Cartoon: Ben Jennings, the Guardian
“I think we need to respect the referendum. As I say, I think that there is a deal which can be struck within Parliament that brings everybody together, that respects the views and wishes of communities whether they voted Leave or Remain” —Rebecca Long-Bailey, Shadow Secretary for Business, Sky News, 16 December.
The 2016 referendum vote that the UK should withdraw from the EU, after 45 years membership, plunged Britain into a prolonged political crisis. Today, less than three months before Britain is due to leave, that crisis has not yet been resolved. The 2016 vote plunged the Labour Party into a crisis too. In that vote Labour opposed any form of Brexit and advocated a vote to remain.
Today, about 80% of Labour voters prefer Remain to the Tory deal or “no deal”. Among Labour members, 72% want you to commit fully to a new public vote, and in that vote 88% of them would back Remain. And you? You support Brexit. You and your front bench say that it is impossible after the 2016 vote to remain democrats and advocate a “People’s Vote” — a referendum on the actual Brexit now looming. Instead, you demand an immediate general election.
A general election is a good idea, and a Labour government would be a good thing. But your promise that your Labour government would then renegotiate Brexit with the EU and get better terms than May got lacks all conviction. A Labour government would negotiate within exactly the same framework and with exactly the same bargaining assets and problems as May has had. The big stumbling block, Northern Ireland, would remain exactly as intractable as it is. Your claim that agreeing to a continued Customs Union with the EU would avoid a hard border is untrue. There would still be an absolute contradiction between Britain withdrawing from the EU and avoiding a hard border between Ireland’s six and 26 Counties.
There are great principles involved here, but one wouldn’t think it from your policies in this crisis. The unification of Europe, first in the EEC, and now in the EU, is one of the great achievements of the second half of the 20th century and of the 21st century so far. In the first half of the 20th century, within the space of 31 years, Europe fought two gigantic intra-European wars that became world wars. In the Second World War, up to 60 million people lost their lives. One consequence of that was the moves by the ruling classes to unite Europe.
Socialists had advocated European unification for many decades. Now the bourgeoisie did it in their own way, which is not ours. It is a bourgeois, not a working-class socialist, unification. It is bureaucratic. Its democracy is grossly limited. There are enormous things wrong with it. Nevertheless, there have been tremendous gains. Europe is now more united than at any time since the fall of Rome in the 5th century. TWO Faced with this inadequate bourgeois version of a united Europe, the labour movements have two options. Reject the unification? Then what? A Europe of national states. The Europe of the first, disaster-ridden, half of the 20th century.
The idea in some people’s heads that the alternative to the EU is a socialist Britain is simply fatuous. We have yet to win a socialist Britain. We still have to convince the working class to want socialism. A divided Europe would hinder us, not help us, to achieve that. No, the alternative to the EU is the existing British capitalist state, only more walled off.
The second possible option is to mount a labour movement campaign across Europe for reforms to the EU. Those would naturally include removing everything in the basic charters of the EU that enshrines capitalism and capitalists, and would limit socialist possibilities. Brexit cuts against that option. If the labour movement is not internationalist, then what is it?
Here, the alternative to internationalism is to be Brexitist, “little¬English”, reactionary — to want to go back to the Europe of the first half of the 20th century. Loose¬minded talk of the alternative being a socialist Britain counts for nothing here except the confusion it creates.
Back in the days of the Benn movement at the beginning of Thatcherism, when you were first entering politics, almost the entire left was militantly opposed the what is now the EU. The argument was commonplace that the alternative to the EU was a socialist Britain, that the EU was hindering progress to a socialist Britain. Then came the days of deep Thatcherism, when the EU’s social regime, though not of course socialist, was a lot closer to socialism than Thatcher’s Britain was. The 2016 vote to leave the EU was part of, and in turn intensified, a wave of chauvinism in Britain against European migrants and against darker¬skinned people in the UK.
We have see the bawling bigots of the DFLA harassing Muslims and identifying all Muslims with terrorists. The Brexit vote was and is part of a wave of nationalism in many countries, including in the USA, which has saddled itself with a fascistic dimwit as president. The Labour Party should not be part of that nationalistic wave. It should oppose and fight it, in all its manifestations.
All analysts agree that the decisive element in generating the 2016 vote to leave the EU was fear of immigration and immigrants. Other issues were less powerful. The Labour Party under your leadership fought a campaign against Brexit, but a low¬energy, low-conviction one. Right¬wing opponents of your leadership used the inadequacies of the campaign for their own purposes, and of course we opposed them. It remains true, however, that Labour’s campaign was inadequate. That helped shape the outcome. Labour is still inadequate. Even more inadequate than then.
Now? Now you should campaign boldly for a “People’s Vote”, and advocate a vote against Brexit. The argument that a second referendum would be undemocratic and — if the vote went against Brexit — would amount to cheating the victors of the 2016 referendum out of their democratic victory, actually makes no sense, if you think about it. Why should 2016 be the end of all political examination of the rights and wrongs of Brexit? One of the basic rules of parliamentary democracy is that no Parliament can bind a future Parliament. Why should the 2016 referendum bind people two and a half years later, if further experience and reason point to the need to reverse it? In fact serious, detailed, public discussion of what Brexit means came only after that referendum.
Participants in a second referendum would go to the polling booths now knowing vastly more about what Brexit means than when they voted in 2016. Why is it undemocratic to allow a greatly better¬informed citizenry, who now know what Brexit means, a second vote? And to allow over two million new voters to have their say? The opponents of a second referendum are not consistent democrats, but people who snatched an accidental advantage in 2016 and want politics to end at that point. If a referendum is as sacred a form of democracy as they insist, then why not have another one to pronounce on the results, in negotiated actuality, of the first? History did not stop in June 2016.
The Brexitist “democrats” want to use 2016 as a mandate for, so to speak, moving back to front, or walking backwards in politics: first decide on Brexit, then examine the details, the implications, and the likely consequences, things that were unknown when the vote was taken in 2016. This is nonsense as a theory or practice of democracy. Essentially it deprives the citizens of the chance to make a knowing, informed, consequences¬aware vote. They did not do that in 2016. The advocates of the “People’s Vote” are the democrats here.
The majority in 2016, about one million, was a majority, but not big enough to make that decision a sacred thing, whatever its consequences. The argument that a new referendum that reversed 2016 would be “divisive” is a no brainer.
The 2016 vote is divisive. Carrying through the decision of 2016 without letting the people vote again, in full knowledge of what they will be voting for or against — that is the worst of all worlds. Labour should campaign for a second referendum and a Remain vote. Comrade Corbyn — serious politics is not just about skimming the surface of existing opinion, taking polls to tell you what to say to get votes. It is about doing serious educational work to mould and shape and reshape how people think about an issue.
Principles matter here. Here, however — and it needs to be said — you and your Leader’s Office have something akin to the difficulty you had in condemning antisemitism in general and destroy-Israel antisemitism in particular. Your own political history. For decades it was an article of faith on the ostensible left — almost all the left, from the kitsch-Leninist groups through to people like you in the Labour left — to be against the EU and to advocate British withdrawal.
That shifted bit by bit over the 1990s. But reflex anti¬EU sentiment is still there. It is strident, for instance, in the Morning Star, for which you wrote a column until you were elected Labour leader. In fact, you see it most clearly there. Effortlessly, the Morning Star have become militant Brexitists, as if they had slipped back and down several decades on history’s ratchet, back to the good old days when Russian hostility to a united Europe decreed their politics on this. It is a reflux of political idiocy: the return of the repressed, so to speak. Comrade Corbyn, your position here is nonsense.
The kitsch¬left attitude of opposing the bourgeois unification of Europe, rather than seeking to reshape it, was always nonsense. Britain’s decision to withdraw is a tragic nonsense. It is still possible for the now better-informed citizenry to avert it. Labour can still avert it. Drop your ambivalence about Brexit, and campaign for a People’s Vote and for Remain vote in a new referendum. Fight for working¬class unity all across Europe. Time is very short now.
Yours in solidarity,
Sacha Ismail (member of the working group to launch Stop Brexit — Labour for a Socialist Europe)