The left’s Brexit debate is nasty, narrow and dangerous

By Simon Hannah, Clarion editor, Tooting CLP

The fight over whether to leave the EU is increasing in tempo. Hundreds of thousands marched in central London on 23 June (venomously described by some as “liberals”, “Blairites”, “croissant eating intellectuals” and so on) while sections of the left in Labour have swung to being militant Lexiteers. There is a push to get Labour conference to discuss Brexit which is being fiercely opposed by others.

Sadly, the debate in the labour movement on Brexit has sunk to new levels. The problem is that currently there are only two conversations being had.

The first is the one that the Labour right want to have – they have successfully reduced Labour’s entire input around Brexit to a shallow and narrow parliamentary debate about the difference between a customs union, the customs union, the EEA, or whatever other trading bloc might be on offer.

Their view flows from the concerns of the British capitalist class who are very integrated into the globalised mechanisms of the EU (ditto the anti-Brexit wing of the Tories) and as such their parliamentary agenda reflects those issues. It means the debate has become technical, esoteric and  –  worst of all  –  elitist.

The other debate comes from that wing of the Labour left who –  some with the passion of the newly converted  – appear to have become militant Brexiteers, or at least have stopped raising critical points about what a disaster Brexit will be. For many it is because they have looked at the electoral landscape and concluded that Labour will lose voters in the Northern heartlands if it comes out against Brexit (or even just comes out for a second referendum on the deal) and this will make a Corbyn led Labour government impossible.

For those comrades there seems to be a touch of the old Party hack — they are fiercely defiant of, and even angry with, anyone on the left that is openly challenging Labour’s Brexit position. They accuse such comrades of “siding with the Blairites”, “undermining the leadership” and so on. There is an accusatory tone of “You’re ruining this for everyone!”

Some of it begins to feel like a left version of the tabloids howls of TRAITORS at any politician or judge that appears to be interfering in the rush to erect a 20 foot wall around the coast.

Those comrades no longer talk about the attacks on migrants, the rise of nationalism, the dangers of the populist right growing from Britain’s red, white and blue exit from the EU. For them it is an electoral calculation for a future Labour government. And some of them know that Brexit will be bad, they know the social and economy consequences will be damaging  –  but they have adopted a studious silence so as not to frighten away Labour leave voters or appear to be bolstering the right of the party.

Then there is another group on the Labour left (inevitably there is some overlap) who are active proponents of Brexit. They see in a return to national sovereignty a chance for social democracy. For them the main barrier to socialism in one country is the international financial elites, the Eurocrats  – they are the ones who have been holding us back for so long.

They talk of rebuilding the British economy way from the globalised economy in order to promote investment in the UK. They believe that a Labour government in a Brexit Britain is the route back to economic vitality and growth  –  as if our problems stemmed primarily from Brussels and not our own homegrown capitalist class.

This is a return to the old Stalinist “British Road to Socialism” which so infected the Labour left in the 1970s (Tony Benn’s “siege economy” springs to mind). Now some of the advocates of that position are actual Stalinists from the Communist Party of Britain tradition so that should not be a surprise, but these barren utopian ideas will inevitably spread across the Labour left as people grasp for some kind of credible looking economic programme post Brexit.

The future

A Corbyn government elected after Brexit will have to pick up the pieces of an economy that is in decline  –  not just from Brexit, but also a recession looming in the next couple of years that could be quite nasty.

All of the spending pledges in the 2017 manifesto were based on the economy being in the state that it was in 2017  –  in other words a worse economy will mean few social spending commitments and more aborted efforts to manage economic decline (think Harold Wilson’s efforts in 1964–70).

Such a situation will either see a Labour government collapse into the perennial excuse of “We have no money, sorry”; or it will be forced to take significant inroads into wealth, property and power to redistribute resources. Historically the first option is the one that Labour has gone for  – a Corbyn government might be different, but that depends on the balance of power in the PLP and among the party and labour movement rank and file.

Crucially it also depends on building up a well organised a vocal left that can challenge the leadership if they are not going far enough.

Yet that is precisely what the soft left Corbyn fan club are trying to prevent now  –  increasingly any signs of criticisms or ‘rocking the boat’ are being stamped on. Those people on the left engaged in that behaviour will form the material basis for shutting down critical voices and extra-parliamentary activity under Corbyn government (“Why are you striking against a Labour government, can’t you see you’ll let the Tories in?”).

It was the same with the soft left in the 1980s when organisations like the Labour Co-ordinating Committee started off as Bennites and ended up as the core component of Progress, having spent the 1980s defending Kinnock from left opponents and shopping left wing councillors to the NEC.

A petition has been launched to push Momentum to change its current policy of “Just let it happen” around Brexit  – to instead call a second referendum on the deal and mobilise for a debate on it at Labour conference this September. There is still time to challenge this disastrous policy. If you’re a Momentum member,  consider signing – here.

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  1. What a sad little article .Emblematic of the sad political decline of the UK “FAR ” Left during the enforced isolation of the 30 years of neoliberal ideological hegemony from Marxism to a smug middle class liberalism , in practice fully supporting the neoliberal status quo. I searched in vain for any socialist political analysis whatsoever of the neoliberal EU and its Single Market in this vacuous article ! The politics of this article are straight from liberal superficialities of The Guardian, not from any sort of socialist understanding of the role of the EU as entirely now a neoliberalism enforcement machine. Tragic stuff. The reason much Left social media has been so contemptuous of the “exhibition of mass middle class privilege under perceived threat” 100,000 strong London march of 23rd June, is that this is exactly what this (rabidly anti Jeremy Corbyn) day outing by that smug, virtue-signalling ,class grouping DID represent.

    Behind their oft spouted “open borders” , liberalism, opposition to any sort of Brexit, globalist Tory, or anti neoliberal Lexit, the “Guardianista” middle classes, of which the UK “radical” Left is so intertwined by family and occupational background, are primarily concerned with losing the following FOR THEMSELVES as a class :
    easy access travel to their skiing holidays in Europe,
    the free health care if they fall on the slopes,
    the opportunities to work themselves, or their scions as interns , in the vast Brussels bureaucracy, or participation in the Erasmus Programme as an early pre-career booster,
    cheap labour Polish nannies and plumbers and all the other low wage benefits to the middle classes of unlimited labour supply.

    The rabidly UK pro-EU middle classes (and it was a quite clear class-based Referendum vote) have no interest in the barriers to trade union action and wage bargaining generally of unlimited labour supply , or the impact of free movement of capital on our economic development, or the serious barriers to any serious re-nationalisation and social democratic economic planning that the Single Market and its European Court represents to any Left Government. But any socialist worth his/her salt should be. That the EDITOR of The Clarion produced this completely non analytical Guardian-mimicking article is simply pitiful. A bit of social democratic socialist analysis would have been nice, a Marxist one, even more useful – for a front publication for the purely nominally Trotskyist AWL.

    Anyone backing a disruptive petition at Conference for Labour to adopt a policy for a second referendum on the Brexit deal is quite simply acting as an unwitting stooge “Left face” for the irreconcilable Far neoliberal Right in the Labour Party – funded by Mandelson and his Big Business cronies. No to a second Referendum, yes to working for a Labour Election victory to both stay as close to the huge EU market as possible, but plough a new, state-interventionist Left Keynsian comprehensive Left planning – based economic path , enabled by freedom from the straightjacket of the Single Market rules and structures.

  2. I am not surprised the ‘Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’ sides with the well-to-do against the working class on the EU, after all they also favour proportional representation which would mean no more majority Labour governments.

    The lack of analysis in the article is woeful. It mainly seems to consist of an overly-crude pigeonholing of those who disagree with them. A worthwhile article might help us solve the mystery of why ONLY the EU is to be considered socialism-friendly when every other supranational agreement – MIA, TTIP, CETA, NAFTA, WTO – patently aims to place capitalism on a more secure footing.

    The answer is that the EU is NOT socialism-friendly and that it prohibits a planned economy based on public ownership, its single market having largely been designed by transnational corporations. The humbug of this website is that it frequently publishes articles demanding public monopolies in energy, banks etc whilst at the very same time supporting continued membership of an organisation which prohibits those same policies.

  3. Hi Danny I think we’ve asked you to write an article making these points which we can publish at least four times now. We’ve also invited you to come and do a debate with us. You never reply. Why?

  4. A further comment from Sacha:

    You say we “side against the working class” on the EU. And it is probably true that most of the working class in the broad sense voted to leave, and certainly the blue collar, more ‘plebeian’, working class.

    However, the way you pose it is also a grotesque oversimplification. The working class is not just older blue collar workers in smaller towns and deindustrialised areas.

    According to estimates by Ipsos MORI, 52pc of “C1s” – by a clear margin the biggest category of workers in Britain today, average income low £20ks – voted remain.

    Both full-time and part-time workers – ie as opposed to retired people, the unemployed, people looking after a home – voted to remain 53pc. Both public and private sector workers voted to remain (public by a bigger margin).

    BME voters voted heavily to remain. So by a clear distance did young people of all social grades – the generation who have been brutally hammered by austerity.

    Of course in big cities these trends were even more pronounced.

    So it would be more accurate to say the working class was heavily divided.

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