Outside the Supreme Court in London stood two groups: the Brexiters and the Remainers. They were positioned on opposite sides of the court entrance, and supposedly, on opposite sides of the political spectrum.
“Brexit is racist,” claimed one group. The other chanted: “The people have spoken.” Although they disagree on the definition of sovereignty, these groups have more in common than they acknowledge. But the wide social schisms across the country leave Labour’s route to regaining support an open question.
52% of voters wanted to Leave the EU and 48% voted Remain. The divide over Brexit doesn’t bode well for the electoral prospects of any political party. Andy Newman, Secretary of the Labour Party constituency of Chippenham, is well aware of the difficult electoral conditions.
Newman told the Leveller: “The country voted to leave, and the Labour Party believes that the vote must be respected. If the vote is disregarded, as some argue for, that would create a crisis of confidence in our democracy.”
Around 13% below the Conservatives in the polls, Labour are further behind than they have been since the 2015 election. But Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott claimed that Labour will be able to catch up with the government in 12 months.
Some, like Geraint Davies MP, argue that a second referendum is the answer. Davies said that another vote “should and will happen.” Others, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, have stated that they support triggering Article 50. This poses a conundrum for the Left: the difficulty of making a case for Labour rule without a consensus within their own party.
A report for the Fabian Society found that Labour has lost a huge proportion of working class backing. Last week, talking to the London Labour Students, SOAS Economics lecturer and ex-Syriza MP Costas Lapavitsas lamented that the Left did not talk to working class people enough during the referendum, contributing the their loss in support. “The Left was absent or much of the Left wasn’t there.”
Instead, he said, UKIP and Conservative politicians engaged more with working class voters. “The Right adopted the language of debt, went to working class areas and elsewhere, spoke to the working classes about no jobs, no future, no income, class conditions, and sovereignty.” Labour, he feels, must work hard to regain support from working class people whose economic needs have been ignored and misunderstood.
Rather than clawing at the possibility of a second referendum, Lapavitsas argued the party should collectively accept the Brexit vote and shape it in the interests of working people. He suggested that by leaving the EU and returning sovereignty to Britain, the country will be able to shake off the controls imposed upon them from Brussels.
Lapavitsas added: “we need to say boldly, ‘control the market, control big business, control big capital.’ With more democracy and popular sovereignty, with command over the areas where we live, with welfare, schooling and everything else, then see whether populism won’t work, see what happens with the votes.”
Brexiters would agree that sovereignty is a major reason to leave the EU – though constitutional experts have wondered why they don’t regard a vote in parliament as an expression of sovereignty. Leave supporters held a demonstration outside Parliament protesting the Supreme Court hearing on whether Parliament has the right to determine how Article 50 will be triggered.
Hugh Dawson, a protester from Bath said: “we have to have our own sovereignty. We have to have our own laws.” For him this was the main reason for leaving the EU. Likewise, another protester, Amoree Radford from near Bristol said: “It’s all to do with the supreme court, which isn’t supreme because the EU courts overrule all our courts and this is the point we are trying to make.”
UKIP councillor and parliamentary candidate Diana Coad was also at the protest. She said: “our sovereignty, the right of the government of this country to make our laws and to govern the people of this country: that is the main issue for me.” UKIP has been unable to quell accusations from anti-racist campaigners that their Brexit platform is based on xenophobic entitlement rather than a specific notion of sovereignty.
Lapavitsas suggested the Left might benefit from adopting the Brexiter stance on self-governance. He proposed that Labour should discuss the effects of austerity to promote Euroscepticism. For left wing Leave supporters like Lapavitsas, Brexit would be an opportunity to undo the damage caused by spending cuts to public services. “We need to lift austerity. We need a program of public spending that will provide for people to keep the economy going,” he said.
Coad described several social problems that the left attributes to austerity: “a friend of mine had to go to the hospital the night before last, to the local hospital and they turned him away because there was no room in the hospital, no room in A&E. He was sent up to Charing Cross hospital in London. What’s going on? Everything is crumbling. We can’t cope.”
But like many Leave voters, Coad remains unwilling to tie these problems to spending cuts. They think migrants are to blame. “We’re trying to put more and more people in what is actually a very small, densely populated island,” she said. “We need a moratorium on immigration so that we can rebuild, get our services up to scratch, build enough housing for people.”
In his talk Lapavitsas acknowledged concerns about migration: “I was very struck by my brother in law who voted for Brexit. I asked him why he voted for Brexit and he said: ‘Because when I go to the local GP because my wife has hurt her leg, there are 20 people waiting and 15 of them are Portuguese.’”
Lapavitsas’ answer to the hostility towards migrants was to steer public debate away from immigration. “Open borders? Is that the serious response of the left?” He suggests shifting the narrative focus instead to plan for how the left can win back support by drawing on working class anger at the everyday effects of austerity, and proposes that the left should offer better provision of services, health care and welfare, with stronger wage protections and rights to employment.
But crucially, Lapavitsas urged the left to speak to working people in terms of “concrete, specific arguments,” adding: “you can’t just generalize about austerity. Most people would understand what austerity means in connection with the NHS, for instance. Then they will see that austerity is a problem because we’ve had austerity for six years in this country.”
He closed his talk with a plea: “I hope you believe me, because that’s where the new ideas will come from.” The left’s task of soothing the seemingly irreconcilable rupture between Leavers and Remainers appears intractable. But Lapavitsas is optimistic that this can be done. “There are large blocs of working class people who voted Leave and large blocks of working class people in London who voted Remain. We need to start from their own specific class interests; jobs and prospects for their children.”
The two demonstrations outside the Supreme Court clearly embodied the problem Brexit poses to the left: two spheres that appear entirely opposed to one another. If Lapavitsas is right, the left may have to collectively embrace Brexit to move forward. And if Labour accepts that premise, they will have a lot of convincing to do.
Image: Zoi Koraki