Brexit Divides the British Left

Peter Solenberger

Posted July 16, 2019

The Left Bloc for the “No to Boris — Yes to Europe” march on July 20, 2019

The British working class is divided over the question of Britain’s leaving the European Union (EU), popularly known as “Brexit.” The trade unions and the Labour Party are debating whether Britain should remain or leave. So far they have not been able to decide.

The British far left is divided too. The articles below represent three different positions on Brexit. All see the inability of the Labour Party to articulate a Brexit policy as dangerous to its prospects and to the recovery of the workers’ movement in Britain. All want to go beyond Labourism, even Jeremy Corbyn’s version, to nationalization of key sectors of the economy and democratic planning to deal with the climate and social crises. But they differ on how this relates to Brexit.

The article Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry are correct on Brexit by Alan Davies presents the views of Socialist Resistance (SR), the British affiliate of the Fourth International (FI). Solidarity is a U.S. affiliate of the FI. The article argues against Brexit:

Despite SR’s long held opposition to the EU as a neoliberal, anti-working class project, it has been against Brexit since the referendum was announced by Cameron in 2016. This was because the Brexit on offer was, and still is, a project of the hard right shaped by racism, xenophobia, English nationalism, and nostalgia for Empire. A Brexit that would fuel racism and shift the political situation in Britain, and indeed beyond, sharply to the right. The recent election results have only reinforced that view.

The article May is going, what next for Corbyn? by Sally Campbell presents the views of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of Britain. Citing the example of an industrial worker whose plant had been closed, it argues for a Left Exit:

In the Euro elections last month, he [the worker whose plant had been closed] voted for the Brexit Party. Is Labour to abandon such people to racist Trump-wannabe Nigel Farage [leader of the Brexit party]? With British Steel in Scunthorpe currently facing a similar fate, the argument must be that Labour and the unions should lead a fight to save jobs and for nationalisation and to do this they will have to challenge the EU, not campaign for it as if it is some kind of saviour of workers’ rights.

The article We Need a Labour Brexit is by by Costas Lapavitsas, a former Syriza member of the Greek parliament who quit Syriza to help found Popular Unity in August 2015. The article appears in Jacobin. It argues for a Labour Brexit to reverse the loss of popular sovereignty and democracy through the European Union:

Signed in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty represented the victory of neoliberalism in the European Union, as expressed by the single market and the single currency. Since then, democracy has steadily retreated across the European Union, accompanied by a collapse of popular sovereignty — the power of workers and the poor materially to affect their conditions of life and work.

The debate over Brexit is similar to the debate over trade and immigration in the U.S. Brexit would allow Britain to restrict trade and exclude immigrants. Would this save British jobs and make Britain great again, as its rightwing proponents claim?

Should revolutionary socialists embrace the class aspect of the sentiment for Brexit and try to harness it to an anticapitalist, internationalist project? Or is the sentiment so interwoven with racism, xenophobia and nationalism that the left should oppose Brexit?

We republish the three articles so that activists in the U.S. can see how politically intelligent people are trying to sort out the complexities of Brexit. Their debate can help shed light on our situation, since the same economic and political forces are at work here.

“Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry are correct on Brexit” by Alan Davies

“May is going, what next for Corbyn?” by Sally Campbell

“We Need a Labour Brexit” by Costas Lapavitsas


3 responses to “Brexit Divides the British Left”

  1. Frans Cobben Avatar

    Many British middle class socialists in London dislike the white working class in Leeds, Bradford and Liverpool.

    1. Ed Avatar

      “Many British middle class socialists in London dislike the white working class in Leeds, Bradford and Liverpool.”

      There’s no ‘white working class’, although there are white workers. Liverpool voted for Remain by a large majority, Leeds also voted Remain although by a very small majority.

      1. Chris Edwards Avatar
        Chris Edwards

        The working class Brexit voters are mainly concentrated in the smaller towns outside the big provincial urban centres of Liverpool (Merseyside), Greater Manchester, Leeds-Bradford, Sheffield (Don Valley), Tyneside, Cardiff-Swansea etc. They are often former centres of heavy industry: coal field towns (Wigan, Barnsley, County Durham, South Wales valleys) and steel towns whose industries have been decimated by neoliberalism and globalisation. Some are former textile towns whose industries were similarly decimated two generations ago. These small provincial towns have been neglected for decades now. Similar to the US rust belt, I don’t doubt. These small towns often don’t have universities and the only prospects are low paid, imnmsecure Mac jobs and the gig economy. This has mostly happened in the period since the UK joined the EU in the mid-70s and many see the neoliberal ethos of the EU as the cause.