While it is still unclear what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ actually means, we do at least now know when Article 50 will be triggered – by March 2017. Any hopes of ‘blocking’ Brexit, as Owen Smith sought to do, are clearly fanciful. Labour needs to urgently wake up to the historical forces that drove 17 million Britons to give the British establishment one of the biggest shocks it has ever received.
In a Newsnight interview conducted shortly after the result of the EU Referendum, the much-maligned Frank Field MP set out in stark terms how real was the danger of Labour reacting incorrectly to Brexit. Any attempts to dismiss the result, patronise ‘Leave’ voters, or ignore the warnings contained within their vote, could spell Labour’s doom. While I was as deflated by the result as 16 million other ‘Remain’ voters, I could not agree more strongly with Mr Field’s analysis.
When one considers that the Labour Party was originally formed to represent the powerless, it is a cruel irony that those voters who followed the party’s advice to remain were more likely to be middle class, socially liberal city-dwellers. The northern heartlands out of which Labour grew voted decisively for Brexit, bringing to bear the central challenge for the left throughout the West today: how to reconcile the forces of globalisation with concerns about the pace of change and the great challenges that come with it, including mass migration.
That is why I call these forces historical. Looking back, Brexit now seems inevitable. It did not seem so at the time, with the media and pollsters alike briefing that Remain would win, even if the margin of victory might be close. It wasn’t as obvious to a metropolitan YUPPY like me as it probably should have been. Yet Alex Salmond was right to call the result “a vote for English independence”, except it wasn’t independence from the EU for which people were voting, but independence from a world changing too quickly and too unequally for too many to bear.
When Tony Blair made his final conference speech as Labour leader in 2007, and spoke of the need for “these values, gentle and compassionate as they are … to be applied in a harsh, uncompromising world”, he was describing the huge challenge facing the modern left, if not the solution to it. Even if the UK had not voted for Brexit, a realignment in British politics would have come sooner or later. The question now for Labour is how it responds. Though it sounds stark, if Labour falls in its response, it might not recover.
So what, if anything, can Labour do to convince the millions of Britons who feel powerless that ours is the party that can give them back control over their destinies? This point has been made before, but it doesn’t particularly seem to be resonating. Labour needs to become the master of devolution. The EU Referendum proves, if proof were needed, that the old boundaries are breaking down. Statism and supranational bodies are going to become increasingly irrelevant.
The dominant party in Britain throughout the next century will be the one that best understands, and capitalises on, the need for devolution. Arguably, Labour has already lost the first big battle in this war, having been driven out of the country of Keir Hardie, Scotland. The struggle is especially difficult for Labour, too, as it is the only truly national party of the UK. The Tories are so unchallenged in the south of England (aside from London) that they do not need to reach much beyond Birmingham for a parliamentary majority.
Labour, meanwhile, still imbued in its thinking with the statism that became culturally ingrained during the Blair years, is increasingly stretched and fraying as it tries to reconcile a unified policy agenda with the far more varied areas of the country it is seeking to represent. How does Labour appeal to working-class people in our deindustrialised heartlands and to metropolitan liberals? It was our failure to square this circle that arguably cost Ed Miliband’s Labour the 2015 General Election.
As Tom Watson argued so forcefully in his speech to Labour conference in September, the answer lies in local government, where Labour is comfortably the biggest party. Labour needs to make its councillors, mayors and metro mayors not merely the foot-soldiers, but some of the leaders, of the movement. The PLP must provide robust opposition in Parliament, but to truly recover across the country, Labour needs to focus far more of its national campaigning strategy on local issues.
This is, after all, how the Liberal Democrats, after years of relentless local campaigning, managed to mangle their way into coalition, despite lacking a message that appealed across the country. The long march back to power will not be successful if Labour is only a talking shop. Our 600,000 members must urgently be mobilised to become the true party of local government and local campaigning. The grammar schools campaign led by Angela Rayner is perhaps a start, although we will need to find causes that appeal outside of London.
We need 1,000 such campaigns across the country in the next few years before Labour can even dream of a return to power.