As Theresa May signs off Article 50, Lindsey German takes a look at where we stand
The triggering of article 50 by Theresa May marks a two year period of leaving the EU. The crucial question for all of us faced with this is what will be the terms of leaving. There should be no calls on the left to join in with some of the most discredited politicians of recent times - Nick Clegg, Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair to name just three - who are fronting up a campaign to reverse the decision in the interests of rebuilding their political careers and in so doing strengthening the grip of their bankrupt neo-liberal policies.
Nor should there be a sense that this marks the end of a process. Instead, it should be seen as the beginning of a major fight not just against the priorities of the Tory government but about changing society away from the dominant pro-business and pro-war policies that have helped create the sort of low-wage, privatised and increasingly broken society which is Britain today.
In this, we have to develop a sense of what will continue and what will change with Brexit. It is often said that May is acting to appease her own backbenchers and this is what is motivating her hard Brexit. This may be part of it, but the dominant aim of the Tories is to ensure that they can continue with the model of the economy which they have enforced for the past seven years, and which was also enthusiastically adopted by Blair and Brown.
They want to use the big changes which will result from Brexit in order to hold down wages, cut back spending on health and education, and weaken organised resistance. They deliberately use the question of immigration to divide working people and so blame the victims for these circumstances.
There are two points to make here: one is that this did not develop with Brexit, it was in operation long before the referendum was dreamed up by Cameron. Second is that these policies can be stopped. The Tories are not in my view in a strong position, they will face all sorts of obstacles and opposition as we have seen already, and if they face domestic opposition they can be defeated.
Indeed one of the features of May has been her outward show of steely Iron Lady persona matched with a level of tactical flexibility and retreat which is belied by it. There have been retreats over a range of issues including national insurance for the self-employed. Her attitude towards the rights of EU nationals has been a disgrace since she could have guaranteed them from day one of her Prime Ministership.
But even she has had to claim that she will try to resolve these and EU nationals will continue to be able to enter Britain during negotiations. While we should have no illusions in a woman with her draconian record as Home Secretary, this does show the sort of pressure there is over this issue across wide swathes of opinion, including many leave voters.
Claims that this will mean the end of LGBT rights are also wide of the mark. These rights are covered by the Equality Act 2010 which is in British law. As no doubt anyone on the left who campaigns against oppression will tell you, these laws don't in themselves guarantee such rights. But such laws have to be defended and extended when under attack, alongside a recognition that it is the struggles of the oppressed and exploited themselves which will bring fundamental change.
This is also true of workers' rights, which are under attack across Europe. Yes across Europe. The hope of the Guardian left in the French elections, Emmanuel Macron, explicitly wants to weaken French workers rights including the 35 hour week (already under piecemeal attack). Everywhere the agenda is further to pursue the race to the bottom, increasing insecurity and low wages, and in many countries maintaining a significant pool of unemployed.
In Britain, wages have already fallen for a decade and it is predicted that they will continue to do so for at least another 5 years. This preceded the referendum - indeed was one of the causes of a Leave vote. Nurses and lecturers have both been awarded just over 1% - a cut in real terms.
Our choice is simple: do we accept these outcomes or do we fight against them? And do we fight against them while linking up with our European comrades in Greece, fighting years of austerity, in Portugal, where workers are under attack, in Hungary and Poland, where two extremely right wing governments are attacking basic civil liberties?
We have the ability to do so. There is a very big left in Britain, at present much of it inside Corbyn's Labour Party. And Corbyn has - despite the LibDem propaganda - been clear in his opposition to attacks on EU nationals, on migrants and on workers' rights. Labour amendments defeated May in the House of Lords and were in turn only defeated on the Commons because not one pro Remain Tory voted for them.
The extra-parliamentary left can play a big role in terms of activity and campaigning against Tory policies. It was central to a mass demo in support of the NHS, the anti-racism demo and to activity against austerity up and down the country.
There must be three strands to this approach. An opposition to every move by May and her ministers to enforce their reactionary policies through Brexit. Implacable resistance to all forms of racism and Islamophobia from whoever they come. A determination to organise on the ground both locally and nationally in defence of all the oppressed, for trade union and workplace rights, for fully funded health and education, public housing, and to build the left.
This is how we begin to shape a People's Brexit.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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