I’ve read a number of articles saying that the major issue facing British workers is the rise of the far-right, appearing now in the shape either of Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party or the racists and fascists around Tommy Robinson. The answer to this is usually suggested to be a united campaign by socialists opposing racism and the fascists.
I don’t believe this to be the case – the major issue is, and has been, opposition to Brexit and the continuing effort to implement it. It is Brexit that has rallied the reactionaries, given them a real success through the referendum and emboldened them to make more and more explicit threats as to what will happen if Brexit isn’t implemented.
In this respect these forces are no different from the increasingly bitter Tories and the unorganised bigots who have felt free to express their long-held racism through verbal and physical attacks. The combined forces of these reactionaries mustered only a few thousand outside Parliament, while the anti-Brexit demonstration counted over a million. It should therefore be clear that the major impact of a defeat for Brexit would not be the excitement of the reactionaries to greater fury but imposition of a crushing defeat.
Some of the supporters of the idea that the racists and fascists are the issue are those who have assisted these forces by supporting Brexit themselves, which can only disorient their supporters, give some legitimacy to the reactionaries’ cause and, not least, import their nationalism into the workers’ movement. The latest example is the statement by George Galloway that he will vote for Farage’s Brexit Party.
Thus, an additional impact is the proposal of the mistaken orientation that the major task is to oppose the racists and fascists. These forces have greater visibility and impact because their chauvinism is the most extreme form of the nationalism that lies behind the whole Brexit project. It is therefore easy to sell it as the only real and authentic version. They thus have a cause they can claim has been legitimised by popular vote.
The standard response of left organisations is to seek the widest unity, irrespective of what are claimed to be secondary issues, to confront the racists and fascists on the streets. However, by consciously evading Brexit they even weaken their own misdirected strategy.
And they do this by ignoring the real issue. They surrender legitimacy to the cause of which the reactionaries claim to be the true defenders. They have purely negative arguments to the positive (however reactionary) cause that the reactionaries put forward, and they are defenceless against their claims to be the real democrats. The key task is blurred, if not ditched, by thinking that unity with the Brexit supporting left will address the problems that Brexit has itself aggravated immensely.
Above all, it seriously underestimates the significance of the anti-working class attack that the Brexit project involves. Its implementation would see rapid attacks on the rights and living standards of British workers and increased racist attacks by the State and street thugs. Even if you thought increased xenophobia and racism by the far right was the major problem, the only way to prevent it getting worse, and actually reverse it, would be stop Brexit in its tracks.
But recognising Brexit as the issue leads to other conclusions. At the moment the main effort to push some sort of Brexit that can be implemented includes the leadership of the Labour Party. Despite hopes that this leadership would lead the Party to create a social movement that fully involves its members, the Labour leadership has shown that old-Labour politics of the left doesn’t have much more regard for democracy than the politics of the new-Labour right.
The task after Corbyn was elected was to democratise the Party and this remains the case. To do so means fighting Brexit and implementing the overwhelming view of the Party’s members and supporters that it should be scrapped. Such has been the decades of reaction that many seem not to want to carry out this task as vigorously as is required, perhaps because they have bought into Corbyn as much, if not more, that what he appeared to represent. Unfortunately Brexit and his support for it shows the limits of old-style Labour politics, and the first casualty of Corbyn’s support for Brexit is his reputation for honesty and plain speaking. The last casualty could be the success of the Party itself.
This reluctance to criticise or organise in spite of Corbyn, and against him if necessary, risks demoralising the mass membership on which the current future of socialism in Britain depends. So, while Corbyn argues for a Brexit that is little different from Theresa May’s Withdrawal Deal, perhaps the Labour membership should also take their example from their Tory equivalents.
The rank and file of the Tory Party are as in favour of Brexit as their Labour opposites are against it, and are attempting to call an extraordinary general meeting of the Party to get rid of Theresa May to ensure Brexit goes through, deal or no deal. Like the Tory rank and file who are fed up waiting for Brexit, Labour members have been waiting for a general election or the Party to actually support a second referendum. But both May and Corbyn seem to be doing everything to run down the clock, prevented only by the fact that Brexit would be a disaster quite quickly without significant amelioration of its effects. Accepting what these are and what their cost would be for the Brexit project has prevented an agreed deal.
Today, the real fight for British socialists is to stop Brexit and to mobilise the ranks of the Labour Party against it. Corbyn matters only in so far as he facilitates working class organisation and the progressive measures that a social democratic Labour Government could introduce. Brexit threatens both and so does Corbyn’s support for it.