Put Labour at the head of the anti-Brexit movement

Socialist Resistance

Anti-Brexit, anti-fascist rally, London, December 9, 2018 (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Theresa May has, unsurprisingly, survived the vote of no confidence moved by Labour with the solid support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the European Research Group after suffering the biggest Parliamentary defeat in British political history on her exit agreement from the EU. The defeat saw both those fighting to stop Brexit altogether and those who don’t believe May’s deal delivers ‘enough Brexit’ celebrating together inside and outside parliament.

Labour was bound to call the confidence vote both because of its own conference decision and because, in the face of such a huge crisis, it would have been inexplicable not to follow it through to the next logical step. The government has been roundly defeated on the most significant political issue for 50 years, so the government should fall. The ruling Conservative party is deeply divided in that crisis so those tensions must be teased out.

But at the same time, the confidence vote predictably played into May’s hands by diverting attention from the defeat itself and allowing her to claim it as a mandate to continue in office without an election. This was because, despite the current polls, the Tories are convinced that Labour would win in the event of an election taking place.

The reality remains, however, that she lost the vote on her deal by a massive 230 votes that included virtually all Labour, Scottish National Party (SNP), LibDem MPs and 118 Tory MP’s — which includes most of those not employed by the government.

Dogmatic

Remarkably, May emerged from a defeat of this scale with the same sense of denial and dogmatic attitude to reality that led to that situation in the first place. She immediately announced that, in effect, nothing had changed. She would continue to implement her exit agreement despite the vote. Her agreement, she insisted, was the only option on the table and Britain will leave the EU on March 30 with or without an agreement. In other words, the same crash out, default position remains legally in place unless parliament changes it.

The only ‘concession’ she made was that before she puts all this formally to the House on Monday (as required) she will hold informal discussions with the DUP and ‘other senior parliamentarians’, but not include the Labour front bench. By the time she rose to respond to the result of the no confidence vote, however, her stance had been modified. Her consultations would now include the leaderships of the opposition parties — including Jeremy Corbyn. This was after she had just launched the most vitriolic personal attack on Corbyn for some time with charges of antisemitism top of the list.

Talks

Corbyn’s response was that he would only be prepared to take part in such discussions if May would demonstrate that they would be meaningful, by ruling out a disorderly crash out of the EU on March 30 in advance. May refused and his stance is entirely justified. The Labour front bench is also right to suggest the government needs urgently to extend Article 50, something that May and her government are resolutely refusing to do.

May had made it very clear that that the purpose of her meetings with other MPs is to discuss not a change in position but how to get her deal though parliament and to ‘implement the decision of the British people in the referendum’.

The SNP accepted the invitation to talks but insisted that the issues of the suspension of Article 50 and a second referendum would be on the table as well. The suspension of Article 50 is indeed very important and in fact likely to happen given how close we are to crashing out.

In Scotland itself, pressure is growing on the SNP to call a second Independence referendum. A poll for The Herald, published in Glasgow shows 56.5% of those polled calling for this if the British state crashes out of the EU. The headline of 16 January’s National was ‘Independence is the only way out of this mess’.

Inadequate

Whilst Corbyn’s has been right not to engage in pointless discussions with May, his wider response remains entirely inadequate. It is right to call for a general election but, were it to happen, it would be seriously problematic. Even at this late stage Corbyn is unable to say whether Labour’s stand would be pro-or anti Brexit. He sticks to the illusion that there is some kind of left wing or progressive Brexit possible in this situation when there is not, or indeed a jobs friendly Brexit. It is a dangerous delusion.

When May presents her official ‘plan B’ on Monday it is likely to be ‘plan A’ dressed up in a slightly different way. The only viable answer to this is a second referendum, which remains the only chance of ending this whole process. The denunciation of this by Brexiteers as a betrayal of the 2016 referendum is politically illiterate as well as dangerous. Why is it a crime to allow people a second vote when parliament is deadlocked and the situation has changed? Asking the people becomes a betrayal of the people.

The New York Times has defended a second referendum by saying that a democracy that does not allow people to think again is not a democracy — which is a very good point. (May, of course, having denounced a second referendum as undemocratic, will bring her exit agreement back to parliament for a second vote as soon as possible, and maybe a third vote after that).

In fact, it is worse than that if we take the concrete situation. If a referendum calls for a course of action which turns out to be impossible to implement without doing yourself serious damage, can you really say that giving people the chance to think again is a betrayal of democracy?

Meanwhile, support for a second referendum grows — even amongst Tory MPs. The problem is that Jeremy Corbyn is the key to it but continues to be vague. With his support it is now entirely possible, but without his support it will never happen. Without a referendum May will attempt to fritter away the remaining weeks before a crash out.

Recall Labour conference

In such a situation there is an urgent need for a Labour to involve its membership in policy making on this issue by calling a special conference on the way forward. Labour conference in October 2018 was right to adopt a motion that could be and was supported by all strands of opinion in the party, but now this is entirely inadequate.

The Labour leadership should be putting itself at the head of the anti-Brexit movement. Not to do so strengthens the hands of the right inside the party and, even worse, seriously undermines the possibility of a Corbyn government. And if Labour were to co-operate in seeing any Brexit, however soft, in the current political situation, either with the Tories or in its own name, it would be blamed for the disastrous consequences for generations to come.

This article appeared on the Socialist Resistance website on January 17, 2019 here. Socialist Resistance is the British section of the Fourth International.

Britain: The strategic perplexity of the Left on Brexit

Richard Seymour

Labour and the Left are divided over Brexit (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

What do we do about Brexit? May’s deal is toast, so what now?

This is obviously not the Left’s baby. We didn’t bring it about: rather, Brexit occurred as a result of a struggle between factions of the Conservative Party in which the worst side won. It won, in no small part, because there was barely a left-wing argument heard in the referendum campaign, so that even the substratum of legitimate social anger that drove some of the Brexit vote was articulated with right-wing anti-immigration and sovereigntist politics. The Left was pinned to the status quo vote, with at most a nebulous commitment to ’reforming’ the EU — and was hurt by that.

And this is the problem the Left faces now. There seems little doubt that Theresa May will lose tonight’s vote on her Brexit deal. Had she won the June 2017 snap election more convincingly, she would probably have had a big enough majority to negotiate any deal she wanted. Corbyn’s position would have been weak enough for large numbers of Labour MPs to defect. Indeed, that’s probably one of the reasons why she called a snap election when Labour was so far behind in the polls, and the ’UKIP effect’ looked likely to turn a string of working class seats blue. But because Labour ran on an insurgent-left agenda, foregrounding class politics, the Tory majority was eliminated. Hence, May’s dependence on Tory Right headbangers and the DUP. That’s why there’s no majority for May’s deal.

But if there is no parliamentarymajority for May’s deal, there is also no publicmajority for any outcome. The most recent polling on Brexit shows a marked fragmentation of opinion. It really proves Bourdieu’s adage that “public opinion does not exist”. The state of opinion is a “system of forces and tensions” which cannot, at the best of times, be adequately represented by a magic percentage. Not every opinion is equal, in the intensity of its conviction or in its material consequences. And the practical importance of opinion depends on how it is harnessed by political leadership, and quite diverse tendencies fused into a single viable bloc.

The Tories are split along class lines: working-class Tories and the middle-class Right cleave mostly to hard-Brexit, while the bourgeois Right prefer the softest possible Brexit. What about the Left? Beyond a bottom line, bien-pensant Remainerism, the things that unite and animate the Left tend not to have to do with Brexit. And the difficulty facing the Left is that it can’t simply defend the status quo, and it doesn’t have a left-insurgent position available either. Left-Remain is a status quo position, while Lexit has never been given any convincing programmatic explanation. Brandishing “reform” as a slogan is not the same thing as knowing how to get it, and critique is not the same thing as a programme for transformation. Still less do slogans, critiques or even programmes, amount to the kinds of social forces capable of achieving these objectives. After all, whether we’re reforming the EU, an institution even more deeply resistant to democratic change than its member-states, or reforming British capitalism while transitioning away from EU membership, it requires a fundamental renegotiation of the current, failing social compact. That needs organised communities everywhere, capable of arguing for it, and helping to build it.

As it stands, the left-most Brexit available seems to be a more-or-less humane, top-down transition, with economic dislocations limited as far as possible, some form of free movement preserved, and British capitalism still very much in the orbit of this rule-making behemoth, the EU. The other option, of a ’second vote’, doesn’t look like much of an option to me. Aditya Chakrabortty makes a thoughtful plea for Corbyn to back this option, and for Labour to campaign militantly for Remain. But how? He admits that it comes with the significant risk of major social backlash and a split Labour Party. I’d say the problems go deeper than that. Even if the parliamentary majority for such a vote could be found, and a delay in Article 50 negotiated, and a referendum organised that wasn’t skewed toward May’s deal, how is Labour supposed to campaign from the Left? Chakrabortty recommends a more emphatic re-run of the failed 2016 campaign, with Labour talking up the ’social’ aspects of the European Union. But there’s a reason why that wasn’t enough to win the first time.

In fact, it could be worse than 2016. Chakrabortty doesn’t mention migration but, at least in the ’first referendum’, the Labour leadership made a case for free movement, while Labour centrists either evaded it or demanded tougher rhetoric and harder borders. Alan Johnson, leader of Labour’s Remain campaign, offered the anti-immigrant defence of free movement: the worst of all worlds. In 2019, after two years of not being ’wedded’ to free movement as a principle — a big mistake in my opinion — it is hard to see how Labour could make a militant defence of it. The official People’s Vote campaign is committed to claiming that, actually, the EU does allow states to restrict migration. And Alan Johnson, Tony Blair, and Ken Clarke, all want to run on the basis that the real problem is non-EU migrants, and EU security measures need to be improved. A campaign run on this basis would be an absolute, demoralising, racist disaster. It would turn off quite a lot of the most passionate Remain vote, split the Left, and the nationalist Right would be the most likely to benefit from it. And the result would either be a second win for Brexit, with Jacob Rees-Mogg being the major winner, or such a narrow Remain win (say 52-48) that nothing is fundamentally resolved. What then? Best of three?

There is no obviously ’winning’ position. This is not, for the most part, a problem caused by the shortcomings of a specific leadership or political tendency. It is not a problem caused by a failure of political will and imagination. The Brexit vote was a manifestation of the stalemate of Britain’s institutions, the crisis of neoliberal capitalism, and the long-term recrudescence of racist nationalism. The latter in particular has enabled the displacement of these crises through the dreamwork of nationalist restoration. Labour’s strategy thus far has been to try to reverse this displacement, change the question, shift the terrain to one of class. But there is no quick and expedient way to undo this work, and reverse its effects, and doing so would require a far more combative politics on race and migration, willing to risk unpopularity.

There are long-term tendencies in British society pointing to the erosion of nationalist and racist solidarities, but it requires political leadership to take advantage of that and fundamentally change political alignments. And that would have to come from the organised membership, since many in the shadow cabinet and the trade union leaderships would outright oppose it.

Absent that work, we are where we are, with a series of bad choices dictated by different parts of the political Right.

This article appeared on January 15, 2019 on the
Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières website here.

Two steps to stop Brexit

Socialist Resistance

November 25, 2018

The following statement of position is from Socialist Resistance, the British section of the Fourth International. It explains their opposition to “Brexit,” the exit of Britain from the European Union (EU). The Conservative (Tory) government just reached an agreement with the EU leaders for terms of the March 2019 exit. The British Labour Party and the British left are sharply divided over Brexit. The statement was originally piublished here.

  1. We called for a vote to Remain in the referendum in 2016 as the Leave campaign was totally dominated by a nationalist and xenophobic reaction to globalisation. We did so in the knowledge that the EU is an undemocratic neoliberal institution, and is a necessary instrument for big business and finance in the era of globalised capitalism. Voting Remain was to defeat the far right.
  2. In the present situation, there is no space for a Left Brexit. Any such Left Brexit would have to be in the context of mass mobilisations and a radical left government confronting the neoliberal EU. This is even more obvious today.
  3. It was correct in the immediate aftermath of the referendum to state that it should be respected, as a re-run then would have been seen as a manoeuvre to overturn the decision.
  4. All forms of Brexit will entail economic disruption to a greater or lesser extent depending on whether it is a hard/no deal Brexit or a soft one. The cost of this disruption will be passed on to the working class and the poor who have not yet recovered from the crash in 2008. All Brexits, even soft ones, will also entail the loss of the democratic right of freedom of movement of people throughout the EU 28.
  5. Now, two and half years on, with the information out in the open as to the consequences of the various Brexit deals, the call for another referendum or people’s vote on any deal, including an option to Remain, is legitimate in the present circumstances. The issue of whether referendums are a good way to decide on government policy in general is a different discussion.
  6. We welcome the Labour Party position adopted at its recent conference in so far as it opposes any Tory deal, that there should be a general election if the Tories lose the vote in Parliament, and “if we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote”. This implies a referendum with the option to vote Remain and this should be in the Labour Party manifesto.
  7. But while Labour’s “six tests” means that they will vote against any Tory Brexit, these tests also commits Labour to “a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU” and the “the fair management of migration”. In other words a very soft Brexit without free movement of people.
  8. We continue to oppose any Brexit, including a soft one, and call for a vote against all Brexit options in Parliament and to Remain in the EU, including in a referendum.
  9. The Labour Party should adopt a position of opposition to all forms of Brexit, and take the leadership of the anti-Brexit movement. Failure to do so risks the Labour Party losing a general election and the future of the “Corbyn movement”.
  10. Given the crisis and meltdown of the Tories, the central agitational demand today is for the Tories to step aside and for a general election, followed by a referendum on the outcome of negotiations.
  11. While opposing the neoliberal and undemocratic EU, we support the call for “Another Europe” based on opposition to neoliberalism, popular democracy, respect for the rights of nations, freedom of movement for people, an end to fortress Europe and militarism, and for economic and political solidarity. We should sketch a new vision for the 21st century to update the “united socialist states of Europe”. We do not have any illusion that the EU, just like the UK, can be reformed and democratised without mass struggles.
  12. We will participate in mobilisations for another referendum or a “people’s vote” but we do not support the “People’s Vote” campaign as it is dominated politically by neoliberals and Europhiles. We support the “Another Europe is Possible” campaign and other similar European-wide campaigns.