U.K. Progressives: Is There an Opportunity in the Wake of Brexit?

Nikhil Venkatesh


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LONDON -- The results of the referendum opting to leave the European Union (EU) have left many of us on the pro-European left in Britain in despair. With good reason: xenophobic politics has asserted itself, economic troubles await, and a fractured society has been revealed.


But while the Labour Party tears itself apart, with a challenge to its far-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, there are some real positives to take from what happened on Thursday.


There is still a chance that Britain might not leave the EU. Article 50 notification, the official start of the withdrawal process, has not happened, and will not happen until the autumn at the earliest. Once it does, Britain and our European neighbors then have to come to agreements on the status of Brits abroad and Europeans in the United Kingdom, about contributions to the EU budget, and so on.


In addition, a new agreement will have to be drawn up to replace the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland (which is predicated on Britain and Ireland being members of the EU). Then the British government would have to copy-and-paste the bits of EU law it wants to keep into British law, and the Scottish Parliament will have to be consulted on the repeal of European laws in Scotland.


Referendums in both Northern Ireland and Scotland, of course, may be on the cards.


Then, we have to strike a new trade deal with the EU. Trade deals, which may include negotiations over free movement, take a very long time. It may be several years before all these issues are resolved.


By this time much will have changed. Both the ruling Conservatives and Labour will have new leaders, new political issues will have arisen, and a general election may indicate that the electorate has changed its mind about Brexit.


Yet even if we do leave, there are positives for the left. The British government would be free to nationalize and/or give state aid to UK industry, to pursue an immigration policy that doesn't discriminate against non-Europeans, and to strengthen protection for workers beyond what EU law allows.


These are the reasons a lot of left-wingers, including Jeremy Corbyn and his comrades on the Labour far-left, have traditionally been Eurosceptic. Of course, a post-Brexit Conservative government would be free to go the other way on workers’ rights, state intervention, and racist immigration policy.


That's why I voted to remain. But if we believe a left-wing government is possible, its hands would be freer, after Brexit, to pursue progressive policies.


Nevertheless, the referendum has unleashed some important – and dangerous – political forces, one of which is an emboldening of racists and xenophobes in Britain.



One of the major motivations for the referendum and the vote to leave the EU was an antipathy toward immigrants. Just days before the vote, in fact, Labour MP Jo Cox was brutally assassinated. The suspect has neo-Nazi links and gave his name in court as “freedom for Britain, death to traitors.”


European immigrants in the UK, mainly Polish and Romanian, can hardly feel welcomed these days by the British electorate.


Black and Asian Britons, meanwhile, whose migration to the UK had nothing to do with the EU and everything to do with the British Empire, clearly associate Brexit with racism. While 53 percent of whites voted for Brexit, only 33 percent of Asians and 27 percent of black voters did.


There have been reports of black and brown Britons being told, “you’re next,” a reference to the idea that having left the EU, Britain could expel anyone deemed “foreign.” (Of course many of these communities were the targets of racism long before the referendum.)


Despite these horrifying trends, there are others produced by the referendum that could be positive, from a progressive point of view.


Turnout, particularly in poorer areas, has increased (though poorer white voters were more likely to opt for Brexit). Many young people have been politicized, and they overwhelmingly voted remain and are relatively favorable to Labour. Harnessing these forces for electoral gain is paramount.


Finally, recall the 2015 General Election. Why did Labour lose? Partly low turnout among the poor and young. Partly, we are told, because people who were instinctively favorable to Labour values feared for their own wallets, for national security and unity, and ended up voting Conservative.


A 'Project Fear' told these people that a vote for Labour was a vote for higher taxes, economic chaos, and Scottish independence (Scotland at the time was preparing a referendum of its own on whether to leave the UK. It chose to remain.) Big businesses came out against the Labour party, fearing increased trade union rights, a clampdown on tax avoidance, and lower profit margins. Labour just seemed too much of a risk.


But in the referendum, a majority of the country voted for the risky option. Some of the leave voters are out-and-out racists. Some are reactionaries voting against the modern world. Others felt the economy was stacked against them, that the elite weren't listening to them, and that they were bound by forces outside their control.


Indeed, many leave voters suspected that Brexit, at least in the short term, would make them worse off. It was certainly a leap into the unknown. They voted against the economic consensus, against the urging of their Conservative Prime Minister, and against what their bosses told them to do.


The lesson is clear: Getting people to vote for radical change is possible – even if this time around it wasn't the radical change most of us on the left wanted.


Author Bio:


Nikhil Venkatesh lives in the UK and is a member of the Labour Party. He recently completed a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford, where he was Chair of Oxford University Labour Club and Black and Minority Ethnic Students Officer for the student union. Nikhil will begin a postgraduate degree in Philosophy at University College London in September. He blogs at http://slownikhil.blogspot.co.uk/ and @NikVenkatesh on Twitter.


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