Final stage Brexit fatigue cannot be allowed to override fundamental class imperatives, argues Kevin Ovenden
Boris Johnson’s exit deal is worse for working people than Theresa May’s.
She had to make some concessions on workers rights and environmental standards in her plan, three times rejected in parliament.
Johnson’s deal drops those commitments, though the government was today looking to make vague, but not binding, references to them in order to attract support.
It’s on that basis, working people’s rights, that the labour movement should judge this big business deal. It is the reason why every Labour MP ought to vote against it in parliament tomorrow.
There is no guarantee that all will. The vote could come down to single figures either way.
Whatever happens, we have to face an uncomfortable fact. Johnson’s position is far less precarious than it was six weeks ago when his anti-democratic suspension of parliament backfired. Labour’s is more difficult.
It is by no means impossible. Labour can still make big strides in a general election. But ground has slipped. It is due growing influence of the Remain at all costs wing of Labour.
One thing the last few days have done is to expose its wrong arguments that have sown debilitating confusion.
We were told throughout the summer and into this week that not only would Johnson not get a revised deal from the EU, but that he didn’t even want one. He was just going through the motions.
The claim that the EU “would never reopen the Withdrawal Agreement” had already been deployed against Labour earlier this year to argue that electing a Corbyn-led government to negotiate a left or people’s Brexit was irrelevant as the EU’s position was set in stone.
Then many Labour people made the same claim about Johnson’s efforts.
Well, the EU has shifted. The so-called Northern Ireland backstop, supposedly inviolable, has gone. That is because Johnson shifted to what is in reality separate arrangements for Northern Ireland, which the Loyalist DUP was holding out against as of this morning.
Put aside what has been agreed with the EU. The big point is that something new has been agreed, when the continuity-Remain operation run by friends of Tony Blair and many Labour MPs said it could not happen.
They were wrong and the public can see that they were wrong. That includes the majority middle ground trying to switch off from the Brexit drama on account of more immediate concerns such as low pay, housing, deteriorating public services and murderous working conditions.
Second, and related, was the false argument that gained traction also on the left that Johnson did not want a deal. It became a kind of dogma defying evidence and reality.
So Tory ex-chancellor Philip Hammond took up the conspiratorial conjecture that Johnson was driving to an over the cliff Brexit on 31 October because hedge-fund friends of his had bet on the massive economic turbulence that would cause.
The respected financial commentator Frances Coppola debunked that “theory” in Forbes magazine simply by examining the actual bets the funds had made and finding that they did not fit with such a conspiracy.
That did not prevent the mantra of “stop Johnson’s no-deal Brexit” coming to drown out all else throughout the month of September. It was right to head off a damaging crash out. But this was done on a false premise and those of the continuity-Remain operation pushed the line that it required constantly pushing back a general election, holding a second referendum instead to overturn the first one, and stopping not just “no deal” but any Brexit at all.
Labour’s conference compromise made further concessions on the position that gained votes from Remainers and Leavers in 2017, though it managed to keep a priority on a general election.
But in practice the continuity-Remain operation, which includes shadow cabinet members Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry, ploughed on and in parliament Labour moved away from pressing for a general election. Thus we ended up with John McDonnell of the left entertaining a referendum before any election and, disastrously, Labour losing one and that Corbyn would have to stand down.
Now the excessive focus on stopping a supposedly deliberate no-deal Brexit comes back to haunt those who made it on a false basis.
Johnson can say: you said stop no-deal at all costs. You played parliamentary games and went to the courts. Well, my deal does stop that – the deal you said I’d never get and didn’t even want.
It is not the impact in parliament that matters, but outside as everything Johnson says is geared to a coming election.
Moreover, this is not just Johnson’s deal. It is the EU’s deal. It and all the component governments are enthusiastic about it and are lending Johnson all the political support they can muster. The Dutch PM Mark Rutte said this is a “beautiful compromise... We really made a square into a circle. I would say to the British House of Commons: what more do you want?”
EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said there was “no need for a prolongation”. The British parliament should approve the deal now.
Lots of pro-Remain commentators pointed out that it is not in his gift to grant or not another extension to the process. It is down to the other 27 EU heads of government agreeing unanimously. And if Johnson fails tomorrow they may well reconvene and approve an extension – though only for a defined purpose, such as for an election or another try in parliament.
But that isn’t the point. The significance is that at all levels the EU is with the British government in its efforts. Johnson can claim, credibly, to be speaking for the EU as well as his own administration.
This ought to shatter once and for all some childlike illusions in the EU and its governments whereby they are some idealistic historical force for all that is good. It is a bureaucratic hierarchy of capitalist states operating according to ruthless realpolitik.
Further, the vast majority of its governments are of the centre-right and have much more in common with any Tory government in Britain than with a Corbyn one, which they fear, or with those who mistakenly project their socialist beliefs onto EU capitalist institutions.
They have given Johnson a big political boost. Either it’s enough for him to swing sufficient MPs in parliament, or it strengthens his position going into a general election.
He can run the fake populist line that is well trailed: that he represents the “popular will against the elites”. But he can add to that: I get things done. Far from being extreme, I have such good relations in Europe that I got an agreement that my opponents and cynics said was impossible. The real dogmatists here are extreme Remainers in a dysfunctional parliament. Give me a majority and I can settle this in a sensible way.
Dishonest as it is (this is Johnson), it can seem to many plausibly to represent a “national consensus”, bounded by two “extremes” – Farage’s Brexit party on the one hand, and undemocratic, out of touch MPs on the other who are being more pro-EU than the EU itself.
This is the great danger. It will not be met by rebel Labour MPs giving support to Johnson’s deal. Nor will it be met by more concessions to the continuity-Remain operation and collapsing fully into another referendum on Johnson’s – or even May’s – deal, thus deferring well into next year a general election.
The so-called “People’s Vote” operation holding a demonstration tomorrow is not in fact proposing in parliament to have a “people’s vote”, on account of it not having a majority.
The contradictions in this might be brushed off by continuity-Remain enthusiasts. They will not be lost on many ordinary people.
It has become blindingly obvious that the thrust of the operation is stopping a Corbyn government and getting Labour to destroy all its political capital in overturning the 2016 referendum by avoiding the big democratic vote that matters – a general election.
And whatever the further twists and turns in Labour’s position following tomorrow, as Jeremy Corbyn does his best to prevent yet more slippage, it is already the case that talk of a general election is more and more missing from Labour’s vocabulary.
We were told that this would not happen, that not voting a month ago for a general election merely meant a delay of a couple of weeks and was all about stopping a supposed deliberate plan by Johnson to crash out on 31 October.
What in fact has happened, as many of us said, is that referendum talk has eclipsed election talk from Labour.
This only plays into Johnson’s hands. For there may well be an election before the end of the year if he cannot get his deal through parliament.
But it will be with him forcing it and Labour perceived not to want it. There are already stories trailed of “backbench Labour MPs” opposed to having an election at all. The kinds of arguments put last month against voting for one will grow from that quarter.
This is a problem principally of the continuity-Remain operation that has damaged Labour. It is also a result of mistaken concessions in that direction that risk a vicious spiral.
The way out is to move back to a simple position that working people can also understand. Aim to topple Johnson and vote out the Tories. Defeat his deal in parliament tomorrow and press to no confidence the government.
Whether that carries or not, it shifts the debate towards the ground where Labour can advance – against Tory privileged rule and for a radical, left transformative government.
None of that is easy. But the alternative path has already led to a far worse situation:
Johnson making plausible (though in reality mendacious) claims to represent the national consensus, but blocked by entitled MPs.
Labour chained down like Gulliver by the likes of nitwit Jo Swinson and its own ultra-Remain MPs.
This is the situation to get out of - not dig deeper into.
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
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