For class politics, against Brexit

By Daniel Randall

Exhortations to “hold the line” sometimes serve a purpose in socialist politics. Many of our key ideas remain marginal and minoritarian, and reminding ourselves, and each other, to hold fast to such ideas despite the ideological pressures of capitalist society is often necessary. But the first requirement in such a situation is that there be clarity as to what “the line” actually is. The second is that “the line” will help our side advance in the class struggle. Ronan Burtenshaw’s article (“Hold the line”, Tribune, 27 May 2019) fails both tests.

Labour’s policy since 2016 has been based on what has come to be known as “constructive ambiguity”. The ambiguity was always a matter of presentation, not of substance. The “line” has always been that Labour will deliver Brexit, but with enough rhetorical emphasis on opposing a “No Deal Tory Brexit” to retain the goodwill of beleaguered remainers. In the aftermath of the Euro elections, this is beginning to shift, although not quickly enough.

“Hold the line” in this context therefore doesn’t really mean “maintain ideological steadfastness to a particular position despite the pressures of bourgeois ideology”; it simply means, “don’t panic”. Yes, Burtenshaw concedes, the Euro election results were bad, but in 2017, Labour was able to construct an electoral coalition that transcended differences of “views” over Brexit and appealed instead to shared “interests”. As long as there’s no wavering, as long as Labour sticks to its existing position, one of constructive ambiguity, it’ll all be alright. Hang on long enough and we’ll be back on the surer terrain of a general election, where Labour can talk about the NHS instead of Brexit, and the voters that deserted Labour in the Euro elections will return.

Setting matters of fundamental political orientation aside, this argument, even on its own terms, is somewhat complicated by the evidence which has emerged since Burtenshaw’s article was published, both in terms of polls that showed Labour’s vote share in a general election falling behind the Lib Dems, and Donald Trump’s reaffirmation that a post-Brexit trade deal with the USA will have the National Health Service in its sites. The 2017 strategy effectively relied on changing the subject when it came to Brexit; all the signs suggest it will not work twice. The choice now is stark, and ultimately binary: Labour can continue to commit to delivering Brexit, which is now unambiguously the Brexit of Trump and Boris Johnson, or it can turn to fighting for “remain and reform”. If there was ever a time for ambiguity, it has long since passed.

The Peterborough by-election result, while positive, can hardly be taken as a ringing endorsement for the current strategy. Labour won essentially because the Tory vote collapsed to a lesser extent than anticipated, and the campaign it ran, with leaflets focusing heavily on policies such as increases for police funding and more putting more cops on the street, was a long way from class-struggle socialism in political terms.

Burtenshaw’s argument establishes a number of dichotomies – “interests” versus “views”, and “culture war” versus “class politics”. Were Labour to pivot to backing a new public vote and campaigning for remain, it would, Burtenshaw alleges, be abandoning class politics for “culture war”. Not much evidence is presented to substantiate this claim, other than that the leadership of the official People’s Vote campaign is bourgeois and hostile to “Corbynism”. Justified though this criticism surely is, to the extent it’s possible to talk about “Corbynism” as a coherent political project, it doesn’t have much bearing on the argument, unless one accepts the lazy assumption that incidentally holding a position that bourgeois politicians, for their own reasons and in their own way, also hold, puts you in their “camp”. To suggest socialists who oppose Brexit, and who are organising to win Labour to a clearly anti-Brexit position, are necessarily “allies” of Heseltine and Campbell is as disingenuous as the notion that Burtenshaw is a conscious ally of Farage and Johnson.

There is a growing milieu of socialist anti-Brexit campaigns which has articulated a clearly independent politics, based neither on “nostalgia” for the pre-2016 political landscape, nor on liberal illusions in the progressive character of EU institutions. Labour for a Socialist Europe, which distributed close to 50,000 leaflets during the Euro elections calling for a Labour vote at the same time as setting out an alternative policy on Brexit, is just one element in this milieu. It is worth quoting in some detail parts of the political basis on which Labour for a Socialist Europe campaigns, so readers can assess the justice of Burtenshaw’s claim that advocates of a new public vote are, directly or indirectly, supporting a “movement for the restoration of the ancien régime” (although quite which “ancient régime” is supposed to have been deposed by the 2016 referendum, it is not clear):

• An end to austerity; levelling up and expansion of health, education and other social provision across the EU, extending universal rights and promoting redistribution.
• An EU-wide ‘Green New Deal’ […]
• An end to ‘Fortress Europe’: robust defence of free movement […]
• Abolition of anti-worker laws and regulations, levelling up and strengthening of workers’ rights, including a strong right to strike, a real living wage and banning precarious contracts, across the EU.
• A coordinated crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion, harmonisation of corporation tax across the EU, increased taxes on the rich and corporations.
• Radical expansion of public ownership and investment, while forcefully challenging EU restrictions.
• Democratic public ownership of the banking and financial sector, organised internationally, to allow economic reorganisation, reversal of austerity, and social and ecological regeneration. […]
• No EU army, a ban on nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
• Democratisation of EU institutions, including making the Council and Commission accountable to an empowered European Parliament.

This is a radical, socialist political vision, that sees Europe-wide workers’ struggle as the agency for its implementation. It is a perspective as implacably hostile to Campbell and Hestletine as it is to Johnson and Farage. And it has the advantage, unlike Burtenshaw’s position, of articulating a clear policy that does not require a cloak of ambiguity in the hope that it might be smuggled past voters.

It is not clear where Burtenshaw imagines the social consent for his preferred option, a Norway-style relationship with the EU, will come from. There is a large social minority, mobilised by nationalism, which now demands a no-deal Brexit (and if you think the EU is a neoliberal bosses’ club… wait until you hear about the WTO). Does Burtenshaw imagine their reactionary sovereigntist fervour will simply dissolve if the British state somehow manages to cobble together a Norway option?

Any outcome short of the no-deal, hard Brexit the nationalist minority demands will provoke a backlash; nationalism must be confronted, and the minds of its adherents changed. Indeed, it condescends nationalist-minded workers to imply that their consciousness and political views have no real substance, and can simply be assuaged by a compromise or fudge. The job of socialists in class struggle is not to advocate carefully-constructed compromises, calculated to stand the best chance of holding rickety electoral coalitions together, but to be what Antonio Gramsci called “permanent persuaders”. Changing minds requires that political parties act not as tribunes of compromise and ambiguity, but of clear positions.

Questioning the viability of a “remain and reform” perspective, Burtenshaw asks: “What would a Labour referendum campaign say about the pro-market nature of the European Union? Will Labour pretend that the Fourth Railway Package, which prevents the same public body both owning rail infrastructure and providing the service, is consistent with its vision of nationalisation? Will it pretend that EU State Aid rules, which are clearly an impediment in situations like the one facing British Steel, are consistent with its vision of industrial policy?”

Here is what Labour should say about the Fourth Railway Package: “A Labour government will take Britain’s railways into democratic public ownership, immediately and in full, with no compensation paid to private train operating companies. If any body – either the train companies themselves, or some piece of EU infrastructure – attempts to prevent us from doing this, we will appeal to our members and supporters to mobilise politically and industrially, including via strikes, to support our policy and rebuff any attempts to sabotage it. To better enable workers to take action to defend these policies, we will also repeal all anti-trade union laws and legislate for the full right to strike.”

Brexit supporters on the left like Burtenshaw present themselves as advocates of a rupture with the capitalist, neoliberal institutions of the EU; in reality, they are advocates of timid retreat in the face of what they apparently believe to be the EU’s invincible power. There is a profound nationalism implicit in their perspective, which contends that capital organised on the national terrain can be confronted, but once it is integrated and networked across borders, it becomes insurmountable. The entire “Lexit” perspective might more accurately have been called “social democracy in one country.” While the nation state still matters as a terrain in politics, capitalism is now profoundly internationally integrated. “British” capitalism is not somehow more permeable than European capitalism.

One could equally ask: “What would a Labour general election campaign say about the pro-market nature of the British state? Will Labour pretend that the interests of capital, deeply entrenched within it, will simply allow it to get away with implementing widespread social ownership?” If the answer there, on the terrain of British politics, should be that Labour should be a party of class combat, and face down capitalist resistance to the implementation of its policies, the same should go for the terrain of European politics.

The missing ingredient, in terms of changing the balance of forces, is workers’ struggle. Strikes are at a historically low ebb, and despite a slight recent uptick, union membership has seen years of stagnation or decline. Even a halfway radical Labour programme will encounter stern resistance from capital, in the EU or out of it, and there is no shortcut around the hard work of rebuilding the rank-and-file power and independence that will be necessary to defeat that resistance, to push a reforming left government to its limit, and then to go beyond them. But the notion of workers’ struggle, as a self-organised expression of class interest, doesn’t appear in Burtenshaw’s article. Short-term electoral calculation, and probably inaccurate calculation at that, takes precedence.

Burtenshaw’s perspective, then, is one that claims to advocate for “class politics” and “class conflict”, but within which workers’ struggle – i.e., class conflict given material social expression by our side – is entirely absent. Anyone worried about Labour’s ability to carry through a radical reform agenda should be far more concerned by Labour leaders’ moderation on the issue of the anti-union laws than by a possible turn to an explicitly anti-Brexit policy.

Despite successive Labour conferences passing policy for the repeal of all anti-union legislation, Labour shadow ministers invariably only ever commit to repealing the most recent, the Tories’ 2016 Trade Union Act. The centrality of this issue only comes into real focus when workers’ struggle, rather than crude electoralism, becomes one’s point of departure. He claims that, should Labour change course on Brexit and commit fully to campaigning to remain via a new public vote, it will be choosing the terrain of “culture war” over the terrain of class politics. It is not entirely clear whether he believes Labour’s current policy already positions it on class terrain, or if he thinks the party should be more full-throated in its advocacy of a soft, Norway-model Brexit in order to more authentically represent a politics of class. Either way, the argument is nonsense.

It relies on a distinction, drawn repeatedly throughout his article, between economic “interests” and social “views”. Working-class people, whether they voted leave or remain, are united by their shared “interests” – in higher wages, better housing, better public services: the boilerplate policies in Labour’s 2017 manifesto – but divided by their “views”: for or against Brexit. While Labour shouldn’t “shirk the fight” when it comes to confronting reactionary “views”, for example on immigration, amongst its support base, it should fundamentally appeal to “interests”, and thereby hope that working-class voters will look past their opposing and divided views and unite behind Labour. “Corbynism”, we are told, “doesn’t make sense with a landscape defined by views rather than interests.”

But socialists cannot construct an iron wall between “interests” and “views”, as if these are entirely distinct categories which have no relationship to each other. Indeed, it could be argued that the entire socialist project is aimed at developing a comprehensive political worldview comprising radically progressive “views” extending from, and acting as the ideological expression of, working-class “interests”. Marx and Engels’ old axiom that the class struggle takes place on three fronts – industrial/economic; political; and theoretical/ideological – can still serve us here. Our responsibility is to develop a coherent socialist politics and perspective for working-class struggle across all three, interconnected and interdependent, fronts. By separating “interests” and “views” into distinct, and oppositional, categories, Burtenshaw would have us abandon a key terrain of class combat.

Take free movement. Without quite saying explicitly whether he believes Labour should support the ending of EU free movement, Burtenshaw concedes that Labour has triangulated on the issue of immigration, and condemns this triangulation. Fine. But support for free movement is not merely a “view”: if you are a migrant worker, it is very much an “interest”. If you are a local worker with secure immigration status engaged in common struggle with migrant worker colleagues, who knows that immigration controls could be used to sabotage your struggle, it is also an “interest”.

Moreover, some of the most inspiring expressions of working-class politics have involved workers acting beyond, or even against, what might instinctively have been thought of as their immediate economic “interests”, in the name of a higher cause, because of their radical “views”: Lancashire cotton workers who took action against slavery in the 1860s, despite the detrimental impact on their own economic situation, or the Scottish factory workers who blacked engines bound for Pinochet, or Australian construction workers who refused work on environmentally unsustainable building sites in the 1970s.

But even in such instances, a dichotomous distinction between “views” and “interests” cannot be drawn. The workers involved developed a higher, more advanced, conception of “working-class interests” that went beyond the immediate, sectional, or local. That spirit should continue to guide us: that working-class interests are most fully expressed when we understand ourselves as part of a global class, whose interests are bound up with those of each other, and our planet.

It is Brexit, with its foundations in nationalism and imperial nostalgia, that represents the politics of culture war. It is an identitarian, nationalist project, which aims to persuade British workers that their common interests lie not with migrant workers, nor with workers in the rest of Europe, but with other British people, of all classes. To the extent that it is understood by its supporters to be part of a wider social programme, it is one based on “views” that are entirely reactionary and inimical to working-class interests. 43% of Brexit voters polled in 2017 supported the reintroduction of corporal punishment in schools. 53% supported the reintroduction of the death penalty. Brexit was always understood by its most conscious supporters as one political element within a wider programme, which was profoundly socially conservative. There can be no triangulation, ambiguity, or compromise in the face of such a project.

Burtenshaw says that “the Labour Party cannot afford to ignore, or worse end up on the wrong side of, disillusionment with established politics.” But “disillusionment with establishment politics” is not, in and of itself, a progressive category. People can be “disillusioned with establishment politics” for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of directions. Burtenshaw accepts that “Brexit was not a working-class revolt”, but by arguing implicitly that it is essentially a “disillusionment with establishment politics” with which Labour should side, he collapses back onto the lazy and inaccurate analysis he rightly criticises elsewhere.

How lacking in political ambition this is, to suggest that the best we can hope for is to corral an inchoate “disillusionment with establishment politics” for social democratic ends. What Labour should in fact be aiming for is not a reactive “disillusionment with establishment politics”, but a conscious, active, movement for working-class power against capital. Building that movement requires a fight for clear socialist ideas, and refusing to back down from that fight when it brings us into conflict with the existing ideas of some of the fellow members of our class.

Burtenshaw asks: “Is it not a risk to write off so many areas which have voted Labour for generations, and in which the party has deep roots, for voters who are more politically transient?” The very question speaks to a perspective based on cynical electoral calculation rather than socialist political education. Fighting for Labour to shift to a clear “remain and rebel” policy does not mean “writing off” voters in traditionally Labour-supporting areas who currently back Brexit. It means that they party should use its resources to agitate and educate in those communities for a different politics. We should not accept support for reactionary policies as fixed or unchangeable, something that we are only capable of triangulating or compromising with, but as something we should actively seek to change.

Burtenshaw must surely realise that those on the left advocating an identitarian culture war are on his side of the argument, not ours. From the anti-migrant vitriol and railing against “rootless cosmopolitans” of Blue Labour’s Paul Embery, who appears on platforms with Nigel Farage, to Eddie Dempsey’s comments on a platform organised by “The Full Brexit”, backed by the Koch Brothers-funded Spiked, that Tommy Robinson supporters are “right to hate” the “liberal left”, and that Labour is now relying on the votes of “liberals” in alliance with “ethnic minorities”, the promotion of an identitarian, nationalist conception of what it means to be “working class” poses a far greater risk to authentically socialist class politics than the possibility of an anti-Brexit turn by Labour.

Burtenshaw’s fellow Tribune editor Marcus Barnett loudly defended Dempsey over these remarks; if Burtenshaw is concerned to oppose the advocates of “culture war” within the left, he should look closer to home.

Time and time again, Labour has missed opportunities to advocate openly, clearly, and sharply for an internationalist, pro-free-movement policy, which also involves radical socialist policies such as public ownership of energy, the banks, and finance. The pushing of the political envelope has largely been left to scrappy grassroots campaigns like the Labour Campaign for Free Movement and in a different way Labour for a Green New Deal. It is telling that a recent viral video, which made a basic but essential case for rudimentary class solidarity and against anti-migrant nationalism, was produced and released independently, rather than by the party itself, using its own resources, despite being made by someone who has worked on official party broadcasts. Those of us on the anti-Brexit left advocate that Labour must now urgently turn towards agitating, educating, and organising for those politics.

If we succeed in winning the party to a change of direction, does this involve a risk that Labour might lose votes? Yes. Any political turn carries such a risk. The turn Burtenshaw himself advocates, away from triangulation on immigration and towards “vocal defences of migrants and their contributions to society” risks losing, and alienating, voters! A turn towards opposition to Trident renewal, and opposition to airport expansion, or any number of other political turns it is necessary for Labour to make which Burtenshaw presumably also supports, all carry risks of losing and alienating voters.

Again, seeing things only, or primarily, in terms of electoral calculation – what policy carries the least risk of doing damage to our voter coalition? – leads at best to paralysis and at worst to political capitulation. A turn against Brexit should not be made as a mere electoral pivot, but as part of an active campaign, involving community and workplace meetings, canvassing, street stalls, literature, and more, to persuade people of the policy; to persuade workers that our interests, our class interests, are best expressed by a “remain and reform” perspective. That perspective must be internationalist and anti-capitalist, acknowledging that what we oppose in Europe-wide or even global capitalist integration is the capitalism, not the principle of integration; and acknowledging that our class is a global class, an understanding that carries with it the demand that the worker should have as much right to travel across borders as the wealth we create.

Turning against Brexit is not a move away from class politics, but towards them.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply?

• Daniel is a London Underground worker and activist and rep in the RMT. He writes in a personal capacity.

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