Remain and Reform: A Necessary Strategy or Doomed to Fail?

Labour must champion the transformation of the EU argues Mike Phipps, but Paul O’Connell argues that to adopt such a position is to prepare to fail.


Mike Phipps:

A new consensus has developed in recent weeks that a ‘no deal’ Brexit is by far the most likely prospect when the deadline for renegotiation on Britain’s leaving the EU expires at the end of October. Indeed, for some, a ‘no deal’ Brexit is the only authentic Brexit – the truest expression of what the British people voted for in 2016. For those behind the Leave campaign – now at the heart of Boris Johnson’s hard right government – this is just the latest in a series of lies and manipulations that have characterised their activity throughout.

Lies such as Brexit saving the UK £350 million a week, ignoring both earlier rebates and the £61 million a week subsidy to UK farmers. Lies such as that in Farage’s 2016 victory speech that the vote had been won ‘without a single bullet being fired’ – despite the murder of a Labour MP during the campaign. Lies that most people weren’t even aware of, thanks to the £2.7 million deal with Facebook, which precision-targeted bespoke lies to definable sections of the electorate. Lies that Brexit would allow Britain to ‘take back control’ when all the critical policies that have wrought so much damage and hardship for working class lives in the last decade were conceived not by some remote Brussels bureaucracy but by the highly centralised British state.

It’s worth recalling all this, when we are told that we have to honour the decision of the British people – in a referendum which was held solely to overcome divisions in the Tory Party and to resist the electoral pressure upon it from UKIP – which resulted in an extremely slim victory for the Leave campaign. In retrospect, we can see that the activities of Facebook and other networks, in the 2016 Trump election campaign and in the distortion of other democratic processes internationally, constituted a qualitatively new phenomenon in the undermining of democracy.

Now we can see ‘fake news’ and the forces that weaponise it as part of a much larger subversion. Liberal democracy is under global attack. Putin – another supporter of Brexit for his own geostrategic reasons – has declared liberal values “obsolete”. His singling out specifically of multiculturalism and immigration demonstrate that he is attacking the core liberal beliefs of freedom, toleration and foundational equality, rather than the outworn dogmas of neoliberal economics that helped propel him to power.

In China too, as Paul Mason documents in his new book Clear Bright Future (Allen Lane 2019), this attack goes on under the banner of official Marxism, with state propaganda denigrating ‘universal values’ and ‘constitutionalism’ – the latter was  attacked in no fewer than 1,000 headlines in one year.

And then there is Trump, another ardent Brexiteer, who shockingly admitted that he would want to hear dirt on rival presidential candidates compiled by foreign powers. Trump has praised authoritarian regimes from Hungary to the Philippines and Brazil. Brexit in this context, becomes a piece of a much larger attack on liberal, rational, internationalist values from a conservatism that increasingly disdains democracy in order to cling on to its wealth and privilege – or where it does go into electoral battle does so under the flag of toxic authoritarian nationalism.

It is no accident that Boris Johnson’s support for ‘no deal’ goes hand in hand with this exclusionary, manipulative rhetoric, for example, demonising Muslim women as ‘letterboxes’, all congruent with the racial discourse of Trump and far right nationalists in Europe. Behind Johnson stands Farage, and behind Farage stand the most extreme forces. Farage’s party’s most senior election official publicly praised the far right ‘Tommy Robinson’, one of the best funded politicians in Britain, thanks to US dark money flooding into his organisation.

If this is the global balance of forces, what prospects for ‘Lexit’, a left wing Brexit that delivers for the working class? One might have more confidence in this perspective if there was any real sign of independence from the mainstream nationalist rhetoric that dominates the Leave campaign. Take the Morning Star, one of the more vocal supporters of ‘Lexit’. It called for a boycott of this year’s EU elections despite the fact that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour was running lists in all regions, and in the full knowledge that a poor result for Labour would inevitably intensify pressure on the Corbyn leadership from its opponents. But the ‘people’s Brexit’ was evidently more important.

In its May 23rd editorial, the paper devoted six paragraphs to attacking the Lib Dems, yet not one to the danger of the Brexit Party or the far right, surely a far more dangerous threat in these elections?

So what about the Labour Leave campaign – surely that advocates a different kind of message to that of the right wing nationalists? This is Brendan Chilton, the campaign’s general secretary, writing in Spiked magazine: “The international humiliation is comparable to Suez, and may indeed surpass it. Then, as now, we have been reduced in status and prowess, humiliated by bureaucrats and an animated and lavishly funded fifth column within our parliament. A nation of lions led by donkeys – and duplicitous donkeys at that. What has happened to our ability to negotiate firmly and effectively? What has happened to the power and reach of the Foreign Office? Why has our prime minister capitulated and backed a treaty that makes our country a vassal state? 

Unfortunately, his rhetoric – “international humiliation”, “fifth column”, “the reach of the Foreign Office” and “vassal state” is indistinguishable from that of Farage and the far right. Socialists play with this material at their peril. We live in a country where over 40% of people are “proud” of Britain’s colonial history and think the British Empire – built on centuries of slavery and exploitation – was “ a good thing”. We don’t expect the rightwing media to educate people on these issues, but the left does the movement a disservice if it embraces this narrative.

Incidentally, these rhetoricians who lament Britain’s ‘vassal state’ status in the EU, in which member states have at least some collective input, seem to ignore the real danger of Britain outside the EU becoming wholly subordinate to US policy, from being obliged, as part of a trade deal, to accept lower food standards (chlorinated chicken) and the privatisation of the NHS to US health companies.

Chilton’s association with Spiked should also give pause for thought. This is a magazine funded by the dark money of the hard right Koch brothers and political home of Claire Fox, who ran in the EU elections for Farage’s Brexit Party. Socialists should have nothing to do with it.

Ultimately ‘Lexit’ is driven by the same isolationism and opting out that motivate the wider Leave movement. It lacks a perspective on what internationalist frameworks might replace the EU and it offers no path forward for socialist movements in other EU states that would confront the same problems that as a Corbyn-led government.

The experience of Syriza in Greece, forced by a troika of the EU Central Bank, EU Commission and International Monetary Fund to rip up its popular mandate and impose austerity weighs heavily. But the experience of countries outside the EU, in the global south in particular, shows that this practice is not limited to the EU. We should also recognise the examples where member states have successfully resisted austerity within the confines of the EU. Portugal’s socialist government, elected in 2015, united the country around a positive alternative to austerity and stood up for these policies within the EU, reversing privatisations, unfreezing pensions and significantly raising the minimum wage, in a climate of popular resistance. Hilary Wainwright who authored a recent report on these events concluded that the Portuguese experience also opened up “the possibility of a longer-term strategy aimed at changing the EU treaties themselves, by creating a critical mass of national governments acting as Portugal has done to negotiate a minimal level of protection against austerity within the EU rules.”

It’s a crucial point, because EU treaties are not concocted by some faceless Brussels bureaucracy but by national governments. The battle for a Corbyn government in the UK is part of the struggle to radically restructure the EU to make its institutions accountable to, and work for, the people of Europe. Given the huge growth of Labour’s 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, Europe’s left unsurprisingly see Corbyn’s Labour as a beacon of hope and want Britain to play a central role in leading the fight to transform the EU. This takes on a greater urgency, with the rise in public awareness that many of the most pressing problems we face – particularly the climate emergency – cannot be fixed at the level of individual nation states.

Strip away the arguments of substance and one is left with the complaint that to reject the 2016 result would be a slap in the face to the marginalised and ignored voters who voted Leave and a victory for an out of touch political elite. The fallacy here is to accept the framing of the debate by the Leave campaign that pitches ordinary working class Leave voters against a corrupt Remainer elite. What about the arrogant Leave elite now running the country, which is hell-bent on crashing out of the EU without a deal? And what about ordinary Remain voters, who feel just as powerless, angry and betrayed as their counterparts on the other side? To those who have criticised Jeremy Corbyn over the last three years for the balancing act he has pursued on Brexit, it is worth underlining that he above all understands the toxic ‘culture war’ aspects of the debate and has worked tirelessly to bring people together on this.

But in any case, the characterisation of typical Leave voters in this way is factually inaccurate. Zoe Williams pointed out recently in The Guardian: “The typical leave voter is characterised… as a working-class northerner with deep and justified objections to the EU. This has been shown again and again – from the left (Danny Dorling) to the centre (Peter Kellner) – to be untrue. Only one in eight leave voters met that description.”   Detailed academic evidence supports this, for example, here and here confirming evidence collected at the time  (With thanks to Jon Rogers’ blog which assembled these materials .

The demographic evidence undermines the concern that crucial votes might be lost to Labour if it rejected Brexit across the board. The electoral evidence from the 2019 EU poll shows that ambiguity for Labour is costly and even a ‘soft Brexit’ is unlikely to satisfy voters who remain polarised on the issue.

But these tactical considerations must be secondary to the point of principle: the Brexit vote was a nationalist vote. We socialists are not nationalists, but internationalists. We reject the irrational, exclusionary, anti-human ‘othering’ central to Brexit, in favour of a rational, humanitarian, inclusive commitment to a different set of values. ’Lexit’ could not offer this. There was no visible alternative Lexit campaign or narrative and the evidence of voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland shows that where the toxic, divisive, insular nationalism of Farage and the Tory right is not on offer, results can be very different.

So where next? Re-running the referendum has been the main demand of the People’s Vote campaign but it is not currently in Labour’s power to deliver this, nor is there a parliamentary majority for it. If Johnson fails to renegotiate Brexit, which seems likely on both sides, and can’t get ‘no deal’ through Parliament – which, given the chaos that would cause to the economy as well as the damage to the Irish peace process, is possible – then his options are limited. One outcome could be a general election. At this point, Labour’s position becomes critical.

Going into a general election promising simply to re-run the 2016 referendum would be a mistake. It would imply an uncritical acceptance of the EU as it is, it would be a policy indistinguishable from that of the Lib Dems and it would be polarising and divisive. Campaigning, on the other hand, on a platform of fighting, alongside other left forces in Europe, to transform the institutions of the EU over the lifetime of a five year term of office, with the promise of a new public vote if such a strategy proves unsuccessful, would be unifying, distinctive and honest. It is in tune with what most members want, whose active efforts are vital to any electoral success – including the large numbers of younger supporters who were energised by Corbyn’s 2015 leadership bid and whom we are in danger of losing if the current ambiguity is not resolved. Compared to a Tory Party, most of whose members would be willing to junk the Northern Ireland peace deal and the union with Scotland to get Brexit, and whose leader says “Fuck business”, this policy would project Labour as a bastion of rational common sense, allowing us to occupy some mainstream moral high ground, a key reason for our gains in 2017.

So we need to be ambitious. A radical reform agenda would start by setting out an alternative European model – a social Europe that overhauls the existing institutions of the EU, gives real power to the EU Parliament, and focuses on safeguarding the principles of the welfare state, socially useful and environmentally responsible employment and humanitarian priorities in foreign policy. Lobbying abuses and other forms of corruption need to be tackled and a system of ombudsmen created.

If anything, reforms for the eurozone, of which Britain is not a member, are even more pressing. The power of the European Central Bank over monetary policy needs to be transferred to a democratically accountable committee of the EU. New rules which incorporate social ends into fiscal and economic policy are necessary so that social spending ceases to be the first casualty of a financial crisis. Some of these ideas have been developed in more detail by Michael Rafferty here

“The EU has not been the main cause of Britain’s regional inequalities or austerity measures,” Ash Sarkar wrote recently. “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.”

But it has become convenient for governments to hide behind EU rules for their own inadequacies. Four years ago, the EU allowed member states to reduce bloated subsidies to large farms and shift the money towards rural development. Several European governments did just this, as did the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish regions. But not in un-devolved England, where Crown estates continue to enjoy a large hand-out from taxpayers. Perhaps if we are to ’take back control’, we should start with some serious democratisation of the UK state.


Paul O’Connell:

Writing in 1975, on the eve of the last big referendum on the UK’s relationship with the EU (EC as it then was), the great historian of the English working class E.P. Thompson noted that there were “some sillies” in the labour movement who did not understand the nature of the EC and as such thought that joining would facilitate the advance of socialist and working class interests. As Thompson astutely pointed out, joining the EC would do the exact opposite, and would put the capitalist class light years ahead of the working class.

Today, the political heirs of these “sillies” have won the day within the Labour Party, and Labour’s position on Brexit has shifted from working for the best form of Brexit, in line with the result of the 2016 referendum, to now being a party of Remain. A party that will campaign for a second referendum, in which it will argue the virtues of remaining in and reforming the EU, to pursue radical, transformative and internationalist politics.

Unfortunately, as in Thompson’s time, this shift in position betrays a lack of understanding of the nature of the actually existing EU, rather than the imagined one that EU flag wavers extol, and of the balance of forces in Europe today. In the first instance the treaties (not “bits of paper” that liberal morons would blithely dismiss) are the product of a specific form of economic and social integration that has unfolded over the last 30 years and reflect the class interests of the dominant sections of European capital.

These treaties, and the myriad Directives and Regulations made under them, are virtually impossible to reform. It seems that even the ardent supporters of “remain and reform” now tacitly acknowledge this, but seek to kick the constitutional question into the long grass, arguing that it will be possible to pursue radical policies at EU level, and then get to the treaties at a later day.

The problem with this, is that the policies made within the EU are constrained both by the constitutional framework which has been put in place, the class character/perspective of the main political actors (Commission, European Central Bank (ECB) and Council) – these insure that the policies adopted are consonant with the interests embedded in the treaties, and where there is any deviation from these norms, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ECJ is there to police it.

The particular form the actually existing EU takes is a product of and response to the structural crisis of capitalism that began in the early 1970s. The commitment to privatisation, wage restraint, rolling back the social state etc. is not the result of bad neoliberals capturing the EU, but of European capital striving to restore profitability (through the single market etc.).

In the current conjuncture, as the German economy teeters and the EU has shown slower growth post-2008 than its main competitors, the push within the EU is for more neoliberalisation, hence the attempted labour reforms in France, austerity in the PIIGS etc., and less democracy, with the recent “election” of Ursula von der Leyen as President of the Commission providing the most striking recent reminder, for anyone who needed it.

This trajectory within the EU, in turn, has fuelled the rise of the right across Europe (from Finland to Italy, France, Germany, Hungary and so on, never mind Farage and his merry band of reactionaries), and seen European capital push, via the EU, for greater competition, opening up of public services and further downward pressure on workers’ wages and conditions (it is for this reason that the EU pushed so hard for the TTIP agreement, introduced the Four Railway Package etc.).

The EU was constitutionally nigh impossible to reform prior to the crisis of 2008, so to imagine that now a Labour party, forging alliances with the media-boosted but politically irrelevant and inept figures like Yanis Varoufakis, will spearhead the reform of the EU beggars belief. Far more likely, Labour’s capitulation will signal the end of Corbynism as any form of transformative politics, the right in the UK will be strengthened, the EU will become increasingly neoliberal and authoritarian, and the left in the UK will have squandered a golden opportunity.