By Pat Tanner
Brexit is the most important issue facing Britain. If Brexit goes ahead it will have major negative repercussions on the British economy and society for at least a generation. How the labour movement, including the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, responds to this crisis is therefore decisive. How the Labour leadership responds to Brexit will largely determine whether it will be able to advance electorally and whether the Corbyn leadership maintains and sustains the progressive wave of primarily young people into the Labour Party that have allowed him to twice win the leadership.
The Corbyn leadership is quite correctly supported by the entire left – exceptions being not worth the name – because on decisive issues where it has been necessary to draw a class line in politics, it has been on the right side. Socialist Action strongly supported Jeremy Corbyn through both leadership challenges and still does today because of his principled and unyielding opposition to imperialist wars, against racism, defending immigration and for investment in the productive economy rather than austerity. It is the only potential leadership of the Labour Party that consistently defends all these crucial positions, and therefore should be given wholehearted support by all socialists, particularly against the constant sniping and plotting of the right.
However, while the Corbyn leadership should nonetheless be defended, this would not be made easier if it gets it wrong on the key issue of Brexit. For a very large swathe of those who joined or rejoined Labour in the last 18 months to support Jeremy Corbyn, the issue of Europe is decisive – whether because they oppose racism and defend immigration, or are repelled by the little Englander nationalism of the Brexiteers, or because they understand to one degree or another the negative economic impact it will have for jobs and living standards.
An overwhelming majority of Labour members voted to Remain (90%), even higher among those who joined to support Corbyn. 63% of Labour voters supported Remain. A huge offensive has been launched since the June referendum to argue that as 17 million voices have spoken for Leave the debate must move on and the argument is over, so those still supporting Remain must accept the outcome and pipe down. But the majority of the 16 million who voted Remain do not accept this argument. They believe the real implications of Brexit were not presented in the referendum, lies were told (for example on NHS funding) to win votes, and the exclusion of 16 and 17 year olds from the vote was undemocratic. They do not accept that, unlike any other vote that is taken in politics, one referendum is forever and the matter cannot be revisited.
They want to hear voices that continue to argue that Brexit is a mistake because it is. Labour should argue that the implications will be disastrous, and clearly put that case – even if the British public are not currently persuaded to change their minds on Brexit – the single market, freedom of movement and many other important aspects of the EU, such as human rights and employment law, must be fought for right to the wire, including being prepared to vote against the basis for triggering Article 50 and against the Tories final proposed terms.
Unfortunately, a recent speech by John McDonnell put an entirely different slant on Labour’s approach to Brexit, suggesting that Labour would not only accept the referendum result as final, but would stop arguing it was a disaster, and instead ‘embrace the enormous opportunities’ presented by Brexit. ‘Labour …must embrace the enormous opportunities to reshape our country that Brexit has opened for us,’ he said.
This is simply not a tenable position for Labour; if there are any positive opportunities arising from Brexit they will be minimal compared to the negative consequences. Overall, the impact would be a huge deepening of austerity, within which Labour’s current proposals for an investment bank and some capital account borrowing would not be sufficient to make a difference.
After 40 years of membership of the EEC and then the EU the British economy is thoroughly interconnected with the European economy. Disrupting or severing those ties will have very harsh consequences for investment and for trade, with a consequently large negative impact on living standards, real incomes and jobs.
Of course if Britain were on the verge of socialism, with the EU trying to block its policies, a progressive left government might well be forced to leave, or be excluded, from the EU. Unfortunately that is not the situation in Britain today.
Politically the impact of Labour ‘embracing Brexit’ would also be disastrous. Polls now suggest that the Lib Dems would revive and that they could even eclipse Labour by promising to vote against triggering Article 50 and calling for a referendum on exit terms. Even if these polls exaggerate the case, all the evidence suggests Labour would lose ground with this policy. This is unsurprising as immediately triggering Article 50 and pursuing the illusion of ‘tariff-free’ trade with the EU without abiding by its rules is effectively the Tory leadership position.
The referendum expressed no opinion whatsoever on membership of the Single Market, the customs union, Britain’s adherence to the European Court of Justice and many other important matters. ‘Open Britain’ has produced a nice video showing that before June 23 the leaders of the Leave campaign explicitly ruled out the idea that it was a vote to leave the Single Market (video). A narrow majority was won for Leave primarily because (apart from lies about £350 million a week for the NHS) both sides ran racist campaigns and the most virulent UKIP/Tory racists won. This is not a mandate that Labour could or should ever accept.
Without any conditions attached to a vote on Article 50, by declaring a vote for it, and with no intention of demanding a referendum on exit terms, the question is posed how could the Labour leadership protect workers’ rights, environmental protections, human rights safeguards and consumer rights established through the EU? John McDonnell gave an answer to this question, ‘I think it’s the moral pressure that we’ll be able to exert… I don’t think it will come down to parliamentary procedures…No government can resist (the moral pressure)’.
Unfortunately, the Tories have different morals. This is a viciously right wing government which intends to rip up all these rights. For some, it is their key motivation in leaving the EU. But there would be no significant campaigns, marches, sit-down protests or strikes in favour of workers’ rights or environmental protections if campaigners know in advance that Labour would not back them up, by voting down government legislation unless these rights and protections are included. Socialists in the Labour Party understand that campaigns, social movements and striking workers all gain immeasurably if they know there is parliamentary support, and a prospect of parliamentary victories. Otherwise, they are on their own.
The Labour leadership would be taking a sharply wrong course if it embraced Brexit. It would mean supporting a process that will damage the economy and lower living standards and employment, where workers and the poor are the hardest hit. In pursuing this process, the government will also to continue to whip up racism as a distraction, with black people, Muslims and others directly in the firing line of hate crime and discrimination. Brexit and the rise in hate crime are directly connected.
Brexit was not supported by either Labour members or Labour voters, so it both potentially undermines support for the leadership within the Labour Party, while opening the way for a potential Lib Dem revival electorally. It disarms the labour movement and progressive campaigns who want to at least limit the damage the Tories intend to inflict. And it blows a hole in Labour’s economic credibility – it is impossible to end austerity by embracing Brexit, as the economy will slow and government income shrink.
The stakes are enormously high both for the British economy and for the Labour Party. Whether it is by attaching proper conditions to the Article 50 vote such as membership of the Single Market, or the same to the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ and then voting on exit terms, Labour should not turn in a pro-Brexit direction. Otherwise Labour will be embracing a car crash, and those at the wheel will be blamed for the wreckage.