Thursday, 9 February 2017

Labour's Dog's Brexit

It is pretty difficult to fathom exactly what the logic has been behind Labour's attitude to Brexit, because as far as I can see there is no logic. What is more, the behaviour of Labour's leadership during the whole Brexit debate, and process, must go down as one of the worst examples of political strategy and tactics in the party's history. I say that as someone who has known Jeremy Corbyn for nearly 40 years, when we were both members of the Socialist Campaign for A Labour Victory, and who has been a strong supporter of Corbyn for Labour Leader.

The clue to understanding this Dog's Brexit of a strategy was in part given by Dianne Abbot in a comment made last night. Having made clear that she was only voting for the unamended Third Reading of the Brexit Bill, under protest, and because to have voted against would have meant undermining Corbyn's leadership, Abbot had a warning for the left around Corbyn, who might have thought that in securing Brexit, they were in some way fulfilling the dream of Tony Benn for a withdrawal from the EU. “This is not Tony Benn's Brexit,” she warned, but a Donald Trump Brexit”.

Corbyn was under pressure from two different forces. On the one hand, the soft left and right of the party long ago abandoned any pretext of defending workers' right to free movement, a right that was hard won centuries ago, as part of the struggle to break apart all of the old feudal monopolies and restrictions on liberty. They continually performed verbal and logical acrobatics to try to reconcile their irreconcilable arguments that one the one hand immigrants were not to blame for society's ills, and yet which simultaneously sought to restrict immigration as a means of remedying those ills! They tried to reconcile this irreconcilable dilemma with all sorts of meaningless talk about “managed migration”, or “humane immigration controls”. In essence what it amounted to was a pandering to bigotry, and a failure to address the real cause of workers' problems, in relation to housing, jobs, living standards, healthcare and so on, which entailed ending austerity, and devoting a greater proportion of society's resources to meet workers' needs.

So, during the referendum campaign, and before it, after the 2015 election defeat, it was not surprising to see such sections of the party arguing the need for some modification of free movement, and tightening of immigration controls. It was nothing more than the usual opportunist pandering for short term electoral benefit.

On the other hand, there has undoubtedly been a section of the left around Corbyn that harboured ideas that stem from the old Stalinist policy of national socialism, or the theory of Socialism in One Country. Besides those overtly Stalinist elements, were those other sections of the left, whose political strategy is based not on what is good for socialism, or for the advancement of workers interests, but solely on the basis of what is supposedly bad for “imperialism”. Those elements were the ones that were proposing some kind of Lexit, or Left Exit from the EU.

But, in fact, as was always going to be the case, even if Lexit were itself a progressive policy – which it wasn't – the forces of the left are so weak, that their voices arguing for such a position would always have been drowned out during the referendum campaign by the other voices calling for Brexit. It was always going to be the case that it would be a matter of a Donald Trump or Nigel Farage Brexit, rather than a Tony Benn Brexit. And, the fact of that was seen in the upsurge in racist attacks after the referendum result, and the size of the vote the Tories now have to press ahead with Brexit, means that we can expect an even greater carnival of reaction as the process unfolds.

But, the fact is that a Tony Benn Brexit would have been a reactionary Brexit too. It would have been a Little Englander Brexit, a Brexit that implies that in some mysterious way, the exploitation that British workers face from British capitalists, and their state, is in some way better than the exploitation they face from EU capitalists, and their state! It is itself implicitly racist, and nationalistic, implying that the problems that workers face derive not from their exploitation by capital, whatever its nationality, but from the nationality of the exploiter. The implication is that instead of Marx’s advice for workers of the world to unite, the workers of Britain should unite with their own bourgeoisie to oppose the workers and capitalists of other nations. It is a thoroughly reactionary perspective.

It now seems to me that this pressure on Corbyn from both the soft left and right of the party, together with the pressure from nationalistic left is the only rational explanation for the otherwise irrational position that Corbyn and the leadership adopted. The soft left and right had already collapsed into dropping the need to defend, free movement. But, the only reason to make a fetish over staying in the single market and customs union, is a recognition that it implies a continuation of free movement. The soft left and right were happy to demand staying in the single market and customs union, whilst arguing the need to make a semblance of trying to negotiate changes to free movement, because they start not from what is in the interests of workers, but what is in the interests of capital.

As I said some time ago, staying in the single market and customs union as currently constituted is in the interests of capital, and only indirectly in the interests of workers by promoting greater trade, and economic growth. But, there are many aspects of the single market and customs union, as currently constituted that are not in workers' interests. It has been shaped over the last thirty years in a climate where conservative politics has dominated the decision making centres of Europe and the globe. It has sought to roll back some of the measures that social democracy introduced in the thirty years after WWII, that sought to promote the growth of industrial capital, via greater economic regulation and planning.

Rather than arguing, as the soft left and right did that the priority was to stay in the single market and customs union, but that they would try to reform the right of free movement, Labour's position should have been that they would defend free movement to the end, but would seek to reform the single market and customs union, so as to better protect workers interests across Europe, to remove the reliance upon the free market, to remove the constraints on fiscal stimulus and so on.

The fact was that, the soft Brexit that the soft left and right desired was a chimera. It could never exist. The EU would never entertain the idea of Britian picking and choosing what elements of the single market it wanted, whilst withdrawing from the four basic freedoms upon which the EU was founded. Given that the other forces pressing down on Corbyn, from the nationalist left, and the idiot anti-imperialist left, that could see no further than the need to undermine imperialism, in the shape of the EU, had no desire to stay in the EU, all of the forces acting on Corbyn pointed in the direction of simply rolling over and voting for Brexit.

Yet, such a position makes no sense. It would make more sense were it the case that a majority of Labour voters, or Labour supporters, or Labour MP's supporteed Brexit, but they they don't. If a majority of Labour voters supported Brexit, a principled position would still require Labour to oppose it, because it is reactionary, and against workers' immediate, medium and long-term interests. Yet, it would be understandable given the opportunist, electoralist nature of the Labour Party, that it would accommodate in order to retain those votes. But, 65% of Labour voters voted for Remain! As I have shown previously, even in heavily Leave voting constituencies, its likely that a majority of Labour voters still voted Remain, or only a small majority voted Leave.

There is no electoral advantage for Labour in rolling over and supporting Brexit, because in Leave constituencies that have overwhelming Labour majorities, no one seriously believes that in a General Election, where workers will be voting on a range of issues covering jobs, living standards, the NHS etc. there is any chance of those majorities being overturned by UKIP. The biggest threat to Labour in those constituencies and in all others, in fact, comes from the fact that Labour as a party once again appears to be seriously divided, that its policies are confused, and that its current leadership has turned out to be no different to previous leaderships that simply spin, and manoeuvre for short term advantage.

Labour's position in the Brexit debate also made no sense. More than 100 amendments to the Brexit Bill were submitted. To have any chance of any of them being approved let alone accepted by the government, would have required that a sizeable number of Tory MP's joined with the opposition to support them. In fact, very few Tory MP's opposed the government, despite the fact that its known that at least a couple of dozen opposed the government's line. The reason few of them rebelled is obvious. As a Tory MP, why would you stick out your neck by such an act of rebellion when you knew all along that the government would have a safe majority, whatever happened because Labour had Theresa May's back in the final vote?

Last year, Corbyn set down red lines, which if crossed, he said, would lead to Labour voting against the triggering of Article 50. That would have been a basis for building a majority for a series of amendments restricting the governments actions during the Brexit negotiations. But, then Corbyn dropped that, scrapped any red lines, and said that Labour would support the Brexit Bill whatever happened. At that point, the chance of securing the votes of any Tory rebels disappeared in a puff of smoke. Once again, it represents some of the worst tactics and strategy in Labour's history. The idea that any kind of rearguard action can be mounted against the Tory Brexit, or that “the real fight starts here” is pure fantasy, and gesture that just looks silly.

In just the same way that it was individuals in the courts, and not a concerted campaign by Labour that resulted in May even having to bring the Brexit Bill to Parliament, now the next step in defeating it rests with the unelected House of Lords. We can only hope that the Lords vote the Bill down, provoking the Tories to abolish that vestige of feudalism so that at least something progressive will have come out of the affair. Similarly, rather than Tory Brexit being defeated by a mobilised Labour Movement, it is now more likely that it will be defeated by the representatives of big industrial capital itself, as a growing deterioration of the economy, begins to impose itself.

But, all that is a far cry from the promises of the Labour leadership months ago to turn the Labour party into a social movement. In fact, what has been seen is the very antithesis of that. The cry of this Labour leadership has been based upon an abstract and primitivist democracy that the people have spoken, and so that voice has to be obeyed. Set aside, the fact that almost as many people spoke against Brexit and their voices are being ignored, the whole point about building a social movement is that it does not allow itself to simply tail public opinion, but attempts to shape it. A social movement does not start from the presumption that a majority is always right, because frequently the majority are wrong. A majority once thought the Earth was flat, and that the Sun moved around the Earth, for example.

The idea that Labour had to vote for Brexit because a small majority in a referendum had voted that way is insane. In the 1990's, Tory governments were elected on several occasions standing on platforms that introduced things like the Poll tax, the anti-union laws and so on. So, should the fact that the people had spoken in favour of such policies have then meant that Labour MP's also then voted for those policies? Of course, not. So, why would Labour feel that it has to collapse into a support for Brexit, now, simply on the back of a referendum vote?

The confusion is carried forward into the current by-elections, which give the impression that the Labour candidates are hiding from the media rather than having to reconcile their conflicting positions in the glare of publicity. In Stoke Central, we have a Labour candidate who has vociferously opposed Brexit, but who now says he would have voted for it in Parliament, and who has opposed Corbyn publicly, in a constituency that voted 10:1 for Corbyn as Leader.

A clear and consistent message this is not; a confident and clear presentation of that message it is not; and the basis for building a social movement capable of taking principled positions, and standing firm on them against the stream it is not.  A number of Corbyn's supporters, like Clive Lewis, have been led to depart.  It was clear that Dianne Abbot was close to following suit.  Unnecessarily straining the loyalty of your supporters, simply to assuage some of your enemies, is never a good strategy.

No comments: