As we go to press on Tuesday 22 October, the Tory government has been voted down, 308 to 322, on its plan to bounce its Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament at panic speed.
MPs have insisted on the right to debate amendments. These may include amendments which will make the government drop its deal, or make the deal conditional on a new public vote.
Boris Johnson responded by saying that he would “pause” discussion on the Withdrawal Agreement he was so keen to rush through. In defiance of the “Benn Act”, he will seek to persuade the EU to deny a Brexit extension to allow debate.
He apparently hopes he can get the EU to deny the extension, and then panic MPs into voting his deal through, as he wishes, by saying that the only alternative is a crash “no deal” Brexit.
Johnson’s Brexit plans are worse than Theresa May’s. The way he is seeking to push them through without democratic scrutiny or accountability is of a piece with his right-from-the-start drive to authoritarianism.
A labour movement that had fought the Brexit project wholeheartedly right from the start might well have defeated it. A labour movement that fights Brexit wholeheartedly now may still defeat it. At the very least, a clearly anti-Brexit labour movement has the best chance of mitigating Brexit’s impact on migrants’ and workers’ rights.
Whatever twists and turns come now, the labour movement – and the Labour Party – must put down a line and give battle.
Since 2016, despite the treacherous role of the Milnes, Murphys and Murrays in Labour’s “Leader’s Office”, we have had an anti-Brexit revolt by Labour members. We had a left-led upsurge on the streets after Johnson’s “coup” on 28 August to “prorogue” (suspend) Parliament. We have had many inspiring struggles by migrant workers. Those movements show the spirit we need.
Whatever happens in Parliament, the left needs to organise to continue the fight against Brexit, including in a possible election campaign. The more activists grouped around organisations like Labour for a Socialist Europe, Another Europe is Possible and the Labour Campaign for Free Movement – and Workers’ Liberty – the better we can do that.
But to fight effectively we must transform our movement. The “Corbyn project” to change the Labour Party seems to have foundered on the issue of Brexit. The rank and file must push forward with transforming Labour and the whole labour movement.
In the first instance, we need to call to account the right-wing (and some supposedly “left-wing”) Labour MPs who threaten to vote for Johnson’s Brexit plans and hand the Tories victory. The revelation that leading pro-Brexit Labour MPs Stephen Kinnock and Caroline Flint sit on the board of right-wing, hedge fund-financed “think tank” Prosperity UK says it all.
We endorse Jon Lansman’s call that any MP who votes with the Tories on this should have the whip removed and be barred from standing again at the coming general election. In general we want a “broad church” Labour regime, in which public dissent is accepted and dealt with by debate rather than administrative measures.
This is different. This is an issue of whether Labour MPs give a lifeline to a right-wing Tory government on the back foot; enable Johnson to go to the polls as the triumphant “Man Who Won Brexit”; and open the road to him to push through a Brexit formula modified from May’s so as to make it easier to trash workers’ rights and keep open the option of a “no deal” tactic at the end of 2020.
The evasion and demagogy used to block a clear anti-Brexit position at Labour conference shows how far there is to go in transforming and democratising the party. Labour needs structural reforms. Most of the recommendations of the 2017-8 Democracy Review were shelved.
Labour also needs a new culture in which collective and membership-led decision-making ranks above loyalty to the leadership.
The leadership’s declaration that it will not implement conference’s near-unanimous vote to extend free movement and migrants’ rights teaches us the same lesson.
The questions of internationalism of which Brexit and free movement is part go right to the heart of Labour’s direction. A Labour Party which stood firm on migrants’ rights would surely not have wavered and retreated on Brexit.
That battle remains to be fought and won. Whatever happens in the next days, weeks and months, we need a longer view.
If it triumphs, Brexit – a right-wing nationalist drive to reverse the integration of Europe at the expense of the working class – will not cease to be wrong. The labour movement should not cease to oppose it. Given the chaos and regression Brexit will certainly engender, there will be no lack of opportunities to do so.
Labour should advocate that, as part of the fight to transform Britain and Europe, the UK rejoin the EU. There is nothing impossible about that. Even if Johnson’s deal goes through, Britain will remain under EU rules until the end of the “transition period” in December 2020. Reversing and rejoining just means stopping whatever talks Johnson may have started about a trade deal and restoring the British part in EU institutions.
Labour should commit to reapplication and a new referendum under the next Labour government.