Changing the subject from Brexit isn’t good enough

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By Daniel Randall, RMT activist (pc)

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s speech in Wakefield on 10 January, at least some of the Labour Party’s national political messaging on Brexit has shifted back to the kind of “change-the-subject” approach that it used in the 2017 general election.

The message goes: “Issues like high bills, rising debt, or insecure work don’t discriminate whether you voted Leave or Remain”. A Leave voter in Mansfield and a Remain voter in Tottenham are more united by their shared economic hardship than they are divided by their opinions on Brexit. Only Labour has the anti-austerity policies to deal with these issues, so whatever you think about Brexit, you should support Labour’s call for a general election, and vote Labour in any such election.

For examples, see Corbyn’s Wakefield speech, or this short video circulated by the Labour Party on social media. Labour is concerned not to alienate either Remain-voting voters in larger cities, nor Leave-voting voters in smaller towns and cities and the ex-industrial areas of northern England, and thus attempts to make specific policy on Brexit the background of a presentation that foregrounds basic anti-austerity policies.

The problem, of course, is that pushing something into the background doesn’t make it go away. Labour can emphasise that it’s for a general election to get rid of the Tories as much as it wants, but “vote Labour” is not an answer to the question “what should happen with Brexit?” Labour’s substantive policy on that, regardless of how much qualification is placed around it as scaffolding, is that it will deliver a “jobs-first Brexit” (or, in the rather more tepid formulation used in Corbyn’s Wakefied speech, “a sensible Brexit”) in government. This policy is based, it would appear, on the rather fantastical belief that the Labour front bench will be able to get a better Brexit deal merely by asking for one.

There are grains of good sense in Mansfield/Tottenham conceit. It represents an acknowledgement that the working class, the social element Labour exists to represent, is divided, and that common class interest around basic economic questions must be reasserted. But Labour cannot dodge the central political question of the day merely by elementary appeals to unity, especially if its policy is to deliver Brexit and thereby further divide the working class, particularly on the basis of immigration status. And, of course, Brexit itself is a basic economic question, with all indications suggesting it will have a radically detrimental impact on working-class living standards.

We do need a general election, urgently. And we do need a Labour government. Any Labour government is preferable to any Tory one, a Corbyn-led Labour government would undoubtedly deliver welcome reforms, and even a Labour government with a bad policy on Brexit would create a more favourable terrain for workers’ struggles to improve our material conditions. But the calculation now implied by those arguing Labour must support Brexit, albeit in a mealy-mouthed way where the support is concealed behind boilerplate anti-austerity rhetoric, is one that puts electoral speculation above political principle.

Sometimes in politics, unity can be forged by agreeing to move past, or to essentially sideline, a particular divisive issue. But other times, and almost always with issues likely to have a bigger impact, real unity can only be built by one side convincing the other, or at least a large part of it, to change its mind. That is what the Labour Party, and the wider labour movement, needs to do here: to convince the section of our class that supports Brexit that this policy is wrong. In the first place that requires the clear anti-Brexit majority in Labour’s rank-and-file to organise itself to win a change of direction in party policy from below.

In the 2017 election, changing the subject on Brexit largely paid off for Labour. With Brexit still two years distant, its manifesto was able to cut through the neoliberal orthodoxy that had dominated British politics for a generation and mobilise and inspire large numbers, including of young people, to go out and vote Labour. Whether or not it was the politically principled thing to do, it is undeniable that it paid off in electoral terms. To imagine that it could work a second time, with the Brexit question in an infinitely more central and defining position within British politics, seems, at best, spectacularly naive, and, at worst, politically craven.

It’s easy to tell people they should get over or look past the issue of Brexit if you’re British-born, with stable immigration status, and don’t work in any of the many industries set to be disrupted by an attempt to unpick 50 years of economic integration. Where does Labour’s policy leave EU migrants and their families? Labour says it is for the right to remain of all existing EU nationals in the UK, but what about future ones? What about the families of current residents who may wish to join them? What about the right of UK citizens to move freely within Europe? What about workers in manufacturing and other industries worried about the affect of Brexit on jobs? What about health workers and NHS users concerned about the affect of Brexit on healthcare? All Labour has to say to them is, “trust us, we’ll deliver a Brexit that will assuage your concerns.” But people are not stupid; they know no such Brexit is on offer. It is not possible to deliver an expansion of border controls and trade tariffs that assuages the concerns of people worried about the impact on their lives and rights of the expansion of border controls and trade tariffs.

So beneath the rhetorical conceits, Labour’s appeal to Leave and Remain voters is not, in fact, “unite on the basis of your shared class interests”. To Leave voters, they say: “Vote Labour for anti-austerity policies and Brexit.” To Remain voters and migrants, they say: “You need a Labour government to fight austerity; you’ll just have to deal with Brexit, tough luck.”

There is indeed an urgent appeal to working-class unity that the Labour Party, and the whole labour movement, must make. That appeal says: both British-born and migrant workers have a common enemy – capitalist bosses. Those bosses are principally organised as part of the British ruling class and its state. The economic integration of British capital with European capital is not the cause of our exploitation, and attempting to disintegrate it will not make us better able to fight that exploitation. Working-class unity, not only within Britain but across Europe, is not served by the breakup of social and economic integration under pressure from right-wing nationalism.

Labour needs the courage to take that appeal to the doorsteps of Mansfield and elsewhere. The conversation Labour needs to have with Leave voters there is not only that they have shared interests with a Remain supporter in Tottenham, but that the EU and immigrants are not to blame for low pay, lack of housing, and poor services; and, indeed, that leaving the EU is likely to make those things worse, not better.

Labour did not, on the whole, make this argument in 2016. The Corbyn leadership allowed Labour’s official effort in the referendum to be directed by the Blairite Alan Johnson, who led a predictably dismal campaign, barely distinguishable from the pro-big-business emphasis of “Stronger In”, the official Remain franchise led by Tory capitalist Sir Stuart Rose. Labour Remain activists did hard work on the ground in areas that ended up voting overwhelmingly for Leave, but with no explicitly working-class, anti-neoliberal, “remain and rebel” emphasis in the national mix, there case for Remain appeared mainly as a big-business concern. And with no high-profile positive advocacy for the right to free movement, the aspects of the debate around immigration were essentially fought between anti-migrant nationalists and those trying to triangulate with them.

We have a chance to correct those mistakes. If Labour shifted to an anti-Brexit stance, explicitly advocating a referendum on any deal with a Remain option on the ballot, and, crucially, situated this within a platform of advocating united working-class struggle within Britain and across Europe against austerity and for social levelling-up, it could win existing Leave voters to its cause. This shift requires boldness, a commitment to principle, and, above all, a willingness to confront difficult political questions head on, rather than attempting change the subject.

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