Brexit in the time of Corbyn – what’s going on in Britain?
Updated: Apr 10
In 2015, within 3½ months of each other, two important things happened. On 27th May, David Cameron announced that there would be a referendum on Brexit. And on 12th September, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the British Labour Party. These two events, which are rarely reported together, represented, in very different forms, the collapse of the centre in British politics and a consequent polarisation.
Corbyn’s first year in office was just as inspiring as his campaign to become Labour leader. He spoke at mass rallies of thousands of people, often more than one on the same day. Former Labour Party strategist Steve Howell explains how Corbyn learned from the campaign to elect Bernie Sanders:
“The rallies were a generator that powered all the other elements, creating virtuous circles of highly charged activity. Videos would be shared far and wide on social media. New volunteers signed up at rallies would be trained to go out canvassing. Contact details collected would be used to disseminate campaign materials and raise money online.” 2.
Corbyn offered a popular programme of achievable demands which would benefit the lives of ordinary people. The demand for renationalising the big four industries won massive support: “Water topped the poll (83%), followed by electricity (77%), gas (77%) and the railways (76%).3”
In Nye Bevan’s4 birthplace of Tredegar, Corbyn “declare[d] war on health inequality”5 and condemned Tory attacks on the National Health Service (NHS). The Labour Party document “Funding Britain’s Future” promised to fund reforms by raising income tax for the top 5% and Corporation tax, while cracking down on tax avoidance by big business and the very wealthy.6”
In his first speech in the 2017 election campaign, Corbyn gave a declaration of intent:
“If I were Southern Rail or Philip Green, I’d be worried about a Labour government. If I were Mike Ashley [the owner of Sports Direct] or the CEO of a tax avoiding multinational corporation, I’d want to see a Tory victory. Why? Because those are the people who are monopolising the wealth that should be shared by each and every one of us in this country… We will no longer allow those at the top to leach off of those who bust their guts on zero hours contracts or those forced to make sacrifices to pay their mortgage or their rent”7.
This mixture of mass participation and popular demands led to a surge of membership of the Labour Party. By 2016, Labour had 550,000 members and was the largest political party in Western Europe.8 Corbyn’s personal popularity grew with that of the Labour Party. According to YouGov editor-in-chief Freddie Sayers “Corbyn got the cool kids and the working-class leftwing.9”
Attacked by his own MPs
Despite his successes, Corbyn never had the support of his own party establishment. From the very beginning, Labour grandees used the liberal but vehemently anti-Corbyn Guardian newspaper to bemoan his “unelectability”. Tony Blair’s former Director of Communications Alastair Campbell moaned that “somehow we seem to have ended up with a leader who is unelectable but unassailable”10 Another Blairite former MP Peter Mandelson claimed that Corbyn “will end up disqualifying Labour from office”11.
Yet somehow, the “unelectable” Corbyn kept on winning elections.
In 2016, just after the result of the EU referendum was announced, Blairite MPs organised the so-called “chicken coup”, accusing Corbyn of “being lukewarm about the EU, and repeat[ing] their belief that in a general election he would make the party unelectable12”
A series of shadow cabinet members resigned at hourly intervals. On 28 June, Labour MPs voted 172-40 for no confidence in Corbyn13. Yet when the party membership took part in a new vote for party leader, 61.8% supported Corbyn against Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. This was more than had voted for him first time round14.
This wasn’t the end of the attacks on Corbyn. As a general election approached, the charge of Corbyn’s unelectability was repeatedly raised. Labour Party grandees queued up to announce to a willing media how Corbyn’s Labour would be devastated in the next election. British socialist Mark L Thomas wrote an in-depth analysis of Corbyn’s election campaign for International Socialism journal. It it, he notes how this affected the election campaign of Labour right wingers:
“Many Labour MPs, convinced of Corbyn’s unpopularity on the doorstep, not only failed to mention Corbyn’s name in their local election material but also told voters that they were voting for them personally and not Corbyn. YouGov subsequently found that only 6 percent of Labour voters said that their main reason for voting Labour was their local MP.”15
2017 General Election
Because of the chaos around Brexit, the Tories had been forced into calling an early general election. Despite polls predicting ignominious defeat and a parliamentary party which did not support him, Corbyn’s Labour narrowly lost the 2017 general election, widely exceeding all expectations.
Theresa May scraped into office, but only by promising £1bn in aid for Northern Ireland in return for the support of the deeply reactionary DUP16. The Tory’s dependency on the DUP is one of the reasons why they are still unable to find a sensible solution to the Irish border post-Brexit.
Mark L Thomas explains what Corbyn’s was able to achieve:
“Labour achieved the biggest increase in its share of the vote between two elections in the whole post-1945 era. Labour’s vote rose from 30.4 percent in 2015 to 40 percent just two years later. For the first time in 20 years Labour came out of an election with more MPs than it went into it with17”.
Corbyn’s success was due to a very public campaign:
“The turning point came in mid-May when Corbyn addressed a crowd of 2,000 in York, hundreds in the small Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge and then 3,000 in Leeds. A few days later Corbyn spoke to thousands on the beach at West Kirby on the Wirral and then was greeted ecstatically by a young crowd of thousands when he appeared on stage at a Libertines gig at Prenton Park stadium (where the “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” chant that echoed through the summer’s festivals and beyond was born). These mobilisations reached a crescendo with the huge 10,000-strong crowd Corbyn drew three days before the election in Gateshead18”
While Corbyn was continuing to inspire, the fallout from Brexit was gathering momentum. Political discourse was becoming increasingly dominated by one single issue. And although there was mass support for Corbyn’s social programme, the official debate on Brexit was dominated by the right wing.
Both official campaigns around Brexit were led by racist right wingers. Remain was spearheaded by David Cameron, fresh from backing Zac Goldsmith’s Islamophobic campaign to become London mayor. Just before the mayoral election, Goldsmith had written the following in the Daily Mail:
“London will always be in the cross-hairs of pan-European terror movements … if Labour wins on Thursday, we will have handed control of the Met, and with it control over national counter-terrorism policy, to a party whose candidate and current leadership have, whether intentionally or not, repeatedly legitimised those with extremist view”19
This was a double attack – both against Corbyn, and against Labour’s mayoral candidate. Sadiq Khan may have been on the right wing of the Labour Party, but for Goldsmith all that mattered was that he is a Muslim. Although senior Tories distanced themselves from Goldsmith, Cameron seized the opportunity to accuse Khan of having links to supporters of Islamic State20.
Meanwhile, all media coverage of the official Leave campaign focussed on the odious Nigel Farage. Notoriously, Farage posed in front of a poster containing a picture of fleeing refugees and the slogan: “Breaking point: the EU has failed us all”21 This poster was reported to the police for inciting racial hatred.
To say that both the Leave and Remain campaigns were led by racists is not to say that they had identical form. The Remain campaign was also supported by the Greens, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and Sinn Fein, all of whom are generally progressive parties. Most of Labour (including Corbyn) and many trade union leaders also supported Remain.
Nonetheless, they were trapped in a cross-class alliance with the Tories. Lisa Hallgarten, a Labour Party member in London (and a campaigner for Remain) explains:
“By contrast to the Leave campaign, the Remain campaign was a cross party campaign. This meant that the messages had to be agreed by all three party's Remain reps. Of course this resulted in the most insipid campaign in which leaflets telling people their mobile phones would cost more on holiday were pitched against the anti immigration hysteria and blunt (dishonest) messages of Leave”22.
The result was a campaign which, by its very nature, lacked the anti-capitalist dynamism of Corbyn’s leadership campaign. Lisa goes on:
“You could say the Remain campaign was a coalition of parties including the Tory and Labour parties with diametrically opposite principles and policies. By necessity the Remain campaign was designed not to 'scare the horses', and to deliver messages with no political content about the dangers of Brexit.”23.
The left did try to intervene in both campaigns, but it lacked both the social weight and the media recognition it needed to make any real impact. Besides which, the left itself was split between the “Lexiteers” who opposed the neo-liberal EU, and the Left Remainers who argued against a return to Middle England.
At the time, I argued privately that I would have been a reluctant leaver, as I couldn’t vote for a EU that destroyed democracy in Greece and deployed gunboats in the Mediterranean to shoot refugees. At the same time, I was kind of glad that I no longer had voting rights in Britain, as I would have felt dirty voting for either side.
Why did Brexit happen?
There is a superficial argument that not all Brexit voters were racists but all (or nearly all) racists voted Brexit24. What is normally implied by this statement is that most Brexit voters were either racist or stupid.
I have already invoked David Cameron to show that there was a horde of racists who were perfectly happy voting Remain. I would now like to address the idea that most people voted Leave for mainly racist intentions.
According to Lord Ashcroft’s polls25 “nearly half (49%) of leave voters said the biggest single reason for wanting to leave the EU was ‘the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK’. One third (33%) said the main reason was that leaving ‘offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders’.26”
Now “taking decisions in the UK” is a nebulous idea, which can also include the decision about who should be deported. Yet it does seem that this idea covers a multiple of sins, not all of them racist.
This becomes more clear when you look at the regional differences. The YouGov report27 on the Brexit result was entitled “Unusually, the North outvoted the South”28 In a similar vein, political economist Will Davies notes that Leave had extraordinary levels of support in the North East, taking 70% of the votes in Hartlepool and 61% in Sunderland29”.
Davies remarks that “Peter Mandelson’s infamous comment, that the Labour heartlands could be depended on to vote Labour no matter what, “because they’ve got nowhere else to go” 30 is relevant in this context.
Mandelson was Tony Blair’s chief spin doctor, who was imposed as Labour MP for Hartlepool despite his obvious disdain for working-class people. Under the government in which he and Blair (MP for the nearby Sedgefield) held court, many Northern voters knew that they could never vote Tory, but saw that the Labour leadership treated them with equal disdain.
Polls taken by Lord Ashcroft after the 2017 general election reached the following conclusions:
“Asked unprompted which issues had been the most important in their voting decision, Conservatives were most likely to name Brexit (as were Liberal Democrats), followed by having the right leadership. Labour voters, meanwhile, were most likely to name the NHS and spending cuts. Only 8% of Labour voters named Brexit as the most important issue in their decision, compared to 48% of those who voted Conservative.31”
So, even in the heat of the Brexit campaign, most Labour voters were motivated much more by Corbyn’s reform package than by all the sound and fury about Brexit.
A post-election analysis on the Politico website32 came to a similar conclusion
“Labour also managed to defend some of its more fragile territory in areas that had voted to leave the EU and make a number of other gains. This was not all about Brexit. Clearly, Corbyn’s pledge to tackle economic injustice, push back against the banks, impose higher taxes on the wealthy and renationalize the railways resonated with Britain’s left behind. This allowed Labour to also take a number of other seats, such as Crewe and Nantwich, Derby North, Enfield Southgate, Gower, Warrington South, Peterborough, Bedford and Weaver Vale.33”
Liam Young, a journalist for the Independent newspaper, also argues that people mainly voted for social reasons:
“Two-thirds of children in poverty live in working families, and the number of people in poverty is growing by roughly one million a year. The foodbank network Trussell Trust reported that it issued more than 1.3 million three-day emergency food supplies last year. That is a 13 per cent increase from last year, when foodbank use had already risen by 6 per cent between 2017 and 2018. Last month, the charity Shelter reported that at least 320,000 people in the UK were homeless. It admitted, however, that this figure was likely to be an underestimate … The fixation with Brexit has completely upended any other discussion regarding the very serious problems that we face as a country34”
Did Leave strengthen Racism?
The most plausible argument from the Left Remainers was that a Leave vote would strengthen the confidence of racists and Nazis – something which indeed has happened. For example, the semi-fascist Football Lads Alliance was able to mobilise thousands of people in the largest far right demo since the war35.
Racist attacks are up36, and there have been far right attacks on socialist bookshops37, meetings and trade union picket lines.38 For the last two weeks, Stand Up To Racism stalls in Manchester have been attacked by Nazis39.
There is a caveat to this. Events in Chemnitz40 and Charlottesville41 show that the far right is also able to carry out vicious attacks in countries which are committed to the EU, and those outside Europe. And even in Britain, it is not simply the case that the far right is inexorably on the rise.
John Mullen42 notes that
“the left Remainers often thought that the UKIP of Farage would rise and rise in the case of a leave vote. In fact it absolutely collapsed43 (but this often didn’t lead them to look again at their analysis). Smaller racist organizations certainly tried to profit from the situation and organize small demos, and everyday racist prejudices were more openly expressed, but there was also a very significant rise in anti-racist activity, especially since the anti-racist campaigns were smart enough to begin ‘whichever way you voted in the referendum, let’s oppose this racism and fascism.’ 44”45
This discussion extends beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that the left was divided. Many people voted Remain – and Leave – because of anti-racist and anti-capitalist instincts. Yet most discussions remained abstract, and our side was unable to influence the direction of the general debate.
Time for a new referendum?
So what do we do now? Britain has narrowly voted to leave the EU, and some people on the left (and the far left) are insistent that we must fight for a rerun of the referendum. I believe that this would be disastrous for a number of reasons.
I’ve already alluded to the first reason. The period of the first Brexit vote was a distraction from the mass popular movement that had grown up around Corbyn. Instead of talking about uniting the victims of austerity, the main argument was about whether the EU or the British state – neither friends of the poor and working class - would be able to save us.
Aida A. Hozić & Jacqui True46 are appalled by the prospect of Brexit. Nonetheless, they acknowledge that:
“even now, after the vote, Brexit continues to function as a scandal in its own right, taking oxygen from public conversations about structural problems underlying both the United Kingdom and the EU, and ensuring that discussions about issues that matter to all – such as banking and finance – remain in the hands of their technocratic elites.”47
Corbyn recognised this in his speech in Wakefield on January 10th this year, arguing that
“the truth is, the real divide in our country is not between those who voted to Remain in the EU and those who voted to Leave. It is between the many – who do the work, who create the wealth and pay their taxes, and the few – who set the rules, who reap the rewards and so often dodge taxes.48”
In the first referendum we were asked to choose between (as the Germans say) plague and cholera. In a sense, we were forced to make a choice. The deep divisions in the Tory party forced us into taking part in a referendum that not many people really wanted.
This time it is different. Left wingers calling for a new referendum (known as a “People’s Vote” in an attempt to apply the veneer of democracy) are pleading that we go through the whole damn process again. This isn’t just turkeys voting for Christmas, it is turkeys voting for Thanksgiving to be added to the English calendar.
It is true that many people are fearfully concerned that the current government is not going to be able to deliver anything apart from a No Deal Brexit which will seriously affect many people’s lives. This is the reason that an estimated 700,000 people marched on 20 October in the largest demonstration since the Iraq war49. Yet this is surely a compelling argument for throwing out the Tories. A new referendum will not of itself solve any of the current problems.
As Liam Young says, “the major problem with a second referendum, or a so-called “People’s Vote”, is that the fixation with the vote to leave the European Union continues to ignore the actual reasons that people voted Leave”50.
Will a new referendum stop racism?
Because of the attempt by the extreme right to hijack the Brexit debate, some are arguing that a new referendum will reduce the Nazi threat. But just think what will really happen. Most serious polls suggest that the result of any new referendum will be close. For example, a report in the Financial Times argues the following:
“on the question of Brexit, the electorate can be broken down into three core groups instead of two: the Hard Leavers who want out of the EU (45 percent); the Hard Remainers who still want to try to stop Brexit (22 percent); and the Re-Leavers (23 percent)—those who voted to Remain last summer but think that the government now has a duty to leave.51”
If this analysis is correct, it is no basis for a convincing Remain vote at a second referendum.
It is true that the increasingly self-delusional Guardian contains reports of Leave voters who have seen the errors of their ways and will now vote Remain. But I have equally anecdotal evidence of a number of friends, Labour Party members, who do not know each other, who will change their vote to Leave. I see no evidence that either side would win a convincing victory at a rerun referendum.
In an article arguing for a second referendum, Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee acknowledges that “the polling figures are far too close to predict the result. The campaign ramping up Brexit racism and hate, the bullying, false promises and fact-free mendacity will be vile.52” Why would we want to put ourselves through all that again?
If we have another 52-48 result, whoever wins the most votes, the main beneficiaries will be the far right. Presumably the leftists arguing for a new Referendum are expecting that Labour will campaign for Remain. This will leave the Labour Party, the hated Tories and most other bourgeois parties on one side. On the other – UKIP, in an even more nastier form than before. The Nazi Tommy Robinson has already been installed as is an adviser to the current leader Gerard Batten53 .
Charlie Hore54 argues that “the most likely circumstances for a referendum would see Labour and the Tories on opposite side. Why would either of them call it otherwise?”55 But the demand for a “People’s Vote” is not that either party calls a vote, but that “the people” (whoever they are) force them into it. And the implicit assumption of almost all of the forces behind the People’s Vote campaign is that Labour should join the Tory mainstream in voting Remain.
A history of the EU opposing democratic decisions
The idea of repeating votes about the EU is not new. But traditionally the people calling for a new vote have been the undemocratic EU institutions.
On 29th May 2005, 55% voted in a French referendum to reject a treaty to establish a Constitution for Europe56. Three days later, over 60% of people participating in a similar referendum in the Netherlands voted “No”57. These votes were effectively ignored with the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in 200758.
The problems for the EU bureaucracy did not end there. In 2008, a referendum in Ireland rejected the Lisbon treaty59. Independent journalist Ian Johnston notes that “It was notable that, this time, no other country apart from Ireland held a referendum on ratification.60” Yet once again the Irish people were told to vote again until they provided a result that was acceptable to the Irish government and the EU.61
At the time, there was justifiable outrage at the flouting of democratic decisions (not least from the left). Experiences in France, Portugal and Ireland, not to mention the overturning of the “OXI” vote in Greece62 has created an increasing distrust of a “liberal élite” which is contemptuous of people outside their gilded cage. This has contributed to the polarisation mentioned at the beginning of this article.
A second referendum on Brexit would fuel this distrust. The “People’s Vote” campaign may claim to represent ordinary people. In fact, its co-chairs63 are the Conservative MP Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna, who has done more to undermine Jeremy Corbyn than most Labour MPs (see below). This sort of cross-class alliance stands in contradiction to Corbyn’s idea of a politics “for the many, not the few.”
We have already seen where this can lead. In an editorial for International Socialism journal, Akex Callinicos reports that “the left-Remainer campaign Another Europe is Possible demanded that the anti-racist and anti-fascist counter-demonstration to Robinson’s march on 9 December should take an anti-Brexit stance64”
In other words, at a time when the rise of the extreme right is a real threat, loyalty to Remain was given a higher priority to stopping the Nazi threat. This had the real potential danger of handing over alienated Leave voters over to the far right.
The Labour Right and Corbyn
The prominence of Chuka Umunna in the People’s Vote campaign should give any Corbyn supporter pause for thought. In the stream of attacks on Corbyn’s leadership from within the party, Umunna has always been there or thereabouts.
As pro-Palestine activists were being falsely attacked by a rabid press for being anti-semitic, Umunna claimed that this showed that the party is “institutionally racist”65. His supporters include John Cridland of the CBI, Tory Andrew Tyrie and Tony Blair’s former advisor Andrew Adonis66 Added to this. Umunna’s name is regularly floated in reports of the formation of a centre party to challenge Labour67.
This is not just about Chuka Umunna. On February 3rd 2019, the Observer reported that:
“at least six MPs have been drawing up plans to resign the whip and leave the party soon. There have also been discussions involving senior figures about a potentially far larger group splitting off at some point after Brexit, if Corbyn fails to do everything possible to oppose Theresa May’s plans for taking the UK out of the EU.68”
This sort of report is not new. Since before Corbyn became leader, the Observer and its sister paper the Guardian have gleefully printed reports of possible splits in the Labour Party, based on ungrounded claims of antisemitism, support of terrorism or Corbyn’s unelectability.
These reports have often preceded another Corbyn triumph. But a significant section of Labour MPs do not want him as and have tried to sabotage his leadership at every possible occasion.
It is no surprise, then, that they are using Brexit as an attempt to destabilise Corbyn. This time, they may have some purchase. In the main, the claims of antisemitism were so ridiculous that no sensible person took them seriously. But I now see Corbyn supporters supporting initiatives around Brexit which have been put forward by the party right to destabilise the leadership.
Criticism of Corbyn is certainly legitimate (there’s enough in this article), but there is a danger that if people see Brexit as our overriding problem, they will end up enabling the people whose main motivation is to prevent Corbyn ever becoming Prime Minister.
Defending Freedom of Movement
Not everyone who voted for Brexit did so for racist reasons, and some combined legitimate worries about being ignored by the establishment with soft racism. This is something which we must confront. If we do not engage with legitimate feelings of alienation, we risk losing them to the hard racists and Nazis. As John Mullen argues, “one of the bases of far right organization is “the present system is not democratic and we are never listened to”69.
This does not mean giving up one millimetre in the argument about racism, nor does it mean remaining silent in the face of oppression. But the key issue here is one of perception. All that the far right need to profit from a second referendum is for the result to be close.
Indeed, a 52-48 result for Remain could be the best possible result for them to be able to pose as defenders of democracy against the establishment.
Fighting the far right means being absolutely clear in defence of Freedom of Movement for all people. In Corbyn’s Wakefield speech cited above, he also said the following:
“I would put it like this: if you’re living in Tottenham you may well have voted to Remain. You’ve got high bills rising debts. You’re in insecure work. You struggle to make your wages stretch and you may be on universal credit, and forced to access food banks. You’re up against it. If you’re living in Mansfield, you are more likely to have voted to Leave. You’ve got high bills, rising debts, you’re in insecure work, you struggle to make your wages stretch and you may be on universal credit and forced to access food banks. You’re up against it. But you’re not against each other”70.
Here, he is acknowledging the fact that the discussion has been poisoned by racism (Tottenham is an area with a large non-white population), but calling for unity which must oppose both austerity and racism.
If we do want to unite the many against the few, there is an elephant in the room which is Freedom of Movement. I have argued elsewhere71 that Sahra Wagenknecht’s attempt to unite the German working class on the basis of harsher migration controls is pernicious, not least because a significant part of that class is neither white nor German. The same dangers arise in Britain.
Both Corbyn and his Home Secretary Diane Abbott have an exemplary record in fighting racism. Corbyn’s first act as Labour leader was to address a rally of 50,000 people demonstrating for refugee rights72. And yet their recent strategy on Freedom of Movement has been found wanting.
On 29th January, the British parliament discussed an Immigration bill which would leave hundreds of thousands of EU nationals without documentation. Labour did not seriously oppose the bill, which passed by 63 votes.
The failure of the Labour leadership to vote down the bill worries Minnie Rahman from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants:
“Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott – whose voting records are impeccable – are the two politicians you’d expect to get a decision like this right. Perhaps this is why it is so disappointing to see such disarray on the front benches last night. The Labour leadership’s commitment to ending free movement, which in effect will level down the rights of EU nationals, has done nothing for fairness, and simply plays into the narrative that migrants are a problem.73 ”
Some Corbyn supporters have justified his inaction by referring to parliamentary procedure. He was keeping his powder dry and would mobilise against the bill at a later reading. Yet at best this sees fighting racism as being best left to shrewd parliamentary manoeuvring, which demobilises anti-racist campaigning.
There is also reason to fear that Labour’s timidity on the question of migration is deeper rooted than a tactical decision around one parliamentary vote. In the section “Negotiating Brexit” in Labour’s 2017 manifesto there is a commitment to “reasonable management of migration” and “new migration management systems”74
Although the manifesto promises that this regulation will be “fair”, this is a concession to the idea that people should be treated differently because of the accident of where they happened to have been born. This is not a socialist demand.
Similarly, we already see Labour making similar calculations around the Brexit negotiations. Alex Callinicos argues:
“Corbyn was able to avoid by taking a position of studied ambiguity designed to finesse the divisions among Labour activists and voters and focus attention on the Tories’ troubles; now that the deal has been struck, and as May’s own position rapidly erodes, he is finding it much harder to sustain this stance”75.
Emma Bell from the Université de Savoie Mont Blanc explains what is going on here in a report for the French journal of British studies: “Labour is likely afraid of taking a radical stance on the issue for fear of alienating voters, yet the success of any new horizontal politics depends on being able to shift the boundaries of debate in this area”76.
What is the EU?
Until now, I have concentrated on the areas of division among the hard left. There is one thing on which we are generally united, and that is that the EU will not save us. The EU is, to quote the LINKE slogan in the 2014 EU elections “neo-liberal, militaristic and undemocratic”77.
I have already described how the EU undemocratically bulldozered away all opposition in the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty. It is also on the way towards creating what Business Insider calls a “European mega-army”78 For this section, though, I would like to concentrate on the neo-liberal aspect of the EU.
In Red Pepper magazine, Connor Devine argues that “the European Union, at its heart and above all else, is a fundamentally pro-austerity institution.79” He explains with reference to the EU bailout package for Portugal in April 2011:
“In return for the €78 billion bailout fund, the European Union demanded harsh and widespread austerity measures … which included a huge public sector wage cut, mass privatisation, and cuts to public services including healthcare, education and social care. In addition, these measures were coupled with major tax rises.80”
Portugal was not the only victim of EU austerity measures:
“in November 2010, the Irish Government was forced to request a bailout package to the tune of €85 billion from the European Union in order to plug debts incurred through the incompetence and malpractice of the private banking sector. Again, the bailout was granted on the promise of sweeping austerity measures which included public sector pay cuts, cuts to social welfare and cuts to child benefit amongst many others. Again, these measures impacted hardest on the most vulnerable. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Chief Commissioner Emily Logan asserted that the cuts had ‘fallen disproportionately on those least able to bear its impacts’.81”
This is before we talk about how the EU, working with the troika of the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF brought the popularly elected Greek government to its knees in 2016. Former Greek finance minister Yannis Varoufakis explains the effects of EU intervention:
“to get a feel for the devastation that ensued, imagine what would have happened in the UK if RBS, Lloyds and the other City banks had been rescued without the help of the Bank of England and solely via foreign loans to the exchequer. All granted on the condition that UK wages would be reduced by 40%, pensions by 45%, the minimum wage by 30%, NHS spending by 32%. The UK would now be the wasteland of Europe, just as Greece is today”82.
As said, I believe that both Left Remainers and Exiters agree on this general analysis. However, many liberal Remainers are still in thrall to the EU and I get the impression that some Left Remainers sometimes stray into painting the EU as being somehow more progressive than it really is. Despite other differences in strategy, we should remain united in seeing the EU as being a neo-liberal bosses’ club, which is not going to act in our interests.
TIAA – There is an Alternative
The thrust of my argument is that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party adds a new dimension to the argument about how we can change Britain. Let me first be very clear about what I mean here, and what I don’t. I believe that Corbyn’s mild reforms will be opposed by the British ruling class, and indeed by 90% of his own MPs83. Corbyn winning a general election would be the start of the debate, not the end.
But new parliamentary elections, which hold the possibility of a Corbyn victory84 open up a brand new debate. Alex Callinicos notes that a Corbyn government would be “the first radical left government in an advanced capitalist society since the Popular Front in France in 1936”85.
A Labour victory under Corbyn would embolden trade unionists fighting to defend our health service, tenants fighting rapacious landlords, indeed anyone fighting the misery caused by austerity. We will start to talk about running society in a different way – something that has been conspicuously absent in the whole debate about Brexit.
It is no coincidence that some of those who are most keen on a new referendum are the very same Labour right wingers who have been undermining Corbyn’s leadership since Day 1 (see above). They are as scared of a Corbyn government as the Tory right wingers who were declined to take down Theresa May in a no confidence vote as they fear Corbyn more than they hate May.
For all these reasons, and more, I believe that we should unite – not around a referendum that will reinforce neo-liberal EU hegemony, but for new elections and a campaign for a Corbyn government which is committed to serious change and a redistribution of wealth for the many, not the few.
Having said this, we have already seen from the discussion on Freedom of Movement that Corbyn can be sometimes hamstrung by machinations in his own party. This means that the possibility of a radical Corbyn government, and in its ability to stand up to Capital and force through reforms depends on the development of lively social movements and trade unions.
Joseph Choonara, author of “The EU – A Left Case for Exit” makes the following suggestion:
“Unfortunately, Corbyn has become rather boxed into the parliamentary logic of the Brexit debate. The key thing for socialists is to mount independent campaigns over racism and basic class demands, and exploit the weakness of Theresa May. Corbyn has, at times, called for a new election. But where is the campaign from Momentum? Where are the mass demonstrations Corbyn could unleash? What are the union leaders doing to shape the situation. In other words, our biggest enemy is passivity, which leaves the initiative with parliament and allows the left divisions to fester.86”
It is looking increasingly possible that the government will run out of time, and a hard Brexit could be imposed, with serious implications for Freedom of Movement and Ireland. This is a direct consequence of the paralysis in the Conservative Party and the ineffectuality of Theresa May’s lame duck government. Any “solution” which leaves May, or any other Tory leader, in office would continue the misery of British people and of others living in Britain.
Socialists also have a simple argument to the question of Ireland. Northern Ireland is an artificial state, held together by the need of British imperialism to keep hold of the shipyards in the North. The biggest impediment to an Irish solution to Brexit is Theresa May’s dependency on the bigoted DUP.
In more general terms. there has never been an argument for a border in Ireland, and the current one should be dismantled, whatever happens in the Brexit negotiations. We should also argue for free movement for everyone, irrespective of where they happened to have been born.
Regarding a “Hard Brexit”, Paul Mason, the economics editor of Channel 4 News, argues the following
“what’s wrong with Theresa May’s plan is not its ‘bare separation’ from the EU. It is that it cedes some sovereignty unilaterally to Europe and gives no guarantees for workers rights, environmental rights etc. The positive vision is the one Corbyn offers: stay in the customs union, voluntarily align with the Single Market, stay in all the institutions like the Erasmus student scheme, the atomic energy regulator, etc etc and sign a legally binding deal to avoid a race to the bottom on workers rights, environmental rights and consumer rights. Oh, and guarantee the rights of three million EU migrants“87
This is a reasonable place to start a discussion.
A successful Corbyn government would mean mobilising social movements to push through reforms. On this count, we have still a way to go. As Simon Hannah88 reports for OpenDemocracy:
“In mid-January as the contradictions of Brexit left Parliament in gridlock, Labour supporters attended a small demonstration in London to call for a General Election. After three years of Jeremy Corbyn as leader and the almost unrivalled hegemony of the left at Labour Party conference in 2018, only a couple of thousand turned out - despite the general election call being the main demand of Momentum and others in the Corbyn camp”89.
This is no time for the parliamentary or extra-parliamentary left to be complacent. I believe that if we concentrate on real social change, we have an opportunity that has not been available for generations. If we take our eye off the ball and let ourselves be diverted into an interesting but unproductive discussion about sovereignty, we risk missing this.
The future is ours … but only if we seize the opportunities that are on offer.
1Thanks to Joseph Choonara, Lisa Hallgarten, Charlie Hore, Carol McGuigan, Jennifer Messenger, John Mullen and Tom Wills for comments on an earlier version of this article. All mistakes are, of course, mine.
4Aneurin (Nye) Bevan is the former Labour Health minister generally credited with responsibility for the formation of the NHS.
24See for example this tweet from Will Self https://twitter.com/wself/status/746467124206436352?lang=en. Similar statements have been made by a number of other Remainers.
25Lord Michael Ashcroft is a former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, who since 2010 has issued independent public polls, which have a reputation for accuracy.
27YouGov is a British-based international market research company which is also generally considered to produce accurate results.
32Politico is a US-American political journalism company which also reports on Europe.
35http://www.standuptoracism.org.uk/anti-racists-raise-alarm-tommy-robinson-joins-fla-march Estimates vary about the exact size of the demo, with serious reports varying between figures of 5,000 and 15.000.
36Aoife O’Neill reports “80,393 offences recorded by the police in which one or more hate crime strands were deemed to be a motivating factor. This was an increase of 29 per cent compared with the 62,518 hate crimes recorded in 2015/16, the largest percentage increase seen since the series began in 2011/12” and that “the increase over the last year is thought to reflect both a genuine rise in hate crime around the time of the EU referendum and also due to ongoing improvements in crime recording by the police” https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/652136/hate-crime-1617-hosb1717.pdf
39See reports on https://www.facebook.com/ManchesterStandUp/?fref=ts
42John Mullen is an anti-capitalist activist based in France and a member of La France Insoumise. He contributes regularly to the LINKE Berlin Internationals website https://theleftberlin.wordpress.com/search-for-articles/search-by-author-dummy-page/articles-by-john-mullen/
43UKIP’s share of the vote has fallen by 10.8 percentage points since June 2016.
46Aida A. Hozic is an associate professor of International Relations at the University of Florida, United States. Jacqui True is a professor and director of Monash University’s Centre for Gender, Peace and Security (Monash GPS) in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University, Australia. Their article “Brexit as a scandal: gender and global trumpism” is not directly available online but can be ordered (see footnote below)
54Charlie Hore is socialist based in London and the author of the article “Building the Left in the face of Brexit” https://www.rs21.org.uk/2019/01/11/building-the-left-in-the-face-of-brexit/
77There is currently a debate in the party as to whether this slogan should be used in the coming EU elections. Party leader Bernd Riexinger argues that the formulation is true https://www.ejz.de/blick-in-die-welt/politik/linken-chef-riexinger-verteidigt-umstrittenes-wahlprogramm_241_111641736-122-.html
79https://www.redpepper.org.uk/the-trouble-with-being-both-anti-austerity-and-pro-eu/ (emphasis in original)
83A leaked list in 2016 suggested that only 19 Labour MPs are loyal to Corbyn. Given the glacial speed of change within the Labour Party, this figure will not be significantly different by the next election https://labourlist.org/2016/03/leaked-list-ranks-labour-mps-by-hostility-to-corbyn/
87https://medium.com/@paulmasonnews/us-left-weighs-in-to-support-the-british-far-rights-project-of-a-no-deal-brexit-cui-bono-906045f7c457? (emphasis in the original). There is much in this article that I don’t find convincing, but this is a reasonable summary of what Corbyn is offering.
88Simon Hannah is a Labour Party activist and author of “A Party with Socialists in it – A History of the Labour Left”