By Sacha Ismail
There is a narrative emerging on the pro-Brexit left that Keir Starmer and his allies are seeking to impose a pro-Remain position on a working class that wants to leave the EU.
There is of course truth to this in the sense that Starmer almost certainly sympathises privately with Remain while wide swathes of the population, including important sections of the working class – particularly sections that are older, white, and based in small towns rather than big cities – are pro-Brexit.
But in fact, even as the Tories start to run into trouble with their Brexit plans, Starmer has been remarkably reluctant to oppose them.
Starmer’s record even in terms of liberal internationalism is poor. In the crucial year of 2018, he opposed Labour conference taking a clear pro-Remain and pro-migrants’ rights position. But his stance now, in the context of the Covid-19 crisis, is in some ways even weaker.
Almost as soon as he was elected Labour leader, he was asked about extending the Brexit transition period, so that the Tories cannot ram through an economically and socially disastrous hard Brexit at the end of the year, in the midst of the fall out from the pandemic.
Repeatedly, Starmer commented that the Tories were in a mess but would not commit to a position. Not on the basis of “We as a Labour Party and labour movement need to discuss and collectively decide our position on this” – of course not! – but just not committing to anything. Other shadow cabinet spokespeople have trotted out the same non-line.
This really is bad, because whatever your view on leaving the EU as such, defending working-class living standards and rights against a hard-right, shock-doctrine style Tory Brexit hot on the heels of Covid-19 should be a no brainer for the labour movement.
It is also ironic because what evidence we have suggests that the “masses” – including many of the Tory-voting, nationalist-influenced masses – can see the Tories’ plans are nuts and already support an extension.
It is well-known that younger, BME, big city and Scottish workers are generally more likely to be hostile to Brexit. But the polling on the issue of extending the transition period shows that support for this policy goes well beyond those groups.
According to the recent Best for Britain/Hope Not Hate poll, extending the transition is backed by: 69% of women and 58% of men; every age group, from 78% of 18-24-year-olds and 52% of over-65s; every region, from 78% of Scotland to 57% of Yorkshire; and every “social grade”, from 69% of “B”s and 68% of “C1”s (non-manual workers) to 57% of “C2”s (manual workers).
84% of people who voted Labour in 2019 want to extend; but also 44% of those who voted Tory, and even 19% of the small number who voted Brexit Party.
65% want the UK to remain a member of the EU’s Early Warning and Response System for medical emergencies; only 12% back the Tories’ drive to leave it.
This despite the total lack of opposition and leadership from the labour movement and the main opposition party.
The left should fight for what is right and necessary even when it unpopular. That it is failing to fight for this demand when it is probably pretty popular is evidence of what a tangle it has got into on Brexit.
So while the title of this article is a jokey exaggeration, it makes a serious point.
The anti-Brexit left should be eager, not afraid, to push for Labour and the unions to fight to extend the Brexit transition. And we should appeal to the entire labour movement and left, regardless of wider views on Brexit, to take up this demand as basic question of working-class self-defence.
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