By Oliver Wilson
If, in the present situation, Brexit passes it will unleash years of a reactionary offensive in Britain. There will be a tremendous attack on working class rights as the drive to ‘Americanise’ British society is carried out directly in coordination with Trump. That is the correct analysis the great majority of the British left has arrived at.
The initiating event for this reactionary offensive is that one legal barrier to this huge attack on the working class, the need for Britain to comply with EU legislation, which is superior to the American style deregulation which the Tories openly aim for and will be progressively introduced, will have been removed. To take just two examples to show how US deregulation, towards which the Brexiteers are pushing, differs from Europe there is not even a Federal law upholding the right to annual leave for US workers and there is no legal entitlement to paid maternity leave. The Tories after Brexit would push as far as possible in the direction of such deregulation, making the attempt to defend working class rights and living standards harder. Meanwhile, if Britain is cut off from zero tariff access to the EU then advanced industries which cannot produce efficiently for a purely national market, such a motors or pharmaceuticals, will suffer a huge blow – threatening hundreds of thousands of well paid jobs in these industries and those supplying them and their workers.
It can be added that to divert attention from the damage this does to working class living standards a racist offensive, organised not by peripheral figures such as ‘Tommy Robinson’ but by the Tory Party and the media aligned with it, will be unleashed.
It is because in the present circumstances Brexit is an attempt to fundamentally alter the character of British society, a huge attack on working class living standards and rights, an attempt to move British society towards a US model, that it has created what is the biggest British political crisis since World War II and the biggest British constitutional crisis for over 300 years.
Mobilisations to try to block May and Johnson’s Brexit
The result of this reactionary attack around Brexit in the present circumstances has also necessarily created a wide and huge mobilisation to attempt to block it. All polls show a huge majority of Corbyn supporters and Labour voters support Remain in present circumstances. Labour has led the opposition to Brexit in Parliament. Three out of the four largest demonstrations in British history demanded a referendum whose clear goal, as almost everyone understood, was to block Brexit – only the demonstration against the Iraq war was bigger. Labour and Jeremy Corbyn have adopted support for a referendum on the terms of any British exit from the EU. Key leaders of the Corbyn left, including John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, spoke at the huge People’s Vote demonstration on 19 October. Key backroom Labour figures, such as Andrew Fisher, who played a key role in Labour’s successful 2017 election campaign by ensuring the production of the progressive and popular manifesto, have consistently prioritised getting Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10, which means consistently fighting against all the Tory Brexit schemes which would have a disastrous effect on living standards. Of course, the key figure in opposing a No Deal Brexit has been Corbyn himself.
This flat-out mobilisation is correct. But it has also changed the situation on the left. The traditional position of the majority of the British left was to oppose membership of the EU and support Brexit. The reason this majority of the left had traditionally supported Brexit is explicable and understandable – even if a Marxist analysis, supported by this website, showed this was an error. For decades there was no chance of Britain leaving the EU – the issue was therefore totally abstract. Support for Brexit was in those circumstances therefore really an expression of a view that the EU was a reactionary capitalist institution.
Furthermore, the EU precisely is a reactionary capitalist institution – but it is sometimes necessary for the left to be able to choose between reactionary capitalist institutions and decide which side to fight on. In the most classic case of this, given the choice between reactionary fascism and reactionary social democracy only a political idiot refuses to fight on the side of the reactionary social democracy against the reactionary fascists. Similarly, only an idiot refused to fight on the same side as even US imperialism in the struggle against Nazi Germany and Japanese militarism in World War II. These were the positions which best served the interests of the working class as a whole.
As Brexit unfolded and it became clear that this was a reactionary offensive, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and other key mass leaders of the left therefore rightly adopted a position of voting Remain in the referendum, continuing to support a vote for Remain against any Tory agreement on Brexit, and supporting a referendum on any deal for Britain leaving the EU. This was a key part of the development of a left able to lead mass struggles because it became transparently clear that the situation in Britain at present is that the Brexit offensive, as John McDonnell rightly put it, is ‘going along the American economic model.’ It is to block this ‘Americanisation’ of British society, which is the content of Brexit in the present circumstances, that Labour supported voting for Remain and demanded as a minimum that Britain be in a Customs Union with the EU – because such a Customs Union blocks the implementation of US deregulation.
Failure to learn the lessons leads to sectarian attacks
But unfortunately, a minority in the left did not learn from these mass experiences and continued to support Brexit under the present circumstances. Regrettably these have therefore recently launched vicious attacks on John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and others. These attacks were accompanied by attempts to conceal that the fall in Labour support was at the time of the Euroelections, and that in these Labour’s big losses were not to the Brexit Party but to the Lib Dems, whose only policy known to the public is Remain. For example it was stated: ‘Labour can still make big strides in a general election. But ground has slipped. It is due growing influence of… Remain.’
But the reality is clear. Up to the Euro elections Labour support was in the high 30% range. But as Brexit turned from a purely abstract question to a real one, as the first deadline for leaving the EU arrived, Labour’s support fell dramatically – losing votes not to the pro-Brexit parties but to the pro-Remain Lib Dems and Greens.
John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and other figures are therefore rightly addressing the key issue, which is how to win back the Remain supporting voters Labour lost to the Liberal Democrats and Greens.
Some in the Labour Party unfortunately did not draw the lessons of the fight against Brexit, the Euroelections and the serious electoral set-back for Labour in these, and launched attacks on Labour figures who had the right analysis – such as John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Andrew Fisher and others. This is the underlying context in which the recent reorganisation of the Labour Leader’s office has been carried out by Jeremy Corbyn. The attempt to present this as a coup against Jeremy Corbyn is self-evidently nonsense as such changes could not have been carried out without Jeremy Corbyn’s decision.
It is vital to learn lessons for the struggles to come
The working class and Labour movement face a tremendous onslaught around Brexit. The great majority of the left has responded to this in entirely the correct way by fighting flat out against it. It is therefore unfortunate some on the left have failed to learn the lessons of this struggle and instead launched attacks on John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and others. In the battle to stop Brexit, and even more if Brexit occurs, unleashing all the attacks on the working class that would follow from it, it is vital that the left draws the lessons of the fight against Brexit.
This website, naturally doesn’t agree with every single thing said by those who have been leading Labour in drawing these lessons. Notably it was a mistake for John McDonnell to introduce an idea that if Labour did not win the next general election he and Jeremy Corbyn should resign. First it is up to Labour members to decide who they want to lead the Party. In reality Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour, with key leading allies such as John McDonell and Diane Abbott, is vital in the fight against the present Brexit, and it would be even more vital if Brexit is carried out and therefore a huge attack on the working class is unleashed.
The reactionary attacks on John McDonnell, Diane Abbott have been launched by some amongst the minority on the left who have failed to learn the lessons of the last three years of struggle around Brexit. The left should firmly reject them – and the great majority of it will do so. As John McDonnell rightly put it, around Brexit in the present situation: ‘Our country faces a fundamental choice about the future of our economy and the living standards of our people.’ In the fight against what would be the carnival of reaction launched by Johnson’s Brexit it is vital that the left learns all the lessons of these struggles it has passed through.