Brexit flags. Photo: George Hodan Brexit flags. Photo: George Hodan

Betraying the referendum result would spell disaster for Labour and the left, argues Martin Hall

As the summer draws to an end and conference season looms, it is clear that the second front of the relentless attacks upon Corbyn and the Left is (re)opening: Brexit. Ever since Labour’s NEC agreed in July upon its antisemitism code, there has been a steady stream of negative coverage, led by the Tory press and its fellow travellers on the right of the Labour Party. During this period, as allegations became more distasteful and outlandish by the day, rumblings over the party’s Brexit policy continued to be felt. The noise level is now increasing, with the aim of changing the party’s position of supporting the result and arguing for a Brexit in the interests of working people. The division which has been there on the broad left ever since the result is now cohering into two contradictory positions: a People’s Vote, or a People’s Brexit. Let’s consider both in turn.

A People’s Vote

The campaign to stop Brexit has two interlinked groups at its heart: first, the People’s Vote campaign, which was formed in April by a cross-party group of MPs, including Chuka Umunna, Anna Soubry, Caroline Lucas, Jo Swinson and others from the SNP and Plaid Cymru, in order to argue for a vote on the final deal; second, the Left Against Brexit, an offshoot of Another Europe is Possible (AEIP), and which also includes Lucas, plus a Labour MP and some MEPs, union leaders, journalists, Momentum organisers and other activists. The two groups are not interchangeable, and indeed have different positions regarding the Corbyn project. What both agree on is the absolute centrality of stopping Brexit.

People’s Vote represent the continuity Remain position that is favoured by the vast majority of the British establishment. Let’s remember that the CBI, the City of London, the Treasury and the Bank of England all supported Remain, overtly or tacitly, and have vested interests in tying British capital into its current arrangements within the Single Market. The Tory Brexiters simply want a version of free trade that leaves British capital unfettered by EU rules: both these nominally opposed groups favour the primacy of free trade, but one is essentially federalist, while one is lost in nostalgic dreams of revivifying empire. The Labour members of the PLP within this grouping have been trying to wreck the Corbyn project for 3 years now, and are part of the go-to gang of rent-a-quotes used by the corporate media for whichever line of attack is flavour of the month. They use the language of ‘national interest’ to efface division in our society, arguing that what is good for business is good for the working class. This brings us on to the Left Against Brexit.

To a large degree, the ‘remain and reform’ position of AEIP is the one that Corbyn campaigned for in 2016. However, he followed that by being the first party leader to call for Article 50 to be triggered, a basic democratic position that has brought him opprobrium from the Europhile wing of the Labour Party ever since. Attempting to overturn the result of the largest vote in UK history is predicated upon two shibboleths: that doing so is justified because the vote was somehow unfair, with reasons for this including but not limited to, Russian involvement; breaches of spending rules; the EU Referendum Act of 2015 stating that the result was advisory; the full ‘cost’ of Brexit not being known to people two years ago; that there are now people who are eligible to vote who were not then (and some voters have died). Mostly, the Left Against Brexit’s position is that Brexit will be a disaster, and that the road to socialism (or at least, some form of progressive democracy) lies in a long march through the institutions of the largest trading bloc in the world. The second element is that having a final vote on the deal and overturning party policy will not represent a perhaps fatal blow to the Corbyn project, both in terms of his position within the Labour Party and what such a decision would do to Labour in the polls, and looking ahead, in the next general election. 

A People’s Brexit

Counterfire has set out its Brexit position in a number of article in both the paper and the website, so we will not go into detail here, beyond stating this:

  • The Single Market, with its strictures upon state aid and its enshrining of the rights of capital via freedom of establishment, is anathema to socialism and economic planning and control
  • Free trade is not the priority: instead, massive investment in  manufacturing, increased productivity, local procurement in the interests of working people and ethical trade are key
  • Immigration is not the problem: increased trade union membership and higher wages via public investment in the economy will prevent pay and conditions being undercut by imported cheaper labour
  • Our rights are not dependent upon the EU, and neither were they given to us by it. They were won by struggle
  • A radical rupture with the current model of capitalism in order to rebalance capital and labour in favour of the latter can only be achieved outside the EU, which is unreformable, and turning increasingly rightwards
  • There is a People’s Vote that we can call for if the deal is unacceptable next March: a general election

Any overturning of the result will only benefit one end of the political spectrum: the right, and not just its electoral, relatively centrist wing. The rag-tag gang of fascists, Islamophobes and assorted fellow travellers that is coalescing around Tommy Robinson, the DFLA and the increasingly extreme UKIP, will be given a huge campaigning boost by any change in Labour policy. UKIP received its first bounce in the polls immediately after the announcement of the Tories’ Chequers Plan, with its common rulebook for goods, which keeps Britain tied to Single Market rules in that area. There are worse people trying to make hay out of Brexit than UKIP, though.

While the position of Corbyn and his inner circle is relatively clear, Labour’s Brexit policy continues to vacillate, a process begun when Kier Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, announced in August of last year that Labour would not only back a transitional deal to remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union, but would not rule out doing so permanently in the event of not reaching a deal. Further accommodations to Remain have been forthcoming since; to give one current example, Starmer has not ruled out asking for a second referendum if the final deal is not deemed satisfactory. None of this has in any way satisfied the extreme Remainers, and a parallel can be made here with the apologies and concessions on the antisemitism issue: the attacks just keep coming, as the aim is not just to amend party policy, but to affect a leadership change, arrest the gains of the last 3 years and revive the ailing centre. There is still talk of a new centrist party, too. Momentum recently waded in to this melee, suggesting they would ballot its members with a view to making the case for overturning party policy at conference. Thankfully, they have now rowed back and announced that they will take no position.

We can see this vacillating as an effect of the overall strategy of Labour being a ‘government in waiting’, which is the mantra that started to be used after its excellent general election result, when clearly some started to believe that it was only a matter of time before the government would fall, and that therefore Labour needed to blunt its edges. The failure of this policy in preventing further attacks makes the pro-People’s Vote interventions of Corbyn supporters all the more inexplicable, especially when allied to the fantastical belief that backing a second referendum in whatever form is a vote winner. Let’s remember that over 60% of Labour constituencies voted Leave.

The next few months are key to the success of the Corbyn project: the Labour left can continue to concede ground to its enemies both within and without, or it can fight, call for a general election, realise the opportunity that Brexit gives to a radical reforming government, and make the case in clear, uncompromising terms. In so doing, it can recapture the spirit of last summer’s campaign, when an insurgent politics brought Labour its best election result since 1997.