Austerity isn't working billboard, London, 2012. Photo: Flickr/wandererwandering Austerity isn't working billboard, London, 2012. Photo: Flickr/wandererwandering

Eyes on the prize that matters most, an end to both the Tory government and austerity, argues John Rees

The legendary guiding maxim of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’, could usefully be adapted to understanding current debates around Brexit. Opinion polls already show that Brexit, despite the media and the political establishment obsession with the issue, is not the number one concern for most voters. Rather, they are concerned with a larger, deeper, and more long-lasting issue. In short, it’s austerity stupid. Here are a few thoughts on why they are right.

1Austerity produced Brexit, not vice versa.

By common consent, and irrespective of the issues around which it is expressed, the Leave vote in the referendum was driven by economic and social deprivation. That, in turn, was the product of 10 years of austerity, and of neoliberal, free-market economics dating back to the rise of Margaret Thatcher.

2Austerity has ruined working class lives for a decade; the ‘damage’ caused by Brexit is futurology.

The economic destruction visited on society by the 2008 crash and its aftermath is simply a matter of historical record. All predictions about the damage that will be caused by Brexit are estimates or guesstimates about something that has not happened yet. This is important.  The Leave vote was driven by real experience over many years, not simply by economists projections.  But let’s just have a look at those projections. The government’s own estimate of the damage that might be done by Brexit is that the economy will contract by 3.9% of GDP over 15 years. Compare that with the impact of the 2008 recession when the economy shrunk by 6% in a single year.

3Whether we leave or remain Austerity will continue unless we get the Tories out.

 The unarguable fact is that the only way of ending the most destructive economic policy this country has known since the 1930s is to get rid of the Tory government. If the Tories remain in power whether we are in the European Union or have left it then austerity will continue.

4Austerity is more important than Brexit.

From the above points, the only possible conclusion is that austerity has and will shape the most fundamental things about working people’s lives too far greater extent than Brexit. Brexit is about the trade policy of the UK. The worst that can happen is that trade will become more costly because tariff barriers that do not exist within the EU will come into force once we leave. Prices may rise, trade may decline marginally, in the worst case scenario.  This is serious of course, and it would be very much the best outcome if it could be avoided. But this is not the same, nor would it have the same effect on working people’s lives, as the decade-long, society-wide attack on the welfare state, living standards, and trade union organization that has come with austerity. These are simply social events on two entirely different scales.

5A general election can end the Tory government and austerity; a second referendum will do neither.

A second referendum will not and cannot change the government or abolish austerity. For that a general election is necessary.  Practically all the Blairites and their successors in the Labour Party support a second referendum because it aligns them with the preferred option of the majority of big business and simultaneously allows them to strike a blow at the Corbyn leadership. They have long made it clear that they would prefer Labour to lose a general election than to win one with Corbyn as party leader. A second referendum will indefinitely postpone a general election and weaken the Corbyn project.

6The Tories cannot overcome their divisions, unless the LP throws them the lifeline of a second referendum.

The Tory party is irrevocably split between its Leave and Remain factions. Theresa May can only move towards a softer Brexit at the risk of a split by hardline Brexiteers. Equally, she can only move towards a No Deal Brexit at the risk of a split by the majority of Remain Tory MPs. The only thing that could save her from the horns of this dilemma is if Labour adopts the policy of a second referendum, gathers support from Remain Tory MPs, and allows the Brexit paradox to be resolved in a popular vote. This would allow the Tories to escape without further damage to their party.

7Jeremy Corbyn and the entire labour movement should relentlessly pursue the destruction of the Tories, mobilise the whole labour movement to demand a general election, and ignore the demand for a second referendum.

No likely outcome of a second referendum will be to the advantage of the labour movement. If a new referendum once again voted to Leave then the entire exercise and all the renewed divisions and animosity that it would undoubtedly conjure up would have been for nothing. If the referendum voted narrowly for Remain then the disillusionment and anger of Leave voters would certainly in part fuel a revival of the far and fascist right, divide the Labour and trade union movement, postpone an election, and likely end in a new challenge to Corbyn’s leadership.  There are no other likely outcomes. All the polls show that very little has changed in the public mind since the original referendum and that a large majority for Remain is simply a figment of the imagination of Labour’s right wing,  the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens.

8Ignore the SNP and the Greens who are more concerned with attacking Corbyn than getting rid of the Tories (and let’s just remember who was right and who was wrong about the timing of the vote of confidence).

There has been much talk for many months in the press and elsewhere about Jeremy Corbyn being an ineffective leader of the opposition. But what the recent Brexit crisis shows is that it is the other opposition parties who have failed dramatically to confront the Tory government. The Liberal Democrats are already refusing to even vote against the government in any future vote of confidence. As soon as Theresa May changed course after the historic Commons defeat of her Brexit policy she sought to rescue her project by reaching out to other political forces in the Commons. The SNP and the Greens jumped to her aid. Without qualification or precondition, they swallowed whole Tory rhetoric about putting the ‘national interest’ first and gave May the satisfaction of looking as if she might be able to find a plan B in concert with opposition MPs.

The trade union leaders and Jeremy Corbyn were quite right to distance themselves from this transparent Tory gambit. The only possibility of a progressive solution to this crisis is to deepen the discomfort of the Tory government to the point where even its most loyal supporters realise that it is illegitimate and unacceptable for a government that lacks a majority in the House of Commons to continue without a new general election. This is the most elementary principle on which even the most conservative supporters of Parliamentary democracy agree. The fact that so many in the media and in the political establishment are willing to trample on even their own limited commitment to popular representation shows how essential it is that the Labour movement continues to insist on the most basic democratic principles and fights to drive those who are abusing them to the point where they face the electorate.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.