Labour’s loss in Copeland shows we’re still living in Tory Brexit la la land

The EU referendum result allowed the Tory party to effectively win a landslide victory against itself. Instead of being viewed as an incumbent party with 6 years in office, they are instead being treated as a newly-elected government. This honeymoon undoubtedly helped the Tories win a seat in Labour’s backyard – but it may not last long.

It’s not surprising to hear many commentators hailing Labour’s loss of Copeland as an historic defeat and a portent of doom at the next election. Conventional wisdom says that by-elections are voters’ opportunity to lash out at incumbent governments. To see a so-called Labour safe seat change hands to the Tories after 6 years of Conservative rule is understandably worrying for the Labour camp. But in this post Brexit, post Trump world, so much pre-held political wisdom must now be considered obsolete.

For Britain, everything changed on the June 23rd 2016. With the resignation of David Cameron and the subsequent removal of almost his entire cabinet, the Tories effectively re-branded themselves as a new government – with Theresa May appointing her new cabinet of Brexiteers and behaving as if she’d just won a general election.

The Brexit vote was such a watershed moment for the Tories (and for the country), that the continuity that would normally happen when a leader hands over power to their successor (i.e. Blair/Brown) was simply not present.

To the general public, Theresa May and her government represent a brand new Government – marking a clean break with the Cameron ministry that preceded it. That they are in fact one and the same (with a new leader) is a technicality lost on the public. They perceive May and Co with the same sense of novelty and vigor normally only enjoyed by a party winning power after years spent in opposition.

In effect, the Brexit result allowed the Tory party to win a landslide victory against itself – and reap all the benefits (their showing in the polls and this by-election win certainly bears that out.)

There’s no doubt that at the next general election, the winning party will be the one deemed most able to manage and deliver Brexit. The Tories already have a huge advantage here, because in the eye’s of the public they own the issue of Brexit – it is as much their pet project as the NHS is for Labour. The figureheads of the leave campaign were all Tories (with the exception of Nigel Farage) and now some of the most fervent breixiteers (David Davies, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson) occupy senior cabinet positions.

But just as this Brexit rebirth has buoyed the Tories to heights not seen in decades, their self-assuredness may yet backfire. Their popularity stems from their clear message that we will be better off out of the EU than in it.

But the public’s view on what ‘better off’ really means may not match the eventual deal that the government delivers. For many leave voters, the leave campaign’s pledge to divert £350 million a week to the NHS was a strong argument for leaving. Even stronger was the pledge to significantly reduce immigration in the short term. The government are now saying that neither of these things may be deliverable.

Eurosceptic stalwarts like Daniel Hannan argue that these were never the core arguments for Brexit – and that ‘taking back control’ from Brussels and reclaiming our democratic independence were always the priorities. But this is a fantasy. While these may have been long held ambitions for some Tory backbenchers, there’s no doubt that without UKIP’s anti-immigration rhetoric, the question of EU membership would have remained a minor issue in the eyes of the public.

The period between the referendum result on June 28th 2016 and the triggering of Article 50 at the end of March 2017 may come to be seen as the ‘phoney war’ period of the whole Brexit saga. Until the Government’s ‘have our cake and eat it’ plan is put to the EU 27, there can be no certainty of the government achieving any of the aims it has spent the last 8 months filling the airwaves with. If things go sour, and leave voters feel they’ve been hoodwinked on the NHS and immigration promises, then this Tory fairytale that delivered them Copeland could well come to a sudden end.

This isn’t a referendum on the EU, it’s a choice between a moderate right or a hard right Britain

Far from being an exercise in pure democracy, the EU referendum is effectively a power-grab by opportunist forces of the hard right within the Tory party, cheered on by UKIP. Their post-Brexit ‘New Britain’ will be a Disneyland for neo-liberals, big corporations and the super-rich – with much of the social progress we have made in the last 50 years lost forever.

Much has been written about the potential damage that could be done in the event of a Brexit vote. Most of the discussion has been framed around the economy – falling house prices, the pound in freefall and the risk of being pushed to the back of the queue for international trade.

But there’s a far more worrying outcome to a Brexit vote – a substantial shift in the political landscape of Britain, one that could see us lurch drastically to the hard right as a nation. It could well be a shift so severe that it changes the political landscape forever. All that the labour movement has worked for over the last half century could be lost – social justice, social mobility, workers’ rights and equality, all fuel for the potential bonfire of rights that the Brexiters will set ablaze if they get to run the country.

Much of the blame falls squarely at the feet of the Conservative party and its inability to reconcile its natural eurosceptic position with the need to appear as a centrist, modernist party in order to appeal to the electorate.

This identity crisis could have gone unchecked if not for the rise of UKIP – who have blamed rising inequality on the changing demographics of modern society (specifically immigrants). UKIP have successfully sold much of Britain on a promise that Brexit will stop immigration and therefore provide the secure jobs, affordable housing and higher wages that poorer communities in Britain have seen disappear over the last couple of decades.

The opportunist hard right of the Tory party has also flocked to the Brexit bandwagon, with the likes of Johnson, Gove and IDS much happier to blame immigrants for the UK’s breakdown in social mobility than accept that their own brand of Thatcherite, neo-liberal economics is the real culprit.

The Tories still have no answers to this great flaw in their ideology: that more liberalised market economics has ultimately brought about greater inequality, not less. Endless privatisation and austerity has simply exacerbated the problem and many smaller, rural or working class communities (where inequality is greatest), are ready to vent their frustration by taking aim at the target UKIP has painted on the backs of immigrants.

This referendum has become an opportunity for all of those that feel forgotten or left behind to stick two fingers up to the establishment by voting to leave. The more they hear politicians bleat about the risks of leaving the EU, the more inclined they are to vote leave.

But what few seem to be concerned about currently (especially in the midst of referendum fever) is who will build this new post-Brexit Britain if we leave and what will it look like? It certainly won’t be the forces of socialism or any group remotely on the left. It’s going to be the likes of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and Nigel Farage.

This ‘New Britain’ will be a Disneyland for neo-liberals, big corporations and the super-rich. The few checks and balances that held these forces in check will disappear – as will the workers’ rights so hard won by the labour movement over the last half century.

The secure jobs, affordable housing and higher wages that the Brexiters promise will inevitably fail to materialise. No doubt PM Boris will blame this on factors outside of our control – an international slowdown in the markets, the EU bullies giving poor little Britain a hard time by refusing to strike trade deals.

By then it will be too late. The Brexit brigade will have achieved their ultimate aim – they will have shifted the political goalposts in Britain irreversibly to the hard right, meaning they can finally fulfil their wildest fantasies: Completely privatising all public services (including the NHS), giving big corporations free reign to buy Britain wholesale and turning the UK into a playground for tax avoiding millionaires from across the globe. Meanwhile the rest of Britain will continue to see their job prospects diminish, their wages stagnate and housing becoming almost completely unaffordable.

‘If they fail us, remove them from power’ you may say – but if there’s one thing that hard right, fascist governments do excel at, it’s corrupting and fixing the system so they cannot be removed from power. Democracy will be the first thing they sell off once they make their big power grab.

If this referendum had been called by a socialist government on the grounds that we wanted to make a Britain that had better workers’ rights than the EU, banned any sort of TTIP deals and abandoned the EU’s acceptance of austerity economics – this would be an entirely different situation. But that’s not what’s happening here – this referendum is a choice between a moderate right or a hard right Britain.

Both the leave campaign’s immigration argument and the remain campaign’s economic argument may leave a sour taste in the mouths of those on the left – but a vote to leave the EU is ultimately a vote for a Tory Brexit and for a Britain that will be a far more unequal, far crueler country than the one we live in today.