By Rick Parnet
The ‘Love Socialism’ anti-Brexit meeting in Parliament last night, 15 July, was packed – maybe 120 people in a small committee room with many more who failed to get in – and the atmosphere was buzzing.
Unsurprisingly: among the 20-odd Labour MPs present were not only the original Love Socialism Hate Brexit people but new additions which included Emily Thornberry, Keir Starmer and Diane Abbott and various other senior figures. All made strong – to one degree or another – anti-Brexit and pro-Remain speeches. John McDonnell, who was at an Stop Heathrow Expansion meeting in his constituency, sent a message which was also pro-Remain. So did Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard.
Love Socialism Hate Brexit has rebranded as Love Socialism, Rebuild Britain, Transform Europe. While the relationship of the shadow cabinet big hitters to the new group isn’t clear, they are clearly tilting towards it. There was talk from LSHB founder Clive Lewis of having held the foxhole and reinforcements arriving.
Almost all the MPs spoke. For a fairly detailed summary of who was there and who said what see Sienna Miller’s report on LabourList.
Paul Sweeney (Glasgow North East): “National barriers are not the solution to our problems… We need a Labour analysis, a class analysis. The solution is class before country.”
Chi Onwurah (Newcastle Central): “We have to be fighting for something. This has to be a fight for a better Britain and a Europe for the many, not the few… A true union must be about more than trade, it must be based on democratic and socialist values.”
Anneliese Dodds (Oxford East): “The far right is networking – it is completely internationalised. At the time the far right is internationalised, there are some people on the left who think we should only have solidarity with people in this country. They’ve got to wake up, they’ve got to smell the coffee… We don’t need a fortress Europe, we need a Europe that treats people with dignity.”
Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South, Shadow Health Secretary): “For the sake of the NHS, we need a referendum and we need to campaign for Remain in that referendum.”
Clive Lewis (Norwich South): “‘Love Socialism’ is a long overdue slogan in the labour movement… Some say that people drowning in the Mediterranean is a reason to leave Europe. I say it’s the opposite: it’s a reason to stay and fight!… Yes, freedom of movement. We are not afraid of that, because we’re socialists. We believe that everyone, and not just millionaires, should have the right to live and love and work and travel where they want.”
(There was a lot of interest in Clive’s speech and we hope to publish the whole of it soon.)
Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury, Shadow Foreign Secretary): “Boris Johnson is the worst, laziest, most incompetent minister I’ve ever had to shadow – and the most dangerous. We need to stop treating him like a joke.”
Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Shadow Home Secretary): “I am 101pc a Jeremy Corbyn supporter. I voted for him twice, and if there’s a third leadership election I’ll be voting for him again… There are perfectly respectable intellectual reasons for leaving the EU. Tony Benn was for leaving the EU until the day he died. His arguments were always about accountability, about democracy. He never said a word about migrants, about European migrant workers undercutting wages and all the rest of it… We also have to understand that many of the areas that voted Leave are places that are very disaffected, whose economies have collapsed. Part of the campaign for Remain has to be economic and social policies to rebuild some of the most devastated areas in the country, in the Midlands and the North. However: the Brexit campaign was based on encouraging people to focus on the Other, on migrants… We could end freedom of movement and they’d still go big cities and see people who look like me and say there are the migrants… We must move towards a Remain position. We’re supposed to be a member-led party. Jeremy comes out of that politics of listening to members… Campaigning to Remain reflects the best internationalist tradition of our party.”
Abbott was interesting because she was more tentative and defensive than the other speakers. LabourList reports that when host Alex Sobel MP (Leeds North West) declared “We are now officially a Remain party”, Abbott quietly said “I’m not sure I’d agree with that”.
The meeting was obviously very positive, shows how things are shifting, and will contribute to the shift. The original core of LSHB MPs should be congratulated, as should the anti-Brexit activists who have worked alongside them.
The whole tenor and rhetoric of the event was left-wing-sounding, even though some of those involved are not really on the left. Kate Green, the chair of Owen Smith’s leadership campaign, talked about “a movement for socialism”! That kind of rhetoric was repeated throughout the evening, with highly varying amounts of content behind it. (Interestingly, Emily Thornberry made no real attempt to drape herself in the red flag, and seemed much more straightforward about her politics.)
It is positive that Labour MPs feel the need to talk in a leftie way, and even talk about socialism; no doubt some of them have shifted left and no doubt some of them are giving their own, previously more suppressed, inclinations free rein. But we should not get carried away. While building a broad left movement against Brexit, we should try to draw out policy issues (including on free movement and migrants’ rights), promoting radical left policies and workers’ struggles, and encourage discussion about what socialism actually is.
Secondly, there will undoubtedly be differences in assessment of Labour’s new position and how much there is a need to push further. For all kinds of reasons, and whatever the tactical issues about encouraging rather demoralising the movement, I think we cannot be content. In what was generally an excellent speech Clive Lewis struck an off note for me when he concluded by saying – or sounding like he was saying – we need to get behind the policy and not criticise.
The work of the MPs has been important to shifting Labour as far as it has gone. But the work of grassroots left anti-Brexit groups and activists, in the push for Labour Party conference and on the streets, will be critical in turning the shift into victory. Whatever about his wider politics and what he meant by it, Keir Starmer was surely right when he called for activists to keep up the pressure on the leadership.
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