There is no such thing as Lexit
Four months after the EU referendum the consequences of pursuing Brexit are starting to unfold, revealing the reality of its reactionary character. Despite negotiations between the Tory government and the EU-27 not having even started, Brexit’s negative consequences are already being felt.
The scapegoating of immigrants framed the central message of the pro-Brexit side in the referendum. Racism and xenophobia set the agenda and this reactionary politics was echoed less vociferously by the Tory-led Remain campaign.
Since the referendum the Tories have shifted sharply to the right and at their party conference the main propaganda focus was on reducing immigration. The government made a series of policy announcements, about employers, the NHS and higher education, which it claims will reduce the number of people coming to Britain.
Economic policy is being subordinated to racism. To stop the free movement of EU people it is proposed that Britain withdraws from the Single Market. Britain’s economy is reliant on the Single Market, which is the destination for about half of UK exports. The Single Market requires the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. Leaving it would be economically irrational – as it would entail a reduction in the economy’s size, substantial losses of jobs, cuts to real wages and living standards. Under current conditions there is no prospect of improving living standards outside the EU, which would require both vastly increased alternative trade links and hugely increased investment.
Simply proposing a hard Brexit is already adversely affecting people and implementing it would inflict far greater damage. Investment decisions in manufacturing are being put on hold and some jobs are moving abroad in the service sector. The cost of living for the population is rising following the collapse of the pound. Racist violence has increased, fanned by the hostility whipped up against immigrants and foreign workers.
The EU is not going to offer Britain exit terms where it keeps the benefits of EU membership but avoids abiding by EU rules. Britain is in a weak bargaining position and is excluded from the EU discussions on Brexit. Germany is leading these negotiations amongst the 27 other EU states. They will decide the proposed terms for Britain’s departure, with the Tory government having little say.
British living standards can only be harmed by leaving the Single Market. So it is important to fight to stay in it. The free movement of people is integral to the market, which would grind to a halt without it. Immigration helps raise living standards, not lowers them as is falsely claimed by the right wing. From a Marxist point of view all value is created by labour. Additional labour has the potential to create additional value, and in Britain migrants actually create a disproportionate amount of value. There is no empirical evidence whatever that immigrants lower ‘indigenous’ people’s living standards. On the contrary they boost economic growth in Britain.
Being in the Single Market but not the EU would be incoherent for an economy as large as Britain’s. Membership of the Single Market but not the EU would leave Britain without any say over the rules that govern it and possibly paying a greater contribution too.
The EU is a capitalist institution in the hands of the bourgeoisie. If people were faced with the choice of pursuing socialism or being in the EU it would be correct to leave the EU. But that is not remotely the current situation in Britain. The working class is no position to replace the capitalist economy with a different type of economic organisation. Socialism is not on the agenda at present. The real choice available is between being in the EU with more jobs or out of the EU with jobs losses and lower living standards. Brexit, the latter option, can only make people poorer.
All progressives and especially all socialists must defend the population’s living standards. That means continuing the fight to stay in the EU and the Single Market, with free movement of people.
Proposals to campaign for a ‘Lexit,’ a left wing departure from the EU, or a ‘peoples Brexit’, reflect a complete misjudgement of the situation. The economy will be smaller than otherwise, living standards are being lowered and public finances much worse. The idea that any of these can improve with Brexit is delusional. There is no mechanism for imposing a different outcome on this Government outside the EU. Breaking the economic connections between Britain and the EU in the concrete economic and political situation that exists in Britain cannot achieve a positive result. Already prices are rising and racism increasing due to the referendum vote. The pursuit of Brexit inevitably will result in further job losses, attacks on living standards and increased bigotry.
At the 23 June referendum the electorate voted by 51.9% to 48.1% to leave the EU. It was a narrow margin of less than 1.3 million votes. Voters were not presented with the content of the treaty that will set out the terms of Britain’s exit as that was not available then. Instead the Leave campaign stated there would be no economic costs and fabricated wild claims including a better resourced NHS. It is not ‘anti-democratic’ to seek to overturn the outcome of the vote. Anyone who has ever chanted the slogan ‘Kick the Tories Out’, or bought the badge is seeking to overturn the outcome of a vote.
The population should have a say when the proposed exit treaty is known. A referendum on these proposals would be far more democratic than leaving it to the Tory government to decide. This would not be a re-run of the June referendum, but a vote deciding whether to accept or reject the actual exit proposals.
Socialist Action set out the case for an exit terms referendum in June, but refrained from campaigning for it during the Labour leadership campaign. The re-election of Corbyn was the number one priority for the left this summer. Owen Smith, Corbyn’s opponent, confused matters by raising the issue of a ‘second’ referendum. When other countries have had second referendums on EU issues they have just put the same treaty to the vote for a second time because the first time it had gone against the views of a government. A referendum on the proposed exit terms treaty would not be a repeat of the June referendum. It is the only serious method so far proposed that could actually hold the Government to account.
The overwhelming majority of Labour Party members and Labour voters voted to remain in the EU. According to polls the majority of Labour members support an exit terms referendum.
Labour’s Conference in September took this discussion forward. A composite motion moved by the TSSA was agreed which included the following text: ‘Conference… believes that unless the final settlement proves to be acceptable then the option of retaining EU membership should be retained. The final settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through Parliament and potentially through a general election, or a referendum.’
So the party’s conference policy is that the exit terms should be subjected to a parliamentary vote, general election or referendum. If Labour campaigns for this policy it will make more difficult for the Tories to pursue a hard-Brexit.
After the conference policy was agreed, Labour’s NEC issued a statement that said: ‘Conference policy on Brexit has been misinterpreted in some reports as committing Labour to a second referendum on UK membership for the EU, so for the avoidance of doubt we want to make clear that it is not our policy. We have called for the government to be transparent and inclusive in their process and to respect rights at work and other protections that the EU provided. Those issues will be our focus in holding the Tory government to account.’
That the NEC issued such a statement suggests there is a struggle within Labour over its line on Brexit.
Labour has stepped up its fight against the Tories’ Brexit agenda. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell oppose leaving the Single Market. Corbyn in his speech to Labour Party Conference confronted Brexit’s racism by clearly stating that migrants do not drive down wages. John McDonnell is attacking the Tories’ scapegoating of migrants.
The Tories have no mandate for a hard Brexit. Labour should vote against Theresa May’s Great Repeal Bill to overturn the 1972 European Communities Act and also oppose the UK leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
The issue of Brexit is the single most important question likely to dominate British politics for the foreseeable future. The Tory Government is set on a course which will seriously damage living standards and has stepped up its racist offensive to distract from that. Labour needs to oppose both aspects of this Tory policy. Labour must stand for raising living standards and opposing racism. In this context that means fighting for membership of the Single Market including freedom of movement, preferably within the EU, and fighting for the maximum possible in terms of the defending the interests of the working class and the oppressed.