By Sacha Ismail and Simon Hannah
(This is the editorial from Clarion issue 4)
The “real fight starts now”, tweeted Jeremy Corbyn after Parliament’s vote to trigger Article 50. “Over the next two years Labour will use every opportunity to ensure Brexit protects jobs, living standards and the economy”.
But Labour has just voted to hand the Tory government a huge blank cheque. It has facilitated Theresa May’s Tory, migrant-bashing, “hard Brexit” version of leaving the EU and all that it implies.
It’s a bit like left groups who make a big deal of defending migrants’ rights, but simultaneously advocate Britain leaving the EU, despite the inevitable strengthening of anti-immigration feeling and boosting of the nationalist right.
There was no real democratic mandate involved here. Referendums are a shallow and shoddy form of democracy, this one particularly so. The vote was extremely close – almost half the population, including two thirds of Labour voters, voted “remain” – and yet we are ending up with a radical-right version of Brexit which a clear majority of people oppose.
Voting with the Tories will not win support from anti-migrant voters. It is much more likely to alienate mainly younger, left-leaning, pro-migrant voters. In any case, vote-seeking calculations cannot be fundamental. Politics has shifted to the right – and now, in many countries, the radical right is rising and on the offensive – because left-wing, class-based, internationalist arguments have been marginalised for decades. The labour movement must begin shifting the political debate fundamentally, or we will continue to feel the ground break up beneath our feet.
The fightback starts… when?
In November, Corbyn told the press that Labour would put amendments to the Article 50 process, and if they were defeated vote against. It was Tom Watson who insisted that Labour should vote with May regardless, and unfortunately Corbyn conceded. No doubt the role of backroom people from a Stalinist background, like Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray, who positively welcome Brexit, played a role too.
Labour’s position on Brexit is obviously related to its veering about on the decisive issue of immigration – where the general trend is to concede on migrants’ rights. There is a real danger that Labour, under a left-wing leader, will end up to the right of the Tories on this – as evidenced by Watson’s call for “regionalised” immigration controls which would require restriction on free movement inside Britain.
Moreover, the problem of a lack of fight from Labour is a much wider one. Take the NHS, Labour’s “chosen” issue. Despite clear policy passed at conference in September, the party continues to say little about privatisation. During repeated crises over the convulsions in the social care sector, it does not speak out for its agreed and potentially popular policy of public ownership. Labour held one day of action on the NHS, but there is no obvious evidence of plans for ongoing campaigning. There is a national demo for the NHS on 4 March but the party has not done much to promote or mobilise for it.
The right-wing press attacks the Labour Party for supporting strikes, but in reality the support is rather limited. Just as Corbyn did not appear on the junior doctors’ picket lines, apparently under pressure from the Labour right, it seems hard to get him to picket lines generally. John McDonnell appears more often, but it seems to be in a personal capacity, not as a Labour leader. This at a time when every spark of organisation and struggle needs to be nurtured and fanned into the biggest possible flame. The situation is difficult, but the only way to avoid it getting harder still is to shift to a more active, fighting stance in deed and not just words (though a few more words would help too).
Nationalism, liberalism – or class politics
Labour’s difficulties are reflective of a wider trend in world politics – the crisis of labour movement-based parties in the face of those movements’ decay and the push the economic crisis has given to right-wing, nationalist populism.
The press, crowing at Labour’s troubles, is full of talk about the working class – but almost always in connection with nationalistic views which have gaineds serious grip in some sections of the working class, particularly among older, white workers in small towns and areas which have seen a traumatic decline of industry. Many commentators have said, and they are right, that Labour faces the risk of being squeezed or pulled apart between a socially conservative, nationalist politics strong in the areas that voted Brexit and a fundamentally liberal, pro-European politics in the big cities.
But the alternative, cutting across these divisions and capable of appealing to workers in both “sections” and of all backgrounds who have been battered and will continue to be battered unless we can rally the labour movement to fight back, is precisely class-based politics. It’s easy to say, harder to do – but not even said nearly enough.
The socialist left needs to act as the generator for a great labour movement discussion about what a 21st century working-class politics looks like and how we begin to make it a reality.
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