Brexit and Britain's political crisis
The period since the 2015 general election has been a roller coaster ride for Britain’s political parties, with all of them forced to ditch their incumbent leaders at one point or another. The big losers of the election, Nick Clegg of the Lib-Dems and Ed Miliband of Labour, were the first to fall on their swords. But the winner, Conservative leader David Cameron, has also gone since the European Union Referendum, as has Ukip’s Nigel Farage.
The triumph of Brexit, owing much to the control of the press by rabid Europhobes, went directly against the overwhelming interests of the British ruling class, in particular the City of London. Other shocks to the establishment were the double election of Jeremy Corbyn against the wishes of 90 per cent of Labour MPs and, from across the Atlantic, the triumph of Trump, a vocal supporter of Brexit.
Since then we have witnessed the rise and rise of Theresa May in by-elections and opinion polls, the decline of Ukip and, latterly, the fall and fall of Labour support and the rumblings of another attempt to remove Corbyn. Electoral debacles weigh heavily on a party steeped in electoral opportunism.
Labour is now projected to lose 50 seats in the May local elections, while the Tories are forecast to gain around 50 and Liberal Democrats 100. Ukip, under new leader Paul Nuttall, are projected to lose as many as 100 seats. Since their record performance in 2013, the Tories have stolen their Europhobic clothes. Given that the shocks of Brexit have hardly begun, the year ahead will likely see other leaders’ heads roll.
All these shock results, whether for the right or the left, are related to a worldwide wave of discontent with the establishment. Whether left or right depends on which has been in power during the decade-long period of crisis and stagnation. Their lookalike policies of bailouts for the billionaires and austerity for the billions have been rumbled. Right wing demagogues as well as a smaller number of left wingers, like Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Pablo Iglesias and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, have benefited.
In a climate like the present, trying to adapt one’s policies to what one judges is the electorate’s mood, the standard “wisdom” of Labour's centre-right, is fraught with danger. For Labour, this is based on trying to split the difference between the younger, higher qualified workers in new industries in the major conurbations like London, Manchester, and Leeds, and the older, former industrial areas, referred to misleadingly as Labour heartlands, in other words, the two-thirds of Labour supporters who voted Remain and the two-thirds of Labour-held constituencies that voted Leave.
The danger is that the Lib-Dems could scoop up Labour seats in the big cities if it fails to resist Brexit, whereas Ukip could do the same in the Leave areas if it opposes it. So not only Corbyn and McDonnell, but also Ed Miliband and Hilary Benn insist that Labour must “heal the wounds of Brexit”. But a wound infected by the pathogens of anti-migrant racism cannot be sewn up without producing a gangrenous sore.
Labour correctly campaigned for Remain independently of the Tories and LibDems but, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, massively endorsed by the membership, he did not take charge of the campaign. Instead, it was handed over to the right wing, with Alan Johnson to the fore, and Peter Mandelson and Blair in the background, all uncritical supporters of the EU. After the cruel destruction of the Greek economy by EU institutions, uncritical attempts to puff up the Union were doomed to fail. The attempt to blame Corbyn alone for this and use it as the launchpad for another leadership challenge was scandalous.
Nevertheless, the Jeremy’s campaign was weak. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and prominent advisers, like Seumas Milne, Andrew Fisher and James Meadway, were self-acknowledged Eurosceptics. Under pressure from the centre-right in the shadow cabinet, Corbyn reluctantly supported Remain but probably still clung on to his long-held 1980s Labour left anti-Europe beliefs.
His criticism of EU austerity was of course completely justified, and his pledge to work with socialist parties in the Europe to halt them, was positive, as was his refusal to “address the concerns” about immigration that the Labour IN for Britain advisors called for. But the message of staying in to fight for socialist policies alongside European workers was muffled.
Last, but not least, Labour’s campaign failed because it failed to address the underlying causes of alienation in the so-called “left-out” areas, where well paid manufacturing jobs were replaced by minimum waged, precarious (under-)employment. Right wing Labour MPs and councils, implementing Tory cuts, had neglected these Labour strongholds for years, so challenging austerity here would inevitably mean challenging the right in the PLP and the town halls. And that is precisely what Corbyn has refused to do.
After the defeat, he wrongly and hastily called for the triggering of Article 50 and then decided to direct MPs not to oppose Brexit because it represented the “will of the British people”. In January, he abandoned free movement of labour, saying it is not a principle.
Brexit shadow minster Keir Starmer made it clear that free movement is not one of Labour’s red lines, though free access to the EU market is; a shoddy attempt to support free movement only as a demand of big capital. Diane Abbott alone on the front bench still openly advocates it as a working class principle, a workers’ right.
Corbyn also wrongly decided to impose a three-line whip to vote for the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017, despite every one of Labour’s amendments being rejected. Forty-seven out of 229 Labour MPs voted against it, correctly in our view, whatever their reasons.
Next comes the Great Repeal Act, which will be agreed by Parliament before the withdrawal terms are known. When the terms are signed off, this will transfer all applicable EU legislation into UK law, before it is then culled either by parliament or by the government using secondary powers.
Carnival of reaction
What Labour’s leaders fail to realise are that there are deep changes underway in the world situation of which Brexit, the tensions within the European Union and Trump’s conflict with Mexico, China and the EU are all parts. The sudden eruption of national chauvinism and racism is a product of the tensions between the major imperialist powers about how to escape from the prolonged stagnation of profit rates that underlies the deep recession and weak recoveries.
In the process, the ideological hold that the main capitalist parties have over their working and middle class electorates has been undermined. Whatever Brexit’s left apologists may wish for, this has mainly shifted the political centre of gravity to the right.
Brexit, moreover, has not solved Britain’s problems, but set in train highly contested negotiations that will create a whole series of explosions. Right from the beginning it has raised once again Scottish independence and set the Irish unity fault lines moving. Gibraltar might seem a tiny issue, but it is one that could spin out of control when there is a fiercely chauvinist press calling out the Tories and reminding them of Thatcher’s “glorious” deeds in the Falklands.
Spain’s encouragement of the Scots by withdrawing its veto is a crafty move. We can expect more of the same when the negotiations really get going. And all the British parties, including Labour, will be called on to dance to the patriotic tune played by the media.
Before the referendum, Red Flag warned that the consequence of a Brexit vote would be a carnival of reaction, centred on racism and national chauvinism. And so it has proved to be. Besides the daily dose of Europhobia from the tabloids, there are the abuse and harassment European of workers and physical attacks on refugees, the most shocking being the beating of an Iranian Kurdish refugee by a mob in Croydon. The young man is in hospital with a fractured skull and a blood clot on the brain, so murderous was the intent.
Red Flag argued for a Remain vote, not because of any support for the institution which had subjected Greece to the savage austerity dictated by the European Central Bank, nor because of any illusions in its social measures, but because Britain outside the EU will be no more democratic, socially progressive, nor its ordinary people more “sovereign”. Nor will any supposed effects of immigration (low wages, insecure jobs, housing shortages) be solved by cutting back on it. Instead, it will only further restrict the freedom of British and European workers to live and work in one another’s countries.
We voted Remain first and foremost not for the EU as it stands, nor out of fear of the harsh economic consequences of leaving, though these are likely to be real enough, but because we oppose any measures that erect greater obstacles to the international unity of the working class. Strengthening borders, erecting customs and tariff barriers, increasing duties on exports and imports, repealing labour rights enshrined in EU treaties, including free movement of labour, will all foment chauvinism. They will increase disunity both within the British working class and between it and its sisters and brothers across the Channel.
Decade after decade, under Labour and Tory governments alike, the press has agitated ceaselessly for one immigration tightening act after another; Caribbeans in the 1960s, Asians in the 1970s, East Europeans in the 2000s, Somalis, Afghans and Syrians today… The anti-immigration appetite only grows with repeated feeding. In fact it is the international unity of working class and the internationalist unity of the British workers we need to promote, not unity with “our bosses” under the union flag.
Entering as we are a new period pregnant with inter-imperialist clashes that point inevitably in the direction of war, the internationalist left in the Labour Party and outside needs to take up the fight to safeguard and deepen working class internationalism. This is all the more important since we are completely lacking an International, a party uniting the workers of the world.
Red Flag believes that this stands in the forefront of our tasks today. Far more so than opportunist hopes of winning elections on lowest common denominator manifestos, or reconciling the irreconcilable factions within the Labour Party. It is also vital not to leave the Liberals as the representation of internationalism, which is just what Labour has allowed to happen.
We believe that cooperation across Europe (and beyond) is necessary right now; between workers in the same transnational enterprises, in similar industries, facing similar degrees of oppression and super-exploitation, precarious workers, youth, women and migrants. The more barriers the racists and chauvinists try to erect, or re-erect, between us, the more we must organise to pull them down and make their defenders the objects of hatred and contempt by all class conscious workers.
Nor should this be limited to such issues as defence of jobs, wages and rights. The labour movement, party and unions, should unequivocally fight for European unification on the basis of the expropriation of capital across the continent, and for a democratically planned socialist economy.
Two huge demonstrations in London; in January, Women against Trump, and March Unite for Europe, showed the mass scale of opposition to Brexit and Trump. What was weak in the former, and totally absent in the latter, was the labour movement.
Since most of the socialist left; the SWP, the SP, the CPB, supports Brexit, and the Labour Party is paralysed by its leader’s attempts to court the so-called Labour heartlands, the anti-Brexit movement is led by openly capitalist and middle class forces; Greens, LibDems, Scottish and Welsh nationalists. Politically, they are uncritically pro-EU, while divided over whether to pursue a soft Brexit or oppose Brexit outright.
The failure of the Labour Party and the socialist left to create an alternative leadership means that illusions in the EU remain strong and hostility towards the labour movement and socialist organisations could grow.
To avoid that, Labour urgently needs to orient towards the majority of its voters, who supported Remain, and young EU citizens now working in the UK, mobilising them not only to stop Brexit but to transform Europe not just into a social but into a socialist Europe. Failure to give this political leadership threatens to repeat in England and Wales the hollowing out and ignominious collapse of the Labour Party in Scotland.
Anti-Brexit socialists should build on the anti-racist and internationalist instincts of the movement by advocating class struggle methods and the goal of international socialism.
The referendum decision cannot bind a minority to cease its vocal opposition, especially since it could change tomorrow into the majority when the shape of the deal becomes clear. We want to stop Brexit by open and democratic means, that is, by convincing the majority of people, and first of all the working class, that it will prove a disaster for them, and also by opposing every anti-working class measure the Tories build into the agreement, above all restricting the free movement of labour.
Labour should oppose all pro-Brexit legislation, including the Great Repeal Bill, and demand, by mass direct action if needed, that the final deal be put to the people either by referendum or by a general election; that it must similarly receive the consent of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and that the Scots and Irish have the right to hold referendums on independence without any veto from the British government.