by Jonathan Rutherford
The Brexit party has energy, clarity and purpose. Nigel Farage is redefining the national political debate around democracy and the nation. The political class, he argues, never intended to allow Brexit. They have humiliated the country, shown contempt for democracy and they are now betraying the people. His message is national redemption. We must restore our national pride by a radical change in British politics.
Farage is a reactionary. His purpose is not to win a general election, nor to construct a programme of reform and legislation. It is to destroy the Conservative Party and to wreck Labour’s electoral coalition and reduce it to a party of the metropolitan liberal middle class.
If you dismiss the idea of listening to him or watching one of his rallies; if you feel outraged at the suggestion that he is our most successful politician in over a decade; or if you simply write off the Brexit Party as incipient fascism, therein lies our problem. If Labour does not understand him, if it fails to feel why so many people passionately agree with his message, it will never understand how to stop him.
The vote to leave the EU revealed the deep inequalities cut into England by globalisation, the monopolising of wealth and power in London, and the offshoring of industrial jobs. The leave vote was a coalition of the Tory Shires and the ex-industrial working class. It united the wealthy and the poor in an historical Euroscepticism that echoed older revolts of the English commons. Its populist disdain for the liberal minded elites bound these two classes together but it was only one element of its politics.
This is now changing. Farage and the Brexit Party are redefining national political conflict along classic populist lines. Lewis Goodall, Sky’s political correspondent has argued that the failure to leave the EU has now changed the terms of national debate. The failure of the political class to honour the result of the referendum is shaping a new phase of politics. The people against the political class will be a struggle in England over who stands for the democratic nation. The ecstatic welcome the Welsh gave Farage in Newport suggests Wales too is open to his message of national redemption.
Both Tory and Labour are incoherent on Brexit. Their leaderships are trapped in a Gordian knot of political inertia. Each party is subjected to the political dominance of a sectional class interest. For Labour it is the progressive middle class concentrated in London and its militant People’s Vote. For the Conservatives it is a reactionary, rentier class faction and the ERG. The memberships of both parties push each toward the purity of their ideological extremes, estranging them from the wider electorate and closing off the political give and take necessary for coalition building.
The Conservatives are consumed with a vision of their own immanent destruction and who will replace Theresa May to avert it. Only the constructive ambiguity of Corbyn’s Brexit position has kept Labour from a similar fate. This strategy is now broken. Into the breach are pouring Remain supporting MPs and party members. There are demands for a second referendum and for a confirmatory vote. Some argue that Brexit’s not worth it so let’s drop it, or that leaving the EU was always a myth and so impossible to achieve. Others denounce the leave vote as isolationist or xenophobic or racist and treat it as illegitimate. Whatever the reasoning, each position serves to annul the original majority vote to leave. Their overall effect is to confirm Farage’s accusation. Labour too, puts its own interests before democracy.
There is an argument that like UKIP, the Brexit Party is a temporary aberration. Politics after some adjustment will eventually revert back to normal. But the ground is slipping beneath both major parties and it is part of longer term demographic and sociological trends. It may be a slow slide over the next decade or it might be a sudden collapse. Neither are yet able to face this challenge and reinvent themselves. May’s campaign against burning injustices lasted a few days. Corbynism was a radical but limited force. Some insist that it is the renewal Labour needs. It made a start. But its various currents of thinking lack intellectual coherence and it has been unable to forge a new model of social democracy. Its political energy has been dissipated by weak leadership, sectarian factionalism and the brutal political facts of Brexit.
The Brexit Party is seizing the opportunity to drive a wedge between Labour and its working class heartlands. It is a relationship already close to breaking and yet Labour’s response is to double down on its leftist rhetoric and ‘insist’ that the real political division in the country is the few against the many. It is simply wishful thinking. Labour is losing a culture war it does not realise it’s fighting. It is being recast as the party of the globalist London middle class who monopolise wealth and hold the rest of the country in contempt. Not the party of the labour interest, but the party of the bourgeois left.
Is Labour for democracy and the nation? The answer unfortunately is equivocal. It will not talk about England. It is suspicious of patriotism. Its loudest voices denounce people’s desire for a sense of belonging as the pursuit of ethnic exclusivity. For them the vote to leave the EU is adjacent to fascism and racism and so should be denied. It has made a disastrous business of understanding populism and its causes. Labour is losing its traditions and becoming the Whig party. Having learned nothing in the three years since its defeat Remain politics is giving Farage a free pass to build a radical right coalition around nation and culture.
There are two ways Parliament can stop Farage and the Brexit Party. The first is to honour the result of the 2016 referendum and leave the EU. The second is to take the wind out of his sails by voting for a deal. It will not do the former and it has failed to decide on the latter. It has succeeded in turning its conflict with the majority leave vote into a conflict of liberalism against democracy. When May’s deal failed, parliament asserted a political authority it proved incapable of exercising. It has contributed to undermining people’s trust in its sovereignty. It is a dangerous condition and one that Farage is exploiting.
The solution to our political crisis no longer resides within constitutional procedure. We are witnessing a return to the political. It is angry, argumentative and divisive. Consensus will have to be worked for. The common good will have to be constructed through the negotiation of estranged interests. It will require political skill and leadership which are in scant supply.
Psephological evidence since 2010 has shown that an electoral majority in England can be built on a paradoxical politics that is radical on the economy, and conservative on the nation, security, defence, and social and cultural issues. The party that can tell a compelling story about the democratic nation and which can articulate a politics of earning and belonging will be able to build a winning coalition. Farage lacks the instinct for this kind of paradoxical politics and bridge building. His goal is revolutionary destruction not the democratic politics of the common good. But then neither Labour nor the Conservatives currently possess this instinct. Whichever can gain it first will safeguard our democracy and inherit the future.