The left middle class is filled with anger as it sees the right, and, in its terms, the far right, triumph. Every time I write about Brexit I feel its fury pulsating around me. Brexit threatens the left’s core beliefs in international cooperation and anti-racism, while making its dream of ending austerity by reviving the economy unattainable. It must be resisted. Yet in a classic struggle against nationalist conservatism, Jeremy Corbyn, supposedly the most left-wing Labour leader ever, is at best an irrelevance and at worst an enemy when it comes to Brexit.
His supporters sound like supporters of Tony Blair in the 1990s as they say Labour members must hold their noses and accept a policy they regard as immoral and economically disastrous out of electoral necessity. If you wished to be kind, you could say left-wing politics consisted of trying to change the world, not in accepting the world as it is. Now Corbyn and John McDonnell are as adamant as the most right-wing northern Labour MP that freedom of movement and single market membership must end. There is no alternative and there can be no alternative.
Left wing politics, like all politics, is also tribal. Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove brought Brexit. Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen welcomed it. I cannot overestimate to conservative readers the depth of the contempt these figures arouse – not only on the left but in the liberal centre too. But when presented with the tribe’s enemies, Labour leaders duck the chance to take the battle to them. Of course, they say, we do not entirely agree with everything they are proposing, but we are not entirely against it either. ‘When the history books come to be written, and the path to Brexit analysed, Jeremy Corbyn’s role will be seen as crucial,’ said the Daily Mail with impeccable accuracy last week. ‘Not all Brexiteers may like Jeremy Corbyn. But this weekend, they have good reason to raise a toast of thanks.’
Labour’s far left is tearing up positions that are almost sacred on the centre-left for the excellent reason that there is a great deal of truth in them. A speaker can gain a round of applause at any leftish meeting by saying the right scapegoats foreigners in hard times to divert attention from the failures of capitalism. Who can deny the historical accuracy of the charge or its contemporary validity? The richest men we are likely to see brought the great crash of 2008. It was enabled by governments that had fallen for the market-friendly idea that the best way to regulate high finance was to scarcely regulate it at all. Mark the response of the British right. Rather than rethink its attitude to laissez faire economics it pushed Britain out of the European Union with an anti-immigrant campaign. As if bankrupt banks were the fault of migrants.
There were protests in favour of freedom of movement outside last year’s Labour conference – where you will recall the far left, in true totalitarian style, forbade any discussion of the EU in the hall. Discontent is growing, and this year student leaders claim one million undergraduates support a second Brexit vote. However inflated that figure may be, the revolt of the educated young should not be a surprise. Brexit represents a narrowing of their horizons. It means that they cannot live and work where they want in Europe. If they fall in love with a European partner, they can no longer bring them home without dealing with a hostile and near-criminally incompetent Home Office bureaucracy.
Corbyn and McDonnell have made no attempt to change their minds by presenting them with the anti-European case they have believed in since the 1970s. Their silence is a sign of the disdain with which they hold their supporters: we don’t owe you an explanation. It is also a sign of their mediocrity. No one can find an economist who can support their belief that EU state aid rules would restrict their programme. Perhaps they are planning a siege economy with import and exchange controls, which EU rules would stop. If so, they are not telling us about it. Perhaps they are just stupid.
Far left movements normally fall apart when the revolution devours its own children. Robespierre executes Danton. Lenin overthrows Kerensky. Anyone who has spent time in a left-wing party, trade union or university department will recognise the New Labour adviser Hopi Sen’s description of the process at work in the 21st century. You are in a meeting and everyone agrees to a policy until someone ‘takes one step to the left’ and in an accusatory voice denounces it as a betrayal of the true values of the left:
‘In the rush to tactical advantage they forget that there is always a place one step to the left, and someone will always see an advantage in occupying it’.
Until, that is, there are no more steps to take and the movement collapses.
Nothing of the sort is happening to Corbyn. Post-Stalinists and Trotskyists are being good boys and girls, probably because they are still astonished to have won control of a great political party. Rather Corbyn is being challenged by an argument about the means to achieve progressive goals. I do not want to overestimate the rebellion among Corbyn’s prominent supporters. The force of the personality cult remains strong in them. Pro-European intellectuals who gather round Another Europe Possible make many good points but they lack the courage to criticise the current Labour leadership in the same manner they would have criticised Gordon Brown and Tony Blair if they had followed Corbyn’s policy.
The easy thing to say about the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Labour members beneath them is that they were the naïve victims of a far left that exploited their gullibility. I don’t want to let them off so lightly. Only the wilfully ignorant could have expected a leader who supported the clerical regime in Iran to support internationalism in Europe. To my mind, Corbyn’s victory demonstrated that British leftists are as parochial as the right. They did not care about the oppression in Iran, Venezuela and Russia, that Corbyn and his supporters have implicitly endorsed. But they care very much when Brexit threatens their freedoms and living standards.
Now they have no excuse for not knowing what the far left is. It wants Labour members rather than Labour MPs to decide party policy, but not when members would tell the party to fight Brexit. Rather than allow discussion to flourish in an open culture, the supporters of Corbyn have tried to turn their party into a dreary personality cult as the supporters of Lenin, Stalin and Mao did before them.
Electorally, there are few signs that the disillusionment about Europe is hurting Labour. If it were, you would have expected the pro-European Liberal Democrats and Greens to have had better results in last month’s London local government elections. Labour is fortunate that, in England at least, the argument about Europe on the left remains contained within the Labour party.
Yet ideas change people before they change politics. Already in the Labour selection contest in Lewisham, the pro-European candidate found she could beat the favoured candidates of Momentum and Unite by taking one step towards the EU. The far left has already alienated Labour’s white working class supporters. In the near future, its indifference to Brexit, and unwillingness to challenge a dangerous Conservative government risks disillusioning its middle-class voters too.
Corbyn has taught them one hell of a lesson about the dangers of falling for the appearance of radicalism without first checking its contents. I do not believe they will carry on falling for it indefinitely.