On the 8th of February 2017 Clive Lewis resigned from his position as Shadow Business Secretary on Labour’s front bench. For many in Labour this was a moment of great sadness as he was one of the Shadow Cabinet’s strongest members. He resigned over Brexit. To defy the party whip and vote against leaving the European Union, as his own constituency had done. The interesting part though comes from Clive Lewis’ twitter as, along with his resignation, he tweeted a photo of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock with the caption: “I never took the Kobayashi Maru test until now”. Now, apart from Mr. Lewis’ impressive Trekkie meme game, it struck me that this was the perfect metaphor for Labour’s position right now regarding the EU.
If you’re not as enamoured with Star Trek as I am allow me to explain. The Kobayashi Maru is an exam taken by all students at Starfleet Academy. In the test cadets are tasked with rescuing a civilian transport, the titular Kobayashi Maru, stranded in the Klingon Neutral Zone. Klingons are the aliens who in the 60s were played by white people in, strangely bronze, shoe polish and then in the 80s by actual People of Colour. Cadets must decide whether to leave the people on the Kobayashi Maru to die or attempt a rescue and risk war with the Klingons. Cadets who attempt the rescue will be attacked by an overwhelming force of Klingons and destroyed. The test is impossible to pass and is designed to teach cadets how to deal with “no win scenarios”.
While Clive Lewis may have been referring to his dilemma in supporting the leadership or following through on the will of his constituents Captain Corbyn is currently standing on the bridge of the USS Labour faced with a similar decision.
For many of his crew the choice is obvious. So obvious, in fact, they are surprised he doesn’t seem to have taken it. After all 63% of Labour voters backed Remain, only 1% less than the proportion of SNP voters who chose the EU (Lord Ashcroft Polls). Surely this is a clear enough indication of the views of Labour’s voters? Surely therefore this is the cause the party should back? Additionally many of the young, urban liberals Captain Corbyn has been praised for bringing onto the Labour ship were strong supporters of Remain and the party risks losing them if it backs Article 50. Without the urban, trendy constituencies these voters largely live in it would be extremely difficult for Labour to form a government. Even if Labour did manage to keep most of these people on board, those it would alienate by backing Article 50 might be enough to split the ‘progressive’ vote with the Lib Dems or Greens and hand these seats to the Tories. On top of that if Labour has any hope at all of winning back Scotland, where every constituency backed Remain, Labour has to use every Parliamentary mechanism to try and keep Britain in the European Union. The answer then is clear, this is no Kobayashi Maru you may be thinking, Labour has to fight Article 50.
Well, that’s not exactly the whole picture, though it may look like it from the respected debating chamber of the sort of Kilburn cafe that puts Avocado in milkshakes (if you take nothing else from this, please stop doing that. I don’t care if it makes it ‘frothier’.). But if we look at who voted to leave the EU the appearance of an easy choice soon begins to melt away. If we examine the referendum result through that unfashionable lens: class we find that only the AB class (upper management and above) broke for Remain. The middle class (C1) voted by a small margin to leave and the working classes (C2DE) voted by a margin of 64% to 36% to leave the EU (Lord Ashcroft Polls). This was also the perception before the referendum, that the ‘haves’ would vote to stay and the ‘have nots’ would vote to go. The European Union was perceived as a project of and for the wealthy and not without good reason.
While it’s easy for liberals for dismiss working class concerns as ‘racist’ the EU has always been an institution designed to benefit the powerful at the expense of the powerless. Its system of free movement of capital has done much for the financial industry while making it difficult for EU governments to regulate or tax large businesses who can simply hop over to another EU country willing to let them get away with more. The French government’s 2012 attempt to move the tax burden off its poor and onto millionaires was scuppered by the threat of EU capital flight (Financial Times). I remember, after the referendum, more than one comment piece asking me to weep for the City.
On the other hand EU law explicitly bans the type of state intervention in the economy needed to regenerate former industrial heartlands outside of London and rebalance our society so that it doesn’t solely benefit the one percent (New Statesman). The European Union does this in the name of protecting large businesses, as a state acting in service of its citizens is considered an unconscionable assault on markets. On a grander scale the sort of financial conditions imposed on Greece and other less well off EU countries by the larger and more economically powerful members, chiefly Germany, serves as a good demonstration of how the power relations within the EU work.
On a more practical note the C2DE class brackets who voted most clearly to leave are the class most likely to back Labour at an election and, like urban liberals, the party cannot afford to lose their support. Labour’s heartland in former industrial towns mostly in the North voted strongly to Leave with some of the lowest results for Remain coming from these constituencies (BBC). Disappointing them could make Paul Nuttall’s dream of a UKIP sweep in the North, propelling the would-be NHS privatiser (International Business Times) to Leader of the Opposition, a reality. And as near impossible as it would be for Labour to form a government with a less than stellar performance in liberal urban centres, without the North it would be even worse.
So now we arrive at the dilemma facing Captain Corbyn, standing on the bridge deciding whether to attempt to rescue the Kobayashi EU. Two groups of voters, neither of which he can afford to alienate and a choice to make where no matter what he does he will alienate one of them. On the one hand leaving the Kobayashi EU to its fate would be a terrible loss, leaving us a smaller people with a diminished reputation on the world stage. On the other, the Kobayashi EU probably shouldn’t have wandered into the Neutral Zone of aligning itself with the dominant neo-liberal order that has left so many behind. What’s more, even if Captain Corbyn were to divert all power to the warp engines and rush to the Kobayashi EU’s aid, it would probably still be destroyed by the Klingons as the USS Labour does not have the firepower alone to save her. I don’t know what I’d do in the Captain’s position. I’m glad I’m not leader of the Labour Party or in Starfleet.
Labour’s electoral success has always relied on a precarious alliance between the working class and the more socially liberal elements of the middle class and it is unclear whether this relationship can survive Brexit.
If you’re a Labour supporter who ends up being disappointed I will say this, please don’t abandon them. I’ve heard a lot from friends recently that the EU is the only issue that matters. I voted Remain and I’m sorry but, it isn’t. It sucks that we’re leaving, it sucks that we have made ourselves a more closed off people but there is more going on. The creeping privatisation in our health and education systems, inhuman cuts to disability benefit, our crumbling overpriced transport infrastructure, post-industrial decay, unstable employment, poverty, a crisis in housing, millions of people having to resort to food banks to feed their families and a society that is becoming more and more unequal. These were issues while we were in the EU and they will continue to be issues after we leave. The Greens and Liberal Democrats don’t represent a path to power for the centre-left, the #LibDemFightback has made more of an impact on Twitter than it has on the polls, and the Tories offer only deepening inequality and a more ineffective smaller state.
The Kobayashi Maru was beaten once, by Captain James T. Kirk. He cheated by reprogramming the test to make it easier. Labour can’t reprogram the electorate, but if we can see past this one immediate, emotive decision then there is hope. Otherwise it’s a no win scenario for all of us.