Lancashire cotton mills, Durham collieries and Clydeside shipyards are the spiritual home of the Labour movement and working-class emancipation. Today, however, the battle for control of the Labour Party, as pretender to government, is being fought in the cosmopolitan North London boroughs of Camden and Islington. On the left of the ring is veteran rebel Jeremy Corbyn, and in the opposite corner is Blairite Keir Starmer.
Here is the power base: the party leader, key members of the Shadow Cabinet, influential figures in the media and arts, the Guardian office, Hoxton hipsters, Hampstead internationalists, and further north the middle-class radicals of Hornsey. So fashionable, yet old Labour exists here too, bolstered by Corbyn’s left turn. Nostalgic trade unionists and tireless socialist campaigners denounce ‘backstabbers’ such as Polly Toynbee, who would frustrate the fight against corporate capitalism.
The Left, with its myriad ideological stances from anarchists to social democrats, is always fascinating. The complex dynamics entice commentators to draw divisions and contrasts, although on most topics Labour voters have more in common than differences. Brexit, however, is bluntly dichotomous. Both Starmer’s Camden and Corbyn’s Islington voted heavily to remain in the EU, but a considerable number wanted out. Eurosceptics were more likely to come from poorer households, as well as hard-Left activists who have always regarded the Brussels project as a neoliberal conspiracy.
In simple terms, Starmer wants in and Corbyn wants out. But the millions of Labour followers who voted Leave cannot be sure what their party will do. Indeed, Labour is in a complete mess on Brexit. Possibly on the brink of power, Corbyn is playing his cards cautiously, keeping the Europhile majority in the parliamentary party on side. For that reason he appointed Keir Starmer to the post of Shadow Brexit Secretary.
A month after the referendum result, a public meeting was held in a packed Camden Town Hall, led by a triad of Remainers: council leader Sarah Hayward, London Assembly member Andrew Dismore, and Starmer. The event was like a wake following a disaster, but not everyone felt ‘hurt and diminished’, as Starmer claimed in the local newspaper. Admirably, the Camden New Journal had a special letters page with all three correspondents presenting an articulate case against the anti-Brexit furore.
Clem Alford, who attended the meeting, described a shocked gathering of ‘well-laced, middle-class Camden Europeans’ ignorant of, for example, the fishermen ‘whose occupation was destroyed by an unelected elite in Brussels with a vast army of highly-paid bureaucrats administering the directives of those millionaire unelected commissioners’. Identity politics and virtue-signalling were pronounced, as Alford witnessed: ‘One member of the audience spoke of Bengali immigrants being worried but I only saw one present and he was a local councillor’. Why would Bengalis revere Brussels?
On the same page Keir Starmer offered hope for the EU following. He was already urging a second referendum and a general election (he got the latter, but overlooks the fact that 85 per cent voted for parties promising to uphold Brexit). Given a position of influence, he has apparently succeeded in U-turning Labour policy from straightforward departure to remaining in the Single Market. A transitional fudge that could last for years in de facto continued membership, before eventually patriotic fantasists would see their mistake? As Philip Collins argued in the Times, those ‘residual Remainers desperately in need of more bad news’ should not be allowed to divert Labour from its election pledge. The public aren’t impressed by politicians and pundits who are constantly running the country down while attempting to defy a democratic mandate.
Corbyn has not given overt support to the apparent policy shift declared by Starmer, merely stating that the UK must be able to trade with the Single Market. He would rather get shot of the EU, and will let the current government take this as far as possible, pending an election. If Corbyn does obstruct the progress of Brexit, it will only be to seize power. The EU is an encumbrance to the far-Left steering committee of Andrew Murray, Seamus Milne and Karie Murphy, who want to pursue socialist reconstruction without the constraint of bureaucratic directives from across the Channel.
But can Brexit-voters trust Corbyn? I’m doubtful. He is associated with ‘old Labour’, but he really emanates from the ‘New Left’ of the 1960s onwards. This postmodern development, driven by Frankfurt School intellectualism, favoured cultural over economic Marxism, introducing identity politics while paying less heed to class solidarity. Therefore, it would be mistaken to see Corbyn as Trotskyite or Leninist, yet he shares something with the hard Left that is crucial to understanding how Labour would handle Brexit: a profound distaste for national identity. Note the abuse for
Dennis Skinner (‘scab’) and Caroline Flint, heckled by Labour colleagues for siding with the enemy on the Great Repeal Bill.
It goes without saying that most writers and readers on this website would prefer the Conservative government to remain in power rather than risking the social and economic chaos of a Corbyn revolution. But we must prepare for events, dear boy, that could propel the Pied Piper of Islington into Downing Street. At this turning point in the history of our proud nation, Corbyn and his acolytes must be exposed for their fundamental flaw: they do not really like their country. Instead of harping on the past support of Milne, McDonnell and Corbyn for the IRA and Palestinian terrorists, the Tories should embrace the positive message of Boris Johnson. Let Labour show us whether it believes not only in Brexit, but in Britain.