Labour does not need to support a hard Brexit in order to recast itself as a nation-building party, argues Christabel Cooper. This article is part of The Labour Interest series.
Anyone seeking an explanation for Britain’s vote to leave the European Union without reference to culture and identity is on a hiding to nothing. So when Jonathan Rutherford states that ‘culture shapes the political’ and attributes Labour’s current predicament to the party’s failure to grasp this, he is absolutely right. Nevertheless his conclusion that Labour needs to embrace a hard version of Brexit in order to demonstrate that we are now in tune with the British people, is flawed.
Rutherford sees Britain’s membership of the EU as the embodiment of the elite belief that our nation is incapable of standing on its own two feet; a belief that ordinary people rejected in the referendum. If this was the case, then by enthusiastically supporting Britain’s destiny as an ‘independent trading nation’, Labour has the opportunity to turn around the perception that we have a lack of faith in Britain. But the idea that any country can have total control over its own destiny while maintaining economic and political relationships with other nations is a piece of Brexiteer fantasy. All relationships involve compromise and the ability to give something up in order to achieve a positive result overall is a sign of mature self-confidence, not of weakness.
This should have been part of a patriotic and optimistic case for staying in the EU, which the official Remain campaign largely failed to articulate. But there is still a patriotic and optimistic case for post-Brexit Britain maintaining a close relationship with its largest trading partner – and Labour should be making it. In doing so, we must be clear that we are motivated not by a stubborn metropolitan attachment to a European ideal or a lack of belief in our country, but by the desire to do the best for ordinary British working people.
This will not be easy; Rutherford is right that in the minds of many voters, the Labour party has become disconnected from the labour interest. Labour’s policies in government did a huge amount of material good for working people. However low unemployment and rising wages disguised a growing lack of security and dignity among workers that was finally laid bare by the 2008 global financial crisis. Yet Brexit offers no opportunity to make this better. Even if Britain were to completely ‘take back control’ of its borders and throw every unskilled EU migrant out of the country, this would not create a single well-paid, secure and fulfilling job for a British person. Only serious investment in education and skills to raise productivity allied to a coherent industrial strategy will achieve this.
Meanwhile, Rutherford’s claims that Brexit foretells the death of social liberalism is exaggerated. A recent YouGov survey found that 52 per cent of Britons hold broadly liberal views and in the long run, this percentage will likely increase given that social attitudes generally become less conservative over time. We need to invest more in building a cohesive sense of nation and community, but liberalism is not incompatible with this aim, and it is difficult to see how we can build a unifying vision of nationhood that excludes the views of half of its citizens.
Labour can only win a general election with the support of a coalition of voters that includes Leavers and Remainers, and encompasses a range of social attitudes. What will unite such a diverse group is the belief that the challenges of globalisation and automation are best dealt with by an active, interventionist government, which has a strong sense of belief and pride in Britain and its people, but is not afraid to compromise in order to secure the best possible future for our country. This is in contrast to the shouty, defensive nationalism that the Tories and the United Kingdom Independence party are offering as a substitute for government action. Labour must ‘recast itself as a nation builder for the labour interest’ as Rutherford says, but it does not need to support hard Brexit to do so.
Christabel Cooper is a member of the Progress strategy board. She tweets at @ChristabelCoops
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.