Brexit will shape our politics in the 2020s – we need to own the challenges ahead

Jane Thomas

Despite Boris Johnson’s claim that a vote for him last December would ‘get Brexit done’, the reality is that Brexit is anything but done. The truth is that Brexit – the idea, the process, the new state of being – is only just beginning and will define our politics for years to come. 

The government has a tough job of work on its hands and negotiating a smooth exit from the European Union (EU), which remains our major trading partner, will be difficult. But the real bite of Brexit is what it exposed in terms of the structural fault lines that scar our political and party systems and the creaking constitutional settlements that hold the country together. 

I think that there are three specific challenges that the government must tackle – all of which Labour needs to respond to, and all of which present opportunities for us on the centre left to find new purpose.

The first challenge IS Brexit. We are leaving the EU, of that there is now no doubt, and both the politics (and the legislation!) surrounding our exit will dominate the domestic agenda for the next two years, possibly longer. Navigating a successful pathway through this will take a huge amount of skill, effort and resource on the government’s part. 

The second challenge relates to the new political divisions that Brexit has brought to the fore, divisions that are no longer defined by the left/right axis but driven by differences in age, education and attitudes to multiculturalism and internationalism. 

Brexit exposed my third challenge as one of the biggest issues facing us, namely how disunited we are as a country. This is not just about social polarisation, or anger at our political institutions, but about the fragility of our constitutional settlements. 

Let’s look at these three challenges in turn. The upcoming round of negotiations with the EU are as vital as the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill (or WAB for short) that passed the Commons last week and is being debated in the Lords this week. The Political Declaration on the Future Framework is as important, if not more so, than WAB and detailed work will be needed to cover issues ranging from preserving trade to fighting terrorism, working on common defence and maintaining travel connections to the continent. And let us not forget that a trade deal must be negotiated, checked and presented to the European Parliament by the third week of November 2020.

There will be significant horse trading over the next twelve months and any self-respecting opposition needs to get its house in order if it is to maximise its influence on the processes ahead. There could be huge opportunities for Labour to recast itself as a modern, progressive, outward-facing party that is committed to governing for all. A prolonged period of navel-gazing, arguing the toss about whether we ‘won the argument’ and obsessing about the leadership election to the distraction of all else must be avoided. 

Moving onto my second challenge, Anand Menon, the Director of UK in a Changing Europe, recently wrote that ‘the contempt of one Brexit tribe for the other is as big as, if not bigger than, that between supporters of different political parties.’ With much contemporary political narrative predicated on this Leave/Remain split the challenge of repositioning ourselves as a truly universal force will be a daunting one. 

In the 2019 general election it was clear that party HQ had little real understanding of where its support lay, attempted to appeal to a fetishised working-class vote (whatever that is) and instead found itself dependent upon a new core vote of middle class and urban young professionals.  

In the event, where we needed to hold seats was in those towns that have undergone such seismic demographic change over the past twenty years. Lisa Nandy has referred to them as ‘towns that no longer thrive’: places with older populations, inadequate services and poor job opportunities. 

Getting to grips with what is going on in these communities – many of which have relied heavily on EU funding and funded projects – is an urgent task. Scant attention has been paid to what, if anything, replaces these sources of inward investment and the government has gone suspiciously quiet on the Shared Prosperity Fund front.

I think that the third challenge is huge. Brexit has exposed the fundamental constitutional weakness of the UK. The various devolution settlements have always been works in progress – Brexit has cast a harsh light on their inadequacies. It has also shown up the inadequacy of parliamentary scrutiny (heroic efforts by Cooper, Benn and Letwin notwithstanding) and showed how easy it is for the executive to ride roughshod (and this is before you factor in the battles to come between the government and the judiciary). 

Brexit has further disturbed and exacerbated the lopsided relationships between the home nations. England provided the bulk of the Leave vote in 2016 against the democratic will of the people in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We now have a government and a main opposition party that are both English parties, not parties of the United Kingdom. Mr. Johnson is going to have to demonstrate some pretty nimble footwork if he’s going to keep the union together – if, indeed, that is his aim.

How can UK parties in general – and the Labour party in particular – become electorally attractive across these cultural, national and regional divides? These divides may well widen if we leave the EU with no deal and the economy takes a hit, as widely predicted. I can see both Scotland and Northern Ireland turning their backs on Westminster at the earliest possible opportunity. 

How should the centre left respond to these challenges? Labour has an immediate task of preparing clear responses to the many policy challenges that will be thrown up by the Political Declaration. These should be supported by resourcing a proper rebuttal unit and some deep dive policy analysis into the social challenges that are likely to define the next decade. And we need to take national, regional and local devolution much more seriously than we have in the past and come up with a comprehensive, long-term solution to the constitutional problems bedeviling the country. 

The current leadership election provides us with an opportunity to start thinking about all of this and start to reposition ourselves, but we have to use the coming months wisely. We have to ensure that we come out of this contest in better shape, and with a clearer sense of what we stand for and where our support is. 

We need a new leader who can provide us with some sense of authority, credibility and standing in all parts of the UK and the wider international community. And we need a new leader prepared to build a genuine movement in the country made up of those people and places that need us as well as those that already want us to succeed. We need to ditch the rallies that have characterised the past four years and get stuck into conversations in the towns and villages we’ve lost. 

In some ways, this leadership contest could not be happening at a better time. We’ve now got a chance to take a fresh approach to the problems facing the country and reclaim political space for a vibrant and progressive centre left. With a new leader we can hopefully heal our internal divisions, renew a genuine dialogue with the electorate and tackle the challenges of the 2020s with renewed vigour. Here’s hoping, anyway!

Jane Thomas is a longtime Labour activist, former PPC and member of the National Policy Forum. Until recently she was the Co-ordinator of the Brexit Civil Society Alliance.

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