The Union Flag and EU Flag. Graphic: 123rf The Union Flag and EU Flag. Graphic: 123rf

Brexit gives us a unique opportunity. Let’s take it

One of the defining aspects of Labour’s General Election campaign was its pushing of the debate away from Brexit and towards a concerted and successful attack on the Tories’ austerity policies. Brexit was a distant runner up for voters behind the NHS, education, re-nationalisation of industries, housing and the economy. This was despite much of the media going along with the Tories’ desire to make the election a vote on Brexit. Even on election night, commentators on the major television channels attempted to strap Brexit on to each and every result, even when the data did not support it. With the exception of a few Leave areas, the Labour vote increased in seats it won in both Leave and Remain constituencies.

This unity was always unlikely to last, unfortunately.

Sure enough, once parliament reconvened, Chuka Umunna led a group of 49 Labour MPs in an amendment to the Queen’s Speech that called for the UK to stay in the Single Market. This was designed to cause splits within the Labour Party and to set out a position for the Labour right, in the hope that Tory Remainers would get on board. They did not, mainly because they realised the futility of such a position and that to do so would allow the media to represent their party as split, just when it was at its weakest.

Since then, a cross party group has been formed to oppose a ‘hard Brexit’. It is led by Umunna and Tory Anna Soubry. The principal aim of this group is to restore the centre and, from the perspective of the Labour members, disavow the fact that 13 million people just voted for socialism in the form of the Labour manifesto. It is also worth reminding ourselves that Umunna was quite happy to leave the Single Market last year, if doing so would allow the ending of freedom of movement. He even wrote an article saying so. There is nothing progressive about his position. 

As we know, the broad left was divided over Brexit last summer. The majority of Labour voters backed a Remain position, often with a view to reforming the EU. The radical left, on the other hand, mostly backed Leave, with a smaller number backing Remain or abstaining. There is no need to repeat the arguments of last year. Instead, let’s look at the material situation in which we find ourselves.

Interventions from figures wanting to stay in the Single Market or even stay in the EU are coming thick and fast. Last week in The Guardian alone, we had articles by John Palmer and William Keegan, plus an interview with Tony Blair, who has written an article for his eponymous institute. The Guardian interview was entitled ‘Brexit followed by Corbyn in no 10 would put UK flat on its back’, which in admitting that a large part of the antipathy to Brexit concerns preventing a Corbyn government at least has the benefit of honesty.

Today, talks are to resume between Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, and David Davies, the Brexit secretary and perhaps Tory leader in waiting. The Tories are divided on the best way out of the EU, as discussed in today’s Independent. Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, has suggested that negative stories about his position on public sector pay have been leaked by colleagues opposed to his preference for a ‘soft’ Brexit. The Tories are split over this issue and Labour has the opportunity to use this division as part of its overall strategy of forcing another general election. Keir Starmer, Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, has made it clear that if conditions are not met regarding workers’ rights and parliamentary scrutiny, then Labour may vote it down. There is already much talk that this vote will amount to a vote of confidence in Theresa May’s government.

Moreover, this month sees a far right group called Defend Europe launch a ship with the aim of preventing African refugees crossing the Mediterranean into Europe. Despite being anti-EU, they wish to defend one of the hardest borders in the world. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron, the poster boy of the liberal centre, has suggested that Africa has ‘civilisational problems’. Such is the murkiness and ambiguity of political positions on this subject.

In this context, there will be division. But where is the line?

Currently, the Labour right is attempting to force the line of division so it is key that the left does not just react to that, but also forges its own position, in order to use the unity achieved by the election to make a strong case for why a people’s Brexit is needed. In doing so, the following points will need to be made.

The Labour programme of renationalisation requires the UK to be free of EU directives that force competition.

The choice is not between a Tory Brexiter free trade post-EU, and membership of the Single Market. A Labour government can forge an independent, democratic and ethical trade policy. We are not stuck between two pro-business positions. As part of this, it needs to be made clear that the Single Market is an obstacle on the road to socialism. This will require a careful debunking of the various myths surrounding the EU as a progressive institution.

As discussed above, there were two positions taken by the left in the lead up to the referendum. There is now a sharper divide:

With Corbyn, the left, and a continued advancement in the battle against neoliberal austerity; in so doing, there must be a marshalling of the forces that have been fighting neoliberalism this century, and which we saw mobilise with such effect on the streets of Hamburg recently. 

Or make the debate about staying in the Single Market, or somehow stopping Brexit at all costs, and in so doing shore up the forces of Blairism and the extreme centre. 

There is only one position for the left here. We don’t have a dog in the race between Single Market membership and Tory free trade. For those on the left who thought that leaving the EU with a Tory government was the wrong decision, it’s worth thinking about the fact that history does not always come in the order in which we would like it.

What we do have is a unique historical opportunity to continue the rupture with the politics of the last 40 years that the election result represented. There are further battles to come. Let’s not get distracted.