Supporting Corbyn and opposing Brexit

By Jane West

There are two distinct projects in Britain to drive down the living standards of the working class and so drive up profits. One is the project of European Union big capital, which is to drive down the share of the economy that goes to the working class and raise profits, through slow attrition meaning a permanent squeeze on public spending, reducing the welfare state and wage decline or low growth. The other is the Brexit project which is an immediate and ferocious assault on living standards, trade union rights and public services.

The Tories’ reactionary project for Britain outside the EU has been accurately described as ‘a Poundland Thatcherism, draping vicious anti-worker and anti-poor policies in the cloak of nationalism and “getting the country back”’, in order to boost profits and encourage investment. But evidently, inside the EU, alongside every other government in it, the Tories have been also been pursuing austerity, driving down wages and cutting social provision.

Logically therefore, the priority for the working class should be to fight against the Brexit project immediately, whilst resisting the aims of the EU through a long defensive struggle to defend and raise living standards.

Jeremy Corbyn is the most left-wing leader the Labour Party has ever had. He is thoroughly committed to opposing austerity, as well opposing wars and racism. In 2015, when all the other candidates supported cuts to tax credits, he stood out against them. He is right to oppose the thrust of current EU policy from an anti-austerity perspective. But it would be an error, on the basis of the current austerity offensive of the European ruling class, to confuse membership of the Single Market with EU policy and therefore advocate leaving the former. Out of the Single Market an even harsher and more aggressive austerity offensive would be launched in response to the adverse impact on economic growth, severely threatening jobs in many sectors. The aim would be to substitute for the negative impact on business by driving down wages, welfare spending and overall living standards to allow a sharp reallocation of the economy to profits.

The overwhelming majority of Labour members that voted for Jeremy Corbyn to be leader of the Labour Party, including particularly those who joined the Labour Party last year specifically to vote for him, are also supporters of Remain and are opposed to a ‘hard Brexit’. Many will have been disappointed by Labour’s decision to vote for the Third Reading of May’s Brexit Bill in February without conditions.

Of course disloyal sections of Labour’s Blairite and post-Blairite right have jumped on this to try to whip up another round of plotting against and destabilisation of the Corbyn leadership. Such cynical deployment of deep concerns about Brexit against the left leadership of the Labour Party is totally transparent and not worth giving airtime. As is the predictable yawing of pundits like Owen Jones.

However, there are also those who are serious supporters of Corbyn, who are genuinely of the left and who are not motivated by the aim of destabilising the leadership, that have begun to voice in private and more openly whether they can continue to support a leadership that they disagree with so strongly on the approach to Brexit. Such people, in toying with ending their support for Corbyn, are making a disastrous and fundamental mistake.

The reason is simple. It is true that it would be far easier for a progressive government to defend the interests of the working class within the Single Market than out: the British economy would still be connected to its major markets, the prospects for investment would be much better, the balance of payments deficit would be narrower, current workers’ rights and protections would remain in place and so on. This gives a stronger economic basis on which austerity could be fought and the economic measures to reverse it could be achieved more easily. But, this is requires a Labour government that wants to defend working class living standards and will stand up to the pressure from big European capital. The second truth is that any alternative Labour leadership to Jeremy Corbyn would not defend the interests of the working class, whether in or out of the EU, and would not reverse austerity.

Under Labour’s current rulebook, it would be a foolish and unrealistic illusion to believe that if Jeremy Corbyn were forced out that a left wing candidate would even make it on to the ballot paper. If Corbyn were ousted, in the subsequent leadership contest contenders would need the nominations of 15 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs to get on to the ballot paper. The right wing Labour MPs who nominated Corbyn in the 2015 leadership election have since concluded that it was a disastrous mistake to let the left into the contest. As a result, there are not enough MPs and MEPs willing to endorse a left candidate for them to make it onto the ballot paper. Therefore any new leadership election would be like the 2015 contest, but without Jeremy Corbyn – most likely a choice between a right-wing Brownite and an even more right-wing Blairite.

Whether in the Single Market or not, Owen Smith, Yvette Cooper, or a Caroline Flint or Chuka Umunna, would not stand up to big European capital’s demand that austerity is deepened and workers’ rights undermined, whatever they promised in the leadership manifestos.

In this they would be just like Hollande in France, who won the 2012 election on a manifesto promising to break with the EU austerity ‘fiscal pact’, then in government abandoned that promise immediately. Within a year Hollande introduced the deepest cuts and highest non-progressive tax rises that France had ever faced in a downturn; then went on to capitulate to the racist agenda of the Front National on the issues of Muslims and refugees.

Like Hollande the Labour right would fail to turn around the fortunes of the Labour Party; the Socialist Party candidate in the coming French presidential elections is languishing on around 13% – making Labour’s current polling look healthy! Hollande is the most unpopular French president since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958 and due to that decided he would not stand again.

Moreover it is highly questionable whether such a right-wing leadership of Labour would in reality fight any harder or have any greater success than Jeremy Corbyn in stopping May taking Britain out of the EU. Most of the centre and right Labour MPs agreed with the leadership on not placing any conditions in the way of voting for May’s Article 50 bill – claiming, erroneously, that Labour would lose more support if they failed to back the government’s bill.

Unfortunately most Labour MPs have bought into the mistaken argument that Labour must tack towards Leave as a concession to the Brexit majorities in many Labour-held constituencies. This argument is fallacious and wrong: the majority of the Labour vote, even in the strongest pro-Leave constituencies, was for Remain. By making concessions to Leave voters – on supporting without conditions the Article 50 Bill, opposing a referendum on the exit terms, not making a clear stand for being in the Single Market and so on – Labour’s stance clashes with the views of the majority of core support. Hence it has been leaching some votes to the Lib Dems. Of course, a radical turn to opposing Brexit would not solve Labour’s electoral problems in the short-term, and it is understandable why some MPs are fearful for the consequences in their seats if Labour strongly opposed Brexit. But there is no future for Labour as a pro-Brexit party at a national level. It can only plan to rebuild its support as the negative consequences of leaving the EU become clear.

Whatever errors it is believed that the leadership is making on opposing the Brexit process, any likely replacement would be someone who has endorsed the same approach. The only difference would be that they explicitly supported rather than fought against May’s reactionary austerity agenda.

Turning away from Corbyn would thus lead to a pro-austerity leadership that attacks working class living standards, whether in the EU or out. This would not rebuild the Labour vote but further damage it, as with the Socialist Party in France, or PASOK in Greece, or PSOE in Spain; and probably would not even lead to a significant change of tactics on the Brexit process.

Moreover, any successful campaign to oust Jeremy Corbyn, particularly if endorsed by former supporters, would inflict a defeat on the left that it would be difficult to recover from. This would not just affect the Labour Party, but would work its way through the whole labour movement. This would drastically weaken the labour movement in Britain, undermining its ability to fight against the assault that is coming on the back of May’s hard Brexit; or to resist the austerity demands of European capital if the situation were to change and Britain stays in the EU or Single Market.

Disagreement within the Corbynista current on Brexit is fair enough and this will continue to be debated. As the real consequences of Brexit for jobs, living standards and health, education and welfare provision become clearer the pressure on Labour’s stance on Brexit will shift from the Leave voters in Labour seats to the concerns of the wider labour movement, and this is set to change the tactical discussion.

This debate will take place and will continue. But to let that lead to the conclusion that Corbyn should be ousted would be disastrous and do the right’s work for them. Most importantly, it would undermine the position of the working class in facing the assault which is coming.