Editorial: We all fall down? Brexit: one year on
This is the inaugural issue of IPPR Progressive Review.
We begin in auspicious times, with the tectonic plates of politics shifting. Longstanding political assumptions born of custom, complacency, and a belief in a singular way of ‘doing politics’ – narrow, technocratic, incremental – were shattered in the general election. Mass politics returned, raucous and digital. After seven years, failed austerity economics was politically derailed. Perhaps more importantly, the claustrophobic sense that the status quo political and economic settlement is the only one that is viable was punctuated, perhaps permanently. Instead, the horizon of political possibility expanded, as new arguments about ownership, wealth and democracy found powerful popular resonance.
The appalling disaster of Grenfell – a deeply political tragedy – has further crystallised a sense that something has gone deeply wrong in British society; that our social contract has not only frayed, but been torn. Grenfell stands as a hideous monument to the grotesque inequalities of wealth and power, and an overwhelming sense that the British state – whether national or local – simply did not care for its citizens because they were poor. The local council was revealed to be hollowed out and unresponsive, and national government’s ideological obsession with deregulation to be devastatingly dangerous.
If the fire revealed the worst of the state, it also showed us the best of our fellow citizens. Public servants who ran towards the flames to save lives, extinguish the fire, and care for the injured. Ordinary citizens and community organisations that exemplified bravery, compassion, solidarity, and generosity. At the same time, justifiable public anger mingled with a growing demand for something better.
There is, then, a sense of a new conjecture emerging, of long-held consensuses cracking. IPPR Progressive Review, which follows and builds on IPPR’s previous journal, Juncture, will be a pluralistic space to explore the energies and possibilities of this moment, and ask how we can build a more equal, humane and prosperous society, convening and publishing the best writing on economics, politics and culture in this country and internationally. We are looking for provocative, interesting and unorthodox ideas. We are particularly keen to open our pages to a new generation of progressive thinkers. We welcome submissions from young authors and those who have not been published before, alongside contributions from eminent thinkers that IPPR has welcomed over many years.
In this election, young people expressed their political power for the first time in decades. This should come as no surprise: many millennials – and those even younger – are laden with debt, set to be poorer than their parents, and have been told that what older generations took for granted is now an impossibility; and they are soon to stripped of the privileges and possibilities of Britain’s membership of the European Union. This new generation – urban, cosmopolitan, diverse, and networked – is culturally at odds with the insularity of much of contemporary curtain-twitching conservatism. Electorally, they broke powerfully for Labour: the party did best in areas with a high proportion of young voters, strongly winning every age cohort under 44.
Yet Labour also won the backing of more people in work than the Conservatives. These households had felt the impact of a decade of stagnating incomes and the deterioration of cherished public services – schools without supplies, longer hospital waiting times, and diminished public spaces. It is, indeed, shocking that living standards have been eroded for so long with so little political consequence, and so little attention paid to it by the political class. The hidden radicalism of the Conservative manifesto was to offer more of the same. Perhaps it is unsurprising that, when offered an alternative, these groups grabbed it.
Nonetheless, it was an advance, not a victory, for the Left: the common sense of today, the popular ‘everyday thinking’, language and conceptions that frames meaning for people and shape our politics, remains undefined. The political terrain – particularly the changing politics of age, education, and class – remains potentially treacherous for progressives. Crucially, while the Conservatives may aimed for hegemony and achieved humiliation, they nonetheless constructed a powerful national bloc, securing the highest vote share of any party since 1979, which was based on an alliance between pensioners and strong inroads into the older, skilled working class, exemplified by their victory in seats like Mansfield. This was built on a potent confluence of forces. The appeal of authoritarian populist symbolism anchored on Brexit nods towards a more interventionist economics, the lure of strength and stability, and the open rejection of cultural liberalism. This form of conservatism may be stronger in rhetoric than in substance, but it has powerful attractions for many.
The post-election period has surfaced power as the primary principle for the Conservatives. They too face deep challenges, not only in a leadership, but in managing the contradictions and tensions within their coalition. The Conservative Party is a broad church, and once again it faces the prospect of being torn apart by the European question; divided between noisy Brexiteers and increasingly assertive Remainers. The Brexit negotiations and the construction of a post-Brexit political economy are sure to heighten these tensions. Other divisions persist – between economic and social liberals and more traditional Tories, for example. What’s more, a politics of preservation of the status quo will struggle in a period of accelerating economic, social and political change. Nostalgia is a feeling, not a sustainable political strategy or policy position. As Will Davies has argued, May’s vision of a ‘protective state’ may look after its own people, but this is not the same thing as caring for them.
Intellectual rejuvenation on the Right, then, is sorely needed. Much thinking is also required by the standard-bearers of liberalism, a strangely bereft ideological camp in modern Britain, while Scottish nationalism appears in need of a period of convalescence after the resurgence of the unionist vote. We look forward to helping curate these debates in IPPR Progressive Review.
For the Left, the challenge is as clear as it is daunting: to properly flesh out a comprehensive and transformational agenda, which is able to respond to the economic, social and ecological challenges facing the country in a way that broadens support without diluting momentum. This will require detailed institutional design and the hard slog of rigorous policy formulation, underpinned by a sober post-Brexit economic strategy. As Joe Guinan and Thomas Hanna argue in this issue, questions of ownership and control, democracy and sustainability, participation and decentralisation should be at the heart of a new Left political economy. A reimagined and more creative public realm, an attempt to humanise the basic necessities of life – housing, education, health, for example – and a new set of models, institutions, and strategies to fundamentally shift who owns and controls the productive wealth of the country are all required. IPPR Progressive Review will be a space to debate and find answers to these questions, complementing The IPPR Commission on Economic Justice – the Institute’s flagship programme that is examining how best to build an economy that works for everyone.
The immediate challenge for all sides of British politics is, of course, negotiating Brexit and preparing our institutions and economy for the UK’s exit from the EU. Britain enters the negotiations on the back foot, having needlessly alienated allies and wrecked relationships. For centuries, the British state has sought to avoid a unified continental bloc challenging its interests. Now, through its own choices, it must face the brutal realities of the economic weight and power of the EU against an exposed United Kingdom. The European Commission has successfully aligned 27 sovereign governments; the British government cannot even align its own cabinet ministers.
We are seeking to play the unplayable, as Frances Copolla sets out in her article on the negotiations in this issue, with the UK caught between a rock and a hard place. Certainly, as Helen Thompson makes clear in her essay on the Groundhog quality of Brexit, we are set to test – to possible destruction – our presumed negotiating power regarding the UK’s ability to trade freely with its neighbours without ceding to a European political union. Confronting the monumental scale of negotiating our exit from the EU, the UK currently appears as ‘the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells’.
Domestically, meanwhile, the centrifugal forces of Brexit are set to shake and remake our constitutional order, and profoundly destabilise the multi-layered Northern Ireland peace settlement. If the vote to leave the European Union was the first domino to fall, the cascade of consequences will continue long into our future.
What is clear is that Brexit will force us to confront some important truths. Many on the Right see in Brexit a chance to free Britannia from the chains of Brussels, re-energised as a buccaneering trading island. They fool themselves. We have an economy trading in deficit with the rest of the world, an inflated property market that we funnel our savings into instead of productive investment, weak productivity performance, stark regional inequalities, and a debt-laden household sector, with median household disposable income stagnant since around 2005. While there are areas of substantial economic strength, much of British capitalism is anaemic, sheltered – not shackled – by our EU membership.
And the Left, too, faces challenges ahead. The ‘Lexiteers’ see promise in the chance to roll back European structures they see as a form of institutionalised neoliberalism. But to use Brexit to further progressive aims will necessitate rebuilding the capacity of the state at both a national and local level, when it is currently hollowed out, disempowered and fragmented. What is required, then, is the recommencement of what Raymond Williams called ‘the long revolution’ – the steady, irreversible expansion of democratic voice and power through building or reforming institutions of society, market and state and a broadened definition of the political.
IPPR Progressive Review will be a space to debate all this and more. What is the emerging common sense, driven by what economic, social and cultural energies in society, and how can progressives shape and draw on these to create a winning politics? What are the critical debates in contemporary feminism and anti-racist politics? What are the institutions and strategies required to move beyond neoliberalism, towards a more democratic and inclusive economy? What politics and policies are required to ensure technologies do not simply reproduce current inequalities and arrangements of power, but rather create a more abundant and democratic future? And, as we move deeper into the Anthropocene – our new geological era in which human activity is the dominant and destructive influence on the climate and the environment – how do we re-organise our democracy and society so that we can all live well and sustainably in a world of accelerating instability and natural systems change?
Now is the time for progressives to grip these issues and to be bold. The permafrost of ‘no alternatives’ has cracked. The horizon of possibilities is expanding. There is a changed world to be won or lost—and now is the time to seize the opportunity for a progressive future.
Mathew Lawrence and Carys Roberts with Tom Kibasi
As this is the inaugural issue of IPPR Progressive Review, all articles are free to view for 12 months at Wiley Online.