The apparent rise of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has caused a fair degree of panic among the mainstream political parties, and nowhere more so in the Labour Party. If the polls are to be believed – and in an age of fluid politics that’s a bigger “if” than it may have been in the past, and in this case may be crucially down to turnout – the Brexit Party looks set to take the largest share of the vote in next week’s European elections, at least outside Scotland.
Against this background, the Labour Party has been pitching itself as the party that can stop Farage. Obviously, in part that is an appeal to tactical voting among remainers, who appear to have been deserting Labour in droves; the same polls show a notable surge for the unequivocal Remain parties, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, and to a lesser extent to Change UK – all of which seems likely to hit a Labour Party already reeling from a very poor performance in the English local elections.
But there is a political question that goes beyond matters of tactical voting. Far from being a vote against Farage, to what extent does a Labour vote actually empower Farage and what he represents?
The issue arises from Labour’s confused stand on Brexit. On the one hand, Labour front-benchers like Barry Gardiner and Richard Burgon are clearly on record as stating that Labour is not an anti-Brexit party. Other prominent figures like Tom Watson and Keir Starmer argue that it is inconceivable that Labour would back Brexit without a People’s Vote. Labour is, however, engaged in talks with the Tories about how to deliver a Brexit; and still talks about an alternative deal. Even now, with a Bill enshrining Theresa May’s deal due to go before Parliament in early June, Labour cannot commit itself to opposing that deal. And all this fails to reflect the overwhelming opposition to Brexit – and support for a confirmatory referendum on any deal – among Labour Party members.
And herein lies the problem. Because, to the extent that Labour continues to see itself as a vehicle to deliver Brexit – least of all a “better” Brexit that preserves jobs and protects rights – it is not opposing the Faragist project, but enabling it.
Moreover, with its talk of “respecting” the 2016 referendum, and allowing the myth to persist that this corrupted plebiscite, legally advisory and won through blatant lies, is the “will of the people”, it has consistently empowered the Faragist narrative. From the moment that Corbyn declared, the morning after the referendum, that Article 50 should be triggered immediately; through the chaos of whipping to support the triggering of Article 50 when it was obvious that the UK’s negotiating position, to the extent that it existed at all; to Labour’s echoing of the right’s language on freedom of movement; to Labour’s claim that it speaks for the majority who are fed up with Brexit, in the face of all the evidence that divisions over Brexit are more powerful than traditional party loyalties; to the ludicrous and wholly unevidenced spin that Labour’s poor performance in the recent local elections was down to a belief that politicians should have got on with Brexit – at every step Labour’s leadership has accepted the Right’s framing of the Brexit debate.
That Labour leadership has never had the intellectual honesty or moral courage to confront the nature of what Brexit really means. First, that it is a wholly neoliberal and austerian project, designed to take economic policy out of the political sphere; to make the UK a rule-taker through international trade treaties (in much the way that the now defunct TTIP would have done), requiring the UK, for example, to open up the NHS to US private providers and the food market to low-grade imports in order to get these elusive trade deals. Second, that it will destroy jobs and living standards, with the most vulnerable suffering most; if there is one thing to which the string of announced job losses should have alerted even the most blinkered Corbynist, it is the absolute inanity of talking about a “jobs first” Brexit. Third, for a party that prides itself on opposing racism and promoting equality, it has failed to understand how Brexit has become a proxy for a nationalistic culture war; one in which tribal nationalism has become resurgent, and racism has been legitimised as “the will of the people”.
Most of all, its claim that it could deliver a “bettter” Brexit remains wholly intellectually dishonest. The elements of that “better” Brexit are simply not available – because, like “a” customs union which would allow the UK to negotiate its own trade deals – they would traduce the EU’s treaty principles. You do not show respect for electors by peddling them convenient fictions.
It is notable that Labour grassroots members have understood all of this; they understand that Brexit is absolutely a contradiction of the core values on which the Labour movement was built. But they have been denied a voice and in many cases are simply leaving. It is significant that the leadership’s policy is decided by a coterie of advisers around Corbyn who are largely drawn from the fringe Left outside the Labour Party, and who are incidentally often people who have lived lives of extreme privilege, isolated from the damage that Brexit will do the most vulnerable communities. They are not people whose political roots draw on mainstream Labour values. And they are absolutely as guilty as Farage of creating the narrative that a Brexit that will only serve the interests of wealthy elites as a movement of empowerment and liberation; whether they realise it or or not, and far from opposing it, they are repeating one of the fundamental narratives of Fascism.
It is for this reason that, until such time as the Labour Party is reclaimed for Labour Values – for equality, for internationalism, and against racism and austerity and above all for a political discourse that is grounded in reality and is willing to tell uncomfortable truths to power – it is impossible to see a vote for Labour as a vote against Faragism and the far right. Quite simply, and against the grounded views of the Party’s membership, the Labour leadership has empowered Farage and his narrative; it has accepted – wholly – his framing without challenging any of it.
And if there is one lesson to take from history – not least from the history of Twentieth Century Europe – it is that you do not defeat the authoritarian Right by appeasing it. With a week to go until polling day, there is still time for Labour to reinvent itself as a bulwark against Faragism; it could, for example, stop equivocating over whether to oppose May’s bill in June, it could come out unequivocally for a confirmatory referendum on any deal and commit itself to campaign properly for remain and revocation. It could break off talks with the Tories. It could stop putting up Shadow Cabinet members on the media who talk about delivering Brexit. Rather than half-heartedly pushing the narrative that many of its MEP candidates are remainers, it could commit itself to action in Parliament, where the big decisions will be taken. It could, in short, stop prevaricating, reconnect with its core values and its membership, and show some real leadership.
But until any of these things happens, the fact remains. A vote for Labour in next week’s European Elections is a vote to empower Farage, not to oppose him. And those who want to oppose Farage and what he stands for will need to consider looking elsewhere to cast their vote. The important thing, however, is that they do vote.