Brexit is not the most important issue facing working people, but in order to make that argument, Labour must stay the course, argues Martin Hall
Following a couple of days of intensive corporate media coverage regarding Tom Watson’s speech urging Labour to back a second referendum, and subsequent suggestions that Wednesday’s shadow cabinet meeting would see yet more immense pressure exerted on Jeremy Corbyn to change his position, the meeting ended up being the dog that didn’t bark.
In short, nothing much has changed. Labour will put any deal reached to a public vote, which could be a general election or a second referendum.
Moreover, the letter signed by 26 Labour MPs from various wings of the party just prior to the meeting imploring him to accept a deal before October 31st has made it more difficult for the left’s opponents in and out of the party to suggest that leaving the EU is simply a position held by a group in and around the leader’s office. The letter quite rightly made the point that moving to remain would leave the party’s heartlands ripe for exploitation by the populist right, and would lose it votes, a position backed up both by an unreleased poll from earlier in the year and by analysis released this week.
Despite this, the pressure continues from those who would like Labour to move towards a support for a second referendum in any circumstances at this time. As discussed on this site earlier this week, it is difficult to see the political logic of this in electoral terms if your desire is both to stop Brexit and to get a Labour government headed by Jeremy Corbyn. How does it bring a general election closer or make it more winnable? Furthermore, why make this decision now?
Therefore, we must assume that the primary reason Watson et al do not want a people’s vote via a general election on any Brexit deal put forward by Labour is because they oppose Brexit and Corbyn. This should be food for thought for left remainers backing a second referendum. Attempts by prominent second referendum backers to suggest that all voters who contributed to the Lib Dem surge in the European elections are just Corbynites-in-waiting should be seen in this context, too
Laura Pidcock was at pains on Question Time this week to put austerity at the top of the left’s priorities, and voices from the audience strongly backed her up in this regard, in particular a woman who made a passionate intervention on knife crime and the lack of action from politicians to tackle the root causes of the problem.
Brexit is not the number one priority for people living in a country ravaged by nearly a decade of Tory austerity. The next prime minister of the UK will be chosen by 0.34% of the electorate, and will be from a background shared by around 6.5% of the population; and even then, from the upper echelons of that small group. Neither of the candidates has pledged to reverse austerity, and why would they, considering it has seen a further transfer of wealth upwards, obviously at the expense of those at the bottom.
Still, Brexit dominates discourse among the political class, as it has provoked an existential crisis in the party of business, as Tories seek to take the UK out of the EU against the wishes of the majority of the historical bloc it seeks to serve. This bloc is tied to the EU and is fully aware that no Brexit deal is better than the one it currently has with European capital.
Many in the Labour Party also seek to represent that historical bloc. This has always been a tendency within Labour, but grew after the defeats of the 1980s and the move to Clintonite, third way politics from the mid-1990s onwards. Until such time as it can be expunged from the party, it will always fight the left, and will be given full rein to do so in the liberal media. One of the principal ways in which it is doing so is via attempts to reverse Labour’s Brexit policy.
As argued persuasively by Costas Lapavitsas this week, Labour can only get into a position to enact its manifesto if it arrests the drift to remain, and to win this argument within the party it must be much bolder on how it sets out ‘the radical possibilities offered by leaving the EU’. Labour’s Brexit policy must stop being a defensive, holding position and instead it must try to reclaim its natural territory, which is currently being infiltrated by right wing populism.
Labour can win the next election by prioritising the issues that affect working people up and down the country, but it need a watertight position on Brexit to give it a springboard from which to make arguments on the need for radical change.
The EU is set up structurally to prevent any expression of popular democratic will. It’s time to say so.