Class politics has to be our guiding light as we make ready for battles in Westminster and beyond, asserts Lindsey German
The dangers of framing everything in terms of Leave and Remain have been shown very clearly at the weekend - and threatens the future of the left. Increasingly the whole debate ignores any class or wider social issues and sees everything in terms of membership of the EU. Ignoring the wider issues is not just a disaster politically but leads to tactics which reduce everything to legal or parliamentary manoeuvres. This can only increase the sense among many people that MPs are avoiding delivering Brexit as voted for over three years ago. They also allow Boris Johnson of all people to pose as the champion of democracy.
I know a lot of people saw the passing of the Letwin amendment as a defeat for Johnson and it was, in narrow parliamentary terms. But it was surely only a victory in a Pyrrhic sense. He is now acting in a predictably cocky but probably popular manner in sending three letters to the EU about an extension as mandated under the Benn act, while in reality putting up two fingers to the legislation. There is a good likelihood that his deal will be narrowly passed in the next couple of days anyway.
The strategy of Labour’s continuity Remainers has, I am sorry to say, played into his hands. They have teamed up with yellow Tories, former Tory members such as Anna Soubry, and the worst unreconstructed Blairites in order to get behind a Tory amendment backed by people who want to overthrow the referendum result altogether.
The systematically distorted analysis of these people has now spread not just to Labour’s right but to whole sections do the left. The embrace of it by Corbyn allies like John McDonnell is a tremendously retrograde step which may come to harm the whole project.
The dishonesty of many of its arguments do it no favours. This has become apparent in recent days as the supposedly impossible has happened and Boris Johnson has got a deal with the EU belying the predictions of so many. Boris Johnson did get his deal, the EU 27 had no problems with the deal, it resulted in a border down the Irish Sea, and it has brought on board nearly all the Tories, unlike the very similar ones from Theresa May earlier this year.
Acceptance of the deal across a wide range speaks to one very important fact: that the call by Johnson to ‘get Brexit done’ has strong resonance. The arguments have raged for well over 3 years, in which time they have become more entrenched and unpleasant. Perhaps a low point this week was Guardian journalist Zoe Williams denouncing Labour MP and former miner Ronnie Campbell as a scab for considering voting for Johnson’s deal. Probably the majority of people in Britain, whichever way they voted, are now heartily sick of the whole argument.
Johnson’s deal should of course be rejected. It is a Tory deal which will lead to worsening environmental and workers’ rights, and will be achieved with the acquiesce of the Tories’ hard right ERG. But it will be supported by some people because they voted to leave back in 2016, and believe that vote should be respected. This will also be the view of some who voted Remain but who again do not want to go against the decision.
Labour’s policy has increasingly abandoned any such view and has become firmer and firmer in favour of a second referendum and of setting aside the original decision. This is a mistake. Labour’s position has never been easy on this. It would have been easier if Jeremy Corbyn had stuck to his original position of supporting Leave. Labour could have allowed its MPs to campaign for what they believed in, and free votes when legislation was proposed. Instead Labour’s right tied the party to Remain, campaigned alongside discredited Tories and Lib Dems, and lost the vote.
Attempts by Corbyn to develop a good position out of the result in 2016, which could have respected the vote while demanding protections for working class people were lost in the vicious attempted coup against him which followed the referendum result. By the 2017 general election Labour argued to respect the vote and fight for the sort of people’s Brexit which could benefit workers.
Since then however there has been a steady erosion of this position. The move in this direction has been led by those hostile to the Corbyn project, especially the Blairites. They have been happy to join in this enterprise by with sundry Lib Dems, former Tories and sections of big capital. They see the movement for Remain as an end in itself but they also see it as having an equally if not more important goal of blocking the possibility of a Jeremy Corbyn victory in a future election.
Indeed this latter goal alone can make sense of the repeated aversion towards to moving a vote of no confidence in Johnson and then holding a general election. Labour backed off from this in September and now is in a much weaker position, with Johnson stronger than he was six weeks ago. As importantly, there has been a shift on Labour’s left, with McDonnell, Rebecca Long-Bailey and others arguing that possibly a second referendum should take place before a general election. Keir Starmer says that Labour will back such a position in Parliament.
This shift puts the whole Corbyn leadership in danger because it delays an election where all the class issues can be discussed, and lays him open to future leadership contests (which are gearing up again - witness the Louise Ellman intervention). It also makes Labour a total Remain party - a travesty of democracy both in terms of the original vote and the position carried at September’s party conference, which defeated Starmer’s position.
Labour’s right will continue to use this as a wedge issue to isolate and defeat Corbyn. I was therefore not surprised but found it very disappointing to see John McDonnell and Diane Abbott speaking at the People’s Vote demo on Saturday. The People’s Vote campaign, far from being a body which represents ordinary people in challenging the powerful, as its ludicrous propaganda claims, is an organisation of the rich and powerful who were defeated in the original referendum and are determined to overturn the decision. Funded by millionaires and operating from Millbank, its demo advertised by a costly wraparound on London’s Evening Standard, it is every ounce an establishment organisation.
Speakers on the demonstration showed this, including Tony Blair and John Major in a video, Lord Heseltine (Tory scourge of the miners if we want to talk about real scabs), Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry and Jo Swinson. No self-respecting socialist should touch these people (or Alastair Campbell, who is one of its main spokespeople) with a barge pole. The demonstration was a very large mobilisation, but it had little progressive about it. There was the mandatory ‘left bloc’ which had its share of flares and flags. But the message, organisation and impact of the demo was not to the left. It was about mobilising the extreme centre in defence of a system which is happy to preside over worsening living conditions for millions of its citizens and which turns a blind eye to vicious state repression in France and Catalonia.
Both sides of the establishment in this debate have to a certain extent succeeded in turning political debate into for or against the EU, and to have pushed people into having to define themselves as Leave or Remain. By definition this minimises the possibility of class politics coming to the fore, and it encourages people to believe that their grievances will be solved by either remaining in or leaving the EU. In reality both scenarios are false.
The left has to get beyond a narrow focus on this question and be much more critical of simply allying with one side of their own ruling class. The more alarmist analyses which see fascism around the corner lead to sometimes believing an alliance with anyone who isn’t Johnson or Farage is justifiable and necessary. As the People’s Vote campaign shows, alliance with liberals and right wing Labour is on their terms, not on those of the left.
Instead the left has to see the goal of building class consciousness and strengthen working class organisation in every sense. A very important part of that is getting a Corbyn government without the kind of compromises we are now seeing with McDonnell. And it is about relating to those campaigns and movements that are trying to change the world - and who have to fight both the Remain and Leave wings of the ruling class doing so.
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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