The Labour party mustn’t lose sight of its base as the Salzburg shenanigans highlights an EU still fixated on elites and privilege, argues Lindsey German
Just when we all thought the Tory mess over Brexit couldn’t get any worse, Salzburg happened. Theresa May was humiliated by the whole EU 27 - even by her new best friend, the far right Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban. They lined up behind EU president Donald Tusk to say that her Chequers plan - which was forced on the Cabinet in July, and led to the resignation of two senior ministers - is unworkable. She left Salzburg in near meltdown and only recovered the following day by draping herself in the Union Jack at a press conference where she demanded ‘respect’ for Britain.
Why anyone should respect this government is beyond me, although those people who put their faith in the increasingly right wing leadership of the EU are also beyond me. The way they treated May in Salzburg is exactly how they would treat representatives of any left wing government in Britain - with bullying contempt. So we should neither fall for her little Englander rhetoric, nor for their demands to maintain a single market which does not operate in the interests of working people but in the interests of neoliberal capital.
But the question remains, what on earth does May think is going to happen now? One major stumbling block in negotiations is the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. May is in hock to the viciously right wing unionist DUP over the Irish border, since her government depends on it for their majority. In addition, any retreat on this would open up the question of a united Ireland, an aim supported by the majority of Irish people. Such a move would be a dagger in the heart of the Conservative and Unionist party and would, of course, make Scottish independence much more likely.
There is a game of brinksmanship going on here where she hopes she can argue for a soft border and force the EU to make moves towards a hard border to protect its markets. But the truth is there are only two places where there can be a border - the existing one or in the middle of the Irish Sea. Presumably, also May will want to prevent widespread non-Irish immigration into Britain through Ireland - and so will increase enforcement to keep people out.
She is also in hock to her own party’s right wing, personified by Boris Johnson, now free to make a leadership challenge, and Jacob Rees-Mogg. This is why she keeps threatening a no deal if the EU doesn’t accept her demands. It is increasingly part of her rhetoric and may be where she ends up even though clearly it would have great difficulty getting through Parliament, and was never the intention of the majority who voted either way in the referendum.
Those mainstream politicians who oppose Brexit are increasingly coalescing around a hard position as well because at the same time as the Tories see a growing attraction to no deal, on the centre and left of mainstream politics we are inexorably moving towards a second referendum.
This was the view expressed by French president Emmanuel Macron in Salzburg and it is becoming the view of liberal elite everywhere. The centre politicians here, including the Lib Dems and Blairites, have always had sympathies for such a view, but enthusiasm for it is now reaching a crescendo. It comes not least from a number of Labour activists who want Jeremy Corbyn to adopt it as Labour policy.
The pressure on Corbyn to go along with this is immense, but should be resisted, not least because it is a shameful ignoring of the democratic right of the electorate. A major narrative since June 2016 has been to denounce leave voters as racist/ignorant/stupid. The undemocratic and elitist nature of these attacks should be obvious. But to reverse a democratic decision you first have to demean and insult the intelligence of those who voted differently from you.
Any move towards a second referendum will strengthen the far right - as EU policies have helped strengthen the far right across Europe. The danger can be seen very starkly. As anti-racist campaigner from the North East, Daniel Kebede, put it on Facebook: in the next few days, we may see Labour support a second referendum at its conference, while this week too, Tommy Robinson could be accepted for membership of the increasingly rightward moving UKIP. Imagine what a parliamentary candidacy from him would mean in an area such as Sunderland, alongside this shift from Labour?
The people clamouring for a second referendum seem to either not know or not care what the consequences of it might be. Part of the problem here is that the overwhelming majority of the ruling class in Britain is for Remain. And everyone knows that if the vote had been won by Remain by the same margin as it was won by leave there would have been little of the outcry and demand for reversal.
While the current demands for a revote come from many decent socialists, they also come from not so decent people like Nick Clegg and Alastair Campbell. The former believe that Brexit will be a disaster for ordinary people in Britain and that it will increase chauvinism and racism. Yet they lack the foresight to see how right wing politicians will portray any betrayal of the 2016 vote.
They also ignore the fact that a second referendum that resulted in a Remain vote would have a future Labour government under the control of neoliberal Europe. Utopian talk of democratising the EU would remain just that since it is impossible to democratise such an unaccountable organisation.
John McDonnell was quite right to say this weekend that Britain has to press on with Brexit but that it has to reject both the Tory right no deal and the calls for another referendum. Instead, the obvious solution to the impasse of May’s making is a general election. In reality, this is not an option which appeals to a number of right wing Labour MPs, some of whom would rather have a Tory government than a Corbyn one, and all of whom understand that this trumps their campaign for a second referendum. So there’s a lot of talk of the Tories not allowing an election - as if it should be left up to the Tories and the DUP. Only by creating a huge political crisis will Labour exacerbate differences within the Tories, put maximum pressure on them and force an election.
Labour should stand firm against a second referendum, for the reasons above but also because it will only harm the party electorally. The best chance that Theresa May has is to paint herself as standing up to Brussels, and Labour as capitulating to the EU. If that happens she might just call the snap election some are speculating on and play the patriotism card. Then things could really start to get nasty.
The way that some Labour MPs behave, why are they so surprised members want them to be accountable?
Labour’s conference has opened with a big and enthusiastic rally for Jeremy Corbyn, where he made a strong speech about campaigning and democracy; with a pro Europe demo, of which I’ve said enough above, and with an ongoing row over party democracy, which almost certainly isn’t going to be resolved at this conference.
The democracy review led by Katy Clark, the left wing former MP, had a number of its proposals delayed or rejected by the outgoing NEC last week. In particular, disagreements have centred on two things - the extent to which MPs can be controlled by the party membership, and the threshold necessary to nominate a future Labour leader.
The NEC decisions on Labour’s democracy review were overall not good. They make it hard for a left leader to get on the ballot paper, since 10% of all Labour MPs are required to nominate a candidate. There would also be a necessary component from trade union or CLP bodies. As things stand this would make it very hard for a successor to Jeremy with similar politics to get elected. It was unclear at the time of writing what would happen on the question of open selection - members demands that they can choose their MP. The attempt to reject or refer back the CAC report at the beginning of conference (an indicator of support for open selection) was clearly overwhelmingly supported by constituency delegates but lost narrowly when the union block vote was taken into account.
There should be no retreat on open selection - which frankly is no more than Labour MPs should expect after their often disgraceful lack of support for their leader and his mandate. Opinion has moved towards it because of their behaviour as many people simply don’t trust them. There should also not be a return to the days when the trade union leaders and MPs used their disproportionate weight inside Labour to oppose left wing policies. It’s clear Labour has a majority left membership - and the people who benefit from their work to get elected should respect that.
My low point of the day yesterday was watching Andrew Marr’s interview with Jeremy Corbyn, the largest single section of it devoted to smears about antisemitism. Complete with several news clips showing said offending items. The most egregious was when Marr showed a clip of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comparing Corbyn to Enoch Powell, and then said well let’s not talk about the Powell quote. Jeremy, who is much more patient than most people would be, said no let’s talk about it, insisting that he was going to refute the comparison. I’m afraid Marr demonstrates the truth of those of us who argue the antisemitism debate is being weaponised for political purposes. There was no point or value in rehashing the debate, except to attack Corbyn. And of course, any mention of Israel/Palestine from Jeremy was just ignored.
Awful and indefensible. Compare it to the soft focus love in with May and Nick Robinson last week. And just remember how we were told adopting the IHRA definition would draw a line under this.
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
- Vote with your feet – weekly briefing
- Lindsey German's August reading recommendations
- The internal Tory coup, the cabinet of horrors, and class war - weekly briefing
- Boris Johnson is a racist, sexist, warmonger who must be stopped - video
- Nightmare time: why the left has to come out fighting – weekly briefing
- There’s only one solution to Labour’s problems: the right have got to go - weekly briefing
- Britain is following Trump and escalating the threat of war with Iran