Back in May I wrote a post ‘It’s not about supporting Jeremy Corbyn anymore’, which stated it was about opposing Brexit, and ditching Labour’s disastrous support for it, poorly disguised in such a way as to piss off anyone with a strong view on the matter. I said after the European elections in which the Tories came fifth, with less than 10 per cent of the vote that –
“The Tories only need a new leader promising Brexit, with a bit more credibility, to have a hope of some recovery, and they’re electing one. And if they fall short it will not be because Labour has surged forward but because Farage has managed to carry forward his success into a general election.”
But of course, Farage was pulled into line by those with the money and the only significant shift in Labour’s policy was support for a second referendum, except that I noted at the same time that “it’s not about a referendum – if Labour supported some version of Brexit to be approved by a referendum Corbyn would be politically as dead as a Monty Python parrot.” Which he now is, because his promise to negotiate his own Brexit, and then put it to a vote without committing to supporting it, made no sense. Then he defeated a motion to support Remain at the Labour conference while promising that a future conference would decide.
In a Facebook discussion I was admonished for not recognising that the gains of the Corbyn movement were a massively increased left membership, a sprinkling of new left MPs and an audience for anti-capitalist ideas.
That a mass membership was encouraged by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is clear, but it also became clear that for this leadership the role of the movement was to follow the leader, not to transform the Party into the social movement that many hoped and believed it should become. That’s why a claim could only be made that there was a smattering of new left MPs. This is as much the legacy of Corbyn as defeat in two elections and a divided and untransformed Party, with no clear successor never mind a good range of candidates from which the left membership could choose.
As for an audience for anti-capitalism, I believe in something which is so much more than this negative identification and that has for two hundred years gone a long way in demonstrating not only what is wrong with capitalism but also setting out the alternative. Brexit itself is a sort of anti-capitalism, in the Lexit, reactionary, stop the development of modern capitalism sort of way that wants to go backwards to when the nation state set the framework of economic and social development. The proclamation of anti-capitalism as a touchstone is a political retreat and confusion by the left and is consistent with such anti-capitalist phenomenon as Stalinism, and other reactionary populist politics that are inconsistent with the fullest development of capitalism but also antithetical to socialism.
While Corbyn might be leaving the stage, we continue to be under the shadow of his triangulated Brexit policy, including the narrative of a non-existent principle that we must respect a reactionary referendum result regardless of its consequences. Also included is the idea of a Labour Brexit, one that will supposedly be progressive but bizarrely involves no commitment to supporting it, in fact a declaration of neutrality by the leader with further evasion through postponing a conference that would determine the Party’s position in any second referendum
These are only some of the contortions that have characterised Corbyn’s Brexit policy. To declare surprise at his unpopularity in the election after such a catalogue of evasion is to audition for the role of one or all of the three wise monkeys.
The failure to openly and honestly fight for Brexit by the leadership, hiding behind six tests; the nonsense of a Labour deal with all the benefits of EU membership but none of the costs; weeks of talks with Theresa May to identify a common Brexit policy, and then claims that a deal could be agreed and voted on within six months (because the EU had agreed to Labour policy!), all this continues to confuse.
For what is most striking about Corbyn and his Brexit policy is not his opposition to Remain but his inability to argue for Brexit. Like the small left groups who claim that explicit support for Brexit would have defeated the Tories, they fail to explain how all those who are happy to vote for the Tories and Brexit Party could be won to a Labour Brexit that would be denounced as a fraud; or explain what price would be paid in terms of the reactionary politics of nationalism and racism that would be necessary to adopt even to make the attempt.
And what would these groups expect the 68 per cent of Labour’s voters who voted Remain to do while such a policy was pursued, including those in the North of England – in the ‘traditional working class’ areas – who voted to Remain? How could it ever become Party policy when an even greater percentage of the Labour membership support Remain?
The answer, of course, is that it couldn’t. And because it couldn’t it wasn’t, although this did not prevent all these groups declaring the need for the impossible – open Labour support for Brexit – that they didn’t even fight for themselves. When was this openly presented as the policy to be supported, as opposed to all the duplicitous evasions listed above?
What exactly was Lexit? What would it entail? For some it seemed not to matter after it was assumed it would happen – the detail was unimportant, only the economic policy of a future left British Government would matter. For others it was all the benefits but none of the costs – membership of the customs union and Single Market but no free movement of people and no seat at the table that sets the rules because Britain could help set them from outside, or ignore them if it wanted. For others it became no deal and trade on WTO terms, sometimes with the lie that these WTO rules meant no real change to the current trading arrangements for years. For others, supporting Brexit seemed only a matter of timing (it was an ok idea before but not now) and a question of who would lead the caravan across the desert and not where it was going. No wonder there was no open fight inside the Party to win it to explicit support for Brexit.
So now we have a leadership contest where we are threatened with all this vacuous and reactionary nonsense again, with added soundbites and personality claims that only embarrass the listener.
And the obfuscation also continues. The latest piece I’ve read is an attack on “obsessive Remainers” who have scored “a massive own goal” because they pushed for a second referendum and thereby brought about the victory of Johnson and a hard Brexit.
While it is arguable that a second referendum was not the way to stop Brexit – that was better carried out by a general election in which Labour committed to stopping it – the real claim is that a Labour Brexit was the way forward. In other words, this is another Brexit-supporting proposition that doesn’t quite declare its love but criticises those who had the temerity to openly fight for Remain. That this was far from a lost cause can be appreciated from the vote at the Labour conference before the election, when only some sharp practice prevented such a policy being adopted.
While the target is those who fought for Remain the argument is framed around the centrist opposition, represented by “Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, and Chuka Umunna [who] knew how to play the media and get their message across”, plus the Peoples Vote campaign.
Absent from the analysis are the millions of people this campaign mobilised who were far from all being supporters of the Labour right, and who represented a movement that a Brexit-opposing Labour Party could easily have challenged for leadership of, but which Corbyn through his absence demonstrated opposition. Along with failure to democratise the Party, this abandonment of a progressive mass campaign to a right-wing leadership is the most criminal of Corbyn’s failings.
Absent also, is any appreciation of the mass support of the voters and members of the Labour Party who also opposed Brexit and are the key constituency defining the possibilities that socialists have to make any significant step forward. Instead we are invited by supporters of Brexit to orient to a so-called traditional working class that no longer exists in its previous form because the industrial, social and political environment that created it was destroyed.
The article states that “It would be fatuous to scold liberals for not supporting Corbynism, a project that was never their own (although some did claim to support the kind of social-democratic policies that Labour spelled out in its election manifestos). But we can certainly blame them for undermining their own self-proclaimed goal: to stop Brexit . . .” Scolding liberals, however, is all that the article does, so it is doubly fatuous by the fact that the author isn’t concerned that Brexit be stopped, so why would anyone with such an aim pay any heed to it?
The hypothesis is put forward that “a so-called ‘soft-Brexit’ deal would have been a perfectly acceptable framework for Labour to carry out domestic social reforms: a step sideways, not a step backward”, a claim made not in order to prevent “rewriting history and shifting the blame”, but to define the next step forward, including the identity of the new leadership of the Party.
This claim is certainly less bold than the ‘jobs Brexit’ claimed by the leadership of the Labour Party but it is still false: the exit of the UK from the EU will put up barriers to migration, trade, investment and economic growth that will very definitely not simply be “a step sideways”. Only those on the left who think that stuffing capitalism or a capitalism in crisis is the objective (i.e. ‘anti-capitalism’) could mistake this as a step forward for the working class.
The best opportunity to achieve the ‘soft’ Brexit that the author considers acceptable was when “Labour came forward with its own platform for the Brexit negotiations that set out clearly the terms of a soft-Brexit deal. It was practical and achievable — and the leading EU officials said so publicly.”
Unfortunately, this “perfectly acceptable framework for Labour to carry out domestic social reforms: a step sideways, not a step backward” turns out to be modification of Theresa May’s deal.
This proposal involved five tests which included ridiculous ideas such as leaving the EU while having a say in the EU’s trade policy, and a claim that a customs union would allow frictionless trade, which is also nonsense. It could not therefore, as it claimed, prevent a border inside Ireland.
Calls for ‘close alignment with the single market’ does not mean membership of the single market, which anyway would be impossible if the UK left the EU, but which then raises questions of what barriers would this Brexit cause the UK to fall behind, and how much would it assume of having your cake and eating it. The proposal was for “clear arrangements for dispute resolution” but the EU has these and they’re not going to be subject to British influence.
It is claimed that this platform was “practical and achievable” but if Brexit has taught everyone anything it is that detail is the devil that cannot be ignored and that it isn’t practical and achievable unless it is explained, and it wasn’t.
So, it is not true that the EU considered that this Labour proposal was both practical and achievable, but rather simply a step forward in the right direction, a diplomatic way of opening negotiations that would sort out the detail and remove what nonsense elements were included. The press interpreted this as a step towards the Norway option but apart from the enormous agreements required to replicate such an option for the very different UK economy, it would involve acceptance of EU rules, which is what is claimed to be the problem, and renunciation of any say in making these rules, which is the purpose of a social democratic government. How would this have made any sense even if it had been “practical and achievable”?
Another example of the potential for a Labour ‘soft’ Brexit is given by reference to the alternatives to Theresa May’s deal voted on in the House of Commons. It is noted that the closest to succeeding, losing by only four votes, was Kenneth Clarke’s ‘’customs union’ proposal. But this, like the rest, got less votes than Theresa May’s deal and only got as close as it did because of abstentions. Given the lack of clarity in the proposal any clarification was more likely to provoke opposition.
The paucity of these so-called alternatives that might have avoided the disaster of Johnson’s victory, as the article would have it, is precisely shown by the one that came closest to succeeding. It was so vague it didn’t actually constitute a plan.
It didn’t touch on the single market so wouldn’t have addressed the backstop for Ireland that was the centre of the controversy. Its customs union didn’t make clear whether it would be dynamically aligned with further development of the EU customs union, or whether the European Court of Justice would have jurisdiction, or whether it was meant as an attempt to go back to arrangements created in 1973 when the UK joined the EEC. And it didn’t say anything about what arrangements would apply to the 80 per cent of the UK economy comprised of services. But apart from that it could have been a winner?
While it might seem very passé to go through all this again, the argument about Brexit hasn’t gone away and is very far from being done. The time given for agreeing future arrangements after officially leaving at the end of next month is not long enough to negotiate a comprehensive trade deal. If any deal is made, or number of sector specific side-deals agreed, it will not be enough to maintain current levels of trade. Jobs, living standards and employment will all suffer and the identity of the cause will not be hard to find. All Tory promises about nursing and police numbers, however counted, and of new investment in infrastructure, will be unaffordable, unless borrowing increases significantly, which would only cause its own problems of increased interest rates.
If, on the other hand, the transition period is extended, Johnson’s purpose in doing so will damage his credibility and he will come under pressure from the ultra-supporting Brexiteers.
All this will raise challenges to the new leadership of the Labour Party, which will have to do a lot better than its triangulation over the last three years. Yet, the issue that defined the election, determined the defeat and will determine and define the next period, has not so far been placed clearly at the centre of the debate over who should be the new Labour leadership.
The policy pursued by Corbyn of pretending every other issue matters more, that the question has been settled, that everyone will move on, that tail-ending the Tories by making piecemeal criticisms while having no principled or oppositionist alternative, or any combination of these disastrous approaches, will allow all the problems stored up by Johnsons to be overcome, or at the very least prevent Labour taking advantage of Tory failures.
The majority of people rejected Johnson’s reactionary policies, including Brexit. Labour can choose to represent this majority or chase after that minority who will become increasingly disenchanted with it and who will have only three alternatives to choose from.
The first is that pursued by the majority so far – forget about the promises of market access and easy trade agreements and accept only the hardest of exits as a real Brexit. The Labour Party cannot win by appealing to the more and more radicalised reactionaries who will follow this course.
The second is acceptance of what will become increasingly apparent – that Brexit cannot deliver on its promises and was a mistake. A soft-Brexit approach will become less convincing to Remainers as it appears more and more pointless and may become indistinguishable from Johnson’s policy, should he so choose. In effect the Labour Party would be hostage to the vagaries of Johnson’s opportunism and lies. Labour will get little credit for mild criticism of a policy seen to fail so thoroughly.
The third is that a section of Brexit supporters will retreat into political inactivity and apathy as their prejudices are dashed, at which point ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ will be blamed for the world not behaving as they think it should. Labour will not win by appealing to the prejudiced and deluded.
For all these reasons the lessons of the Brexit election need to be learned and the great schism in the left between those who have trailed behind this reactionary project and those who have opposed it will have to be settled. Settling it will not be achieved by reconciliation of socialist internationalists to a successor Corbynista leader, who may simply follow the Brexit water down the plug-hole in ever decreasing and quickening circles.
Whoever is considered best to be the next leader and whatever their strengths and weaknesses, the left must prioritise opposition to Brexit and democratisation of the Party and judge the candidates on this basis. This will involve examination of candidates’ platform and the forces ranged behind them. If it is the Labour apparatus and union bureaucrats that is their base, these will determine the favoured candidates future policies. It is not enough to seek the candidate most likely to defeat any soft left or openly centrist candidate because without opposition to Brexit and fulfilment of Party democracy the return of the right wing will only have been prepared and not prevented.