Watson wants to wreck the Corbyn project. The left mustn't let him, argues Martin Hall
Tom Watson’s call for Labour to become an anti-Brexit party today is a full-fledged attack upon the leadership and the Corbyn project. This is not because Corbynism is about Brexit. It is because the success of Corbynism is predicated upon a number of factors that Brexit taps into:
- The extent to which it is an insurgency against establishment politics
- Whether or not the left in the party can win the battle against the right
- The degree to which Labour can hold on to Labour leave voters outside the major cities
The context here is an upcoming general election against a Tory party led in all likelihood by Boris Johnson, which the Tories, aided and abetted by the corporate media, will attempt to make all about Brexit, for two reasons: first, because they have little else to offer; second, because they will consider this the only way to put the Brexit Party back in its box.
However, Labour also lost votes in the Euro elections to the Brexit Party, and in its heartlands. The lost Labour remain votes to the Lib Dems in major cities will never translate into Islington North and its equivalents going Lib Dem in a general election. Similarly, the Lib Dem surge in relatively well-off rural areas is at the expense of the Tories, predominantly in seats that Labour can’t win.
Watson said this today: ‘I don’t support Europe despite being socialist; I support Europe because I am a socialist.’ Does anyone believe that, whichever way they voted in 2016? He has spent the last four years trying to undermine Corbyn and the leadership at every turn, be it over Brexit, antisemitism or foreign policy. The campaign to stop Brexit is led by the enemies of socialism, and socialists also wanting to overturn the result don’t change the concrete reality of who’s pushing this.
From its inception the EU has been an instrument designed to limit popular democracy and sovereignty and any move towards socialism. Since its flirtation with social democracy in the Delors era it has become a promoter of neoliberal economic deregulation, as outlined in many pieces on this site. Despite the idealism of the remain and reform positions taken by some on the left, at least they have good intentions: any discussion of reform from Watson? Of course not. He wants Britain in the EU so that the obstacles to socialism that are enshrined within it can stop a Corbyn government in its tracks.
There is also the matter of what this is trying to achieve, even if we were to take him at face value. Labour cannot stop Brexit in opposition, and no magic wand-waving pleas from those hostile to Corbyn can change this material reality; whatever Labour says, there will be a Brexit-supporting Tory prime minister who will attempt to take the UK out of the EU by the end of October and the way to prevent the Tories having a free rein in post-Brexit Britain is not through a change in Labour’s position.
There is no parliamentary arithmetic for any deal. No deal, despite the vote-grabbing statements from the likes of Dominic Raab and Boris Johnson, is not going to happen. Parliament will not be prorogued. When September sees the new Tory administration no closer to a deal, then will be the time to issue a vote of no confidence and take Labour into a general election promising to do what the Tories couldn’t and wouldn’t: deliver a Brexit deal in the interests of working people.
The idea of going into that general election promising to stop Brexit would be electoral suicide and an absolute gift to the far right, who are currently presenting themselves as the saviours of democracy: as insurgent and anti-establishment, which is where the left should be. Whatever the weaknesses of the vote, the lies told on both sides, and the choice presented at the time between business as usual or a mythic return to Britain’s imperial past, it represented the biggest franchise in British history. Overturning the result of that would leave Labour floundering in the north and midlands. Moreover, it would lose Corbyn one of his prime selling points: his honesty, and commitment to his principles. Watson’s desire to overturn the decision reached at conference – whatever its weaknesses – would also represent a betrayal of the members, as all options have not been exhausted, and a general election is very likely this year.
What Watson is doing represents a soft coup against Corbyn and the left. They know they can’t get rid of him as leader at present, so the best option is to wound him fatally, stymie the party’s chances in the next election and drive him out after that, at which point the hope is to return the party to the centre and take up the kind of politics that is currently attracting very little support across the continent. Centrist analysis of the EU elections has made very little of that fact. The Labour Party has been one of the few centre left parties in Europe that has not tanked in the last few years, and that is because it has offered a radical alternative to the failed policies of the last 30 years. Watson and the people behind him want to return to a world before Corbynism and the EU referendum.
This is a fantasy. The left must unite behind Corbyn, whichever way they voted three years ago. The alternative is disaster.
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