Building the left in the face of Brexit

January 8, 2019

British socialist Charlie Hore comments on a recent SW interview with author Neil Davidson about the crisis in the British politics over the looming “Brexit” deadline.

NEIL DAVIDSON’S interview “No exit from the Brexit crisis” gave an excellent overview of the existential dilemmas facing the Tory government over Brexit and was also very sharp on the insufficiency of Labour’s response — a reality that too many of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are reluctant to face up to.

Neil was equally right about the difficulty of formulating a clear revolutionary response, especially given that the vagaries of parliamentary politics reduce most people to the level of bemused spectators.

However, I think the article goes wrong in its analysis of the original Leave vote and gives an incomplete picture of the left’s views on the European Union (EU) and the EU as a strategic question. A better understanding of these can help to offer some way forward for the internationalist left.

NEIL ARGUED that the leave vote was “a distorted response to unemployment and austerity. The Leave vote is the form of opposition, which is susceptible to the right.”

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“Susceptible” is putting it mildly. The largest survey of referendum voters was organized by the Tory strategist Lord Ashcroft, which found that two-thirds of Leave voters had voted Tory or UK Independence Party (UKIP) at the 2015 general election.

The survey also found that Black and minority ethnic voters and young voters — two groups hit particularly hard by both unemployment and austerity — decisively rejected Leave, with Muslims voting 70 percent Remain.

Ashcroft didn’t ask about trade union membership, but at the 2018 Trades Union Congress (TUC) congress, Steve Turner of the trade union Unite said that 60 percent of trade unionists voted to remain.

Of course, responses to unemployment and austerity played a part in determining how some workers voted, just as some white workers responded in the U.S. by voting for Trump. But as several articles here and elsewhere have spelled out, it’s a myth that Trump’s victory came primarily from white workers’ votes.

Similarly, as I noted in an article written immediately after the referendum: “It’s an odd ‘working-class revolt’ that doesn’t include Scotland, West Belfast, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, London, most union members, most Black and minority ethnic voters, and three-quarters of young voters.”

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Ashcroft’s survey of the 2017 general election found that “just over two thirds (68 percent) of those who voted Conservative said they had voted Leave in the referendum. Just under two thirds (64 percent) of those who voted Labour said they had voted to remain in the EU.” Again, it’s an odd way to protest against austerity and unemployment by re-electing the government responsible for it.

NEIL IS right to say that much of the left has fallen into support for the EU, but to conflate an internationalist view of the EU with support for leaving under any circumstances is a mistake.

It’s entirely possible to argue that the very real attacks on migrant workers’ rights which Brexit will entail are more important than any possible gains from leaving the EU, and that EU membership is not a strategic question that outweighs all others.

This was historically the position of the International Socialists (IS) in Britain, which recognized that the Common Market (as the EU used to be called) was a bosses’ market, but argued that “In or out, workers have to fight.”

In the 1975 referendum, the IS called for a “no” vote, but because of the political consequences, not as an abstract principle. And in the referendum campaign, we spent much of our time attacking the left nationalism of the union bureaucracy, Labour left and Communist Party, which at its worst led to Tony Benn infamously sharing platforms with Enoch Powell.

That left nationalism is alive and well today. Neil is quite right that much of the pro-Remain left has illusions in the EU, but he didn’t mention that much of the pro-Leave left implicitly or explicitly argues that “free movement” is used to attack on British workers, and speaks of understanding “legitimate concerns” about “the negative consequences of immigration for working people.”

As one example of this, a recent article in the Communist Party-supporting Morning Star argued that “Tories such as Jacob Rees-Mogg are doing the work of socialism by supporting the primacy of democratic sovereignty...His is a politics that we can defeat after March 29.”

Neil’s internationalist approach is, of course, utterly different, but it’s important to grasp that internationalists are in a minority on both sides of the argument — and have more in common with each other than with those arguing for the same outcome.

Internationalist arguments are not, however, helped by the “greater evil” view of the EU as a strategic question: “Some country has to start, or else we will be left clinging to the imaginary comfort blanket of the EU forever more.”

The key problem with this formulation is that is that if leaving under any circumstances is a gain for the working class, then Theresa May is somehow — in whatever distorted a form — doing the Lord’s work. Nothing could be more calculated to reinforce the links between anti-racism and support for the EU.

ONE ASPECT of the crisis that Neil didn’t mention was the mass protest last October — some 700,000 people marched through central London demanding a “People’s Vote” (as opposed to Parliament having the final say) on the terms of the Brexit deal, the biggest demonstration in Britain since the million-plus antiwar march of 2003.

The leaders of the movement are liberal and centrist politicians, and for many of them, the issue is mainly important as a stick to beat Jeremy Corbyn with. However, you cannot always read off the politics of a mass protest from the ideas of those leading it. A recent poll of Labour Party members and voters showed that while the great majority oppose Brexit, they remain supportive of Corbyn — they just disagree with his current approach.

Most opinion polls suggest that a narrow majority of voters would back such a second referendum, and that a similar majority now think Brexit is a mistake — as, for instance, the 2017 Channel Four poll of over 20,000 voters or an even larger poll conducted last month. An online poll of the college lecturers’ union University and College Union saw 92 percent of those who responded backing the demand.

The demand has such a resonance for precisely the reasons that Neil outlined: Brexit is increasingly looking as though it’s going to be a costly disaster which will leave most people worse off, and one for which no one has a clear solution. When Jacob Rees-Mogg, the high priest of Brexit, says that it might take 50 years to feel the benefits of Brexit, you get some sense of the gap between Tory ideology and reality.

Plus, a government announcement slipped out during the holidays spelled out the consequences of May’s deal for workers from other EU countries: Anyone wishing to stay in Britain after June 2021 must apply for “settled status,” by proving that they have been here for five years, undergoing a criminal record check and paying a hefty fee. This applies not just to adults, but to children, including those born here — the cost for a family of four will be $250.

The timescales mean that if everyone eligible applied, the system would need to process some 4,000 applications every single day.

While this will be onerous enough for younger workers, it will be far worse for the uncounted numbers of older people who came here from the 1940s to the 1960s and never formally changed their status. As the implications of this sink in, this could well become a major campaigning issue.

THIS CLOSE to the leave date, there are three broad possible outcomes.

The first (unlikely but not impossible) is that May’s deal, or a tweaked version of it, will get approved though fear of the consequences of “no deal.” This would be a major defeat, both because it would temporarily resolve the Tories’ crisis, and because it would involve numbers of Labour MPs voting for it, which would be a significant blow to Corbyn’s leadership.

The second is that nothing can be agreed to, Labour’s no-confidence vote fails, and the drift towards a no-deal Brexit continues. This is again unlikely, but far from impossible. The gap between the maximum concessions that the EU will make and the “red lines” of the DUP and Tory right may simply be unbridgeable. And a recent survey of Tory party members and voters suggests that this is their preferred option, so there will be minimal pressure on Tory MPs from the base.

The millions of pounds currently being invested in storage facilities by major companies, and the contingency plans being drawn up by government departments, suggest that they think the threat is real — though as I was drafting this article, news broke that the government has awarded a $17 million contract for ferry services to a company that owns no ships and has never run a ferry service, so there are some questions over how meticulous the planning is.

The third option is simply postponing the leave date, which may come about through a sudden U-turn by May, a revolt by MPs from all sides or even a general election. The earliest possible election date is February, which would give an incoming government some six weeks to negotiate a leaving deal — clearly an impossible task. Postponing would be almost unavoidable in that situation.

A general election bringing Corbyn into office would obviously be a game-changer, and the ramifications of it lie beyond the scope of this reply. However, it’s far from being a certainty.

The key task is building a fight against austerity and for migrant rights, but holding to leaving the EU as an immediate goal will not help with this. At the moment, a necessary part of defending migrant rights is opposing any Tory version of Brexit. The old slogan “The main enemy is at home” remains a key guide for revolutionaries.

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