By Charlie Thompson
This article was written before the announcement that the Tories were postponing Tuesday’s planned House of Commons vote on Brexit. This announcement simply strongly underlines still further the rising chaos in the Tory Party and the strong position established by Labour’s approach with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership analysed in this article.
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The chaos in the Tory Party around Theresa May’s Brexit deal deepens daily as Parliament debates the issue. Even the Tory media, nowadays openly including the BBC, is forced to admit this. But the same media is systematically attempting to conceal the unity and successes achieved on this by the Labour Party with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
To take just the latest example, regarding the Tory media blackout of Jeremy Corbyn’s recent important speech to European Socialist Parties on how support for policies of austerity strengthened the extreme right across Europe and fed the vote for Brexit, it was rightly remarked on Twitter: ‘the full speech of Jeremy Corbyn’s Lisbon speech… struck by two things. 1. How impossible… to hear this and not support him. 2. How disgraceful that without social media I would not have seen this video.’
But despite the extraordinary media bias people can count! May’s attempt to detach Labour MPs from Labour’s policy, and to vote for her deal, has been a miserable failure, gaining the support of a pitifully marginal rump – at the time of writing only seven Labour MPs, out of over 250, have not announced they will vote against May’s deal. This Labour unity reflects the highly skilful tactics of Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour has also adroitly used subsidiary tactics to weaken the government. This includes ensuring the passing of Dominic Grieve’s House of Commons amendment which blocks any attempt to prevent Parliament, as opposed to the government, determining the final position on the EU. Labour also humiliated the government over its contempt of Parliament in not releasing the full legal advice it has received on May’s deal.
The contrast between the reality of chaos in the Tory Party and a strong, united and convincing position by Labour against May’s deal inevitably aids Labour in the polls. But these highly successful tactics in turn reflect Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to the whole Brexit issue.
The combination of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership at the top of the Labour Party, and the tactics of his supporters among ordinary members of the Labour Party, have succeeded in getting Labour into this strong position. But the crunch on Brexit is arriving, so therefore it is important to understood why this approach has been so successful so that Labour members and Corbyn supporters can face the challenges that are still coming.
Defeat May’s deal
Jeremy Corbyn has clearly set out Labour’s key immediate priorities and tactics during the next week’s ‘Brexit crisis’. The most immediate priority is to ensure May’s Brexit deal is voted down. As Jeremy Corbyn said in his statement in the Brexit debate on May’s deal: ‘The deal before us would make our country worse off.’
Defeating May’s deal has essentially been successfully achieved – short of some wholly extraordinary development. Those few in the Labour Party who wanted to support May’s deal have been shown to be decisively wrong – with a totally clear lead to vote against the deal being given by Jeremy Corbyn and the Shadow Cabinet with totally solid support from the PLP and Labour Party members.
Block a ‘no deal’ Brexit
The second key immediate task which Jeremy Corbyn has then outlined is to block a ‘no deal’ Brexit – as such a deal would create a major British economic crisis and sharp attacks on working class living standards. As Jeremy Corbyn put it in his article in The Guardian on the Brexit Parliamentary debate: ‘We are working with MPs and parties across the House of Commons not only to ensure it [May’s deal] is rejected, but also to prevent any possibility of a no-deal outcome.’
A ‘no deal’ Brexit would have damaging effects going far beyond well-publicised economic short-term disruptions to most seriously leading to tens or hundreds of thousands of jobs being lost in industries such as motor manufacturing due to loss of markets in the EU as tariffs were imposed, and a general reduction in working class living standards as the pound devalued and therefore inflation rose.
A ‘no deal’ Brexit would also be a disaster for climate change and the environment. As Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth, put it in the Huffington Post, under the self-explanatory title ‘ The Vote On May’s Brexit Deal Will Decide The Future Of Our Environment For Years To Come‘: ‘Tuesday’s vote in parliament will decide whether Theresa’s May’s plan stands or falls… But whatever happens, one thing is certain: a “no-deal” would be a disaster for the environment and should be taken off the table.’
This issue of defeating a ‘no deal’ Brexit is clearly understood by the public as well as Labour members. The one thing all opinion polls show is that both Remain, and even May’s deal, would defeat ‘no deal’ in any vote among the British electorate. In concentrating on defeating a ‘no deal’ Brexit, after voting down May’s deal, Jeremy Corbyn is therefore not only acting in the interests of the working class but also acting with the support of public opinion.
There is almost certainly a majority in the House of Commons against a ‘no deal’ Brexit. As Jeremy Corbyn put it in his statement in the Brexit debate: ‘no deal is not a real option and the government knows that because it has not seriously prepared for it…. Neither this House nor this Government will allow a “No deal” scenario in March 2019.’
Only the Tory hard Brexiters, who openly advocate a much deeper attack on working class living standards, or those whose most fundamental goal is to take Britain out both the EU’s political structures and its economic structures whatever the negative consequences for working class interests and living standards, support a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
Blocking a ‘no deal’ Brexit is now more achievable due to Labour’s successful backing of Grieve’s amendment in the House of Commons which effectively gives to Parliament, not just the government, the right to decide on issues affecting Brexit. Nevertheless, despite this significant success, there are still very major challenges and difficulties to translate this into law and therefore definitively block a no deal Brexit.
Even after being passed with Labour support, Grieve’s amendment in the House of Commons debate on Brexit was a motion but not a law. Legally, at present Britain would still exit the EU on a ‘no deal’ basis on 29 March 2019. Tory Cabinet Minister Andrea Leadsom was (unfortunately) accurate in stating the legal position when she said that while the passing of Grieve’s amendment by the House of Commons is very significant politically only a change in the law can prevent a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn and Labour has therefore rightly fixed its second key priority, after defeating May’s deal, as being to ensure legally that the possibility of any ‘no deal’ Brexit is blocked.
Given the critical importance of these two objectives Jeremy Corbyn’s stress that Labour’s present concentration is on these two issues is completely in line with the defence of working-class living standards.
Certainly, if these two goals are successfully achieved, thereby crushing central policies of the Tory government, then of course other issues will come on the agenda. Labour will rightly fight for a general election. As Jeremy Corbyn put it in The Guardian: ‘If the prime minister’s deal is defeated, the government will have lost its majority on the most important issue facing the country and lost its ability to govern. The best outcome in those circumstances would be to let the country decide on the way ahead and the best team to lead it. That means a general election.’
Also, more long-term structural relations with the EU will then have to be considered. But these longer-term issues of relations with the EU can only be dealt with once the key immediate goals of voting down May’s deal, blocking a no deal Brexit, and fighting for a general election are carried out – and the precise outcome on longer term issues will in any case be affected by success in achieving these urgent and immediate tasks. Jeremy Corbyn’s focus and Labour’s tactics in dealing with this are therefore spot-on.
But while Labour’s success in its immediate tactical goals can be clearly seen it is important to understand why this is rooted in a more fundamentally correct strategic approach.
The core is Jeremy Corbyn’s defence of working-class living standards.
The starting point for the way Jeremy Corbyn has dealt with Brexit, as on all other issues, has been the defence of the British population’s, and in particular the working class’s, interests and living standards. That is, Corbyn’s approach on Brexit is in line with his opposition to austerity, to racism, on climate change and all other attacks on the working class.
It is increasingly understood that Corbyn’s tactics have been spot-on first in opposing Theresa May’s deal and now blocking a no deal Brexit. But throughout it has been informed by the correct strategic approach. This is not adjusting to Leave voters one day and Remainers the next, as his critics in the PLP would have him do. Corbyn’s continued success is based on appealing to the overwhelming majority on the basis of defending their living standards
It might not be expressed in these words, but in Marxist terminology it is the approach, in Marx’s famous phrases in the Communist Manifesto, which provides the basis of all correct politics, that socialists and Marxists: ‘have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.’
This approach explains both Labour’s and Corbyn’s personal popularity. Other historically major socialist parties across Europe are currently seeing their popularity collapsing because of their complicity in attacks on working class living standards – as in Germany, France, and Holland. Jeremy Corbyn rightly told the recent meeting of European Socialist Parties in Lisbon that austerity had: ’damaged the credibility of European social democratic parties and played a significant role in the vote for Brexit’. And he also noted that in countries where Socialist Parties had supported austerity policies this created a direct danger that ‘the fake populists of the far right will fill the vacuum’.
Labour under Jeremy Corbyn now has the highest level of support of any socialist party in Europe. Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of defence of working-class living standards is precisely the reason Labour’s support has not collapsed in parallel with other right-wing socialist parties in Europe – the reason why the objective of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn is entirely realistic.
The way defence of working-class living standards determines Labour’s approach on Brexit is clear. Jeremy Corbyn and Labour voted for Remain in the 2016 referendum. The Brexit project, in a particularly open fashion around ‘hard Brexit’ variants, is to launch a massive attack on British working-class living standards and to slash social protection – that is the practical meaning of Tory projection of Britain as a ‘low tax’ economy. Internationally its project is to subordinate Britain entirely to the US. So, for example, Trump attacks even May’s deal – advocating a ‘hard Brexit’ to pave the way for tying Britain into a trade deal with the US. It is why Trump maintains regular personal contact with Farage, and why Steve Bannon, strategic guru of the US extreme right, is organising and financing pro-US groups in parallel with Farage’s throughout Europe. It is also why the Trumpite right has championed extreme rightest ‘Tommy Robinson’ (Stephen Yaxley-Lennon). To try to disguise the realities of their anti-working class policies the pro-hard Brexit forces, of course, centre their activity on anti-immigrant racism and numerous other forms of lying and demagogy.
For all these reasons this website supported Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a Remain vote in the 2016 referendum and disagreed with those who called for support for Leave. After the outcome of the referendum, however, the issue of Brexit and future relations with the EU also significantly affects the possibilities for success of a future Jeremy Corbyn led Labour government. By a ‘hard Brexit’ putting tariff barriers in the way of British access to EU markets, by breaking up the supply chains for British companies, the ‘harder’ the form of Brexit the greater the damage to the British economy, the bigger the impact in lowering living standards, and therefore the greater the difficulties placed in the way of the success of a Jeremy Corbyn led government. For the success of a Jeremy Corbyn led government therefore the ‘softer’ the form of Brexit, including no Brexit, creates the most favourable conditions. Labour’s policy has therefore focused on ensuring economic access to EU markets. From the same fundamental reasons John McDonnell stated he would vote Remain in any referendum on terms of membership.
The recent attempt by newspapers such as the Daily Mirror to try to create a split between John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn over this issue was entirely fake. When recently interviewed Jeremy Corbyn naturally said he could not state how he would vote in a referendum until it was known what the question was, while John McDonnell was simply stating that in a referendum in which Remain was an option he would vote Remain. Jeremy Corbyn already said in 2017: ‘I voted remain because I thought the best option was to remain. I haven’t changed my mind.’
The hard Brexit project is a further serious attack on working class living standards, which explains why the overwhelming majority of Labour members supporting Jeremy Corbyn not only voted Remain but continue to oppose Brexit – particularly in its hard forms. Opinion polls show 70-80 per cent of Labour members support Remain, compared to those who back Leave having support only in the low 20 per cents. Polls show essentially the same 70 per cent to 20 per cent split among Labour voters. At the last Labour Party conference there were an enormous number of resolutions from over 100 CLPs supporting Remain – although very important tactical issues in how to deal with that are analysed below.
While Jeremy Corbyn’s position was for Remain, and all the evidence shows that is the position of the overwhelming majority of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party, and indeed all Labour members, that is of course not itself enough to determine Labour’s position. Labour has to gain the support of the electorate, not just Labour members.
Labour members and voters may be overwhelmingly against Brexit, and the arguments for Brexit may have been demagogy laced with racism, but there was a majority in the 2016 referendum who voted for it – including in particular in a very large number of Labour constituencies. Labour simply announcing it would overturn this vote would be seriously damaging electorally. Furthermore, until the real terms available for Brexit were clear, it was inevitable there would be no significant shift in public opinion from the referendum. That is why all premature attempts to commit Labour to a referendum on the terms of Brexit, as advocated by the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign, would have been damaging. Only now that the real terms of May’s Brexit are known, as opposed to the fantasies presented by the Brexiters during the referendum campaign, public opinion may change – this is analysed below. But until that point Labour and Jeremy Corbyn were entirely correct to take a position what while it had voted for Remain, and had no regrets over this, it respected what was the will of the British electorate.
Why Corbyn and Labour’s skilful tactics, created its present strong position, as opposed to its critics from inside and outside Labour, will now be analysed.
A Corbyn led government, not Brexit is the most important issue in British politics
To deal with the Brexit issue it is necessary to have an accurate assessment of the scale of the different attacks on working class living standards. Certainly, the harder any Brexit the greater the economic difficulties that would be created for a Jeremy Corbyn led government. But a Jeremy Corbyn led government would still be fighting against austerity and defending working class living standards. In contrast a Tory government, or a non-Corbyn led Labour government, i.e. one led by the Labour right or ‘soft-left’ (i.e. fake left) would be actively attacking the working class.
That is why, to put the situation in the clearest terms, a Jeremy Corbyn led government after a Brexit would be better for the working class than no Brexit but with a non-Corbyn led Labour Party. Also, a Jeremy Corbyn led government after a Brexit would be better for the working class than a ‘soft left’ (i.e. fake left) or right wing led Labour government with no Brexit.
This reality is reflected in the polls. The Liberal Democrats, whose sole significant position is to campaign against Brexit, have derisory electoral support – single digit in most polls. This is precisely because they solely discuss Brexit but refuse to oppose austerity and attacks on working class living standards – indeed the Lib-Dems in their coalition government with the Tories in 2010-2015 introduced the austerity policy. The working class and general British population have no significant interest whatever in substituting ‘Euro-austerity’ for ‘Brexit-austerity’. The huge fall in support for the Lib-Dems shows what would be the fate of a Labour Party following the line of Chuka Umunna or any other right-wing Labour MPs who falsely claim that opposing Brexit, not opposing the attacks on working class living standards, is the most important issue in British politics.
Tactics in the Labour Party
This question of rightly identifying which is the most important dividing line in British politics, to put it in Marxist terminology of what is the ‘main contradiction’ in British politics, directly affects tactics in the Labour Party – in which the Corbyn left has shown both its excellent skill and discipline.
The Labour right, instead of seeking to defend working class living standards, has tried to use the overwhelming opposition to Brexit among Labour members not as a way to oppose the dangerous consequences of a ‘hard Brexit’ but as a way to try to attack Jeremy Corbyn – indeed, attacking Jeremy Corbyn has always been much more important for the Labour right than defeating a hard Brexit. At both the 2017 and 2018 Labour Party conference the Labour right attempted to use the overwhelming opposition of Labour Party members to Brexit to undermine or attack Jeremy Corbyn. They did this by not seeking to collaboratively discuss with the Party leadership the best way to fight a hard Brexit but instead attempting to put on the Labour conference agenda motions which were aimed to attack Corbyn – in 2017 by adding policy commitments to Labour’s six tests and in 2018 by committing Labour to a referendum on the terms of Brexit before these terms were even known, which would have had damaging electoral consequences for reasons already outlined.
Therefore, although this website had supported Remain, the same position as Jeremy Corbyn, it had no hesitation in doing everything possible to urge its readers to block these right wing manoeuvres. Working with many others at the 2017 conference it campaigned to prevent resolutions attempting to force Jeremy Corbyn’s hand being placed on the agenda. Prior to and at the 2018 conference, when it became clear there would be a large number of resolutions on Brexit from CLPs, making it clear Brexit would be discussed, it played an active role in making sure the resolution passed by conference, which supports Labour’s present tactics, was adopted.
The entire Corbyn left showed excellent tactical skill and strong discipline in correctly understanding this situation. The Corbyn left overwhelmingly supported Remain, and opposed Brexit, but it understood that the right wing’s intervention into the conference was to attack Jeremy Corbyn and not to aid a real fight against a hard Brexit. Therefore, the Corbyn left backed a clear policy to keep all options on the table and voted for the eventual resolution adopted by the Labour conference which embodied Labour’s current highly successful tactics.
This position certainly practically expressed that Brexit is an important issue that mobilises huge social forces. As Jeremy Corbyn said in his statement in the Parliamentary Brexit debate: ‘This is a seminal debate in the history of this House and for the future of our country. As a member of this House for 35 years, this debate and the decision we will take next week is one of the most important this House will have taken in all those years.’ In his article for The Guardian written on the Brexit debate in the House of Commons Jeremy Corbyn said this was currently: ‘the most important issue facing the country.’ Without Brexit expressing profound social forces the huge crisis in the Tory Party could not have been created.
But while Brexit is a significant issue it is not the most important issue in British politics – politically, for the reasons already explained, that is to maintain Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, as a leadership economically and socially fighting to defend working class living standards and interests.
Economic and political structures of EU
It is because its central goal is to defend working-class living standards and interests that Jeremy Corbyn’s policy in the Labour Party on Brexit focused on the economic structures of the EU and not its political ones.
The EU is an attempt to meet the economic imperatives of globalisation, of modern production having outgrown the European size nation state, in a reactionary political way. Even in capitalist terms the EU does not have a redistributive budget to aid the least developed parts of Europe, while the power of its elected structure, the European Parliament, is reduced to a minimum and power invested in non-elected structures. In line with this, the present political projects of the EU include ensuring defence of its undemocratic nature, in which real power is wielded by the unelected Commission, measures such as the eventual creation of a capitalist European state with a single currency (which would be reactionary as it is unaccompanied by any real democratic control and without any redistributive budget), periodic vague discussion of a European army (also reactionary) etc.
It is not crucial at all whether Britain is inside or outside the political structures of the EU – that is whether Britain is formally a member of the EU. What is important is that the British economy has the best access to the EU market (as without that it cannot find a large enough market for efficient production), that it has the best access to imported inputs for its own industries (as in a modern economy supply chains are international in scope) etc. Without these, in present conditions, whole industries, such as cars, would be devastated, with huge loss of jobs, while the plunge in the exchange rate of the pound that would follow would be highly inflationary and reduce real wages. All these economic effects would be seriously damaging to working class living standards. Therefore, what is important is access to the economic structures of the EU – the Customs Union, the Single Market etc. That is why Labour’s six tests for any deal with the EU all focus on the economy. To repeat these Labour’s six tests for any deal are:
‘Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?
‘Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?
‘Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?
‘Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?
‘Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?
‘Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?’
A few people within Labour have argued it should support Brexit and May’s deal. But not merely is that directly propping up the Tory government but it would make it impossible to gain the goal of ‘Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?’- or to even come close to it. Calls to vote for May’s deal came from those on the extreme Labour right, and those on the left who did not agree with Jeremy Corbyn on Remain. They were wrong. With a massive majority in both Parliament and the electorate rightly against May’s deal, if Labour had supported it, in addition to propping up the Tory government, instead of the strong position Labour is in today it would be out of line with public opinion, a severe blow would have been dealt to Jeremy Corbyn’s popular support, and Labour would currently be in internal crisis as a result of that error.
Claims that a truly socialist Corbyn government would be obstructed by the EU miss the point as a guide to tactics today. If in implementing progressive policies a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour government were actually obstructed by the EU, and was therefore forced to leave the EU, that situation would be clear and therefore could be understood by public opinion. It would be justified to leave, or be forced out, of access to the EU’s Custom’s Union/Single Market etc in order to implement genuinely progressive policies despite any difficulties created by leaving these structures – and this would be understood by the population. But it is quite another thing, and would create economic problems, to walk out of the economic advantages of access to the EU’s Customs Union/Single Market before any obstruction of Labour’s progressive policies was taking place. This would be to quite voluntarily abandon economic advantages – which is both against the interests of the working class and would therefore be punished by the electorate.
There should be no ambiguity, as already noted Labour’s policy for judging any agreement is: ‘Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?’. This involves measures such as a permanent Customs Union – which is Labour’s clear policy. If achieved successfully that would necessarily mean Britain being in common economic structures with the EU. Those who argue that what is necessary is ‘to take Britain out of the EU and all its institutions’ are playing with words and do not in fact agree with Labour and Jeremy Corbyn’s policy – because Labour’s policy to secure ‘the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union’ would necessarily mean common economic structures with the EU.
Indeed, confronted with precise choices posed by the current crunch issues on Brexit, at present there is a serious ambiguity in those who say they support Leave. What are they positively arguing for? Interpreted literally, for example, the argument that what is needed is ‘to take Britain out of the EU and all its institutions’ is equivalent to a hard or ‘no deal’ Brexit. This would be damaging economically, for reasons already discussed. Furthermore it is not Jeremy Corbyn’s or Labour’s policy – as Jeremy Corbyn wrote in The Guardian, Labour’s policy is to negotiate for: ‘A new, comprehensive customs union with the EU, with a British say in future trade deals, [which] would strengthen our manufacturing sector and give us a solid base for industrial renewal under the next Labour government, especially for our held-back communities. Second, a new and strong relationship with the single market that gives us frictionless trade… makes far more sense than the prime minister’s dismal deal.’ But such a permanent customs union involving Britain and the EU, would necessarily have common institutions.
A consistent approach
Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s approach has rightly focused on the economic relations with the EU – securing the access to markets and supply chains which play a huge role in the economy and therefore in defence of working-class living standards. That is why Labour seeks to secure ‘the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union’. These would, of course, automatically be secured by membership of the EU, in line with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s support for Remain. But if Britain is not in the EU then the objective is still to obtain ‘the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union’ – and if that cannot be achieved, evidently, to get as close to this as possible. Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s total opposition to May’s deal flows inevitably and logically from this position – May’s deal does not secure these benefits. Similarly blocking a ‘no deal’ Brexit is vital to prevent the attacks on working class living standards that would follow from this. As already shown Jeremy Corbyn’s and Labour’s tactics are therefore spot-on on this.
Arguments advanced that by seeking a customs union with the EU, and other steps to secure ‘the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union’, Jeremy Corbyn would be giving in to the capitalist EU are ‘infantile leftism’. Anyone who works for capitalists is exploited – but no one serious would therefore propose that to become employed is to ‘capitulate to capitalism’. Similarly, anyone who, confronted with the threat of fascism, spends their time pointing out that bourgeois democracy embodies the rule of capital, and therefore fighting for bourgeois democracy against fascism is ‘capitulating to capital’, is a (dangerous) ultra-leftist idiot. Labour’s policy of seeking a permanent customs union with the EU and all other measures to secure ‘the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union’ is not ‘capitulation to the capitalist EU’ it is a necessary step to seek to defend working class living standards, and secure the working class’s interests, under present economic conditions.
Naturally, once Labour’s immediate goals of defeating May’s deal and blocking a ‘no deal’ Brexit are secured Labour will have to discuss how best to achieve its goal of securing ‘the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union’ – and while the first task of voting down May’s deal looks very likely the second goal of blocking a ‘no deal’ Brexit is not yet achieved. The best way forward would, of course, be to achieve a General Election – winning that would allow Labour to introduce its whole programme. But it may be assumed that the Tories and their DUP allies are desperate to cling onto office – Tory MPs, and the DUP, who vote against May over the Brexit deal are therefore likely to vote for the government on a confidence motion.
Therefore, as Jeremy Corbyn put it in The Guardian: ‘if under the current rules we cannot get an election, all options must be on the table. Those should include Labour’s alternative and, as our conference decided in September, the option of campaigning for a public vote to break the deadlock. Two years ago, people voted remain because they wanted an open, international relationship with Europe and a multicultural society. Many voted leave out of anger at the way the political class had left them behind, with crumbling infrastructure and low-paid, insecure jobs. Our job is to unite people with a plan that works for the whole country.’
The very fact that the terms of Brexit in May’s deal are now clear, that these will almost certainly be voted down if put to Parliament, and that polls show extremely low popular support for the deal, changes the political situation. Because the fact of knowledge of what a Brexit deal could be, and massive popular and parliamentary opposition to this, changes the political situation the Labour Party’s position, as confirmed at Labour Party conference, was rightly not to tie the Labour leadership’ s hands until the precise situation is known. Only once May’s deal is defeated, and a no deal Brexit is blocked, and Labour has attempted to force a general election will the new situation be clear, and then as Jeremy Corbyn put it: ‘if under the current rules we cannot get an election, all options must be on the table.’
What may come later?
Of course, there is inevitably now some preliminary initial discussion on what Labour’s position will be once the issues of voting down May’s deal and ensuring a ‘no deal’ Brexit is secured. John McDonnell has argued that if there were a new referendum on the terms of Britain leaving the EU it was ‘inevitable’ that the choice for voters would be remain versus Theresa May’s deal: ‘And if it was, I would vote remain.’
He said: ‘I think if we get to a situation where we’d tried everything and we have tried everything … My speech yesterday [in the Commons] was a sincere attempt to try and bring all parties together to try and agree a Brexit which will protect jobs and the economy.
‘If we can’t get that, we need a general election because we can then change the team that will then do the negotiations. If we can’t do that, well, I think people will recognise we have no other option but to consider another public vote and people will respect us for doing our best to implement the spirit of the referendum…
‘We can still do a deal [by 29 March], we can still do that … but… as time moves on it makes it that much more difficult and of course the extension of article 50 is available to us.
‘The climate will change. That will change. Look what happened over Lisbon. That changed rapidly. They’ve watched what’s happened in the UK parliament, haven’t they? And they’ve seen the disarray that this government is in…
‘They’ve seen this deal isn’t going to work, so therefore other opportunities will have to be explored. And they want the best optimum solution that will protect the European economy overall, just as we wish to protect the UK economy.” But John McDonnell has been careful to stress that any such discussion would only come after Labour had attempted to negotiate its own deal and to force a general election.
The beginning of such a discussion is necessary – events are moving very fast. But it is crucial in the present situation to take everything step by step. The fundamental issue was stated by Jeremy Corbyn in his Guardian article on the Brexit debate: ‘if under the current rules we cannot get an election, all options must be on the table. Those should include Labour’s alternative and, as our conference decided in September, the option of campaigning for a public vote to break the deadlock.’ Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn was asked by Sky News whether ‘are they wrong’ concerning supporters with bags at Labour conference saying ‘Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit’, and calling for a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal:. ‘No they are not wrong. But the option is there in our motion…. I just say to them we don’t get anywhere until we’ve defeated this deal that the government has put up.’ Similarly, when asked whether Labour would table a confidence vote in the government Jeremy Corbyn replied that we will have to ‘have to wait and see’. This is clearly because it depends on the exact situation.
Even if Labour does in the end support a referendum on the terms of the Brexit it was entirely correct not to do so until the real terms of the deal are known. Jonathan Freedland intended it to be one of his innumerable attacks on Jeremy Corby when he wrote in The Guardian: ‘If Labour does end up calling for a people’s vote and getting it, plenty will praise the party for its strategic acumen. It will have played the long game, kept Labour leavers onside at the 2017 general election and picked the right moment to make its move.’ But in fact, such praise would be entirely justified. And Corbyn opponents like Freedland are unlike to repeat it.
If Labour had adopted the policies of the Labour right – support for austerity, support for a referendum on the terms of any Brexit deal before these terms were even known, thereby simply appearing to undemocratically overturn the referendum vote of 2016, it would have seen its support shrink, for the reasons already analysed. This is why Labour was entirely right, both at the top and in the votes of the Corbyn left at Labour conference, not to adopt any position for a referendum on the terms of a purely hypothetical deal – and to oppose any attempt by the Labour right to commit it to such a referendum. The situation is therefore not fully clear.
Now that the actual terms of an EU deal are known, of course, for the first time there may be a sharp shift in public opinion. After a long period in which Remain and Leave were neck and neck two recent polls do show a sharp shift in favour of Remain. YouGov for The Times, published on 5 December, found an 11 per cent lead, 49 per cent to 39 per cent, believing Britain took the wrong decision on leaving the EU. BMG’s poll, published in The Independent on 9 November, found a 12 per cent lead, 52 per cent to 40 per cent, saying that Britain should remain in the EU versus. These may indicate significant shifts now the actual terms of the deal are known. But the very large YouGov poll, published on 6 December, still found only a 4 per cent lead, 52 per cent to 48 per cent, for Remain against a no deal Brexit, and a 50 per cent:50 per cent tie on Remain versus May’s deal.
There are some issues on which a position must be taken regardless of the state of public opinion – war, the death penalty, sexism, racism. But Brexit is not one of these issues – Labour is rightly taking into account not only the objective impact of Brexit but public opinion and cannot vote, and no one proposes, to implement Remain if it is clear public opinion supports Leave. Jeremy Corbyn and Labour were entirely correct, for reasons already outlined, not to adopt proposals for a referendum on the terms of a deal with the EU before those terms were known, before the state of public opinion in light of the terms for such a deal were known, and before Labour fights for its much superior solution of a General Election. Therefore, Labour is rightly watching trends in the polls closely now the actual terms of a deal with the EU are known and therefore, for the first time, it is possible public opinion may shift significantly.
The simple reality is that voting down May’s deal will unleash powerful forces in British politics which will change the situation. To try to prevent these there may be an attempt to delay the vote in the House of Commons, it may lead to a challenge to May’s leadership of the Tory Party, it may lead to desperate new negotiations with Brussels, it may lead to postponement of the 29 March deadline for Brexit, and it may lead to numerous other things. Furthermore, defeating May’s deal will not automatically secure the vital goal of blocking a no deal Brexit. As no one can accurately predict in advance exactly how events will play out, therefore as Jeremy Corbyn, points out it would be entirely wrong for Labour to tie its hands tactically before the situation is known. But Labour has been placed in a very strong position by the approach which has been taken and the continuation of that approach is the key to success in very rapidly moving events.
To summarise, two things have got Labour into the strong position on Brexit the Tory media is so carefully trying to conceal – because of its contrast to the rising chaos in the Tory Party.
At the top, because Jeremy Corbyn has persistently pursued the course of defending the interests of the working class not only in fighting austerity but in relation to Brexit – therefore focussing on what is the key question in the whole issue, Britain’s economic relations with the EU.
Among ordinary Corbyn supporters because, despite their overwhelming support for Remain in the present situation, they have understood and seen off all attempts by the Labour right to use the Brexit issue to attack Jeremy Corbyn, showing great good sense and discipline – that is they have understood that the most important issue in British politics is not Brexit but maintaining the Jeremy Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party which fights against austerity and all other attacks on the working class.
That is why Labour’s tactics on Brexit have been so spot-on and got it into such a strong position.
Fast moving and major events lie ahead in the tumultuous situation in British politics that has been unleashed. Maintaining the same approach that Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have taken so far, including the spot-on tactics that have been followed, is the key to achieving still further successes.