The Brexit crisis is perhaps the most significant moment in politics in Britain for a generation or more. The internationalist, class-struggle socialist left must, within our capacities, intervene in that moment to articulate an independent working-class politics.
The arguments between pro-Remain and pro-Brexit tendencies within the left are well rehearsed. Of equal importance are arguments within the pro-Remain left around substantive politics. Zoe Williams, the Guardian journalist and prominent supporter of Another Europe Is Possible (AEIP), set out the questions in a 7 December article for the New European: “The questions to consider are what a Remain campaign would look like: who should run it, and who should be its figureheads? What are its core ideas? What would be on the ballot, who would get a vote? What were the mistakes of 2016’s referendum, and how can they be avoided?”
Some of these are less contentious. All of us on the pro-Remain left want any fresh referendum to include an option to remain on the ballot, and there is a wide consensus that the franchise should include 16 and 17-year-olds, and migrants living in the UK. The other questions require more debate.
AEIP was established by left-wing Labour Party activists, Greens, and members of Left Unity, a small socialist initiative outside of Labour, to provide an independent left-wing alternative to Stronger In, the mainstream Remain campaign in the 2016 referendum, not to be its left face. There was a clear understanding that the cross-class, cross-party model of the Better Together campaign in the Scottish referendum, which narrowly achieved its policy goal but led to the Labour Party being all but wiped out in Scottish electoral politics, would be disastrous if replicated, and unchallenged, in the EU referendum.
And so it proved: Stronger In, headed by Sir Stuart Rose, a Tory capitalist, was conducted on a pro-big-business basis, functioning essentially as a campaign to defend a rightly resented status quo. This was not simply a matter of presentation or messaging, or that Stronger In failed to be sufficiently activist or direct-action-oriented, or that it was not “inspiring” enough. The output and ends were fundamentally and inevitably conditioned by its means. A coalition run by the capitalist class produced a campaign that explained EU membership in terms of capitalist class interest. It would not have simply been a strategic misstep, but a compromise of principle, for socialists and partisans of the working-class movement to have had anything to do with such a campaign. Even though we knew our resources meant that we could not challenge the official campaign for column inches or airtime, basic principle required that we campaigned on an independent basis, even though we shared the same immediate goal (a Remain outcome in the referendum).
The same is true now. But although Zoe identifies and criticises much of what was wrong with the mainstream Remain campaign the first time round, what she advocates is essentially a rerun of the same thing, albeit seasoned with the activist panache of groups like AEIP and Momentum. She calls for: “a constellation of groups, spanning the political spectrum, who can make an authentic and credible case for Remain, based on values: Best for Britain, Another Europe is Possible, Momentum, the Lib Dems in whatever shape they choose to arrange themselves, such Conservatives as can bear to hold their course as their party veers wildly towards its fringes, which at the moment is just Ken Clarke.” The difference between what Zoe calls for and the mainstream campaign in 2016 is not one of political basis, but of presentation. A cross-class campaign with better messaging and more get-up-and-go than Stronger In had would still be politically flawed from a working-class perspective.
Any campaign that could accommodate the Lib Dems, Ken Clarke, and the thoroughly bourgeois Best for Britain campaign would not be one in which socialists could participate without significant compromises of principle. The campaign we require is a class-struggle campaign, a campaign that advocates EU membership and social and economic integration across borders because they provide a higher platform for united working-class struggle across Europe, against austerity and neoliberalism, and for social levelling-up. We require a campaign that makes no compromise on open borders, providing a full-throated advocacy of free movement not as a necessary evil we must tolerate in order to retain single market membership, but as a human right on its own terms that we should seek to expand. It is simply not conceivable that the Lib Dems, Ken Clarke, and Best for Britain would participate in a campaign with anything like that political basis. Therefore to even seek a coalition with such forces is to jettison these politics from the outset.
It is worth explaining in some detail here what Best for Britain is. Tagging it as “bourgeois” is not a matter of using a leftist swearword to talk down a campaign that is merely more moderate in political approach than we socialists might like. It is an empirical, in-your-face fact. Best for Britain is headed by Lord Mark Malloch Brown, an investment fund manager and former senior diplomat. Malloch Brown is a member of the social collective Marxists call “the bourgeoisie”. To re-purpose a phrase with some current vogue amongst the social-media left, he's literally a capitalist. Individual members of the bourgeoisie have, throughout the history of the socialist movement, “betrayed their class”, so to speak, and thrown their lot in with the cause of labour. Friedrich Engels is one such. There is still time, perhaps, but hitherto Lord Mark Malloch Brown, sadly, is not.
The rest of Best for Britain’s “board”, a word it takes from the world of corporate governance rather than any recognisably democratic culture, is comprised of similar figures. Sir Clive Cowdery is a “financial services investor”, millionaire insurance broker, and one of the top 1,000 richest individuals in Britain. Peter Norris is effectively Richard Branson’s second-in-command at the Virgin Group, and a former senior banker at Barings. These, too, are literal capitalists. It is entirely conceivable that they are, on a personal level, decent, liberal people, but they are, unquestionably, members of the ruling class – and not junior figures at that.
But if this all sounds too much like crude class reductionism (“Best for Britain’s leaders are sociologically bourgeois, so it must be a pro-capitalist campaign”), examine the empirical evidence. Who did Best for Britain, in alliance with the mainstream People’s Vote campaign, choose to platform at its rally on 9 December, which took place while AIEP supporters were rightly on the streets of central London mobilising against Tommy Robinson? Labour figures like Rosena Allin-Khan, yes, but also Sir Vince Cable and, worse, Lord Michael Heseltine. What possible principled alliance can socialists and other working-class militants have with these administrators of austerity and Thatcherism?
Class politics is fundamentally a matter of taking sides; if Virgin Group workers, Norris's employees, whose labour has allowed him to amass immense wealth, go on strike, I have no doubt that AEIP supporters, including Zoe and others who advocate seeking an alliance with Best for Britain, would side with the workers against Norris and other Virgin bosses. But those workers might well raise an eyebrow at the presence on their picket lines of people advocating a political alliance with their employer. Those workers might well ask, "which side are you on?"
Historically, the fight over EU membership is a conflict between two wings of capital. But even in such fights, the working class is not necessarily neutral. We find ourselves in incidental alignment with the policy of one of those wings because the policy of the other will be disastrous for workers’, environmental, and especially migrants’ rights, and because integration and the erosion of national divisions, even under capitalism, is progressive from a working-class point of view. But that incidental alignment does not require us to campaign, in common organisations, alongside our bosses. We cannot, in one breath, acknowledge the role neoliberal policy and deep inequality played in shaping the pre-referendum context, and then, in the next, advocate a common campaign with any of the architects of that inequality.
Zoe obliquely acknowledges the principle of class independence in her article, saying, “there will be unions who cannot work with Conservatives, and have to operate as separate entities.” Yes, quite! Those unions would be right to do so! A “separate”, i.e., independent, Remain campaign is our baseline starting point, not something we might have to accept as collateral damage caused by pursuing the aim of a cross-class popular front. If Zoe accepts that trade unions have enough residual independence to campaign under their own banners rather than in alliance with Tories and liberal capitalists, why can AEIP and other left-wing remainers not do likewise, ideally in alliance with those same, pro-Remain but independent-minded, unions?
In a period of historically low industrial militancy, declining union membership, and substantial political disarray on the labour movement’s socialist left, asserting the principle of class independence can appear like a pedantic insistence on political purity. But it is not a sectarian shibboleth, nor a matter of refusing to get our hands dirty; rather, it is a principle stemming from an understanding of the relationship between means and ends.
Our end, our political aspiration, is not merely to stop Brexit but to reinvigorate and transform the labour movement in this country, to revive working-class political confidence and self-assertion, and build a movement capable of entirely transforming the political and social conditions that incubated the nationalist despair that drove the Brexit vote. It is simply not possible to maintain that end, even as an aspirational horizon, if one accepts that one’s immediate means must be a coalition and common organisation with the Lib Dems, John Major’s Chancellor, and the more liberal-minded members of the boss class.
Would any such campaign be a little-seen sideshow compared to the likes of Best for Britain? Certainly, the socialist left cannot match the resources of the likes of Malloch Brown. But that is no argument for actively seeking a coalition that capitalist figures, far more than any socialist force, will politically shape. It is surely better to be a minority voice, heard by as many as we can reach, outside a campaign involving the likes of Best for Britain, campaigning on an independent and politically-distinct basis, than a drowned-out minority voice inside a campaign where compromise of principle is a condition of entry.
At AEIP's conference on Saturday 8 December, the day after Zoe's article was published, an amendment to its strategy document asserting, albeit in somewhat convoluted terms, this principle of independence was carried. But the fact that AEIP’s official Twitter account promoted Zoe’s article, without critical comment, after this amendment was passed shows, minimally, that there is disagreement within AEIP on these issues and that an urgent debate is required.
If AEIP's newly-elected National Committee reaffirms the spirit of that broadly pro-independence amendment by definitively foreclosing on the possibility of any joint campaign with Lib Dems, anti-Brexit Tories, or the likes of Best for Britain, then AEIP itself can form a central part of the organisational infrastructure of an independent, labour-movement-oriented Remain campaign.
So, too, can the initiative of Labour members and supporters, independent of AEIP but also endorsed by its conference, who have undertaken to campaign in advance of and during any general election for a democratic socialist Europe and for Labour to adopt an explicitly anti-Brexit policy. The call that launched that initiative, with signatories including Zoe Williams, says: “In Europe, just as in domestic policy, Labour must offer a radical alternative to the status quo. Our movement must champion a revolt across the continent against austerity, neoliberalism and anti-migrant policies and for a democratic, socialist Europe.” Can we meaningfully claim to be offering a “radical alternative to the status quo” if we are campaigning in alliance with millionaire bankers, business leaders, and Tory grandees?
This article is not a call for a Remain campaign that is politically or organisationally narrow. A properly independent Remain campaign, based on labour movement organisations and the left, would inevitably include both revolutionary socialists and reformist social democrats (and inevitably a majority of the latter), as well as left-wing Greens and other radicals. Within the framework of such a campaign, all sorts of negotiations and compromises on particular issues of formulation, strategy, and tactics are imaginable. A sectarian insistence on political purity would indeed be demonstrated if any tendency insisted on their full political platform being adopted by the campaign as a whole as the condition of their participation.
But for anyone who wishes to maintain anti-capitalist, socialist political horizons, the principle of independence from the politics and organisations of the ruling class is non-negotiable.