Those trying to force Corbyn to change his position on Brexit are paving the way for disaster, argues Lindsey German
The EU referendum, the debate that accompanied it and the subsequent continuing turmoil into which it has thrown British politics, were never discussions conducted on the left’s terrain. The dominant argument was between two factions of the British ruling class: the majority faction, led by former prime minister David Cameron, wanted to remain in the EU subject to further restrictions especially on rights of EU citizens in Britain. The minority saw Britain’s future as lying with more flexible trading relationships with non-EU partners, and a desire to escape regulation and control.
The debate became about questions of sovereignty and control, with the question of immigration never too far away – an issue on which both sides were willing to make concessions.
Many on the left were – sometimes reluctantly – for Remain, usually focusing this decision on the need to oppose racism and national chauvinism, which overrode any other considerations about the negative role of the EU. This was a position with which I disagreed, but which I respected for obvious reasons, since no one could be complacent about the racist and nationalist arguments which accompanied the referendum debate, and because I shared the view of many of those people that immigration was not a problem – in fact, it is a benefit to British society in countless ways.
That the referendum ended in a Leave vote didn’t surprise me, although I did think that after the murder of Jo Cox there would be a rise in support for the Remain camp. Maybe there was, but it was not sufficient to win that side victory. It was also clear to me that, while immigration played a role in the vote, it was overwhelmingly a vote against the establishment politicians who had given us austerity and misery over the previous years. That doesn’t mean it was necessarily progressive – there is no question that there were many confused, contradictory and sometimes reactionary ideas which motivated the vote. But it was a cry of pain, rage and incomprehension from large numbers of working class and poor people.
The result immediately led to an attack by Labour’s right on Jeremy Corbyn, an attack which led to a pointless and futile leadership challenge. The knives were out again for Corbyn when the election was called last year, with predictions of doom from many parts of the PLP (who can forget the humiliating documentary where Stephen Kinnock, Lucy Powell and Ruth Cadbury – all poised to bury Corbyn – were astounded at their own success). While the increase in Labour votes and seats held them back, the right have now regrouped around the central question (for them) of stopping Brexit.
Chukka Umunna, Heidi Alexander, Alastair Campbell, are all leading the charge to reverse the democratic decision made in June 2016 and keep Britain in the EU. They are doing much better than they should be, ably assisted by the Guardian which dutifully reports 17,000 emails calling for Corbyn to effectively change his position on the single market and customs union. Out of a membership of 600,000 this isn’t exactly decisive, especially since email lobbying tools are fairly common. But it is designed to put pressure on Corbyn, who this week has a Labour leadership away day to discuss the matter. I guess he will find it hard to hold the line, given the politics of those closely involved, such as Keir Starmer, as well as the wider pressure from establishment and media.
Agreeing to a change of policy would, however, be a major mistake. It would destroy the current position, which has done Labour well in terms of trying to unite the different views within its own party, and which did it no harm in the elections. Indeed, the most strongly pro-Remain parties, the Lib Dems and the Greens, did badly last June. Worse, it would once again create the space for the far right to grow, campaigning on the basis of the betrayal of Brexit. This prospect seems to hardly bother the likes of Progress and the Blairites, but should make any socialist stop short before agreeing to such an outcome.
Because staying in the single market or customs union would in effect negate the point of the referendum since it would effectively mean the status quo. A second referendum, which many of these same people advocate, would be disastrous politically because its outcome would be stalemate – a narrow majority one way or the other, and increased bitterness among Leave voters if their position was reversed.
It would also represent a weakening of the Labour left and probably precipitate further attacks on Jeremy. The Labour right see it as a wedge issue which can break Corbyn supporters from Corbyn, and they will do everything to make that happen. This is, therefore, a potentially dangerous moment.
For the left, there are some serious challenges. One is to keep insisting that many of the problems facing working class people in Britain – housing, health, education, low pay and poor conditions – have nothing to do with Brexit, and demand solutions regardless of the Westminster obsession with this question.
The other is to look at the reality which is the EU. It is not the antithesis of Brexit Britain, but an institution which is driving and reinforcing many of the problems across Europe, from the refugee crisis to worsening work conditions, to a growing militarism. While it is continuing to penalise Greece, it turns a blind eye to far-right politics in Poland and Hungary, and looks like endorsing the return of Silvio Berlusconi in next month’s Italian election.
It is exactly the politics put forward by Corbyn which can provide an alternative to the neoliberalism which dominates Europe. The EU leaders are united in opposing these politics and in doing everything they can to prevent them from succeeding.
I cannot bring myself to take the story about Jeremy Corbyn and the Czech spy seriously. It is denied by Corbyn and by the Czech security services’ chief archivist. That should be conclusive. But it isn’t enough for the right-wing media. The story about him and a number of other Labour politicians, including Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell, is remarkably thin, and would stand up to little scrutiny. But that isn’t the point of the story. It has one aim and one only, which is to discredit Corbyn, to plant in the minds of those who read the story that there is something disloyal, something underhand, and something pro-Communist about the Labour leader.
The right-wing media has some form over this, most notably with the Zinoviev letter in 1924, credited with losing Labour the election and now known conclusively to be fake. There were also the accusations against Arthur Scargill and alleged connections with Gadhafi’s Libya, also found to be false, and supposed evidence implicating George Galloway with links to Saddam Hussein, found conveniently just after the invasion of Iraq, which again was false.
In these cases, newspaper stories were splashed everywhere in order to discredit those concerned, and had more to do with the shadowy secret services in this country and their media contacts than with foreign spies or any such nonsense. The aim was to hope that the mud stuck. Jeremy Corbyn is right to rubbish this story. It’s not about investigative journalism but about smearing a politician who wants to bring about fundamental democratic change in this country. Expect to see more of this sort of smear as an election gets closer.
Meanwhile, much more sinister was the unprecedented public joint statement on Friday in the run-up to the Munich summit by UK, French and German spy chiefs about wanting to continue to work together and share information after Brexit – made apparently without consultation with their governments.
The business of charity
The evidence of sexual abuse from Oxfam employees in Haiti and Chad is pretty horrifying. It seems that these officials acted just as occupying armies have so often, thinking that the desperate situation in these countries means that they can abuse its occupants with impunity. It belies the ‘soft’ image of Oxfam as a charity helping those suffering around the world. But that image has never been the whole or even the main story. Aid agencies are big business and despite their designation as NGOs, they are very closely linked to and often funded by governments.
In addition, the image we have of ‘aid’ from the right wing press is that it consists of handouts of taxpayers’ money to feckless developing countries, which would be much better spent here in Britain. The amount of aid money compared with that of military spending is pitifully small, and it is tied inextricably to military operations and arms exports, as well as supporting other parts of British industry. It acts as a prop for modern imperialism, not an act of generosity to those countries who have suffered so much from colonialism and imperialism.
Oxfam and other similar charities are big business in their own right, with all the issues to do with power that entails.
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’.
More articles from this author
- A failed government in a failed system – weekly briefing
- World War 2: we weren’t all in it together
- Government and opposition: all in it together? – weekly briefing
- Lockdown? This government should be locked up – weekly briefing
- Coronavirus is showing that war has never been about security
- The Dilemmas of Lenin
- The coronavirus crisis: Britain’s ugly moment of truth – weekly briefing