Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to accept the “will of the people” on Brexit has been forcefully attacked, for example by Ed Vulliamy – with some justification. I fear, however, that we are perhaps under-estimating the extent to which the left faces a genuine dilemma here.
This dilemma isn’t so much electoral as ideological. For me, the big, great idea of the left is the desire to empower working people. But this runs into the problem: how can we claim to want to empower people and yet say that the people were flat wrong on an issue where they were empowered?
In accepting the “will of the people” Corbyn has at least ducked this dilemma. And for Blair, it doesn’t even arise. He’s always believed in managerialism and leadershipitis and so can consistently argue that he knows better than the people. It’s in this context (and perhaps this alone) that it makes sense for his critics to raise the subject of Iraq; his decision to go to war highlighted the limitations of top-down central planning.
Some of us, however, do face the dilemma. Can we solve it? I think so, in four ways.
First, the plebiscite was the wrong form of empowerment. It did not fulfil the conditions under which there is wisdom in crowds – for example, that there be meaningful private information or that beliefs be uncorrelated. This doesn’t necessarily mean we should reject its result outright. But it does mean we should use it as a platform for arguing for meaningful empowerment. As I’ve said, if you think the plebiscite was a good idea you must, logically, think worker democracy an even better one.
Secondly, we should recognise (or pretend?!) that not everybody voted Brexit for consequentialist reasons. Some regard it instead as an intrinsic good: to them, being free of the “yoke of Brussels” is a good thing in itself. Once we do this, we can argue that Brexit, especially in the form pursued by Ms May, is costly. Goods have a price. That shouldn’t be surprising.
Thirdly, we should argue for ways of minimizing this price. That means arguing for the softest possible Brexit. But it also means pushing the case for supply-side policies that will give a boost to growth to offset the likely adverse effect of leaving the single market.
Finally, we should (re)claim ownership of the phrase “take back control. As Will Davies has said:
The slogan ‘take back control’ was a piece of political genius. It worked on every level between the macroeconomic and the psychoanalytic…What was so clever about the language of the Leave campaign was that it spoke directly to [a] feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, then promised to eradicate it. The promise had nothing to do with economics or policy, but everything to do with the psychological allure of autonomy and self-respect. Farage’s political strategy was to take seriously communities who’d otherwise been taken for granted for much of the past 50 years.
We should be arguing that we should empower people not just to vote upon the obsession of a few rich cranks but to take control of their own lives. This means giving them a greater say in local public services; freeing them from the oppressive and demeaning aspects of the welfare state; and giving them more say in the workplace. It is to his great credit than John McDonnell is thinking along these lines – and to the great discredit of many others that his efforts aren’t getting more attention.