Labour right-wingers have chosen this moment to help out the hard-pressed Tory government. They have turned up the volume on the murmured speculations about a right-wing split from Labour just as the Tory impasse worsens. Labour and trade union activists want unity to maximise the chances of using the Tories’ thrashing-round to oust them from office, to force an early general election, and to get a new public vote to stop Brexit.
To get a solid political basis on which to build that unity, we need to shift the Labour leadership, as well as rebuffing the right-wing Labour split-talkers. Labour needs a clear stand against Brexit and for a new public vote. To get a solid political basis on which to build that unity, we need to shift the Labour leadership, as well as rebuffing the right-wing Labour split-talkers. Labour needs a clear stand against Brexit and for a new public vote.
The next votes in Parliament around Brexit are due on 14 February. As we go to press on 12 February, we do not know what will be voted on. Possibly many of the main factions will delay their pushes for votes — notably, on schemes to block a crash-out “no-deal” Brexit — until 27 February, the date when the government suggests it will bring a new Brexit formula to Parliament.
The indications from the press is that the Tory government has so far got nowhere in its search for a new formula. Theresa May on 5 February rowed back from the position she took on 29 January, when she supported a backbench Tory motion for the Irish “backstop” — the arrangement to guarantee that the border within Ireland remains invisible — to be replaced by “alternative arrangements”. She said: “I’m not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that does not contain that insurance policy for the future”.
She now says she wants only to modify the backstop. But a life insurance policy which can be rescinded at will by the insurer, or just expires before it can be activated, is no insurance policy at all. The level of it is indicated by the talk of May jetting to Egypt on 24-25 February to hang around on the edges of an EU/Arab League summit in the hope of catching the ears of EU leaders.
Economist John Springford calculates that the average household is already £2,000 a year worse off through the effects of the possible approach of Brexit. The polling company ORB finds that, now, more Leave voters think Britain will be worse off economically with Brexit than think it will be better off .
No one much likes May’s previous deal. There is no prospect of it being changed substantially over the next few weeks. The best the government seems to hope for is that at the last minute the threat of a crash-out “no-deal” Brexit will swing enough MPs to vote, reluctantly, for a cosmetically-modified version of the 29 January formula.
Yet Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on 29 January, after the Parliamentary votes, dropped Labour’s previous call for no confidence in the government and an early general election. It dropped talk of a new public vote. It said only that Corbyn would meet May to discuss Brexit. When Corbyn met May on 30 January, he took unelected officials from the Leader’s Office, notably longstanding Brexiter and Stalinist Seamus Milne, with him — not shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer or shadow chancellor John McDonnell. Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to May on 6 February softened Labour’s ask on a Brexit deal to little more than the UK having a customs union with the EU, plus keeping up with the EU on workers’ rights and climate policies.
Since then Jeremy Corbyn has emailed Labour members to restate his commitment to getting an early general election and having the “option” of a new public vote. But when will the Labour leaders move on those policies? They are not even making a loud call for the postponement of the 29 March Brexit date, though by now no early general election or referendum could possibly be done before 29 March. Labour has tried a vote of no confidence (16 January), and it was defeated. So why doesn’t the policy for a new public vote kick in? That was only an “option”? But what other options are there? Labour front-benchers have said that they think that the June 2016 referendum vote obliges them to back Brexit.
But that Labour can back a new public vote, even as an option, implies that politics did not stop in June 2016. A core idea of democracy — the right of the minority always to argue and seek to become the majority — still applies on this issue.
Even more so, since “Brexit” now — May’s scheme, perhaps modified, or “no-deal” — means something much more specific, and different from, “Brexit” in June 2016. Jeremy Corbyn should return to his 2016 stand: Remain and Reform, with support for free movement.
An actual full-scale compromise by the Labour front bench with the Tories on Brexit is still unlikely. Theresa May doesn’t want that, even if it would give her a majority in Parliament, because it would set the big majority of backbench Tory MPs against her, and quite likely create a full-scale split in the Tory Party. More likely is that the weak and equivocal Labour front-bench position licenses enough Labour MPs from pro-Leave constituencies to vote with the Tories and help them through their crisis. But that’s bad enough! Bad enough to allow the Tories to squeeze through their crisis and the Brexit disaster to go ahead.
The right-wing split from Labour in 1981 — the Social Democratic Party of David Owen, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, and Bill Rodgers — used Labour anti-EU policy as one of its pretexts. Labour would drop that backward-looking anti-EU line by the end of the 1980s, in a move pushed by the remaining Labour right but, by then, no longer opposed with any conviction by the left. Meanwhile, the SDP, whose main drive was right-wing rather than pro-EU as such, had collapsed. It did well enough in the 1983 election to guarantee a majority for Thatcher, but declined and then merged in 1988 with the Liberal Party to form the Lib-Dems. The Lib-Dems got a smaller proportion of the vote in the next (1992) general election than the Liberals in the election before the SDP was formed, October 1974.
Some at least of today’s anti-Brexit Labour right-wingers will know that history: if they do, their current split-talk is a spoiling action rather than a serious enterprise. Even as such, it could give decisive help to the Tories in their difficulties. As could votes for a Tory Brexit deal by the pro-Brexit wing of the Labour right. Labour should call a special conference to reconsolidate the party round a clear left-wing, antiBrexit, pro-free-movement, pro-new-public-vote policy.
Why does Solidarity oppose Brexit?
Because the working class can be effective only through solidarity across borders and across differences of birthplace and background. Because less barbed wire, fewer frontier posts and checks, lower borders are better for developing exchange and comradeship across borders. The only exception is where a nation needs to erect barriers to gain democratic rights for itself and stop itself being ruled by a foreign power. That doesn’t apply with Britain and the EU. The chief obstacle to democratic and social progress in Britain is not “Brussels”, but the “enemy at home”, the British bosses, bankers, and top state officials.
Because free movement across borders — even the limited free movement within Europe given by the EU — is a boon. Historically, countries of high and relatively free immigration have been culturally and economically better-off than those that remain walled-off and happy to stew in their own thin juice. Immigration does not reduce wages or increase unemployment. Migrant workers have typically enriched and played a dynamic and leading part in labour movements.
Because socialism is not possible in one country alone. At a long-ago stage of history, economic progress came through small-scale local economies, in which most people had access only to what was produced within walking distance, being linked into larger national economies. Long ago capitalism went beyond that, creating a world economy with global production chains. Socialism can be established only by building on what capitalism has achieved. No national economy, let alone a relatively small one like Britain’s, can be “economically independent” in a high-technology world. For the inescapable economic interlinking to be managed through a voluntary confederation of states, like the EU, offers more potential for advance than it being managed only through the competition for advantage of different national administrations in the capitalist world markets.
In Europe, that competition for advantage in world markets, and the formation of alliances to serve that competition, generated two world wars in the 20th century. Because the remedy for the bureaucratic and neoliberal shape of the EU as it is today is a united labour movement struggle across Europe for democratic and social improvement. A walled-off Britain is likely to be more bureaucratic and neoliberal, not less so.