Solidarity goes to press soon after Tory prime minister Theresa May decided to delay the parliamentary vote on her EU withdrawal deal, maybe until January, and to seek “reassurances” from the EU to sweeten the deal. The deal would have been heavily defeated if put to the House of Commons as scheduled on 11 December.
This impasse makes great openings for the labour movement. We can bring down the Tory government, force an early general election, stop Brexit, and save free movement within Europe. That requires Labour shifting to a clearer, sharper version of the “Remain and Reform” policy it argued in 2016.
Why? Because Brexit is bad in all versions. Lowering of borders and economic integration are steps forward even in the bureaucratic and neoliberal form of the current EU. Even that limited form provides a better terrain for working-class struggle than a system of small walled-off states. In such a system, each state designs its walls and barriers in the hope of advantage in capitalist world markets. Each state designs its economic policy to reduce the “overheads” of social provision and environmental responsibility and compete to be attractive to global capital. No big social advance is possible in one country alone. No single country’s working class on its own can defy and defeat the constraints of internationally-organised capital: we need working-class movements as least as internationally coordinated as are the great capitalist enterprises.
Free movement across borders within Europe is a boost to that cross-border working-class solidarity, and defence of that free movement is essential to building up solidarity. The Labour leaders’ current policy — essentially, “we will negotiate better than the Tories” — is no good. It is weak, which explains why Labour is hesitant about pushing for a vote of no confidence to bring down the Tories and for a new public vote.
That also explains why some Labour leaders, such as John McDonnell (Newsnight, 21 November) say that “we’re talking [only] about finalising the deal”. And “we’re not talking about starting from scratch”; “someone’s got to bring this country back together again. . . compromises have got to be made” — comments which signal trying to tweak the Tory deal, not scrap it.
That Labour leadership policy has never been democratically debated and decided by the party membership. Most members are anti-Brexit. It abandons free movement. It is no better on the border in Ireland than May’s deal. It not true that Britain and Northern Ireland being in a customs union with the EU will avoid a “hard border”. To avoid that “hard border”, the same (or pretty much the same) Single Market regulations must operate on both sides of the border. Britain has to be in the Single Market — and being in the Single Market can give leverage in the necessary cross-Europe battle to change many of the Single Market rules. Labour policy should help bring a united Ireland nearer, not push it further away and sharpen communal divisions by re-erecting a “hard border”.
The claim that Labour can negotiate a better deal than the Tories — just by better negotiating skills, apparently, because the criteria proposed are little different from what the Tory government has come round to — rings hollow. For Labour to switch to a “Lexit” (“left Brexit”) policy would be even more hollow. All the variants of “Lexit” rest on the false idea that putting up economic barriers round a country can stimulate some sort of socialism, or semi-socialism, there.
Probably the first European country to make a socialist revolution will need economic barriers until the revolution spreads, in the same way that it may have to resort to other undesirable emergency measures in the short term. But socialism needing temporary barriers is very different from barriers helping socialism. The predominantly right-wing, nationalist pro-Brexit mood available today is very far from being the stuff from which a socialist revolution can be made!
Marxists like Luxemburg, Trotsky, Hilferding, and Lenin were proving and insisting over 100 years ago that solid socialist advance is possible only by building on and going beyond the economic integration created by capitalism. That is even more true now.
Some (for example, The Canary, 11 December) say that a Labour Brexit could be “left” because it would allow for more state aid to British capitalists. Yet in EU-member France, one of the agitational demands of the Marxist left has long been the cutting of state aid to capitalists! And all the variants of “Lexit” would bring a “hard border” in Ireland.
A right-wing minority of the Tories want a “managed no deal” Brexit. They do not care about Ireland, and they have the dream that a hardBrexited Britain can, by slashing social provision and workers’ rights, make itself a profitable low-cost “offshore” production site for global capital. After some turbulence: but that’s ok with them. Some Tories, and a few others, are mooting “Norway-Plus”: Britain staying in the EU’s Single Market and continuing free movement, but withdrawing from the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
That withdrawal would gain nothing of substance, and make it harder for the British labour movement to be part of efforts within the EU at social levelling-up, democratisation, and opening-out to refugees and migrants. None of the Brexit options - some tweaked version of the current deal which a new Tory leader, or May herself, may get by “side letters” or “reassurances” from the EU; the Labour leaders’ “we can negotiate better” formula; a “managed” version of “no deal” hard Brexit; Norway-Plus; the Lexit scheme - is good, and, for that matter, the only way any of them can get a Parliamentary majority is if MPs reluctantly back it as least-bad, for fear that otherwise they will end up with “crashing out”. Brexit is bad, whichever option you look at.
Labour activists are already pushing harder and harder for Labour to reject Brexit altogether and commit itself to a new public vote which allows the electorate to say that experience has shown Brexit to be bad. As in the Scottish referendum of 2014, that electorate should include EU citizens living in Britain, and 16-17 year olds.
Some Labour right-wingers want to campaign jointly with pro-Remain Tories and Lib Dems in a new public vote, as Labour campaigned jointly with the Tories in the 2014 Scottish referendum. They are already campaigning jointly.
On 9 December, the People’s Vote campaign, backed by Labour right-winger Chuka Umunna, held a joint rally with Best for Britain: former Thatcher minister Michael Heseltine was the top-billed speaker. To offer answers to the working-class people who voted Leave in 2016, a Labour campaign has to say more than that Brexit is bad for business. It has to outline a fight for democratic and socialist and green measures on a European, not just a British, scale — a fight against the Heseltines of France, Germany, Italy, and other countries, and of Britain. Labour activists are organising, both to demand a change of Labour policy, and to enable local Labour Parties, candidates, and activists to establish a common rank-and-file Labour voice against Brexit in an early general election, and in a referendum, even if the Labour leaders can’t be budged.