it was also a discombobulating experience for anybody with a strain of left-wing thought still sighing faintly within their consciousness. When was the last time in UK history that we saw such an assertion of working-class power? The defeat of Winston Churchill in 1945 (electorally, that is) is probably the nearest that we get to a zap of the same voltage. Why, therefore, were so many on the Left whining bitterly yesterday that they had been betrayed and defeated? It signals that the most basic principles of the Left have been devalued during the EU referendum to the point of meaninglessness.
So it’s time to go back to primary school. Sit down on that tiny wooden chair, under the glossy poster of the A-B-C, whilst Tychy prances about in front of the blackboard. Here’s what the Left is and here’s how to tell if you are still really a part of the Left in 2016.
1. You need to be on the side of the working class.
You might consider this to be self-evident, but it has so far eluded an awful lot of otherwise alert people. If your chief political allies include a Conservative Prime Minister, the IMF, the Bank of England and the UK’s leading corporate organisations, whilst your foes include the have-nots, the skilled and unskilled working classes, and the unemployed, then you cannot really call yourself left-wing under the wildest definition of the term. You are a conservative – you support the status quo.
There has been an unfortunate element of slapstick to the Labour Left’s conduct during the referendum. All of these people, Angela Eagle, Paul Mason, Owen Jones, and Yanis Varoufakis have been marching along and braying about reforming the EU for the workers, only to turn around and discover that nobody is behind them.
2. You need to respect ordinary people.
If you think that people in the poorer “C2DE category” voted for Leave because they are uneducated and economically marginalised; if you think that they can have no possible moral adherence to the concept of democracy but just want more houses; if you think that they are mean and envious of glamorous immigrants; if you think that they are getting uppity because they want to have a democratic control over immigration which their educational status doesn’t entitle them to; if you think that they were all somehow brainwashed by a politician as chronically inept and charmless as Nigel Farage into voting Leave; if you think that they voted Leave out of (in Laurie Penny’s words) “prejudice, propaganda, naked xenophobia and callous fear-mongering,” then you’re not on the Left. You’re just a snob.
3. You need to listen to ordinary people.
After the Labour party had lost the last UK general election, it immediately sprouted hundreds of ears. It was now “in listening mode.” Politicians such as Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham vowed to spend the summer listening to ordinary people’s concerns. Nonetheless, once the UK had voted for a Brexit, the same people were suddenly insisting that the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn should have been really touring the country telling everybody what to do. In today’s Guardian, Polly Toynbee condemns, “a performance that was dismally inadequate, lifeless and spineless, displaying an inability to lead anyone anywhere.”
The Blairites and Centrists should get down on their knees in gratitude. If Corbyn had really followed their advice and gone off to Barking or Sunderland to make a positive, energised case for the EU, then Labour would have been wiped off the map in these places in the next election. He at least gets it: the working class is not an army which can be mobilised by a bunch of middle-class politicians merely because they happen to call themselves “the Labour party.”
At the same time, many in the Labour party who curse the bungled deployment of the masses paradoxically lack any confidence in them when it comes to immigration. Yesterday, numerous commentators on the Left bewailed how the UK had at a stroke become insular, xenophobic, and even racist. In the next general election, why can’t they put open borders from Europe in front of the electorate and just get this policy voted in again, as normal? This is politically quite achievable. The majority for Brexit is hardly a homogenous anti-immigrant bloc and a socially engaged Labour party should be surely able to negotiate the same levels of immigration as before. One suspects that the xenophobic masses are ultimately a paranoid delusion amongst middle-class politicians and journalists who have broken off all communication with ordinary people.
4. You need to be an internationalist.
One of the most depressing features of the referendum campaign has been the bizarrely unchallenged assumption that the EU provides a “progressive” model of immigration. This becomes all the more stranger the more that you think about it.
In London, Edinburgh, Bristol and numerous other cosmopolitan cities there are apparently many on the Left who cherish a vision of the most barefaced racism. They are gratified to see mass immigration from predominantly-white countries, but as soon as you reach Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, and anywhere else where the brown faces become a majority, suddenly the issue of open borders has become inexplicably complicated. With poor European nations such as Romania and Bulgaria it was uncomplicated, but the plot thickens darkly once Morocco and Algeria are in the picture. There is a strong but silent implication that immigration from these countries is quite inappropriate and a question which is best deferred to an EU committee to consider in fifty years’ time, when we are all dead. Tunisia, which is practically a European country, is nonetheless deemed to be, in both senses of the word, beyond the pale. If you hold these views then you are not really on the Left. You are simply a racist.
5. You need to be a revolutionary.
A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of democracy! We are now likely to witness referendums in Sweden, Hungary, and even France, from campaigners who are inspired by our own democratic example. And of course we have the Scottish Left, or whatever it is now, going obstinately in the opposite direction, up the descending elevator. Traditionally, so to speak, progressives are meant to be inspired by shaking up the status quo. Risk-aversion is supposed to be abominable to the Left, since in the past socialists and progressives have always challenged received wisdom and experimented with new ways of doing things. In this spirit, feudalism, imperialism, slavery, religious fundamentalism, the exploitation of women within marriage, prohibitions against homosexuality, and the anti-democratic EU (pending), have been all reduced to dust and bones.
To hear some on the Left gibbering about “risk” and “uncertainty” over the last few weeks makes me despair. If we never took any risks with the economy, we would be all still living in caves! Had we voted to remain on Thursday, then we would be now waltzing away within the elegant decline of the EU, a system which does not even know what sustainable economic growth looks like, let alone have the wherewithal to deliver it. Brexit is a risk – indeed, it is currently terrifying – but it is even more so if so many progressives, socialists, and trade unionists retain their recent, characteristic passivity. In order to author the future, you first need to have an imagination.