Whoever ends up leading it, the Labour party is likely to vote against Boris Johnson’s Brexit bills in parliament. After Brexit ceases to be a rhetorical dreamcatcher – a magical totem, after which all will be well – it will turn into a series of practical decisions with real-life consequences, many of which will be adverse.
The current parliamentary Labour party is unlikely to repeat the mistakes of 2015, when austerity bills were waved through after Ed Miliband’s defeat because voters were said to want it. Head-to-head opposition will be of only symbolic use, given the Conservative majority, but there may be smart manoeuvres that come off, with a deft enough operation. There will also, inevitably, be a need for protest, case by case – likely, in the short term, for the rights of EU citizens, against race-to-the-bottom trade deals, and against incursions into existing workers’ rights.
But the party must stop allowing its own ideas and debates to be shaped by the contours of Brexit. In its election of a leader, in its constituency meetings and all the activism it takes to rebuild, the party needs to move on. Brexit is a Conservative disaster that the Conservatives must own. By 2024 Brexit will be in the past, and the government will be trying to blame its inevitable woes on some enemy other than Europe. Those of us who have spent three years fighting for Labour to help reverse Brexit have no further work here. Those who have trumpeted the referendum result as a great democratic roar will now have plenty of other democratic deficits to focus on.
Labour is constitutionally predisposed to internecine recrimination, and to try and stamp that out would be ahistorical. But those battles should be centred on real issues, not symbolic differences. Brexit did open up genuine divisions on the left, but the questions raised by the vote to leave the EU did not map very closely on to the party’s own fissures. The rhetorical weight of Brexit created new binaries that were completely false: suddenly, if you were in favour of free movement or migrant rights, you were also opposed to the dignity and self-determination of “workers in the north”. (This is a conflict that the union movement resolved some decades ago, by situating exploitation where it belonged, with the people who set wages and conditions, not the people who battled to live on them.)
Seen through the prism of Brexit, you couldn’t be in favour of EU cooperation on the environment without being against democracy. Overnight, you had to choose between elitist internationalism and authentic nationalism. The left allowed itself to be shunted into these divisions: the multicultural versus the white; the young versus the old; the metropolitan versus the left-behind. That only made sense in the context of remain and leave. Never in its history has the Labour party attempted victory by tilting one way or the other between such gigantic, amorphous demographics.
But these debates should not simply be closed down – instead, they can be had on their own terms, separated from Johnson’s Brexit. There will be decisions to make about migration after we are outside the EU and its structures. If we disagree with the points-based system – which most outside the Conservative party do, since it is implicitly racist in intent – then what are the ideal criteria?
If we agree with free movement – which, again, most in the Labour party do, judging by the motion passed at this year’s conference committing Labour to “maintain and extend free movement rights” – does that entail a policy of open borders with the EU? And if not, what is it? If we disagree with the kneejerk ambition for “fewer” migrants, what narrative do we put in its place?
As a starting point, I would suggest that union activism across borders is the most creative way to prevent such exploitations as do arise from free movement. I would suggest, furthermore, that racism is the live issue that all those people who want an “honest conversation about immigration” mysteriously don’t want to talk about. And to have any hope of resolving this, we have to stop responding to an increasingly far-right characterisation of the issue and start building our own principles, effectively from scratch.
Similarly, the climate crisis has ended up in a zero-sum game with the decades-old legacy of deindustrialisation. It makes perfect sense from a Conservative perspective: environmentalism is what students care about, manufacturing and its stagnation are what preoccupy the towns and their authentic working-class residents. Never mind that this makes no sense from a policy perspective. Urgent action on decarbonisation was the only decent idea – indeed, the only idea – that anybody has ever had to reseed high-skilled employment in areas outside the south-east. Everything else was just buses, free ports and whining about London.
The prime minister has already banned the word “Brexit” from his own communications, as if an omertà will make its consequences invisible. It won’t. There is a real danger that everyone but the Tories will keep it at the centre of their arguments, and it will become, by sleight of hand, everybody’s fault but the people who did it. But that is not the biggest problem for Labour.
The party cannot resolve its hopes into a clear and programmatic set of ideas through the fog of someone else’s fantasy. It cannot make sense of its own values in the middle of someone else’s culture war. Too often, Labour has resolved such crises by simply jettisoning its values in favour of electoral calculation, whose abject failure was guaranteed by that very act. It must not make the same mistake again.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist