The left’s Brexit debate is nasty, dangerous and narrow
The fight over whether to leave the EU is increasing in tempo. Hundreds of thousands marched in central London on 23 June (venomously described by some as ‘liberals’ ‘Blairites’ ‘croissant eating intellectuals’ and so on) while sections of the left in Labour have swung to being militant Lexiteers. There is a push to get Labour conference to discuss Brexit which is beinbeg fiercely opposed by others.
Sadly, but I guess inevitably, the debate in the labour movement on Brexit has sunk to new levels.
The problem is that currently there are only two conversations being had.
The first is the one that the Labour right want to have — they have successfully reduced Labour’s entire input around Brexit to a shallow and narrow parliamentary debate about the difference between a customs union, the customs union, an EEA, or whatever other trading bloc might be on offer.
Their view flows from the concerns of the British capitalist class who are very integrated into the globalised mechanisms of the EU (just as the anti-Brexit wing of the Tories does) and as such their parliamentary agenda reflects those issues. It means the debate has become technical, esoteric and — worst of all — elitist.
The other debate comes from that wing of the Labour left who — some with the passion of the newly converted — appear to have become militant Brexiteers, or at least have stopped raising critical points about what a disaster Brexit will be. For many it is because they have looked at the electoral landscape and concluded that Labour will lose voters in the northern heartlands if it comes out against Brexit (or even only comes out for a second referendum on the deal) and this will make a Corbyn led Labour government impossible.
For those comrades there seems to be a touch of the old Party hack — they are fiercely defiant of, and even angry with, anyone on the left that is openly challenging Labour’s soft Brexit position. They accuse such comrades of ‘siding with Blairites’, ‘undermining the leadership’. There is an accusatory tone of ‘you’re ruining this for everyone!’
Some of it begins to feel like a left version of the tabloids howls of TRAITORS to any politician or judge that appears to be interfering in the rush to erect a 20 foot wall around the coast.
Those comrades no longer talk about the attacks on migrants, the rise of nationalism, the dangers of the populist right growing from Britain’s red, white and blue exit from the EU. For them it is an electoral calculation for a future Labour government. And some of them know that Brexit will be bad, they know the social and economy consequences will be damaging — but they have adopted a studious silence so as not to frighten away Labour leave voters or appear to be bolstering the right of the party.
Then there is another group on the Labour left (inevitably there is some overlap) who are active proponents of Brexit. They see in a return to national sovereignty a chance for social democracy. For them the main barrier to socialism in one country is the international financial elites, the Eurocrats — they are the ones who have been holding us back for so long.
They talk of rebuilding British finance away from the globalised economy in order to promote investment in the UK. They believe that a Labour government in a Brexit Britain is the route back to economic vitality and growth — as if our problems stemmed primarily from Brussels and not our own homegrown capitalist class.
This is a return to the old Stalinist “British road to socialism” which so infected the Labour left in the 1970s (Tony Benn’s “siege economy” springs to mind). Now some of the advocates of that position are actual Stalinists from the Communist Party of Britain tradition so that should not be a surprise, but these barren utopian ideas will inevitably spread across the Labour left as people grasp for some kind of credible looking economic programme post Brexit.
A Corbyn government elected after Brexit will have to pick up the pieces of an economy that is in decline — not just from Brexit but also there is a recession looming in the next couple of years that could be quite nasty.
All of the spending pledges in the 2017 manifesto were based on the economy being in the state that it was in 2017 — in other words a worse economy will mean few social spending commitments and more aborted efforts to manage economic decline (think Harold Wilson’s efforts in 1964–70).
Such a situation will either see a Labour government collapse into the perennial excuse of “we have no money, sorry” or it will be forced to take significant inroads into wealth, property and power to redistribute resources. Historically the first option is the one that Labour has gone for — a Corbyn government might be different, that depends on the balance of power in the PLP and among the party rank and file.
Crucially it also depends on building up a well organised a vocal left that can challenge the leadership if they are not going far enough.
But that is precisely what the soft left Corbyn fanclub are trying to prevent now — any signs of criticisms or ‘rocking the boat’ are being stamped on. Those people on the left engaged in that behaviour will form the material basis for shutting down critical voices and extra parliamentary activity under Corbyn government (“why are you striking against a Labour government, can’t you see you’ll let the Tories in?”). It was the same with the soft left in the 1980s when organisations like the Labour Co-ordinating Committee started off as Bennites and ended up as the core component of Progress, having spent the 1980s defending Kinnock from left opponents and shopping left wing councillors to the NEC.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. C’est la vie.
There is a petition doing the rounds to encourage Momentum to change its current policy of ‘just let it happen’ around Brexit — to instead call a second referendum on the deal and mobilise for a debate on it at Labour conference this September. There is still time to challenge this disasterous policy. if you’re a Momentum member — consider signing this https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/stop-tory-brexit-momentum-petition