To blame Jeremy Corbyn for the victory of the Brexiteers might be taking things too far. But he did not do much to help the Remain campaign emerge victorious in Britain’s EU referendum.
Indeed, after the referendum result, Corbyn faced a barrage of criticism and resignations. Corbynites would say that all his critics were stooges of Tony Blair, but I think that this would be a tad too simplistic.
Surely, Blair is one of the main critics of Corbyn. But Corbyn has also faced a rebellion from over 80 per cent of Labour members of Parliament, his deputy leader as well as former leaders Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. Are all these remote-controlled by Blair?
Various opinionists in progressive press such as The Guardian and Huffington Post have also been highly critical of Corbyn. Again, I do not think that they are all Blairite dupes. Nor do I agree that those who support Corbyn are the sole guardians of progressive truth, whatever this may be.
Progressive critics of Corbyn have emphasised that he was too dull and detached in the referendum campaign. He seemed half-hearted and unconvinced of his own words. He gave mixed messages on what the EU is about, and for some reason he decided to emphasise his support of free migration precisely when the Leave campaign was capitalising on this issue. Honest? Maybe. Strategic? Definitely not. Maybe his Eurosceptic past and allies haunted his conscience?
Corbyn’s Labour Party could easily have assumed leadership of the Remain campaign. But it did not. Apparently, Corbyn’s team did not participate in meetings of the ‘Labour In’ campaign. At the same time Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and others were articulating their ‘leave’ position as the fight of a lifetime.
Corbyn’s Labour Party could easily have assumed leadership of the Remain campaign
We will never know what Corbyn’s intended aims were and, to be fair,he might have found himself caught in the middle of conflicting argumentsand interests.
But politics is also very much about unintended consequences. The failure of the Remain campaign resulted in the likes of Johnson and Farage emerging as victors. Britain will now possibly move more to the right wing of policymaking, and it might face increased calls to break-up.
But perhaps something positive might come out of this. Some are touting the need for a grand coalition of pro-EU parties, comprising Labour, Greens, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, among others.
Of course, this has its own complications, such as Britain’s electoral system. And the Labour Party must first come to terms with the crisis of social democracy not only in Britain, but also in so many parts of Europe.
In Britain, a main challenge for Labour is to find a way out of two antagonistic camps which are equally problematic.
The first is the Third Way camp. It won three elections under Tony Blair – a historic feat in itself - and also opened up to new realities in family life, social identity and economics. But it also was too much focused on neo-liberal reforms that increased inequality. And Blair ultimately lost legitimacy due to the invasion of Iraq.
The second camp is what currently characterises Corbyn and his team. It revolves around a social democracy that seems anchored in 1945, and attracts hard leftists of different stripes. What unites this coalition is the assumption that the State can solve most problems within a nation State, and that society is a simplistic structure of class-conscious workers and bosses.
In reality, however, society is definitely more complex than this. Social class remains a main marker of everyday life, but it crisscrosses with reflexivity, other identities, cultures and situations. Besides, even with the best of intentions, top-down statism can sometimes manufacture risks such as crowding out of investment and fiscal unsustainability.
It is clear that Britain’s Labour needs a leader who conveys charisma and has respect from both wings. He or she needs to be forward-looking and bold enough to tread upon ground beyond the comfort zones of the Third Way and Old Labour.
Otherwise, the progressive mass party of Britain risks becoming a permanent party of opposition, safely conserving ideas that are increasingly out of touch with today’s contexts.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.