Our country faces an existential challenge far deeper than the immediate issues in the current Brexit debate. Every corner you turn in Parliament at the moment are people having conversations about immediate challenges of Brexit. But that debate is far from what it needs to be. If the Brexit story is to deliver any benefit at all, it has to start with renewed focus on the deeper causes of Brexit, and our journey to address them.
The absence of a proper debate that also engages and informs the public has been a characteristic of the post-referendum period where the debate has continued down the fault lines set by the referendum campaigns.
Whilst the Leave campaign have been successfully challenged on substance (£350bn for the NHS, easiest trade deal in history etc) – they have certainly won on emotion and narrative. The story they told about our nation travelled and resonated across the country. The most powerful words in politics – “take back control” has still yet to be properly understood. It needs to be and to be understood by the left. Until we do so, and own this emotionally as well as in policy, we will struggle to unite across the fault line between leavers and remainers which continues to persist.
At the heart of this has to be an analysis of power and where it lies, and of its counterpart – powerlessness. Just a quick canter through an MP’s caseload will give clues. Powerlessness in getting a job, in getting repairs done to your home, in getting a home or stopping an unfair eviction, in getting redress from difficult neighbours, in getting the police to respond after a crime is reported, in stopping drug dealing in the alley around the corner, in stopping a community or youth centre being closed down. The list goes on. The national version is also evident. Getting trains to run on time. Preventing the demise of the steel industry or now car manufacturing. Stopping delays to your hospital appointments. Seeing no pay rise as food prices, bus fares and rent go up.
In such a context, national statistics about growth in the economy seem irrelevant if there is no visible impact on the challenges people face in their everyday lives. More so than before, and with potentially worse to come if the economy goes through a deep downturn, there is a growing narrative on the failure of globalisation and the rise of the voice of the “left behinds”. The rise of that voice is for good reason – a deep inequality of power socially, politically and economically that has come to manifest itself in the power of “taking back control”.
The economic failure of globalisation, the failure of mainstream politics and the withdrawal of the state under austerity has also led to a growth of identity politics and the rise of the “other”. Our cultures have become more focussed on that which divides us, not that which unites us. Tackling the economics and the politics is vital if we are set to reverse the social divides. The steady rise in hate crime is a testament to this. Cameron and Osborne have also choked off the working class communities and resources that went into them. The paradox we face is of communities most hit by austerity now seeing a Tory-led Brexit as the solution to the problems they genuinely face.
So how must public policy on the left address this? Some important responses to this have recently been laid out by Ian Bremmer in his latest book. His ideas include a new role for the state and a Government, meeting the needs of citizens and bringing people together rather than building walls, a new definition of social contract, a re-focus on what we mean by “social security”, a new focus on the pursuit of happiness.
He’s right about this as a place to start but on its own it doesn’t go far enough. But there are two key challenges. Firstly, how do we link the solutions to the challenge of the lack of control? How can we see a public services reform agenda that can demonstrate how citizens and communities can take back control. How can devolution strategies be seen to respond to this. If all we see is devolution of responsibility without resources, we are set to fail. Central to this has to be the role of the state.
Secondly, we cannot address the issue of taking back control in isolation. We need to define a new internationalism, a renewed sense of purpose about our place in the world and what we want to achieve. As an example, Gordon Brown saw the development of Africa as a moral purpose and drew in the rest of the world. It was a conversation that we had in the Party and outside, that drew in movements for economic justice and symbolised our place and purpose. In contrast, we see today the rise of the right, the success of “take back control” in Trump’s America following the Brexit referendum and the momentum in different direction with a fragmented left struggling to redefine itself. The Tory right are leading the way with the story of our nation. It’s vital for the left to respond with an alternative narrative to the post-imperialist story that has become a new and dominant paradigm.
These deep questions – a domestic reform agenda for the redistribution of power through devolution and a re-focus on a positive national identity with a new left internationalist narrative about our place in the world are more urgent than ever. In just a few short years, Britain has gone from a nation that won the Olympics bid based on a story of diversity and global outlook, to becoming a nation with a rise of nationalism and fundamental questioning about our history, our nation and even our Union. Something has deeply broken. Our economy has grown less than last year with worse to come. People are less happy and less secure.
As people can no longer look to the next generation being better off than that last, I believe we are witnessing the ending of a post-Cold War consensus on prosperity which we took for granted.
The UK has a choice to make. What role do we want to play in the world, and how and who do we want to influence. We need to be sure of our direction as a nation. Unless we resolve the question of our identity and role in the world, we’ll struggle to win the prize of tackling the domestic questions that are so critical to bring our nation back together and lead an agenda that sees people take back greater control of their lives and their communities.