The British Left at a Crossroads

The British Left at a Crossroads

To guarantee its relevance and survival, the British left must choose between two options for contemporary resistance and reconstruction.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (Wikimedia Commons)

It is rare to live through a year like 2016, and to know that it will be a marker in scholarship and memory for generations. Rarer still, perhaps, to know this while also doubting whether coherent and truthful public reflection on politics will be possible for much longer. Across the world, the left faces a virulent, networked, right-wing International, with roots in Silicon Valley, the Kremlin, the White House, and many European capitals, including London.

Wherever illiberal leaders have gained access to the resources of post-9/11 security states, liberals, greens, and socialists may find themselves numbered among the “enemies of the people” as the right works to cement its power. This process is already underway in Poland and Hungary. Nascent left-populisms are currently too weak to stop the right, although they could benefit in the short-term from increasing political polarization. Many media organizations enjoy less popular legitimacy than the politicians they scrutinize. Whatever their constitutional settings, judiciaries are too easily bypassed to be relied upon. In short, there is no reason to believe that advanced capitalist societies are immune to authoritarianism by virtue of superior institutions, economies, or national characters.

It is only in the contemporary liberal West that it has become habitual to regard politics as a genteel, limited set of consensual procedures, insulated from matters of life and death. An older political generation knew that the fragile gains of the postwar order demanded vigilant protection against the twin dangers of market fundamentalism and nationalist revival. In more recent decades, this perspective has been sorely lacking.

The immediate danger faced by the British left after the European referendum and Trump’s victory is irrelevance. Overcoming this danger, and taking some worthwhile stands for democracy, pluralism, and social transformation, requires an understanding of the current politics of both the mainstream and the radical right. As Alan Finlayson argued last year, committed left activists have a tendency to substitute introversion for analysis: to talk about who we are, and what we should be doing, without acknowledging the dynamic context within which politics occurs, or the peripheral relevance of our decisions. Instead we need to spend more time working to understand the opposition. We should recognize that the most urgent conflict of the current moment does not involve the left at all. It lies between the contradictory neoliberal and social-conservative impulses of the “New Right” formed during the later twentieth century.

In Britain, this conflict is reshaping our national political economy in ways that could prove more dramatic than the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s. Labour urgently needs to orient itself within this landscape, and to decide on a course of action. The party must choose between two, stark, alternatives: they could either band with unlikely allies to defend European social protections within Britain’s small, open trading economy, or they could embrace the experimental possibilities Brexit may allow to pursue a radical separation from the dynamics of global capitalism. Neither choice would represent a betrayal of anything essential about Labour: each has a long heritage in the party’s tradition, and is consistent with emancipatory, egalitarian, internationalist politics. But the party must still choose.


In a final blow to David Cameron’s reputation, the “Leave” vote has clearly deepened, rather than eliminated, Tory division over Europe. On one side stand the libertarian Brexiteers who view the European project as protectionist and parochial. These Conservatives see Brexit as an opportunity to let the harsh winds of global competition blow heavier through Britain. They believe in one of the Leave campaign’s earliest campaign slogans: “Go Global.” “Hard Brexit” will, in their eyes, be a strong tonic for the British economy, even if rights of entry are restricted to carefully chosen members of the global plutocracy and an exploited guest worker class. For the left, this looks like nothing less than a turbo-charged race to the bottom: a recipe for gated communities and Special Economic Zones, tied to the nineteenth-century race ideology of the “Anglo-Saxon” world.

On the other side, the centrist-liberals of the Conservative Party have been cautious supporters of the EU. It is no secret that Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne, the architects of the referendum, ultimately found the EU of Wolfgang Schaüble and Nicolas Sarkozy to be a congenial place. As representatives of the mainstream of British business opinion, and occasional proponents of a form of pseudo-progressivism, they recognized that aspects of Britain’s social and economic settlement could not be trashed without political consequences. Lacking a base within the party or a sympathetic White House, this wing of the Conservative Party has found itself increasingly marginalized since Trump’s election.

Theresa May straddles the divide between these two camps, and adds her own brand of authoritarian economic populism to the mix. As Tim Bale has written, when May walked into 10 Downing Street last July she was in a position of unexpected power. Having been a “reluctant Remainer,” the Prime Minister had a chance to develop a negotiating stance acceptable to a large majority of Remain voters and a substantial minority of those who chose Leave. Remaining in the European single market, while opting out of the Union’s political structures, would have preserved the complex web of harmonized regulations, transnational supply chains, and mobile workforces that currently enable the more successful sectors of Britain’s economy. Those minded to sneer at the “Thatcherite” single market would do well to remember that these include not only financial services, but advanced manufacturing, information technology, creative industries, scientific and medical research, and higher education. Few plausible visions for the progressive economic transformation of the UK would begin with the trashing of these stable and high-paying leading sectors.

The short-run political risks of a pro-single market negotiating position would have been considerable, however: the government would have been humiliated if the EU institutions had opened negotiations by ruling this “soft Brexit.” May—a former interior minister with a visceral antipathy to immigration—would have been left dangerously exposed on the question of European “free movement,” the sine qua non of the European Economic Area’s integrated labor market. May took what may have seemed like a safer route, appointing libertarian Brexiteers to key negotiating positions.

By bringing in the Tory right and making a strong pitch for votes against immigration, May has opted to prioritize wiping out the right-populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) once and for all, by sucking its supporters toward the Tory party. So far this strategy has seen some success: in a February parliamentary by-election, the Conservatives snatched Copeland, a northern English constituency held by Labour since the 1930s. This was a more or less unprecedented achievement for a party in government for seven years and facing a pervasive national crisis. As such, the Prime Minister exemplifies the longstanding Conservative tendency to prioritize taking and holding power through the British electoral system over substantive conceptions of a national interest. But eight months into her Premiership, May’s own ideological position is less clear.

When May finally set out her position on Brexit in a January speech, the result was a bundle of contradictions. The influence of the libertarian Brexiteers was clear. The rhetoric portrayed Britain as a “great, global trading nation,” and “one of the firmest advocates for free trade anywhere in the world.” With promises of a “Modern Industrial Strategy” and investment in infrastructure, May gestured toward policies that might benefit working-class regions and industries. But at its heart, the speech made clear the plan is for a hard Brexit: leaving the single market and the European customs union in favour of “a bolder embrace of free trade with the wider world.”

While the government concedes that a comprehensive free-trade agreement with the EU’s twenty-seven member states will be essential, May also suggested that Brexit will mean a more globalized Britain: a Britain that refocuses its trade away from other European welfare states, toward developing countries with far lower levels of labour protection and remuneration. It will also mean a return of that much-lamented “Parliamentary Sovereignty” to British shores. May wants a bonfire of meddlesome EU regulations.

The problem with all of this is that it doesn’t hang together. Free trade is not primarily about tariffs any more; it’s about deep deals, which are all about harmonizing rules, regulations, governance, and arbitration; and it’s about multinational corporations with complex supply chains reaching across national borders. “Red tape” isn’t going anywhere. Post-Brexit, bureaucracy will more likely proliferate as Britain swaps full participation in a well-established single market with a mass of piecemeal, bilateral trade deals. Assuming the success of the government’s strategy, the EU’s relatively advanced and transparent system of international governance will be replaced by agreements hurriedly drawn up by Whitehall, rubber-stamped by the Tory majority, and policed by the opaque and corporate-friendly Investor State Dispute Settlement courts.

At Davos in January, May praised liberalism, free trade, and globalization. But she also warned the global elite that they had to make globalization work for the “left behind” or face a rising tide of populism that might threaten the global order they’ve benefitted from. She’s right to be worried: Branko Milanovic’s famous “elephant curve” shows that while the middle classes in the developing world and western elites have benefitted hugely from globalization, the lower-income groups in developed countries have seen incomes stagnate or even fall. The anger they feel is an unpredictable and potentially dangerous force. But how is May’s plan going to help them? By draining the National Health Service and schools of vital EU workers? By turbo-charging globalization, and slashing taxes and worker protections in order to attract global businesses and global elites?


A large part of May’s political strategy involves using her personal authority to cover up the contradictions in her program. Her phrase “Brexit means Brexit” has become something of a slogan. By repeating the phrase over and over, the Tories suggest that Brexit means what May says it does, and that its definition is beyond the sphere of political argument. However, in December the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that parliamentary sovereignty, rather than May’s personal authority, would govern the Brexit process. A series of votes was held on the negotiation and withdrawal. This is the moment when Labour had a chance to apply real pressure to May’s government, working with the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Greens, and the liberal rump within the Conservative Party.

Labour’s performance was disappointing by any measure. On the third reading of the bill, when all the amendments containing Labour’s “red lines”—even on such basic questions such as migrant rights and parliamentary scrutiny—had been rejected, Jeremy Corbyn ordered Labour MPs to join the government in voting through a bill which gives May an incredible level of power to dictate the Brexit process.

The Prime Minister’s rhetoric has evidently had a powerful effect on the opposition benches. There is now a sense across much of the Labour Party that even to contest the process of Brexit is an inherent betrayal of Labour’s values and the referendum result. This rests on an excessively deterministic reading of the 2016 referendum result. The extent of popular antipathy toward mass migration, globalization, and the institutions of representative democracy cannot be denied. But Brexit was a battle within the British elite, not between that elite and “the people.” Leading figures in the governing party campaigned for Leave, alongside the entirety of a privately owned newspaper press with a disproportionate influence on older, more affluent voters. It was not just disaffected ex-Labour supporters in places like Sunderland who voted Leave. An even larger number of Leave voters were longstanding Tory voters from relatively prosperous “middle England.” The indeterminacy cuts both ways. A substantial minority of Remain voters are as hostile to immigration and as sceptical toward the EU as their Leave counterparts, while many voters on both sides made their decisions in the final days of the campaign. Even in majority “Leave” areas, “Remain” voters could still prove decisive in electoral terms.

Memories of 2016 may soon be overtaken by new alignments and concerns, incorporating the referendum’s battle lines while moving beyond them. The ballot box is a black box, and the complexity of motivation leaves significant room for political leadership. This is suggested by the results of another February by-election. Former Labour councillor Gareth Snell held Stoke-on-Trent Central for Labour, despite the fact that he was a prominent local Remain supporter in one of the most Leave-voting constituencies in the country, and faced Paul Nuttall, leader of UKIP.

The fluidity of the situation is increased by the fraying relationships between the UK’s component nations. As the EU withdrawal process gets under way, these are now making themselves felt. Sinn Féin made significant gains in recent Northern Irish assembly elections. Fianna Fáil, which leads polls in the Republic ahead of possible elections this year, is drawing up detailed plans for Irish reunification. This week, Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, opened a new front in the battle against May’s supremacy, signalling her commitment to a second referendum on independence prior to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

For Labour, this situation presents more dangers than opportunities. In seeking to direct the Brexit process from Whitehall, and largely in secret, May has left herself vulnerable to the charge that she is incapable of listening to the nations, regions, and communities of the UK, and is failing to hold the country together in a time of crisis. In exposing the consequences of May’s choice, however, Labour must be careful not to assume the mantle of Scottish or Irish nationalism. This would be electoral poison in what is left of its English heartlands, and a betrayal of solidarity with its shrunken Scottish wing. But the party does need to try and parallel Sturgeon’s efforts, rather than attacking them as mere opportunism. While English nationalism is tricky territory for supporters of the left, voicing popular resentment of secretive and centralized executive power should be second nature. Labour should mobilize its strong cadre of English regional leaders to challenge May’s proprietorial approach to a negotiation that will touch every part of Britain’s society, politics, and economy. In the absence of this, Scottish and Irish ructions will simply strengthen her support. The Prime Minister is more than capable of articulating an embattled, monolithic Englishness against Scottish, Irish, and Continental threats.


Given all of this, why has Labour been so timid in challenging May’s claim to be the sole interpreter of the referendum mandate? The party’s myths, and its sense of itself, are central to explaining the conundrum. A form of historical myopia is at work, which postulates the “real” Labour Party as an essentially anti-liberal force, with an unambiguously hostile attitude towards migration and international trade. In fact, the party’s mid-twentieth century moment as an economically nationalist party was a comparatively brief one—sustained, at least in part, by the convenient support offered to the Sterling area by the exporting economies of the Commonwealth. Empire, and its role not only in Victorian industrialization but also in the foundation of the British welfare state, is erased by nostalgic Brexiteers of left and right. The fact remains that Britain has not truly stood alone in the world since the seventeenth century.

In the wake of imperial decline, increasing numbers within Labour were attracted, like their Conservative counterparts, to the European project as a free trading bloc that might reinvigorate British industry. This position represented a reversion to the party’s earliest traditions, rather than their repudiation. The early Labour movement was profoundly shaped by Victorian liberalism, at the level of the rank and file as well as the much-maligned Fabian elite. This is why Labour remained the axiomatic party of “free trade”—the Liberal rallying cry since the 1840s—until the Second World War. The party entered Parliament in 1906 on a shared platform against the Conservatives’ “imperial preference”: an anti-European trading policy claimed as an inspiration by May’s ministers and advisors today.

Something like the multivalent politics of the later nineteenth century, with its shifting local coalitions, its international solidarities, and its attention to the visceral national and spiritual dimensions of working-class life, is needed now. Labour was built in a world where class was refracted through plural identities, trade unions were weak, and racist imperialism was on the rise. It grew by taking positions, choosing leaders, making demands, and building difficult alliances, not by aping the (highly successful) working-class Tory politics of the day.


The Labour Party has two clear options for contemporary resistance and reconstruction. They can either seek to bring down May to save the single market, or they can offer a fleshed-out, parallel vision of a considerably less globalized Britain. Neither choice would represent a betrayal of anything essential about Labour’s history or politics. But the party must make a choice, and accept the immediate implications of that choice.

What would a post-globalized Britain look like? The national route to socialism was kept alive in the 1960s and 1970s by the Bennite left of the Labour Party, and is revived in the current leadership’s apparent nonchalance over the economic consequences of a hard Brexit. Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell were among the left activists who voted against Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the 1975 referendum on remaining part of the European Economic Community. The Alternative Economic Strategy was the focal point of the Labour left’s economic thinking for much of the 1970s and early 1980s, with a strategy of import and capital controls at its core. As Joe Guinan and Matthew Brown have detailed, modern thinking on the Labour left maintains the previous focus on the centrality of ownership and wealth. This is coupled with a new emphasis on localism and democratic control, which have displaced older, more centralized and statist, varieties of socialist planning. This is one possible path for Labour to pursue.

Defending the single market would require an entirely different set of priorities. A form of “progressive alliance” would be necessary, albeit one considerably more uncomfortable and provisional than that usually contemplated by elements within Labour. The crucial parliamentary votes for wearing down May’s majority in the course of the negotiations are not those of the Greens, Liberal Democrats, or SNP, but the Osbornites and the Northern Irish parties, particularly the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Now that the parliamentary set-piece of the Article 50 bill has passed, scrutiny and pressure would have to be placed on the government piecemeal: highlighting the concrete impacts of leaving the single market and customs union on specific industries in specific (ideally marginal) parliamentary constituencies, slowly turning public opinion against the blinkered simplicity of the government’s approach. In British politics, the indirect pressure created by negative opinion polls, Cabinet splits, and a loss of parliamentary confidence in a Prime Minister can be considerable. While May now seems invulnerable, a disastrous negotiation and growing public disquiet could still act to either change her strategy, or end her premiership.

It would also be necessary to demonstrate the ability to negotiate a better alternative to the hard Brexit preferred by May. The international situation would have to be recognized and used to Labour’s advantage, with more skill than the party has achieved at any point since Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam’s brokering of the Good Friday Agreement. Fundamental discussions over Britain’s defence and foreign policies, largely settled by the Labour government of 1945–51, will need to be reopened. European concerns regarding the consequences of Trump’s election could be used to Labour’s advantage. If the UK abandoned its aversion to autonomous, collective European defence endeavours, it could improve its parlous position in future negotiations with the EU-27, potentially trading military muscle and budgetary contributions for some degree of immigration control, alongside full membership of the single market. If Labour outmanoeuvred the hapless Boris Johnson in staging amicable public conversations with European leaders, the politics of Brexit could start to look very different. This would benefit both party and country.

Labour’s inability to cohere around one of these two options is as much about party identity as it is about its understanding of political economy. A reformulated version of radical economic nationalism implies the reimagining of Labour as an exclusively socialist party with a long-term, transformational project, rather than what it historically has been: a pluralist, democratic party that builds broad alliances across a range of social and ideological constituencies in line with the requirements of the current moment. The Corbyn leadership, at least in theory, is committed to the first vision of the party’s function. It is not clear if any other party faction has a real understanding of what the second would now require, in either domestic or international terms. On all sides, there is far too much emphasis on abstraction and introversion, and not enough on engagement with the rapidly changing realities of an unprecedented political situation. A vastly more ambitious, imaginative, and serious form of politics is required.

2016 was a year of drift, delusion, and panic, one pulverizing blow after another. If May’s approach to Brexit fails—as we fear it must—then this will only intensify the processes of social, economic, and political dislocation that have brought about the rise of the radical right in both the UK and the United States. We cannot assume that the left will benefit by default; indeed, on current trends, an intensification of violent, exclusionary politics is the likely outcome of further disruption. In spite of her performance of respectability, May is as committed to these as Donald Trump: her tenure at the Home Office plumbed new depths of brutality and incompetence, while her pronouncements as prime minister have signalled a myopic obsession with the rigid control of migrant numbers. In the face of such enormities, there is work to do, and choices to be made. The task is now, very clearly, one of survival.

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite is co-editor of Renewal and a lecturer in Modern British History at University College London.

James Stafford is co-editor of Renewal and a lecturer in Modern History at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford.

 This is an edited and updated version of an editorial first published in Renewal.