Mike Phipps asks whether it’s time to set the reset-button on Brexit, whilst Ewan Cameron asks whether we should be preparing for a referendum even if it’s not what we want
After Labour’s poor result in the EU elections, there is a great deal of discussion focusing on the idea that Labour should now commit definitively to the idea of a second referendum on Brexit. If only we were in power to make it happen!
In 2017, our general election manifesto committed the Party to respecting the result of the 2016 referendum, on the basis that a Brexit in the interests of working people was both negotiable and deliverable. Thanks to the Tories putting their own internal problems ahead of any sense of national interest, in short, Party before country, that prospect looks increasingly unlikely.
Worse, it failed to resonate with voters in these EU elections. The big votes for the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems show the two sides have become more entrenched in their positions. Zoe Williams wrote in the immediate aftermath: “What died, with these elections, was any realistic notion of a silent majority who just wanted a soft Brexit and be done with it. If that majority ever existed, it was so silent as to be functionally irrelevant.”
If the Tory Party elect a rightwing nationalist – and given that it is the grassroots membership that will have the final say, that seems likely – the alternatives appear to be a hard Tory Brexit, similar to May’s deal, or a no-deal Brexit. We oppose both. We may call for a new referendum but this government is unlikely to grant one. What then?
In the unlikely event of a new referendum, we should seek to break out of the binary choice of Leave or Remain and focus on Reform, which obviously entails Remaining. But it separates us from the passive Remain camp of the Lib Dems and Change UK. Our message is radically different: the EU is not fit for purpose and must be radically restructured.
Supposing a new Tory leader calls a snap election – unlikely, but not impossible in the event of some Tories threatening a public vote of no confidence in Parliament against any leader aiming for no-deal – then what? With the expiring of the 2017 Parliament, we are freed from our obligation to respect the 2016 referendum result and we should no longer remain committed to deliver a Brexit most members do not support. We could either commit to calling a new referendum, where we campaign for Reform. Or we avoid another divisive, polarising battle between entrenched cultures with all the misinformation of the last referendum and make the general election itself the public vote, campaigning on a programme of Reform.
Hitherto, the Party has tried to triangulate the different positions, endeavouring to keep Labour Leavers on board – unsuccessfully. This was underlined by our poor share of the vote in the EU elections. But there are other factors in play: the Morning Star, which, as a Leave paper, could have supported our efforts, instead called for a boycott of the EU elections. This was, to say the least, unhelpful.
It also seems to be getting its priorities muddled. Its editorial on Thursday May 23rd said: “In today’s maelstrom of mendacious messaging, the most dishonest emerged from the Liberal Democrats confirming their reputation for hypocrisy…. The Lib Dems’ manifesto offer of a second referendum — on the basis that ‘the people not politicians should decide’ failed to resonate with the electorate which had already decided.”
Given the Lib Dem vote share, this proved horribly inaccurate. There were six further paragraphs attacking the Lib Dems – well, why not? But curiously, not one devoted to the threat of the Brexit Party or the far right. Surely these are the most dishonest forces in this election – and the most dangerous?
In Europe and beyond, the rise of rightwing economic and political nationalism is producing a polarisation into two distinct camps. On the one hand, there are those that support rational, tolerant, liberal, humanitarian, internationalist values and on the other, those that support irrational, intolerant, illiberal, anti-humanitarian, nationalist values. We must be the most consistent part of the first camp.
Internationalism should guide our approach to Brexit too. If leaving the EU were right for Britain, it would presumably be right for all member states, and logically we should call for the destruction of the EU and all its institutions. In practice, few argue for this. Internationally, all other significant socialist currents want to Reform the EU, which implies Remaining.
They also want Britain to take part in that fight. Actually, given the huge growth of Labour membership and popular support over the last four years, in contrast to the existential crisis engulfing the German SPD, the Italian PD and most other democratic socialist parties in western Europe, they want Britain and the Corbyn-led Labour Party to play a central role leading that fight. And we should.
In a recent article in Labour Briefing, Michael Rafferty made some suggestions about what our priorities for reform should be. Here are some of his ideas:
“1. Introducing a Social Directive with binding principles on the welfare state, working conditions and access to health and other social services.
2. Reforming state aid to permit state-directed investment in industrial innovation for social ends and reforming procurement directives to reverse outsourcing of public services and contracts.
3. In the eurozone, removing the “fiscal discipline” ideology so that public spending doesn’t become the first victim in financial crises. Removing monetary policy from the European Central Bank to a democratic monetary policy committee, modelled on the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).
4. Serious institutional overhaul that puts the European Parliament on a par with the EU Council, with the Commission below, and regulating lobbying through the creation of an official lobbying institution as the only permissible way for industry to lobby the EU institutions. Expanding the reach of the EESC, Committee of the Regions and other lobbying institutions to provide routes for trade unions and other groups to lobby with comparable impact to industry.
5. Removing foreign and security policy competence from the EU, repurposing the European External Action Service and the European Border and Coastguard Agency for humanitarian assistance.”
He concludes: “The attractiveness of these points to other EU member states, even those with right-wing populist governments, is underestimated. A Labour government could reverse the traditional British role in European politics from wreckers to builders of a new consensus that offers a progressive way out of decades of neoliberalism.”
A Reform agenda could prove popular and help marginalise the uncritical cheerleaders of an EU that is clearly borken. Ash Sarkar in a recent Guardian piece wrote: “As someone who voted remain, I look at some of the EU’s greatest hits – the crippling austerity measures imposed by the troika of the European commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund on Greece, the bloody borders of Fortress Europe, the institutionalisation of neoliberal ideology – and worry that my vote was interpreted as a mandate for the continuation of those horrors.
A dash of Euroscepticism in a campaign to stay in the EU needn’t be a demobilising factor; it’s grounds for strong leadership in reviving popular consent for EU membership.
An uncomfortable fact for leave supporters on both the left and right is that the EU has not been the main cause of Britain’s regional inequalities or austerity measures. The problem, particularly with EU state aid regulations, has been how UK governments have chosen to interpret EU rules. Most of the barriers to implementing a manifesto on the radical edge of social democracy have to do with the constraints of domestic politics, rather than transnational governance.”
This last point needs emphasising. A real plan to ‘take back control’ would start by demanding a programme of devolution of resources and powers to the increasingly deprived areas of the UK, including a restoration of local authority funding cuts and the ability of local areas to raise their own funds. Of course, this is the last thing on the minds of Brexiteers.
We also have to reframe the debate – it is too simplistic to see it through the prism of ‘left behind’ Leavers versus the Remainer political elite. Working people in Scotland have been massively neglected, but have not embraced a reactionary isolationist nationalism, but a civic inclusive one that is compatible with a European community. Add to that a new factor: the elite that will now run Britain is going to be a Leave elite, possibly led by one whose zealotry goes so far as to say “Fuck business.” What an opportunity this should be for us! But first we must find a new narrative to highlight these contradictions.
It’s time for a change of strategy. We are not economic nationalists, but nor are we content with the neoliberal European order. Above all, Labour is more credible when it is clearly advocating what it believes in, putting forward real solutions to problems, rather than trying to tack between different interests within the movement. Let’s press the reset button and commit to a distinctive socialist policy towards Europe – radically overhauling its institutions to make them work in the interests of the many, not the elites.
It’s a sad fact that you could watch 100 hours of Brexit coverage on the mainstream media and still not be able to name one EU policy, or understand the difference between the Parliament, the Council, the Commission. You could watch an episode of Question Time in 2016 and 2019 and would be hard pressed to see much difference in tit-for-tat arguments. This paucity of debate has led to a dangerous situation: remain/leave is no longer about a political decision, instead it is as though when people put their slips in the ballot box three years ago they weren’t just voting on a referendum, they were claiming a new identity. Now Brexit is an issue of integrity, with neither side willing to back down, and it puts the Labour party in an awkward place. How can it appeal to the many when the many are so viciously split?
The first part of the solution is to realise that the tribalistic narrative so beloved of the media, is not true. While brexit may dominate the media, there are more pressing concerns out there. The government continue their war on the disabled, the sweeping incrementalism of school privitisation marches on, and the ever-degrading environmental crisis, are issues of greater importance to much of the public. There are many, this author included, that wish brexit would go away. The amount of people who actually want a second referendum (whether they voted leave or remain) is not known, but it’s very unlikely to be anything more than a minority (albeit one that is well connected politically).
The second part is to realise that campaigning for both a second referendum and remain would be the biggest mistake Labour could ever make. On democratic principle alone, telling half the country that their vote doesn’t matter as much as the minority who want a second referendum. “For the Many, not the Few” is a slogan that so perfectly encapsulates the direction that Labour should be travelling in. A party cannot claim to be for the many and then tell half of that many that their vote won’t count. Even if you want to be politically pragmatic, how can Labour hope to win an election by casting themselves not as the insurgent rebels against the status quo (which won them so many new votes in the 2017 elections) but as an undemocratic elite?
Thirdly, this doesn’t mean we can’t debate this. Maybe a second referendum will happen, if it does, Labour should not campaign either way. This will of course not go down well with some, those who see brexit as a matter of integrity and are too far gone to accept any form of compromise. But Labour needs to go on the offensive and start setting the agenda themselves.
This means bringing any debate forward and making it crystal clear: there are good points to be made on both sides. Labour must not contribute to the feeling among leavers that they are being singled out as racists or even fascists for wanting to leave the EU. Even if the leadership themselves support remain, they must not contribute to a discourse that furthers this narrative. Instead they must treat the UK public as they did in the 2017 election: as adults.
Brexit must not be about right and wrong, but about what we want as a nation and what Labour’s vision is. On the side of pro leave, Grace Blakeley has argued that the staying in would benefit social democracy, in that the EU would continue to regulate the excesses of private business, but it would halt any further plans for democratic socialism, i.e. the ownership of corporations by workers and people. Lee Jones, writing against the possibility of any “remain and reform” has demonstrated the procedural implausibility of abolishing the Maastricht treaty, which entrenched neoliberalism across Europe.
On the other hand, Tarrant and Biondi argue that the EU would not prevent state aid, at least to the extent of the current Labour manifesto. Laurie Macfarlane, following an indepth analysis in which among other points, he argues that the UK can be influential within Europe, comes down on the side of remain as the “least bad outcome”.
Whether you support leave or remain, as socialists, it is at this level we should be debating, one that allows for discourse and one that treats either “side” as capable of understanding economic arguments. There is no obligation for Labour (by which we mean the leadership) to come down hard on either side, instead they can set the agenda themselves, by providing a fertile ground for intellectual debate