Today, 4 March, sees the launch of , the British Left Brexit tour organised by Labour Leave, Trade Unionists Against the EU, the European Research Network on Social and Economic Policy, Polity Books, and The Full Brexit.
George Hoare is a member of The Full Brexit. He is a mental health researcher based in London. He received a doctorate in political theory from Nuffield College, Oxford and has taught at Hertford College, Oxford and Leiden University College.
With five dates across the country, the tour aims to spread arguments critical to the EU from a Left perspective that have received little coverage in the British media. The tour is also a chance to link Brexit to arguments about the necessity of a deeper democratic renewal of British politics. A key speaker at each event is economist and former Syriza member Professor Costas Lapavitsas, who will speaking about his book The Left Case Against the EU (videos of the events will be available on The Full Brexit’s Facebook page).
The tour is a much-needed statement of the Left case against for Brexit and against the EU, and links to The Full Brexit’s wider aim to put forward an intellectually robust, truly internationalist Leftist analysis of the EU and contemporary European politics. The Full Brexit is a group of activists, academics, journalists, and policy experts who came together in July 2018 to respond to the absence of arguments from the broad political Left defending Brexit. As a group rather than a political party, we do not have a shared set of positions on every issue. Instead, one of our central aims has been to develop a common framework for analysing Brexit and contemporary British politics. To this end, our website includes both analysis of the current moment (such as the debate around a possible Second Referendum or the analogies between the EU and Empire) and more concrete proposals to specific issues (such as to grant all EU nationals resident in Britain British citizenship, around the Irish Border, or how to structure a Federal Constitution).
The debate over Brexit since Britain voted to Leave the EU in June 2016 has had a number of distinctive characteristics. First, there has been a focus on technical problems and questions, especially the trade deals that Britain may or may not be able to secure with or outside the EU. There has been relatively little theoretical analysis of the EU as a political or economic institution, even from the Left. Second, throughout the Brexit debate the British Left has been almost completely pro-EU. Whether or not this is the right position for the Left to take, it represents an extraordinary dimunition of the Eurosceptic tradition in the British Labour Party that previously could count Tony Benn, Peter Shore, Barbara Castle, and Jeremy Corbyn among its leading exponents. Third, after poisonous campaigns – featuring dog-whistle racist signalling from Leave and little beyond Project Fear and moral hectoring from Remain – the debate has remained very fractitious. The Remain stereotype characterises Leaver voters as Little Englanders, xenophobic and nostalgic for Empire. Many Leave supporters in turn often portray Remainers as out of touch, elitist and snobbish. Little productive discussion can be had from these starting points.
In this context, the aim of The Full Brexit has been to supply the British Left with some of the intellectual tools to engage in a deeper and hopefully more productive debate on the EU and its relation to the goals of transformative political projects. Three of these tools, which contribute towards what we might call a “political theory of Brexit” that The Full Brexit have been developing, are an account of the changing structural bases of British politics, an understanding of the effects of EU membership on British politics, and an analysis of the current political situation as determined by these deeper factors.
One of the central planks in our political theory of Brexit, then, is a longer-term analysis of representative politics across the continent. Drawing on Peter Mair’s Ruling The Void (London, Verso: 2013), we argue that one of the defining characteristics of Western European politics since the 1970s has been a striking decline in voter turnout rates, party membership rates, and trade union membership rates. Taken together, these transformations in the structural bases of electoral and party politics have had a deep impact on the status of representative politics within Western European societies. Central to this change has been the creation of a vast divide between voters and politicians. As mass participation in politics has declined, the political class has been forced to look elsewhere for legitimacy. At the same time, notions of democratic accountability and political representation have become harder for analysts and the political class to understand as they have become less rooted in material reality.
It is in this context that Britain’s membership of the EU must be placed. In his work, The Full Brexit founding member Chris Bickerton argues that EU integration is best understood as a process state transformation. From this perspective, the EU is not a neutral institution, but rather has a profound effect on the domestic democratic politics of member states. Centrally, the EU comes to stand in as a source of legitimacy for political decisions made by political elites who cannot attract mass support for their policies domestically. It also stands as an arena of consensual decision making for politicians, further downplaying the importance of ideological, party-organised democratic political conflict. These and other specifically political impacts of EU membership signal a transition among members of the EU from nation states to “member states”.
The “politics of the void” and “member state theory” together offer a framework for analysing contemporary British parliamentary politics. Although divisions with British politics exist, with both the Labour Party and the Conservatives deeply divided over the issue of Brexit, they do not fully explain the parliamentary chaos we have witnessed since June 2016. The explanation for the inability of the British political class to solve the political problem posed by the referendum result – an inability that has manifested itself as a lack of leadership, an unwillingness to take responsibility for political decisions, and a strong desire to throw the problem back to the electorate for solution – is ultimately to be found in the weakness of representative institutions. In particular, contemporary British politics is defined by an absence of an operative notion of accountability. Among the many illustrations of this, the Independent Group not standing in by-elections after leaving the parties whose platforms they were elected on, and Labour seeming to support a Second Referendum despite committing to respecting the referendum result in their 2017 manifesto, are two recent clear examples.
The present situation in Britain is potentially extremely dangerous for the Left. In the absence of widespread Left Leave arguments, the Labour party seems to have tackled behind a Second Referendum and is in a perilious position with respect to its Leave voting supporters. A Second Referendum, aside from any democratic objections that might be raised, could very realistically lead to a Right populist upsurge, as it would provide ammunition for anyone arguing that the British poltical class are not interested in the electorate’s instructions unless they happen to agree with them. Transforming Britain After Brexit aims to bolster the Left case against the EU and in defence of Brexit, and so to take a step towards a deeper renewal of democracy that British politics so desperately needs.