09 April 2019

Labour, Corbyn and Brexit

Mary Kaldor puts the case for a second referendum – and argues that the Labour leadership needs to listen to its overwhelmingly pro-remain supporters and members. 

The Labour Party is the party of remain. A YouGov poll on the eve of the 2018 party conference showed that 90 per cent would vote to stay in the European Union if there were another referendum and 86 per cent support a second referendum. Labour voters are predominantly remain and of those who voted leave in the referendum, the majority think that other issues are more important. Momentum has also recently surveyed its members and this has shown that they too support remain by a large margin.

The problem is that the leadership, most notably the office of Jeremy Corbyn, is pursuing a deliberately ambiguous policy. During the referendum campaign, Jeremy Corbyn favoured remain although his critics claim that he was half-hearted. It is unclear whether this was the case or whether he was side-lined by the official remain campaign dominated by Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and centrist Labour politicians. He certainly made some passionate speeches. In one speech, he said:

There is a strong socialist case for staying in the European Union, just as there is also a powerful socialist case for reform and progressive change in Europe. By working together across our continent, we can develop our economies, protect social and human rights, tackle climate change and clamp down on tax dodgers.

In the aftermath of the referendum campaign, Corbyn took the view that the referendum result had to be respected and that Labour should try and overcome the divide between leavers and remainers – a view that was fairly widely shared at the time. He argued for a ‘soft’ Brexit, namely staying in a permanent customs union and retaining environmental and workers’ rights. As a consequence, the Brexit issue was hardly discussed in the 2017 election. The Labour Party did extremely well in the election, reducing a huge 25 per cent Conservative lead in the polls at the start of the election to 2 per cent – and this is why the Conservatives have not been able to secure Brexit on their own terms. Labour’s success was not only due to Corbyn’s charisma and the popularity of the anti-austerity manifesto. It was also due to massive grass-roots campaigns especially among young people, who regretted not voting in the 2016 referendum, and to large-scale tactical voting organised by anti-Brexit campaigns like Best for Britain. The victory in Kensington and Chelsea, a wealthy Tory area, cannot be explained in terms of pro-Corbyn feeling; rather it was the sense that Labour was more likely to oppose Brexit.

Since the 2017 election, pressure for a second referendum has been growing, especially within the grass roots of the Labour Party. Some 150 resolutions were submitted by constituency labour parties to the 2018 Labour Party Conference, mostly calling for a second referendum or a People’s Vote on May’s deal – more than on any other topic in the history of the Labour Party. After long negotiations with the leadership (Brexit had not even been on the agenda in the 2017 Conference although it was passionately discussed in fringe meetings and at The World Transformed event), a compromise resolution was reached and passed nearly unanimously, in which Labour committed to opposing May’s deal and would then push for a general election. If a general election was not possible, all other options would be on the table including a People’s Vote. When Keir Starmer presented the compromise resolution, he added ‘with an option to remain’ and the whole conference erupted in applause.

This is where we are today. The deal that Theresa May brought back from Brussels was decisively defeated, much more decisively than anyone expected. The leadership, however, still say they favour a ‘better’ or ‘more sensible ‘deal’ and – in a sop to remainers – a public vote if that fails. The better deal is chimera – a ‘unicorn’ fantasy as many are saying. It involves tweaks to May’s deal – making the customs union permanent and adding environmental and workers’ rights. Even if the EU were ready to accept a new round of negotiations, it would face the same obstacles as May’s deal. The Brexiters will hate it because it remains largely within the framework of European rules but with a huge loss of representation in European structures: this would amount to a huge loss of sovereignty –becoming what they describe as a vassal state. The remainers, especially those on the left, also object because the UK will have no say on the rules and will therefore be unable to join with other left parties and groups aimed at reforming and democratising the European Union.

So why is the leadership sticking to this position? One widespread theory is that Corbyn is himself euro-sceptic despite his stance in the referendum. He is part of the old Bennite left who voted against joining the European community, as it then was, in 1975. This theory is particularly strong among those centre right Members of Parliament, veterans of the Blair years, who viscerally oppose Corbyn as leader. Whatever Corbyn’s personal views, it is true that despite the overwhelming pro-remain sentiments in the Labour Party, there is a small group of vocal ‘Lexiters’ (left leavers) in the Labour Party, and they do have a powerful influence within Corbyn’s office. They argue that the European Union is an inherently neoliberal club that is unreformable; the guru of this line of thinking is Costas Lapavitsas, an economics professor and former Syriza MP. They also claim that state aid rules will prevent Labour from carrying out a socialist programme.

Both these arguments are widely disputed. The left remainers in the party, who are easily the majority, argue that socialism in one country is a fantasy in this globalised world. If we are to address seriously the consequences of globalisation, and in particular, the effects on the de-industrialised parts of Britain that voted leave in the referendum, it is essential to be part of a bigger group of nations and to join forces with the left across the Europe. Moreover, both France and Germany have far higher levels of state aid than the UK and there is nothing in Labour’s manifesto that would not be possible under current rules. They also point out that it was Britain who pushed for neoliberal policies in the EU and that we owe it to our socialist colleagues to contribute to an alternative approach. But perhaps the most important argument is political. Brexit will only come about in alliance with the right and that will undermine any socialist project.

A second, perhaps more convincing, theory is that the leadership is trying to hold the parliamentary party together. There are many Labour MPs from predominantly leave constituencies who may have supported remain in the past but now are deeply worried about their own positions should Labour come out in favour of remain. In fact, Labour did manage to hold on to most of its traditional leave voting strongholds in the 2017 election. A clear remain position will not necessarily translate into further losses. Many of those who voted to leave had already switched to UKIP, and later, after the referendum when the UKIP vote collapsed, they have tended to move to the Conservatives rather than Labour (although this varied across the country). Even in leave voting areas, the majority of Labour voters are remain, and of the leave Labour voters, polls suggest that only 9 per cent consider that Brexit is the most important issue. On a recent visit to two leave-voting areas, I found the general mood was one of disillusion – people were very fed up with Brexit, appalled by the chaos in Westminster, and generally agreed, even if they were leavers, that the economic effects of Brexit would be negative. My feeling is that a political campaign that focused on local issues and how to attract investment, jobs and regeneration would be what matters in these areas. Most importantly, Labour would lose much more in the rest of the country, in the remain areas, if it continues to be ambiguous about Brexit, than it would gain in its traditional strongholds.

Manchester street art

A third theory has to do with tactics. Some argue that the leadership is pursuing a clever strategy of letting the Tories fail. The better deal proposed by Labour might be supported by many moderate Tories but it would split the Tory Party. If this is the strategy, it is reprehensible, putting party tactics before the good of the country. Moreover, if it means in the end letting Brexit happen, or worse, a No Deal Brexit happen, the Labour leadership will never be forgiven by most of the members.

Finally, there is the democracy argument. Corbyn is a democrat and may sincerely believe that the referendum result has to be respected. Moreover, there is considerable unease about a second referendum – that it will give the hard right a platform and may sharpen the polarisation between leavers and remainers. The murder of Jo Cox during the first referendum has compounded those fears. But while this concern is understandable, ultimately the democracy argument is unconvincing. First of all, the first vote was not very democratic. The leave campaign have been found to have broken the law for over spending: had this been an election, the allegations of wrong doing could have been taken to an electoral court potentially leading to the election having to be re-run. This is not the same in a referendum because referenda are advisory (sic!). The first vote was illegitimate in other ways – the lies that were told and the fake news, and the probable interference of Russia. Moreover, for such a momentous constitutional decision, the rules were very badly constructed: the simple majority victory, the fact that regions did not have an independent say, or the fact that Commonwealth citizens were allowed to vote and EU citizens were not.

But, even leaving aside all this, democracy cannot mean that decisions are fixed in stone. People change their minds. Voters die and new voters come of age. All the polls indicate a significant shift to remain even in leave voting areas. Elections are held periodically so why is it undemocratic to hold more than one referendum? There is, of course, a democratic case against referenda in general; they are a populist methodology in contrast to deliberative methods, most notably in parliaments. But having opted for a referendum in 2016, it is difficult to see how the decision could be reversed without a referendum. Some commentators, notably Gordon Brown, Neal Lawson of Compass, and Lisa Nandy, a Labour MP from a leave constituency, have been proposing a Citizens’ Assembly or several Citizens’ Assemblies where leavers and remainers would be brought together to deliberate the best way forward. A successful experiment by University College in September 2017 came out in favour of a soft Brexit. But such Assemblies would need to be combined with a referendum, as has happened in Ireland.

On the argument that a second referendum would give a platform to the hard right and might, in the words of Theresa May, ‘threaten social cohesion’, the point is that going ahead with Brexit would be so much worse. Brexit is a right-wing project. It will lead to the break-up of Britain. Scotland will become independent and Ireland will be either united or will return to war. It is a racist anti-immigrant project. And, far from giving control back to people in left behind areas, it will give control to the deregulationists who imagine Britain as a safe haven for hedge funds, frackers and the like.

All these theories assume that Corbyn is a traditional leader either with old Labour ideas, or concerned about triangulation and clever tactics, and who can impose his views from above. But actually, Corbyn has to be understood as representing a new phenomenon, what Hilary Wainwright calls the ‘new politics’. This is the phenomenon that underpinned the enthusiasm that swept him to power, made the Labour Party the largest party in Europe, and explains the success of Labour in the 2017 elections. Labour is no longer the old working-class male British party that is imagined in many of the leave constituencies. Labour today is the party of public sector workers, of new high tech workers as well as the new underpaid zero contract service sector, which includes both men and women and people from across Europe and the world. The ‘new politics’ is bottom-up and participatory, building on everyday knowledge and creativity – and the role of leadership is to facilitate that phenomenon. If Corbyn the person is out of kilter with the phenomenon, acting more like a traditional leader, all that could evaporate. Already, people are leaving the party. There is huge frustration that Labour is not using this moment, this extraordinary opportunity, to expose May’s weakness and Tory deception and disarray and to pursue a different more hopeful approach. The future of the ‘new politics’ both in Britain and in Europe hinges on how Brexit is resolved.