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‘What is to be done?’ – Reflections on the Aftermath of the EU Referendum

ssees-opinion30 June 2016

brexit-referendum-uk-1468255044bIXAs the UK makes its mind up what to do in light of the EU Referendum result, where 52% of voters opted to Leave, Dr Peter Duncan invited SSEES staff and alumni to join him in a debate about the future of the UK. The debate has taken place in three parts in June-July 2016. This is the first part of the conversation that ensued. 

We are proud to include remarks from Peter Duncan – Senior Lecturer in Russian Politics and Society, Tim Beasley-Murray – Senior Lecturer in European Thought and Culture, Geoffrey Hosking – Emeritus Professor of Russian History, Licia Cianetti – Postdoctoral Researcher,  Bojan Aleksov – Senior Lecturer in Modern Southeast European History, Emma Goldman – SSEES Alumna, Michal Murawski – UCL Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow, Anna-Cara Keim – PhD Researcher, Constanza Curro – PhD Researcher, Ernesto Gallo – Affiliate Researcher, and Rose McMahon – SSEES Alumna.


Pete Duncan

After Thursday’s disaster, with its predictable effect of fuelling nationalism and anti-British feeling on the Continent, and racism and nationalism in England and Scotland, it seems to me we should be doing three things.

  1. Do everything possible to prevent Article 50 from being activated in the first place, taking advantage of the three months that Cameron has given us. While it goes against my democratic instincts to write that, it’s clear that many voters had no understanding of what they were doing because of the misleading reports in the Press and the lies of the campaigners. Already the leading ‘Leave’ campaigners have gone back on their promises over NHS spending and control over immigration, and the markets, especially the plunge of Sterling, have demonstrated some of the real financial costs of Brexit.

We should support any half-plausible initiatives: the petition, which has nearly 4 million signatures calling for new rules for a referendum; the efforts of the Scottish government, whatever we think of Sturgeon and the SNP, to hold up activation; votes within the House of Commons, where a majority of MPs are pro-Remain, to refuse to implement the result of the referendum; and delays in the House of Lords. I think I’d draw the line at petitioning the Queen. Activities such as demonstrations, petitions, online campaigns, and letters to MPs all have a role.

If we leave and then rejoin, we’d probably have to adopt the Euro and join the Schengen zone. These have been rightly rejected by British governments of both major parties. It’s much better that we don’t leave in the first place.

  1. If, nevertheless Article 50 is activated, or if the new prime minister calls a general election before doing so, we should persuade the Labour Party to campaign on the basis that a Labour government would seek to take whatever is left of the UK back into the EU,or not activate Article 50 in the first place. The Labour Right has traditionally supported the EU; the Left has been divided, but the June issue of Momentum’s political journal Labour Briefing called for a Remain vote. I think a call to rejoin or stay in the EU could really reunite the party. By showing those millions who, by then will be regretting their vote on Thursday, that there is an alternative to economic, social and political retrogression, Labour might actually win.

The Liberal Democrats have already said that they will campaign to rejoin the EU, but their national support is still tiny.

  1. I still think we should support Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, on the basis that there is nobody in the Parliamentary Labour Party who is better. He should have done more to get the message across in the referendum. He should have said that if we are outside the EU we’ll still have to implement EU policies and standards in order to access the single market, but we shall have no chance to influence those policies. He should have recognised the genuine fears of many voters about the impact of immigration on jobs and infrastructure; and pointed out that outside the EU we would still have to allow the free movement of Labour if we want access to the single market (as does Norway) while inside the EU we can try to change policy. He should have provided some sort of forward-looking socialist vision for Europe.

His first Remain campaign speeches were crowded out by the campaign against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. The Labour Right was so keen to discredit Corbyn and argue that he couldn’t win elections that they launched the idea that Corbyn was tolerant of anti-Semitism. It was no help that Ken Livingstone had been appointed to co-lead the Labour defence review, before he came out with his Hitler-Zionist idiotic comments. After the anti-Semitism row subsided, most of the Press united in not giving any publicity to Corbyn’s statements, so it’s not really surprising that a lot of Labour voters didn’t know that the party was for Remaining.

Jeremy Corbyn (Copyright Garry Knight)

Jeremy Corbyn (Copyright Garry Knight)

The Labour Right is now using Brexit to try to oust Corbyn, with the No-Confidence vote in the Parliamentary Labour Party (172-40). It appears that if there were an election for Labour leader now, assuming Corbyn was on the ballot paper, he would be elected again. So we’d be back where we started – but with an even more open split between the Party in Westminster and the Party in the country. The only other person currently with such a following among the membership is John McDonnell, but I don’t think he’d be better than Corbyn. We should remember that Corbyn was victorious on the first ballot because nearly all the personalities in the Right and Centre of the Party had been discredited with the membership, and divisions between Blairites and Brownites were not healed (Alan Johnson refused to stand).

I’d change my mind if it became clear that Corbyn was unwilling to lead a campaign to take Britain back into the EU.


Tim Beasley-Murray:

There is nothing more important than this terrible drama that is playing out on our national and continental stage and it makes sense to try and untangle the nuances of it, and to think of practical steps in this not so brave, new world.

  1. I think that it is highly unlikely that much can be done to stop the activation of Article 50, Merkel certainly seems to think so, but it is surely worth trying for the reasons you give.

I would also add this: politicians of many stripes are saying that we cannot go back on the ‘democratic’ decision of the referendum, that the ‘people have spoken’.  I would dispute the democratic nature of the referendum result.

37% of the population scarcely seems a number with which to come to such a crucial decision about the nation’s future.  But also, to give such weight to a referendum is to undercut the very essence of our representative and parliamentary democracy: a Yes/No Referendum can only ever give a binary result.  It is clear now to everybody, as it should have been beforehand, that ‘In’ and ‘Out’ are not simple binary options. Have the people voted for a ban on immigration? Have they voted for a continuing membership of the single market, but outside EU membership?  It is impossible accurately to tell on the basis of this simple vote.

As a result, either

  1. Parliament should be able to take this ochlocratic plebiscite as the mere advice that legally it is, and decide on the exact and detailed nature of our relationship with Europe – including the option of whether we should remain an EU member.

Or, B) The people should be given the chance to take these sort of decisions by voting for parties’ detailed manifesto commitments at a general election.

  1. Similarly, I agree that the best chance for a better relationship with Europe is by lobbying and voting for a Labour Party that is committed to this, in alliance with other progressive forces, such as the Liberals and others. But, only the Labour Party stands any chance of re-connecting with those duped, deluded but by now surely disillusioned Leave voters in the post-industrial towns and cities of the North and the Midlands.  If Labour fails to engage these voters, the prospect is dire: sooner or later, a nasty form of right-wing populism (where UKIP or not) will come to bloom like mould on this neglected soil.
  2. I did not vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership ballot, yet there is a lot that I agree with him about, particularly his opposition to austerity. I respect him as a principled man.  Nevertheless, he is not the man to reinvigorate and lead the Labour party in this crisis where leadership and reinvigoration are needed above all.  Rather, he is now a deadly obstacle to progress, his principled selflessness has become myopic and self-serving, and he must go.

As Machiavelli put it in his letter to Vettori, ‘a successful leader needs to be able to love his city more than his soul’. Corbyn has fatally neglected the country that he is meant to love.  Nowhere is this more clear than in his half-hearted, perhaps feigned support for the Remain campaign, so-called support that – if we are to believe Alan Johnson – tipped over into actual sabotage of the pro-European cause. He must be held, in considerable part, responsible for the failure of the Remain campaign and for his absolute betrayal of the progressive hopes for the United Kingdom. To serve the people as they deserve, he must listen to the people who desperately need a government that will actually govern in their interest. Above all, Corbyn has no mandate to be unelectable.  He simply must resign.

On the question of his mandate and of his political legitimacy as Labour leader:  While Corbyn may have the mandate of those in the wider party who voted for him last year, he wilfully forgets the mandate of the nine million who voted for Labour’s sitting MPs.  He also ignores the fact that a significant proportion of these supporters (SWP members and similar):


A  are fundamentally opposed to the guiding ethos of the Labour Party

B have more or less explicit contempt for parliamentary democracy and hence have no interest in the Labour Party actually winning an election

and C constitute a strange echo-chamber for Corbyn’s own views that have little, if any traction with the people more broadly.


What all this amounts to is clear evidence that Corbyn and the far-left tradition he comes from similarly does not believe that real change happens through the institutions of parliament, but rather beyond Parliament, in the striking working classes and on the streets.  Whilst I have some sympathy with this position, at this juncture in European history, it is, at best, naive and wishful thinking and, at worst, a dangerous opening to anti-democratic forces.  Because, if push came to shove on the street, I suspect that the xenophobic right-wing populism whipped up in the ‘left-behind’ Leavers would be a more potent force than Corbyn’s SWP boys and the North London elite.

Angela Eagle (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Angela Eagle (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I am rather troubled by reference to the ‘Anti-Semitism row’. Let’s see what Shami Chakrabarti says, but it seems to me that tolerance of Anti-Semitism is Anti-Semitism itself.  There is nothing more shameful than the way that Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has coincided with the poisonous rise of Anti-Semitism in a movement that ought to be viscerally against this sort of thing and that has so often opposed it.  I am no ‘bitter Blairite’, no Zionist conspirator, but for me, this factor alone is enough to say that he is the wrong person to lead the Labour Party. The Labour Party must unite behind somebody, such as Angela Eagle, who is willing to do this, and to offer a Labour platform that addresses the concerns of the ‘left-behind’ Leave voters.


Geoffrey Hosking:

I think the most important thing is that Labour, whoever leads it, should now seek an alliance with Lib Dems, Greens, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalists to do roughly what you suggest above.  Labour is currently both in decline and seriously split, and alas cannot be an effective opposition on its own.  I have already written to Compass (of which I am a member) to suggest this – but had no reply from them.


Licia Cianetti:

I agree with your call for action to resist the rhetoric of “the People have spoken” that paints a yes/no referendum as the highest form of democracy. And I agree that only a progressive Labour party (whether led by Corbyn or not I think is unimportant at this point) has a chance of fighting back against the advance of populism and nationalism.

But I want to caution you about talking too lightly about the “genuine fears” of the people about immigration. There seems to be a widespread opinion that Labour has lost their grip on their traditional constituencies because of their failure to tackle the “immigrants question”; that to reassure people that the party is not out of touch, Labour should address the people’s “legitimate concerns” that immigrants put pressure on housing, welfare and health care, drive down wages, and increase natives’ unemployment. This is, to put it lightly, misguided. Labour (and indeed all of us when talking about the “Immigrant Question”) should instead make it clear that issues of housing, welfare, health care, wages and unemployment can be solved only with progressive, redistributive politics and not with border controls. They should make it clear that the problem is not that we haven’t talked enough about immigration, but that for years now we have talked pretty much only about immigration. If Labour thinks they can reconnect with their lost constituencies by showing that they too can be tough on immigration, they will fail. If the message is that the problem is indeed the immigrants and Labour agrees with it, why should people go for Labour and not for UKIP or tough-on-immigrants Tories? Labour has let the Nationalist and Neo-Liberal Right set the agenda and the terms of the debate for too long. It’s time they took some courage and started leading rather than pandering. They might even get some votes back in the process.

In general, whatever Labour end up doing, I think it is important that progressive-minded people – in the UK and all around Europe – do not slip on the “Immigrant Question”. We have a duty to challenge the Populist and Nationalist agenda. The point we push through should not be that immigrants are good for the economy; that is probably true, but beside the point.

The point should be that the whole fixation on the “Immigrant Question” is a great distraction. We should be as stubborn as the Populists on this: the more they reduce every question to immigration, the more we should take the conversation back to redistribution.


Emma Goldman:

I think that Geoffrey’s proposal for an alliance between parties is one of the most sensible I have heard since the debate began.
My problem with supporting Jeremy Corbyn is that, whilst in an ideal world I do agree with a lot of what he says, I do not think that what he believes is enough per se to justify his position as leader of the Labour Party. It is not just the lack of leadership skills, lack of dynamism and ability to inspire, but, pragmatically, he heads a party he has made capable of only talking to itself.
Sure, if you are up in the hallowed halls of that party, then Jeremy no doubt rocks, but he is completely unable to reach out to what the new London mayor calls ‘a broad church.’ The mayor won the London election because rich, poor, black, white, working and middle class saw his appeal. A simple ‘populist’ example is that, come sunset each day, he breaks his fast for Ramadan in a variety of places that include synagogues and other places of worship and he posts this onto social media for a mass audience. You may think this is trivial but to me it is clever, and promotes liberal values in a sort of Justin Trudeau style.

Corbyn, by contrast, talks only to people who already agree with him; he borders on petulant when challenged, because he has none of the skills of a senior politician, and does not reach out to anyone beyond his immediate circles. I believe he is personally doomed but, much more seriously than that, he is taking the party with him. People say that he is ‘decent’ but, to me, the fact that he refuses to go, reveals not so much decency but an underbelly of the supreme arrogance we are used to seeing in politicians and those in positions in power.
Perhaps one ‘bright spot’ on the horizon is that the once coveted post of PM is now ironically a poisoned chalice for the next Conservative leader. If they take it and does not trigger Article 50, they are finished; if they bow out of the whole thing, they are finished; if they oversee the break up of the UK, they are finished. Hence Boris Johnnson’s subdued manner. He was banking on a narrow win for Remain – enough to weaken Cameron and make him go; he never expected – and probably did not want – to win. That is how duplicitous he is and how shameful was the campaign, based on lies and half-truths, and in which, in their media narrative, where the News becomes a ‘commodity’, journalists colluded.
And now, as Martin Schultz so aptly puts it, ‘the whole of Europe is being held to ransom because of in internal fight in the Tory party’ – although I would paraphrase that and say ‘because of a row between two old Etonians.’
Interestingly, the rest of the Johnson family voted Remain. I would not like to be Boris around the Christmas table this December….


Michal Murawski:

Boris Johnson (By U.S. Embassy photographer, Public domain)

Boris Johnson (By U.S. Embassy photographer, Public domain)

Johnson (please let’s avoid feeding into his ridiculous faux-cuddly cult of personality by referring to Alexander Boris De Pfeffel Johnson by his middle name) is not “finished.” This, I think, is wishful thinking. He was subdued, yes, but he (unlike Corbyn) is a crude and sophisticated enough political operator to weasel his way to the top, no matter whether Article 50 is invoked or not, and no matter how long this takes.

Corbyn appears, at first glance, to be in the process of self-destructing, and I, like Tim, find his self-indulgent, sanctimonious, smug attachment to his own integrity to be quite off-putting (as well as his small-minded indifference to Europe). This is a pity, because, as Owen Jones neatly relays in this article, the plan among Corbynites and the Momentum core was always to have him lead the party for a couple of years, until a more sophisticated, younger, less brocialist/Moczarist successor could be discerned and groomed to lead the Labour party around 2018, a couple of years ahead of the next general election (as initially scheduled).

Corbyn, as I gather, was in on this plan. And a Remain vote in the EU referendum would have been a big step towards its successful realisation. Corbyn (not just him, but also the remainder of the Will Straw-led Remain Campaign) sabotaged the otherwise inevitable Remain vote by a mixture of incompetence, lack of imagination and yes, “integrity”. They were able to muster neither a positive message (the importance of the EU, the prospects for reforming it from within) nor even a truly effective negative “Project Fear” (the real risk of the dissolution of the UK; the fact that the UK would pay obscene amounts of money into the EEA if it remains in the single market, without any benefits of being in the EU; the prospect of chaos, hatred and violence). The failure hammer home what Jo Cox’s tragic murder portended, despite the valiant efforts of her husband, was also unbelievably inept and arose, I think, partly out of a confused understanding of “moral integrity”.

Having said all that, Corbyn needs backing for now. Intentionally or not, he (and the Tories) sabotaged the hunt for a progressive heir to lead the progressive left post-Corbyn. However, the way that the Blairites are executing their coup is chaotic and grossly incompetent. Let’s see if Corbyn survives as leader until the Chilcot inquiry. If his response to this is as muffled and muted as his participation in the EU referendum, then he really will have no legs left to stand on any more. But, for now, Corbyn simply needs to be backed as the lesser evil.


Anna-Cara Keim

There are certainly some well-made points, and I agree with those. However, I am also very sceptical about Corbyn’s position. The problem is that alternatives are few and far between and a consensus to back the lesser evil seems to me the only way forward. The increasing fragmentation in the English social/political landscape is very worrying.

The dividing lines in across this country run deeply and, as the referendum results show, perhaps much more so than anticipated. Large parts of the country have been alienated, neglected, forgotten about or left to the nationalists. This is something that urgently needs to be addressed and it will be one of the biggest challenges ahead for Labour. 30 years of social policy failures cannot be reversed, but Labour must try harder to integrate all these disaffected communities.

As for Scotland, I believe that a second Independence Referendum is almost inevitable. I am not so sure that that Labour can ever recover what has been lost to the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon appears to be firmly in control of the situation north of the border. This also seems to be a question about identity, or rather, an identity crisis… The new Scottish nationalism has given rise to a Scottish identity which is non-ethnic, cross denominational and firmly rooted within Europe and connected to a thriving musical culture. However, as Ayesha Hazarika once pointed out, there is nothing comparable south of the border…


Bojan Aleksov:

The pace of events is hard to follow and might also undermine some points and initiatives expressed here. Therefore, I would like to propose that we focus on something that hopefully cannot and should not change overnight, that is the status of UK universities and research within EU and the status of British students in EU and the EU students in Britain. We should campaign that whatever government comes out of this mess and whatever position the EU takes regarding UK maintains the existing rights of students and researchers. I am aware that funding for research makes only portion of a bigger budget which, together with trade and other relations, will be hotly contested during the divorce negotiations but we should insist they are safeguarded.

Our colleague Hannah Skoda from Oxford is currently soliciting signatures for a letter to major European newspapers, that aims to remind our European friends, colleagues and neighbours of an overwhelming support of the UK academic support for European project and that is asking for European solidarity.


Constanza Curro:

I don’t think I have much to add to what has been already said, but just want to follow up with a couple of thoughts:

1) Regarding addressing the “genuine fears” about immigration and its impact, I agree with Pete that the Labour party has so far largely failed to do so also under Corbyn’s leadership, mostly labeling people who voiced such concerns as racist and xenophobic, and therefore shutting down any possibility of investigating such a complex issue from a more informed and nuanced perspective. I think it is pointless, dangerous, and also patronising to deny a fair amount of blatant racism which has been following through the articulation of such “genuine fears” in the name of an idealistic inherent “leftist-ness” of the working class. But, precisely for this reason, I definitely agree with Licia’s point: rather than being in denial or condemning a priori what we don’t like to hear and see as generalised “racism” or “fascism”, all progressive forces (within and outside the UK) must shift the focus of the debate on austerity policies and the systematic dismantling of the welfare state and social security. When this applies to the Labour party and its future, I think that, beside “ideological” considerations which, in my view, demand a supposedly leftist party to take on a clear stance on specific issues, this is fundamental for the party to avoid failing over and over and perhaps recovering some credibility, and with that, who knows, votes.

2) In this regard, I am not necessarily keen on Jeremy Corbyn as such, for the reasons that many of you have already mentioned, although I think it should be emphasised that even before his election as Labour leader he was defined as “unelectable” a priori, depicted as a sort of hard-line socialist with plans that could find no application in today’s world, and considered, in the best case, as a short-term “experiment”. Above all, I blame him and several people around him for having promoted (more or less explicitly) the disastrous idea of a leftist cause for Brexit, which I find of the most deluded and profoundly wrong kind. However, I wonder what the Labour Right, which is orchestrating Corbyn’s exit, has in store for what comes next. Labour did really badly in the last elections, and it would be ignorant to think that they can go on along the same line without losing further credit. I have not enough knowledge of Labour party politics, so I don’t know if there is anyone that at the moment can do better than Corbyn. The only thing that seems clear to me is that while they argue about what leader they like and who is electable or not, then Labour will be literally wiped out.


Rose McMahon: My main thought is that the Labour Party is in need of some Corbynite purity while it regains its focus on its mission. Obviously, after that is achieved, and a general election looms, that is the time to select a leader who can take the mission to a broader electorate.


Ernesto Gallo:

Being an EU citizen from Italy, I am of course more than interested in the issue.

Although Brexit has a much bigger resonance (and deservedly so), this is not the first time the EU has failed to persuade its citizens. In 2005 The Netherlands and France rejected the Constitutional Treaty, and traditionally pro-EU Ireland had to repeat a referendum in 2007. Even the Maastricht Treaty had been adopted in France with only 51.5% of votes.

The big question for me is, ‘The EU: What For?’ This has to be clarified by parties and governments in Germany, France etc. and in Britain as well. After World War Two, European integration was a project for peace, prosperity, and some degree of democracy. The Euro was meant to be a step towards political integration. Then the whole process lost momentum, and lost touch with citizens.

However, the current crisis provides the EU with an opportunity to move ahead. If Mr Juncker or Schulz or others propose political solutions to our current problems (youth unemployment at 60-65% in some areas of Southern Italy, rise of Far Right parties in Hungary, Holland etc., rampant racism across the board…), the EU will leave the current stalemate and Britain could choose whether to follow or not. But if the point is whether to stay in or out of a kind of free trade area on steroids, then I wonder if being in the EU is worth the effort.

Pete Duncan: Conclusion

Thank you very much to those of you who have contributed.

I was not surprised that my support for Corbyn proved the most contentious issue. It is not unconditional support and will depend on whether he is able to continue campaigning against leaving the EU, and with what level of effectiveness.

I was more surprised by the lack of criticism of my seemingly undemocratic view that we should, in practice, call for the result of the referendum to be ignored. People have privately told me that this is wishful thinking. Julia kindly sent me Gideon Rachman’s FT article saying why he thought that article 50 would not be activated. What is clear is that David Cameron has promised to resign rather than proceeding with his promise to activate article 50 if ‘Leave’ won, and those in the running for the Conservative Leadership are apparently not in a hurry to implement it either. It is absurd that a snapshot of opinion taken against a background of confusion and lies, many of which are already exposed, should lead to national antagonisms in Europe and the breakup of the UK.

On immigration: I’m particularly grateful for Licia’s and Costanza’s comments on this. Yes, we mustn’t blame immigrants for the impact of austerity policies on public services and on the health, education, social care and transport infrastructure. These we can rightly blame on Neo-Liberal policies, which we explored at our conference in December and for which Elisabeth and I are preparing a book proposal. At the same time I think that freedom of movement of labour, under capitalism, works in favour of employers, not of workers. We must understand why people sometimes feel that they are losing their jobs to immigrants who are willing to work for less, and we should not allow this to happen. The key is for the trade unions to organize the immigrant workers in unity with the UK-based workers, as some unions have been successfully doing in London. It’s a different story in the fields of Lincolnshire and some of the factories of the Midlands and the North. And of course we must oppose all racism and ethnic enmity.


Please note: Views expressed are those of the Author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of UCL or SSEES.