Numerous surveys and polls have suggested that around 78% of Labour members want Brexit to be stopped or at least want a second referendum.
Up until last year’s election the right-wing of Labour (notably Progress) had half-heartedly taken up the issue of stopping Brexit. They avoided directly opposing Brexit because they feared the electoral power of nationalistic sentiment. They couched their opposition to Brexit primarily as the need to retain membership of the EU single market, aware that there was considerable cross-party concern about the impact of withdrawal on business.
For the left in the Party, issues of migrant rights and the growth of political nationalism were the major concern. Last autumn the Labour Campaign For Free Movement collected hundreds of signatures on a statement calling for the Party to be unambiguous in its defence of migration.
For Workers’ Liberty, opposing Brexit required taking the issue of defending migrants into “Leave” sections of the working class. These were often poorer sections of the class: unorganised and politically demoralised by decades of austerity.
The 2017 election result changed things in many ways.
The Tory right which, bolstered by the 2016 referendum result, had been dominant in May’s government, and locked into a hard Brexit, lost crucial support in parliament.
After a year and a half of Corbyn and McDonnell having to be pre-occupied with the internal attacks against them, they and the left in the Party came out of the election far stronger.
The election made possible a new start in politics. We can now focus on opposing capitalist austerity rather than the left being on the defensive about immigration.
Yet the left is still ambivalent about how openly we should defend immigration, and by implication, we oppose Brexit.
Some on the left, particularly those influenced by the Morning Star, see the view of Brexit voters as immutable. The Morning Star has had a long history (from the 70s at least) of not opposing immigration controls, as long as they are allegedly “non-racist”. It also has a continuing track record of publishing Daily Mail-style attacks on “Brussels bureaucrats” and thoroughly dishonest claims of EU “interference” in British democracy and law. Such views divert the battle against capitalism into arguments about which workers should have their rights defended, and which shouldn’t.
Such arguments over immigration are reminiscent of others in the Party over taxation. After 1987, and particularly after the 1992 election result, we were continually told that “the people won’t vote for (any) tax rises” (or any radical policies for that matter).
We now know that argument was a bag of crap. It was kept alive by repeated and loud assertion, usually by the very wealthy who would suffer from tax rises. We were told it again and again by the media, the Tories and the dominant elements of the Party — Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair. It became an “indisputable truth”, until it was accepted even by many on the left.
We have a similar situation now. The front bench of both the Tories and Labour endlessly repeat a Tory mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”.
There can be no challenge to the referendum decision, even though it was built on lies and got only a narrow majority.
Labour Party spokespersons should have asserted clearly, simply and repeatedly that migrants and refugees are welcome here, that our problems are caused by the Tories. Instead Labour has appeared mealy-mouthed and incoherent. Without a clear lead, continuing with Brexit is seen as “just the way it had to be”.
Labour had hoped to force the Tories to debate the issues and political criteria for Brexit. The Tories refused. There will be delayed decisions on many aspects of the single market and customs union, but Brexit is scheduled to continue with minimal debate.
Whilst there might have been ambiguities about Tory Brexit in June 2016, there are none now.
Labour should now be asking, just as with taxation in the past, “is Brexit in the interest of our working class electorate?” If it is not, we should say so and oppose Brexit.
But opposition to Brexit can only succeed if it is a continuation of what was started in the June 2017 general election — a commitment from Labour that we are going to shift power in our society towards the workers, particularly those suffering the effects of the Tory attacks on the lowest paid and weakest in our society.
The Labour right’s desire to create a campaigning cross-party alliance would be disastrous. We have nothing in common with the Lib Dems and Remain Tories. We are trying to build a different European political system — one that delivers for working-class people.
The only unity Labour MPs should have with Lib Dems and Tories is when walking through the same division lobbies in Parliament on specific Brexit questions.
A recent article by Owen Jones was pessimistically headlined “I don’t like Brexit — I just don’t see how it can be stopped”. But he also rightly argued that the Party “should launch itself as a grassroots, populist insurgency: rather than hosting EU flag-waving marches in remain citadels, it should hold mass public meetings and leafleting campaigns in Leave areas, focusing on a positive case directed at those who are not enamoured with the EU (which is most people, including many Remain voters). Its aim should be to shift public opinion so dramatically that calls for a new referendum become unanswerable.”
Our positive case should include developing real links with the rest of the radical workers’ movement in Europe and transforming the EU.
Moving toward government, a radical Labour Party can energise the European labour movement. We can stop Brexit, challenge austerity on a cross-European basis and stop the nationalist narrative trapping British workers.
We need a working-class campaign to stop Brexit.