Winning with Conservative Leftism: Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit

by Daphne Lawless

maxresdefaultBritish exit from the European Union (EU) is fast becoming a disaster acknowledged on all sides. Theresa May’s Conservative (Tory) Government is making no headway in their negotiations with the EU’s leaders on finding a way for the UK to leave the EU without causing a massive economic crash and social dislocation. The Tories are split between moderates who would like to keep the status quo as much as possible, maintaining many current EU institutions, on one hand; and on the other, a fanatical right-wing who’d prefer a “hard Brexit”. This would entail complete disentanglement from Europe’s laws and institutions, creating some kind of deregulated tax-haven capitalist utopia, leaning heavily on Trump’s USA.

Meanwhile, after shocking the world by winning the British Labour Party leadership in September 2015, veteran left MP Jeremy Corbyn again confounded his detractors by leading the party to a respectable second place in the June 2017 general election. In left-wing politics, after 35 years of global neoliberal onslaught, sometimes victory can be its own argument. The feeling of many activists seems to be that if Labour (or whoever the local centre-left party are) do well in an election, what they are doing must be right and the radical left is obliged to support them.

Certainly there’s been a rush from various British Left groups to join the Labour Party to “back Jeremy” against his opponents within the party. But there’s such a thing as a Pyrrhic victory – winning at such a cost that the win was not worth it. Has “Corbynmania” been purchased at the cost of the British Left’s principles – specifically its internationalism?

Brexit is reaction

There’s a common myth on the Left that the vote for Brexit was some kind of “cross-ethnic working class uprising”, a revolt against the neoliberal elite by the oppressed and excluded. But the British revolutionary group Socialist Resistance said at the time:

Most of the radical left supported an exit vote and the so-called Lexit [Left-Brexit] campaign – which had zero influence on the entire referendum. It peddled the illusion that a left exit was on offer when it was not…  [T]hose in Lexit such as the SWP [Socialist Workers’ Party] claim that it was a “revolt against the rich and powerful” and that the danger from racism “is far from inevitable”.

They failed to recognise the dangers that the mainstream exit campaigns, led by right-wing xenophobes, represented. They were oblivious [to] the racism and hatred that would be generated by them, the reactionary impact this would have on the political situation and the balance of class forces, and dangers involved of being in any way associated with them—particularly in the case of an exit vote.

They chose to ignore (even when challenged) the damaging outcome that an exit vote would have for the 2.2m EU citizens living in this country whose status would have been threatened as a direct result.

This analysis has been borne out by research showing that support for Brexit was “largely determined by authoritarianism, which is itself significantly linked with fear of diversity, novelty, uncertainty, and change.” John Curtice, research fellow at the NatCen research agency, comments:

“Brexit is not an issue that divides those on the left from those on the right. Instead, it divides ‘social liberals’, that is, those who relatively comfortable living in a diverse society in which people follow different customs and social norms, and ‘social conservatives’, that is, those who feel that everyone should share and respect a common culture. Those of the former view typically voted to Remain in the EU, while those of the later disposition usually backed Leave. Not least of the reasons why this is the case, of course, is that one of the central issues in the Brexit debate was and still is immigration…

‘What clearly emerges from our analysis is that Labour’s advance in the 2017 election was strongest not in left-wing Britain but rather in socially liberal Britain…’

‘Labour’s advance in June then does not simply lie in the popularity of the more left-wing stance that the party adopted. Indeed, that may not have been particularly important at all. Rather, in an election in which Brexit and immigration were also central issues, Labour’s advance was strongest amongst those who were keenest on staying in the EU and those who were least concerned about immigration.’

Most tellingly – the only ethnic group to back Brexit were white British. Like a Trump voter, the best predictor of wanting to quit the EU was being white. Leftists trying to cheerlead for Brexit as a radical mass movement are making the same ghastly category error as who claimed that voters for Donald Trump were motivated by “economic anxiety”– out of over-optimism, cynicism or unacknowledged racism, attempting to take a groundswell of white nationalism and “paint it red”.

Corbyn’s successful fudge

Jeremy Corbyn, whatever else you can say, has the virtue of consistency, having opposed British membership of the EU since he became an MP in 1983. However, he toed his party’s line and (unenthusiastically) backed Remain in the referendum. The next year, in the election campaign, the Labour Party cleverly “fudged” the issue of Brexit, seeking to attract both “Remainers” aghast at Tory bungling of the process, and traditional Labour voters in the North of England who had voted Leave or supported the near-fascist UK Independence Party (UKIP). It worked – in that Labour gained a few seats, despite universal media predictions of total disaster. But Labour still lost the election, and the Tories were able to stay in power with the support on confidence and supply of Northern Ireland’s DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), a group of fundamentalist Christian reactionaries.

If some would argue that Corbyn’s performance was an endorsement of Brexit, research shows that voters who shifted to Labour in 2017, denying May her majority, were overwhelmingly “Remain” voters in 2016. More than half of Remain voters backed a Labour government, presumably as the best chance of stopping a hard Brexit.

Corbyn is now considered the credible alternative Prime Minister by the mainstream media – to the extent that apparently some Tories are talking quietly about his rise to power being “inevitable”. Labour’s fudged position allows it to mercilessly attack the Tories’ hapless performance in negotiations with the EU, without exposing its own divisions. But it’s odd for self-described revolutionaries to be talking about the electoral fortunes of the British Labour Party to as if they were the same thing as the interests of the working masses.

Throwing migrants under the bus

Corbyn has stuck to the line taken by the radical left all the way back to the first, failed “Brexit” referendum in 1975. The argument made then by opponents such as left-wing Labour legend Tony Benn was that the EEC (predecessor of the EU) was a “bosses’ club”, a cartel of capitalist states ganging up to impose pro-corporate politics all over Western Europe, in the days when Eastern Europe still belonged to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.

But a lot of things have changed over 42 years. The biggest difference between the EEC which Tony Benn opposed and the EU which Corbyn wants to leave is free movement of workers between EU countries, which was enacted in 1992. Simply put, any citizen of an EU country has the right to live and work in the UK – just like New Zealanders may freely live and work in Australia. There’s of course no real reason why free movement of workers couldn’t still exist after Brexit, as it does with non-EU countries like Switzerland or Norway. But that would require continuing to abide by many EU rules and regulations– which certainly not be welcome to the reactionary, authoritarian, and mainly white bloc which dominated the Brexit majority.

Citizens of other EU countries now living in Britain – many of whom have put down roots and have families – are terrified for what will happen to them once Britain leaves the EU. The rising tide of hate crime in Britain is an important marker of how Brexit has encouraged racism and the fascist right, in the same way as Trump’s election in the US. American news network NBC reported:

Two words hit Nikola Cugova where it hurts: “Go home.”

That phrase has been directed at the 37-year-old Czech national a lot since just over half of voters rejected keeping the U.K. in the European Union in last June’s “Brexit” referendum.

“I hear English people say, ‘Now it’s Brexit, we’re leaving the EU, go home,’” said Cugova, who moved to the U.K. 13 years ago. “My children were small when they came here. My daughter doesn’t speak Czech and knows nothing about the Czech Republic.”

Neil Faulkner on Britain’s Left Unity website adds:

There has been a permanent shift, underpinned by relentless anti-migrant messaging from the political elite and their media echo-chambers since the Brexit vote, giving confidence and licence to every closet racist who wants to spit at an East European.

It’s important to remember that, no matter on what terms Britain actually leaves the EU, the political effect of Brexit has been a “green light” for the worst racists and reactionaries to come out from under their rocks – which is why the radical left which had no love for the Brussels bureaucracy were right to oppose Brexit. Meanwhile, British citizens who live and work in the other EU countries are waking up to the realisation that they may lose their rights as well.

It’s true that the EU’s policy towards migrants from outside– where refugees are kept out on the borders with Turkey or Morocco with barbed-wire fences, or left no choice but to risk drowning in open boats in the Mediterranean Sea– is barbaric and racist and must be opposed. Is there any hope, though, that a UK “in control of its own borders” would be anything other than even more racist? One of the biggest ironies is,while Jeremy Corbyn has himself always been a promoter of Irish unity, Brexit would quite probably lead once again to a “hard border” (fences and police checkpoints) between the two parts of Ireland – while under the EU, the border between the Republic and the northern Six Counties is nothing more than a sign on the A1 highway.

There have even been some attempts by “Lexiters” to make a socialist case against free movement – which boil down to the old “immigrants drag down wages” argument, that we in Aotearoa/NZ know how to reject when we hear it from our own Labour or NZ First. One particularly disgusting argument on the Labour Leave website (now deleted but available elsewhere) was that migrant workers to Britain were “scabs”, probably the worst insult that any unionist can make about another worker. The author even had the cheek to chide Eastern European workers for not appreciating living behind the barbed wire and concrete walls of Soviet-style “communism” while they had it! (One little-noticed story is how many of Jeremy Corbyn’s major advisors, such as Seumas Milne or Andrew Murray, come from the pro-USSR political tradition.)

Other “Lexit” articles took the tack of depicting migrant workers (and foreigners in general) as an elite, privileged layer, contrasted to struggling native British workers. Such xenophobia, where “cosmopolitan” becomes an insult and nativist bigotry is treated as if it were class consciousness, is not only the exact same narrative used by American writers who want to alibi the racist Trump movement. It becomes the point where the radical left start talking like the radical right.

This is the growing tide of “red-brown” politics which I have warned against in previous articles. Such a Left has totally sold out its principles to jump on a bandwagon which is giving the liberal centre a pummelling – from the fascist direction. Thankfully, a Labour Campaign for Free Movement has been set up to push back against this tide.

EU or UK: which is more reactionary?

Another argument is made by “Lexiters” that the EU stands between a Corbyn-led Labour government and a socialist transformation of the UK. Like many reactionary ideas, Brexit arguments of both left and right portray the UK as a weak victim of EU neoliberalism. However, the UK is in fact one of the EU’s three most powerful members – and, historically, the most neoliberal of them all. Since the election of Thatcher in 1979, it is in fact Britain which has pushed the EU in a neoliberal direction – not the other way around. At the recent Labour conference, Jeremy Corbyn claimed that the EU would prevent a Labour government from nationalising companies – at the very same time that France’s incoming centrist President, Emmanuel Macron, nationalised a shipyard to protect France’s “national interests”.

Economist Martin Sandbu recently wrote in the Financial Times (paywall):

two lawyers have looked carefully at the general structure of state aid laws and how they would apply to the policies set out in the Labour manifesto. Their analysis concludes: “Neither EU state aid rules, nor other EU rules which are distinct from state aid rules but sometimes considered in the same bracket, provide any obvious barrier to the implementation in the UK of the measures contained in Labour’s 2017 election manifesto.”

Lexiters want to make the argument about “democracy”. Firstly, there’s the argument that somehow opposing the outcome of the Brexit referendum is “undemocratic” – as if, once the majority has decided something, that question can never be revisited. Neil Faulkner again:

Both the Lexit Left and the Corbynista Left are arguing that socialists should ‘respect’ the Brexit vote. This argument is false. It is a betrayal of every migrant worker whose status has been threatened by the vote. And it is a massive concession to the racist discourse for which Brexit is now the primary framework.

…Referendums are particularly dubious. There is a long history of referendums being used by authoritarian regimes to enhance their legitimacy.

Who is setting the agenda? Who is formulating the question? Who is supplying the information (or misinformation)? Whose interests are being served? To ask these questions is to underline the critical difference between their democracy and ours – the democracy of parliamentary (mis)representation and the democracy of mass assemblies.

There’s also a populist idea that dismantling bigger entities and empowering smaller communities and countries is always more democratic and better for working people. But British Labour (like its leader) strongly opposes Scotland separating from the UK; while at the same time they are now criticising the EU for not supporting Catalonia’s right to separate from Spain. Similarly, there’s a lot of talk about how the EU has victimised Greece. But Greece’s forcible submission to the yoke of austerity came about because of its membership of the single currency, the euro – not because of the EU itself, which only a tiny minority of Greeks want to leave.

The EU is not a democratic federal state, even to the extent that Germany, the US or Australia are. The European Parliament – which is elected by the people – has little control over the European Commission, who are the real “government” of the EU. The Commission is far more under the control of the various national governments – which is one reason why the Commission is being “leant on” by Spain to oppose Catalan separation, and why – while the UK was a staunch member of the EU – the Commission also opposed Scottish independence.

No matter how much British nationalists might spout romantic nonsense about their “mother of Parliaments”, the United Kingdom has no written constitution, very few guaranteed civil liberties, a crushed union movement and a parliament half elected by the undemocratic FPP system, and half (the House of Lords) which isn’t elected at all. British socialist John Game put it like this on Facebook:

The primary barriers to socialism are British laws, not European ones. Neo-Liberalism is practically in the European context a British invention. It is quite simply chauvinism to suggest anything else. In an odd way, if the old argument was that the EU couldn’t rescue us from the British state, the new argument has become that only the British state can rescue us from the EU. Which is obvious nonsense.

Lessons for the rest of us

  1. Avoid nationalism. No socialist could defend the current undemocratic, neoliberal and racist EU system with a straight face. But no-one could defend Hillary Clinton with a straight face either – until her opposition was Donald Trump, who whipped up racism and fascist currents, making the vulnerable more vulnerable, showing that there are worse things than neoliberalism. The British state is in important ways less democratic, and more racist, than the EU. It is significant that the separatist local governments of Scotland and Catalonia both wish to remain in the EU after independence – precisely because of its guarantees of some basic levels of civil liberties.

So one important point is – as I’ve mentioned in previous arguments – to strongly oppose attachment to “our own” nation state as an alternative to globalised neoliberalism. Not only does this cede important ground to fascism, it also whitewashes the colonial and imperialist bloodshed that set up all the existing nation-states on the planet.

  1. Avoid the pressures of electoralism. Another important point is that for radicals, electoral politics should be one means among many to the end of social change. The real danger comes when all we can see is the parliamentary fight, or even worse, an intra-party factional battle. When socialists and radicals entered the British Labour Party, especially through the “Momentum” network, they immersed themselves deep in th­e cut-throat world of struggle within the bureaucracy of a major electoral party, against the various anti-Corbyn factions (ranging from old Blairites to liberal Europhiles).

One consequence of this – apart from burning out activist energy – is a regrettable consequence of seeing events in the wider world through the prism of that faction fight. When you set out to rebuild the world on new foundations, it’s hard to accept that it all boils down to backroom deals and faction fighting within an organisation that most socialists wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole until recently. The fact that all sides agreed to not discuss Brexit at the recent Labour Party conference doesn’t say much for a democratic culture in that party.

A related pitfall of electoral politics is falling into leader worship. Some have accused the Corbynists of being more interested in propping up “Jezza” as leader than fighting injustice out in the real world. Every issue in the world gets boiled down to “is this good or bad for Corbyn?”– to the point of conspiracy theory, where political events are sometimes argued to have been cooked up by media or the “Deep State” for the purposes of undermining Corbyn’s leadership. Socialists in Aotearoa also have recent experience of being in broad formations where supporting the prestige or authority of a popular leader – for electoral or other purposes – overrode standing by radical principle.

  1. Don’t lie to yourself. “Lexit” is fundamentally a form of self-delusion, caused by a loss of faith in the power of the actually-existing movements to change the world. It is also something of a nostalgia trip for people whose ideas were formed in the 1970s, who are now trying to impose those ideas on the current movement. It replaces hope in the movements of the working class and the oppressed with cheerleading for the colonial, imperialist traditions of the UK against the neoliberal, technocratic EU. Some socialists have deluded themselves into going along with this through some kind of misplaced duty to be “optimistic”– to assume that any bandwagon must be going in a positive direction, just as some tried to paint the Trump movement red. This smacks of desperation to “win” something, anything, even if it is part of a global swing towards the radical-Right which if not stopped would literally mean death to ethnic minorities, LGBTs, or indeed socialists.

A real radical-left movement in Britain would not necessarily want to keep Britain in the current EU structure. But it would support all the social gains of the EU – especially free movement of peoples between countries – while demanding their extension. It would support replacing both the EU structures and the UK state with democratic, responsive organs of power based on solidarity and responsible to their peoples, rather than to multinational capitalism – a true “Social Europe” accepting all migrants and refugees. As the old saying  had it, “Another Europe Is Possible” which would give not one single inch to racist, xenophobic ideas. To bring this about, we must challenge the conservative left and the red-browns who have brought such ideas into the common sense of British Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.

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