52 days on from Brexit (given that was the percentage of the country that voted to leave the EU), I decided to take stock of the political situation we find ourselves in. It screams of danger.
In an age of divide and dismay, there lies a vacuum that the left just cannot fill. Britain’s right-wing has captured the populist narrative, taking the socioeconomic problems of the state and whipping them up into the ills of the nation, a xenophobic barista of sorts. On June 23rd, much of Britain found solace in isolation, a vague yet deep-seated distrust of the establishment ultimately packaged as a presentable economic alternative through a “Brexit”, also aligned with a distrust of fellow humans who come from lands abroad. It has recently emerged that in areas that voted to leave, hate crimes have trebled relative to a year ago, underlining the scale of the malaise that is gripping our society with a vice-like crush.
Whilst distaste towards minority groups has been ever-present in Britain, its imposition of seismic change upon the UK’s political operations through something like Brexit is unprecedented in modern times. UKIP, once branded “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” by David Cameron, the man now disposed of at the bottom of the political cliff, have become a party more relevant in political discourse than Labour and the Liberal Democrats, relaunching a narrative of Euroscepticism previously lurking on the fringes of political thought and torpedoing world markets into disarray with their ultimate goal realised.
The rise of the right
The polarisation of politics is not limited to Britain- natives of Austria, Poland and Hungary will attest to the power of right-wing populism, a force that has delivered anti-immigration governments in the latter two and has a stab at installing a third in a re-election later this year. In France and Germany, the FN and AfD smell blood with elections round the corner, and the fervent Islamophobe Geert Wilders’ PVV party has polled well enough to likely be able to form part of the next Dutch government in 2017.
None of this shatters the earth with any element of surprise- the right is marching on throughout Europe, with varying degrees of success. In a recent Europe-wide survey, 56% of respondents said their respective countries should look after their own interests and let other states “deal with their own problems”. Polling of people’s views on Islam is similarly worrying, with the majority of EU member states displaying sizable increases in anti-Muslim sentiment in the past year.
Britain, whilst not currently under electoral siege from parties spewing the violent rhetoric of the right, possesses many of the anti-immigrant traits the likes of Hungary and Austria appear to contain. It is recorded as having one of the most concerned populaces when it comes to the “threat” of refugees, with the second-highest polarity between the left and right in viewing refugees with suspicion. Under a more democratic electoral system, UKIP would have won 83 seats. Unscientifically, but concerning nonetheless, social media points to an undertone of hatred, with the online spearhead of the racist right, Britain First, clocking up close to 1.5m Facebook likes.
The right has the agenda and the momentum in this country. What can only add to these concerns is the struggle faced by anti-austerity, pro-integration parties in what could be considered fertile territory for such stances in Spain and Greece. Spain’s socialist Unidos-Podemos coalition was widely expected to compete to form a government in elections earlier this year, but actually lost support compared to a previous ballot in December, coming in third with 21% of the vote. What was a movement of positivity and hope became a major disappointment, securing little over half the parliamentary seats of the centre-right, pro-austerity Partido Popular. In Greece, despite returning a healthy 35.5% vote in December’s elections, Syriza has polled behind the conservative New Democracy party consistently throughout this year, with PM Alexis Tsipras distrusted by 75% of the population as his anti-austerity agenda continues to stall.
Labour’s prospects are bleak
If we look at England, the signs for the left are not good. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is the closest thing the country has to a mainstream, left-leaning social movement like that of Podemos, and is currently polling at 28%, a level low enough to ensure electoral annihilation previously unseen by many of Corbyn’s often young, ardent supporters. If Labour fights an election in 2020, a vicious tandem of the public’s voting intentions and changes to the electoral boundaries suggest a haemorrhage of up to 50 seats, a result that would consign Labour to its lowest ebb since 1935.
The numbers don’t stop there. A YouGov poll conducted last month showed just 18% of people think that Corbyn would make a better Prime Minister than May. 15% of the public trust McDonnell and Corbyn to run the economy better than Philip Hammond and the current Prime Minister. Miliband was, at the same stage in the election cycle, 4-6% ahead of Cameron in 2011. Corbyn is currently 14% behind May.
All of this is likely to lead to serious problems for Labour down the line. Should UKIP emerge from their current mess with a leader more capable than the limited Farage at turning their attraction of the disaffected into seats, it could spell danger for Labour in regions that were previously proverbial monkey-with-a-red-rosette territory. If Labour continues to appeal solely to its base it risks becoming a political endemism of Britain’s booming urban areas like Bristol, Manchester and London. A perceived neglect by the PLP of its constituents has already contributed to the bleeding of 40 previously safe seats in Scotland, emphasising the dangers that lie ahead south of Hadrian’s Wall.
But this is all mere conjecture compared to the immediacy of the left’s, and working Britain’s, current problem- the Conservatives are, saving for a surprise refusal to trigger Article 50, leading the country into a series of global talks more important than any for a generation. These discussions will give birth to deals on global trade, movement of peoples, worker’s rights, infrastructure, conjoined government initiatives and more. To those of us who watched on with suspicion as Theresa May inauspiciously proclaimed that it was her party that was to “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”, this is a time like no other. The Conservatives are, if their lead over Labour remains this high and their actions left unchallenged, to weld the country into whatever form they please.
Holding the government to account
Looking at May’s shadow cabinet is ominous. The Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox has a personal, suspiciously close relationship with the leadership of Azerbaijan, a regime that incidentally has one of the worst human rights records on the planet. Boris Johnson, the person that now represents the British public abroad, has amongst less serious gaffes (such as rugby tackling a small child) claimed colonialism benefitted Africa, referred to people subjected to British rule as “flag-waving piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, cited Obama’s Kenyan ancestry as clouding his judgement on British foreign policy and presided over racist publications when editor of the Spectator. Andrea Leadsom, the person who asked whether climate change is real when starting her job in the Department of Energy, is now our Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Leadsom has previously proposed removing all business regulations for small start-ups. Chancellor Philip Hammond described the legalisation of same-sex marriage as “damaging”. I could go on.
The importance of a left-leaning voice in these negotiations cannot be understated. Save for the small percentage of the electorate who are “loyal” Conservatives (estimated to be about 6.5m people in 2014), the vast majority need a more balanced approach than what the Tories will offer as we stumble upon the most delicate of political moments. Allowing the right to set the agenda for our departure from the EU could lead to a ruthless undermining of labour laws, a watered-down Human Rights Bill and, perhaps most importantly, a disentanglement with continental commitments to ecological legislation.
The Conservatives have an appalling record on the environment in particular. David Cameron ridded his ill-fated government of about a dozen green initiatives, such as the £1bn Carbon Capture and Storage competition. Indeed, it is often the EU that has set standards for UK environmental policy, with the EU Industrial Emissions Directive and Integrated Pollution Prevention & Control (IPPC) regime being prime examples. A regulation-wary, climate-sceptic cabinet could very well pursue the “cutting red tape” route at a huge cost to our air, water and earth. The environmental law organisation ClientEarth took the government to high court this spring over an inability to meet legal commitments to reducing air pollution which kills tens of thousands every year. A government such as this should not be allowed to decide the direction of Britain’s green legislative agenda free of both EU regulations and a strong opposition in the House of Commons.
What next for the left?
A period of clarity would be nice. Aside from Labour, the Green Party are waging a rather milder leadership election with an election result due at their conference at the beginning of September. A coherent voice from the Greens on our post-Brexit environmental future will be welcome given the mess that Labour are in. The Liberal Democrats have spent a year quietly rebuilding in the aftermath of the destruction that was the 2015 election and, under Tim Farron, can be expected to throw what’s left of their weight into the zeitgeist on matters such as immigration policy, legal reform and the refugee crisis.
And as for Labour, they are at a crossroads with terrible timing. Brexit could very well lead to an economic slump, with 88% of experts saying a long-term fall in GDP is likely. The majority of the 88% say a “substantial” impact is probable, surely setting off alarm bells as to what to expect. The potential for another recession and all the misery it would cause is reason enough for a party that was relatively united for about two decades to exert what pressure it can muster on the government to not impose another period of austerity. The mere thought of this government adding to the nearly 4m children currently living in poverty in this country is surely sufficient to enact great cohesion.
Internal splits are ravaging Labour to its core. The court’s ruling on the NEC’s decision to be able to exclude the 125,000 or so members who signed up since January 12th from voting next month does have a sense unfairness rooted to its being, but this process must end soon. There are those in the party who are relishing this battle with the other side of the floor, but whilst insults are traded online and in the media the Labour ship is sinking, and fast. Relentless opposition to draconian measures can work. Owen Smith and John McDonnell’s spearheading of the anti-welfare cuts campaign was imperative in Osborne’s relinquishment of what was to be a cruel, unfair act of scant necessity. So why cease this work now?
Indeed, one could ask whether life imitates politics or politics imitates life. Are the posters proclaiming Old Blighty to be at “BREAKING POINT” indicative of society’s views, or do they lead us in our disdain? The weeks since the referendum result, with hate crimes soaring, have been an awful indicator of where we are as a country. It is hard to not partially credit this to the utter weakness the left has displayed in combating the isolationist agenda, with self-immolation a seemingly greater priority for its mainstay in Labour than providing a coherent voice in tumultuous times.
52 days on, there is a fork in the road. Brexit is to provide us with an opportunity to change segments of the country that need it. But if politics takes the route it has inimically embarked upon for years, the underclass rapidly taking shape in Britain will be the last priority. The unemployed, underworked and working poor, as well as the children that are raised in such environments, will need a representative voice on matters such as the economy and living standards sooner rather than later. Or you could fear for their futures, much like you could fear for this planet as our grip on the path to a sustainable economy loosens.
The left has a responsibility to be strong. Until it heeds this, it fails as an entity.