LONDON — Jeremy Corbyn took the stage Monday night to thank a diverse crowd of several thousand followers gathered in Westminster to show Labour Party members of Parliament that their leader still had widespread public support. Undeterred by the fact that two-thirds of his shadow Cabinet had resigned in the previous 24 hours, Corbyn reminded the public that the political party he leads has its roots in activism, trade union movements, women’s rights and socialism—and he wasn’t going to forget that as so many in his party seem to have.
Like many at the rally, I asked myself how the Labour leader had become the headline in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, a public vote on whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union or leave it. (As the world knows by now, the Leaves had it.) To me it seemed that the decision had given progressives like Corbyn the opportunity to push a leftist agenda as the Conservative government crumbled. It’s been clear since he was elected in a landslide less than a year ago that many centrist and right-wing Labour politicians were unhappy with the socialist leading the party. And yet, I had assumed now would be the time for Labour to unite behind him and deal with the “catastrophe” the Tories had set in motion with the EU referendum, especially as the threat from the xenophobic far right gained traction. But just as I had been wrong in my prediction of the Brexit vote results (as had been the polls, politicians and pretty much everyone), I was wrong about Labour.
On Friday, London woke up in shock to the news that 52 percent of British voters had chosen to leave the EU. I had spent the previous day on the streets of the capital, talking to people, both those who could and those who couldn’t vote, about the referendum. I realized early on that the polls were right: The country was divided on the topic, even in London. My first, rather unfortunate encounter was with a man at my local Wetherspoons pub who spouted racist quips about Muslims and refugee children. But he was the only one out of dozens I spoke to that day who expressed so much hate. Others, such as my Northern English flatmate, explained their “Leave” votes in terms of EU regulations killing small businesses in the U.K. Even so, there was a consistent thread in even the less-heated conversations—immigration.
“The U.K. can’t control its borders,” one woman told me as her friend, who couldn’t vote because of her immigration status, stood by.
When my British partner, Richard, and I braved floods and train cancellations to reach East Sussex so he could vote in the village where he grew up, we were greeted by his mother and grandmother, who’d voted by mail days before.
Over tea and cake, his grandmother explained her Leave vote: “It’s natural that us older folks want to leave the world how we came into it.” She, like 59 percent of her age group, did not seem to mind that the world they wanted to leave for their descendants was not the one the young people wanted.
Richard has spent almost as much of his life outside of England as he has here—he’s lived, studied and worked in Spain, Norway, Portugal and Scotland. I too have spent a lot of time in the EU countries—in Spain, Portugal and Scotland with him, as well as in the Irish Republic and England for various stints of study and work. To both of us, the choice by so many Britons on Thursday truly came as a shock, even after all the conversations we’d had with people of various ages who had vowed to vote Leave. Like Greece’s Yanis Varoufakis, we still believed in a progressive vision of what the European Union could someday become — perhaps in the hands of our generation, a majority of which voted Stay.
As a second-generation American who has spent plenty of time filling out EU visa forms and standing in seemingly endless immigration lines, I have always envied my European friends their star-covered passports that allowed them to live and work in so many countries. Rich and I will have to cut through a lot of red tape (including providing proof of income and evidence that we’ve maintained a meaningful relationship for more than two years) so that I can more permanently live with him in the U.K., where he now works. But our European friends have no such hassles. Even more envy-provoking were their E111 health cards, granting them free access to all public health systems in the EU. Many of our peers, Richard included, had also taken part in the Erasmus Programme, a study-abroad project that encourages university students throughout the EU to immerse themselves in the many languages, cultures and ideas that the union represented.
The European Union, however, goes beyond passports, healthcare, working rights and study-abroad programs, and I have witnessed firsthand the pain a disconnected political elite in Brussels has inflicted on countries such as Spain and Portugal through brutal austerity measures. I watched in horror as Germany wielded its considerable power against Greece and forced the country’s vulnerable back against another economic wall. I even understood the leftist case for leaving the EU, and yet I was still more in line with the Labour Party’s John McDonnell and with Varoufakis, who “campaigned for a radical remain vote reflecting the values of our pan-European Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25) … argued that its disintegration would unleash deflationary forces of the type that predictably tighten the screws of austerity everywhere and end up favouring the establishment and its xenophobic sidekicks.”