If our nation was an illusion, now we have to build one

For many, the shock of Brexit is still sinking in. Many Remainers are reacting, understandably, with a deep sense of loss, in which calls for a second referendum look more like denial in the early stages of bereavement than a credible political option. Even some who voted Leave now seem understandably disorientated by the sweeping forces of change that are being unleashed.

Perhaps one of the deepest shocks is the recognition that many middle-class progressives’ sense of security in their national home has been illusory. The idea that most people in Britain (or at least the ones that mattered) shared the same values and felt at ease in a globalised, cosmopolitan world has been shattered. We have been shown to be a deeply divided nation – or now more accurately a divided union of nations – in which the anger and resentment of those who have felt excluded by social change has now struck a profound blow to a political system in which they felt they had little stake. This shock is genuinely frightening, raising fundamental questions about the society that we are becoming.

If a progressive assumption about a national community has now been shattered, what is left in its wake is the political project of our generation. If our sense of nationhood has been shown to be an illusion, our task is nothing less than building a new nation.

It is essential that we now find political leadership that is up to this challenge. Whilst the scale of the task ahead is still unfolding, guiding principles for it can be found.

A first is that the country must more strongly be grounded in principles of equality. The Brexit vote has shown that no political system can thrive in which a substantial part of the population feel they are struggling to get the basic resources of a good life – work and a decent wage and home – and have little prospect of making their lives better. A real national community in which those who are more comfortably off are indifferent to such inequalities is not possible.

A second is that we must cultivate a politics of care – for each other, our traditions, our communities and our environment. The progressive embrace of social change must be tempered with the recognition of the need to preserve and cherish that which is good in our communities’ past and present.

A third is that as we begin to establish a new sense of national identity, the vicious racist sentiments that some people have felt emboldened to utter again in public must be shunned as poisonous to our collective life. Our nation has within it deep currents of decency and tolerance, and those who pollute those by abusing others on the basis of their ethnicity, religion or nationality must never be allowed to think that they speak for our country.

A fourth is that we must never lose sight of the importance of serious engagement with our common political life. If the Brexit vote has done anything, it has surely put an end to the myth that politics, and voting, never changes anything. If young people have not voted in sufficient numbers to bring about the Remain victory in which most of them believed, this will hopefully be the moment of recognition that the costs of political disengagement are too high. We need to continue to find ways of engaging people in public debate, whilst resisting the populism that rejects informed and well-evidenced argument in favour of the quick appeals of celebrity and rhetoric.

How we do this – even the party political structures and coalitions through which we do this – are still to be determined. But we need to move quickly beyond disorientation and despair to try to find new confidence in our ability to build a new national home for us all.

Labour’s moment of truth

As the implications of the EU referendum result begin to sink in, one of these must surely be the urgency of addressing the current leadership and direction of the Labour Party. I started this blog a while ago because of the growing evidence that Labour was ceasing to be an effective party of national government, increasingly appealing mainly to metropolitan voters and losing touch with its traditional working-class base. That last night’s result confirmed all of these things should not be a surprise. It merely told us what was already clear from the 2015 General Election.

I have said before that Labour’s challenges are wider and deeper than purely a question of leadership. But there is now no doubt that the current leadership represent a major impediment to the progress that the party needs to make. The issue of the free movement of labour has clearly played a crucial role in the Leave victory, which again is of little surprise given that issues of immigration have been identified as a key concern for many voters for a number of years. These concerns unquestionably, at times, take racist forms and one of the many deeply unpleasant facets of Nigel Farage’s campaigning is his willingness to play to this to suit his own ends. But concerns about free movement can also touch on anxieties about social mobility, the depression of wages for low-skilled jobs, pressures on infrastructure and questions of national identity. These required thoughtful and robust responses, including the willingness to press the EU to reform or mitigate the principle of free movement where this was clearly needed. The reported refusal of the current Labour leadership to include any mention of free movement within its national campaign leaflet, against the appeals of many Labour MPs, was indicative of a wider refusal to engage with this issue that has contributed to a large extent in losing Labour heartlands to Brexit.

The defensiveness of the current leadership gives no hope for serious reflection about this. In the media script sent to Labour MPs in the face of the impending Brexit vote, the Party’s existing policy on free movement is simply re-stated. The claim that Jeremy Corbyn is closest to the position of most British voters in the referendum ignores his basic failure to win over enough current and former Labour supporters to the Remain side. Some claim that his position is tenable given that the 69% (Remain)/ 31% (Brexit) split amongst Labour supporters was not significantly different to the split in vote amongst Liberal Democrat supporters. But this ignores the fact that Labour has already been haemorrhaging voters to UKIP for a number of years and Jeremy Corbyn has done nothing to reverse this process.

The issue of free movement is an emblem of the leadership’s unwillingness to engage with issues that concern voters but which fall outside of its narrow ideological comfort zone. It is traditional, in recent times, for anxieties about Labour’s leadership to lead to calls to pull together for the sake of party unity. This is not the time to heed those calls. Jeremy Corbyn has led a Remain campaign which has resulted in catastrophic defeat and will bring defeat again if he is allowed to lead the Party into an imminent General Election.

The demographics of the Party mean that a leadership challenge to him may well result in his re-election. But in good conscience, an attempt to move the Party in a new direction must be made now, and if it fails then perhaps this will just be another stage in the restructuring of progressive party politics in the coming years.

This is a moment of truth for the Labour Party and its fate depends on how willing its MPs are in the coming hours and days to face the difficult choices that have to be made.