The future of the left since 1884

After the mourning, a new morning

This hurts a lot. We find ourselves a country who wants to close ourselves off to the wider world. A country already reeling from the shock of our decision and a country divided into two seemingly irreconcilable groups. One of...


This hurts a lot. We find ourselves a country who wants to close ourselves off to the wider world. A country already reeling from the shock of our decision and a country divided into two seemingly irreconcilable groups. One of whom – the one to which I belong – is inconsolable at the moment. Can we rebuild? What will come next? These are the questions we need to address. But at the moment it’s hard to see a new morning through the mourning.

How did we get here? Ultimately David Cameron is to blame. The buck stops with him and his weakness and inability to manage his own party without huge unimaginable cost to the country. But beyond the immediate existential crisis for Britain, it is clear that there are also very real and immediate threats to the future of the Labour party. We share some of the blame. Until we are bitterly honest with ourselves about that, we will not be able to move on or play the role we should do in creating a better future.

This referendum was fought and won on the issue of immigration. It is an issue that Labour are not capable at present of responding to in a meaningful sense. This is not a new crisis. It has been creeping up on us for two decades at least. Our inability to see that is a huge part of the problem. Each iteration of the post-Thatcher Labour party is in part culpable and each blamed the last for the problem seeing their mere existence as enough solution.

The Blair years were characterised by an open approach to immigration as part of our sense of confidence in ourselves and our leading place in the world. It was this approach that allowed immigration to make such a strong net contribution to our economy. But in our desire to showcase this confidence and swagger, we ignored the losers. Those who suffered most from economic inequality were also those who felt most uneasy about large scale immigration. The sense that Labour’s traditional working class vote had nowhere else to go made their concerns politically easy to ignore.

The Brown and Miliband years fared little better. Little has exemplified this so much as the way they treated UKIP. In the run up to the last general election Labour were far too sanguine about them seeing them as a problem for the Tories, not us. Seeing only the effect they had on the internal politics of the Tories at Westminster and not the voters in our heartlands. When there were attempts to address this they came too late and were too incoherent. A questionable, vague message on a mug does not a policy make.

Under Corbyn this trend has accelerated. Our leaps in membership numbers have come not from our traditional working class voters but the kind of metropolitan voters we lost to the Liberal Democrats over Iraq. Corbyn himself is staunchly pro-immigration (as am I) but the internal politics of the Labour party has made it such that any attempt to look at dealing with the negative consequences of immigration are framed only through the ongoing debate around his leadership. Again it was a conversation about ourselves and not about those we seek to represent.

I think there will be long term damage to the Labour party that we haven’t yet begun to comprehend. We have become two parties – one of metropolitan activists and one of working class voters. If that split were formalised I don’t know which side I would fall on. Under a different voting system, sure I would feel more comfortable with the metropolitan set. I don’t wholly feel I fit in there but my values are similar. But under first past the post, I just don’t know. Can we find a way to bring these two groups – as irreconcilable as Leavers and Remainers together?

The Labour party doesn’t have a God-given right to exist. It will only survive if we can square that circle. But to do so we need to make firm choices and hard compromises. All of us.

Those of us who for too long haven’t listened to the economic and cultural anguish of the working class need to learn to do so. There have to be answers to the insecurity globalisation brings to these communities and we need to make it our unflinching focus to find those. We can no longer consider this a price worth paying. This week, that price got too high.

This does not mean indulging in racism or close mindedness. But it has to mean understanding what drives the attitudes some think are racist and small. We have to address our own prejudices and small-mindedness about who our voters are, what they want and what we can do for and with them.

Labour was a party established to give voice to the working class. We are also proudly the party that has fought discrimination and hate. If we can’t find a way to keep those two traditions from veering wildly away from each other, we don’t deserve to succeed.

I want us to be a welcoming, open country. I am a proud Londoner and am proud of the way we voted. But have we hoarded our success? To convince the rest of the country to choose to be open too, it seems to me that we have to develop a system whereby we ensure that both the benefits *and* the discomfort of being open are far more evenly distributed.

That is the challenge for the Labour party and for progressive politics more widely now. We cannot choose to change the world. But we must learn to deal with it in ways that do not come with solutions forged in different centuries and different economies. There is a lot if hard graft to come and it will be doing this – rather than clinging to two different sets of old certainties – that will be essential – even existential.


Emma Burnell

Emma Burnell is the Director of Political Human and Co-editor of Open Labour.


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