If Brexit goes ahead, say goodbye to radical redistribution

by Chris Bertram on December 29, 2018

Here were are, at the edge of the Brexit precipice, and I find myself disagreeing with friends about Jeremy Corbyn and his attitude towards it. It is surprising that, with three months to go, we don’t actually know what that attitude is. Some people think he’s playing a long game, or a super-clever n-dimensional chess match aimed at keeping Labour voters in the north of England who backed Leave on-side. Some think he’s just reiterating Labour Party policy (to push for a general election, but keep a second vote on the table as a possibility). Others think he was a closet Brexiter all along. My own view is that we have less than 100 days to stop this thing, that the time for keeping your powder dry until you see the whites of their eyes etc has passed, and that passionate Remainers need some signal, at a minimum, to keep them voting Labour and that if they don’t get it, then Corbyn’s prospects of leading a radical Labour government are gone: they will defect to Lib Dems, Greens, Nats or (a few) even to the Tories if Labour doesn’t reposition on Brexit.

In fact, I think the Tories (or maybe right-wing anti-redistributionist politics more generally) will do rather well out of Brexit – if it goes ahead – and it will be the end of Labour. The reason why exposes a contradiction in the position of those on “the left” who have positioned themselves as pro-Brexit, or not-really-arsed-about-Brexit, together with the people who sometimes refer to themselves as “left” but clearly aren’t (Goodhart et al). I’m thinking of all those who make a big deal about “left-behinds”, “somewheres v anywheres” and “(white) working-class community”. For these people, the vote to Brexit was a spasm of pain from those who had been too-long been ignored by the “liberal elite”. To be sure (at least now) Brexit might come with an economic hit, perhaps of 4 per cent of GDP, but the redistributionist capacities of the state are still intact and we can do something about Britain’s very real social problems (170,000 homeless households) and make the UK a more inclusive and equal society, even by the economic envelope Brexit leaves us with. Besides, a second referendum, needed to give remaining in the EU any democratic legitimacy, would be a nasty and xenophobic affair, sure to sow division and hatred.

Here’s where that goes badly wrong. A redistributionist politics needs the support of millions of middle-class “liberal” Remain voters to succeed. What those who say we’ll-take-the-hit-and-redistribute are asking us to imagine is that those people will, *in sufficient numbers*, support redistribution to those whom they identify as having, by voting for Brexit, just made them and their families worse off. Not going to happen. A staple of Blue Labour/Goodhartian thought is that immigration and increasing ethnic diversity has made it hard to sustain social trust and that this risks undermining support for welfare-state institutions. The thought is that people need to be committed to the idea of an inclusive national community if they are going to be motivated to make sacrifices on behalf of others in the form of economic transfers: they won’t stump up for people who are too unlike themselves. But by fighting a culture-war against immigration and the “liberal elite” in order to secure Brexit, those Blue Labour types have succeeded in destroying the illusion of an inclusive national community. They have produced two hostile camps, ranged against one another, who will be unwilling to make the payments those very leftists think are necessary.

I confess that I myself have had some ugly thoughts as a result of the Brexit experience: why should I pay taxes to bail out a bunch of racist idiots in Sunderland or Stoke? What do I care if some elderly xenophobe can’t find a nurse or a doctor because too few EU nationals have stayed to look after the people who voted to take their rights away? Usually, I put away such thoughts: the homeless in the doorways of our major cities provide urgent enough reason for a redistributive and reconstructive politics. But enough people will stick with their anger and resentment against Brexit for disaffected Remainers to be electorally significant. There will be no healing of the division, no national coming-together. Corbynite tweeters will rail against the selfishness of middle-class people who won’t vote Labour any more. Maybe they’ll have a point. But the fact is they need the targets of their anger to vote with them rather than for an individualistic set of policies that abandon the worst off. The future looks surprisingly bright for people like George Osborne and the Orange Book Liberals, and the left has stuffed itself, again.