The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Monday, 3 September 2018

Labour and Brexit: The need for a principled approach.

With a no-deal outcome increasingly likely, the Brexit negotiations by the current government are in a shambles. It has become clear by now that Brexit will have economic costs for the country. At the same time, preferential trade agreements with other countries such as India or the USA, which might be able to compensate for the loss of a close relationship with the economies of the EU, remain unlikely. Split between neo-liberal Remainers and hard-line nationalist Brexiteers, the Conservative government is on the point of falling apart. And yet there is little to gloat for Labour Party members. Labour too is split over Brexit and only being in opposition has saved it so far from more open confrontations inside the party. In this post, I will argue for a people’s vote on the final outcome of the negotiations as a principled approach from a left perspective within the Labour Party.

Open Britain – rubbing shoulders with neo-liberal Conservative marketeers

One faction within the Labour Party has been campaigning openly for another people’s vote on the Brexit deal. Joining up with outspoken remainers from within the Conservative Party with the organization Open Britain, the main argument is that Britain needs to stay in the EU, as the economic costs of Brexit are too high for the country to cope with. It is correct, there will be significant economic costs for the UK as a result of Brexit. However, simply remaining in the EU will not guarantee that the enormous problems of social and economic inequality within the UK can be addressed. Britain has had the economic benefits of EU membership for decades, but especially the governments since 2010 have ensured with their austerity policies that the gap between the rich and poor has ballooned.

Many Brexit voters are from amongst those parts of the population, who have suffered from economic marginalization and social destitution. Simply remaining in the EU will have little positive impact on their particular situation. It is highly disingenuous for Labour MPs such as Chris Leslie to appear on the same platform with Conservative MPs Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry (Nottingham, 28 September), who have voted in favour of every single austerity measure introduced in parliament. This position in the Labour Party still reflects the rather naïve idea of neo-liberal New Labour that higher economic wealth will almost by itself tackle inequality.

It is the policies presented in the Labour Party Manifesto for the 2017 general elections, which can counter inequality. The abolition of zero-hour contracts, the introduction of a £10 minimum wage, proper funding for the NHS and the abolition of university tuition fees, all financed through higher taxation of the rich, are the only way the gap between the rich and the poor can be addressed.

Accept the referendum outcome?

Perhaps the largest group within the party, and including the teams around Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, argues that the outcome of the EU referendum had to be accepted. Rather than fighting against the inevitable, it would be necessary to focus on securing a Labour government. This would be the only way of improving the situation of working people. There may be economic losses due to Brexit, but a regional development bank and industrial policies could be a good way of softening the blow.

Moreover, this group argues that trying to overturn the referendum decision could actually cost the party the next elections. Opposing Brexit would turn away working class voters, regarding such a move as betrayal. In my own constituency Broxtowe, there is the myth of the ‘Inham Nook voter’, predominantly white working class people living in a disadvantaged area, many struggling to make ends meet in austerity Britain. It is these voters, who are interested in better social policies, don’t want to hear any more about Brexit during canvassing, and would turn against the party, if it chose to oppose Brexit.

Nevertheless, this argument has a number of problems. First, the ‘Inham Nook voter’ is a rather contradictory identity. On one hand, she/he has no interest in Brexit, on the other, should Brexit be opposed, then this would become suddenly an important enough issue not to vote Labour. Either Brexit is an important issue, or it is not, but you cannot have it both ways. In reality, it is highly unlikely that there is this large number of uniform voters, responding all in the same way. Some may turn away from Labour, if the party opposes Brexit, others may still support Labour nonetheless, because social issues are more important to them, and some may not vote Labour anyway, whatever the party’s position on Brexit is. And, of course, we should also not forget that there may actually be voters, who turn to other parties in disappointment about Labour not opposing Brexit.

But this argument is even more problematic, if one reflects on its strategic implications. Labour basically attempts to adjust its policies to what it believes voters want to hear. This is a dangerous strategy for political parties. Ed Miliband failed miserably back in 2015, when he combined progressive policies such as an end to zero-hour contracts with a harsh line on immigration. He wanted to do make it right for everyone and ultimately displeased everybody. If the Labour Party was so successful in the 2017 elections, then because it put forward a principled programme in its Manifesto, with which it convinced voters.

Some argue that supporting a people’s vote could be interpreted as undermining the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. And it is correct, those Labour MPs, who are part of the Open Britain campaign, are known for their continuing hostility, if not disloyalty to the party leadership. However, with Another Europe Is Possible, there is now a left group within the party, which is fully loyal to Jeremy Corbyn, while working towards avoiding Brexit at the same time.

Another Europe Is Possible and the struggle over Britain’s identity

For a start, the name of this group within the party is rather ill chosen. Of course, a change in the EU’s neo-liberal, market-oriented fundamental outlook will always be a possibility. However, in concrete terms we have never been further away from a change than now. There was hope almost 16 years ago, when 60000 activists from across the EU gathered in Florence at the first European Social Forum debating an alternative future for the EU. The situation today could be no more different. While the EU has increasingly institutionalised neo-liberal austerity policies in its structures, ongoing resistance is rather weak and fragmented. The balance of power has shifted to capital. The European Social Forum no longer takes place. If at all, it is the European left in other EU member states, which looks to Corbyn’s Labour Party as a sign of hope. The European left needs Britain led by the Labour Party to remain in the EU. For Britain to change, the country needs a Labour government with its policies of social justice. Remaining in the EU on its own will not help Britain’s poor.

If we want to understand the underlying dynamics of Brexit, we need to look at the domestic situation in the UK. Many voted for Brexit to protest against their economic marginalisation. Many, however, also voted for Brexit, because they were swayed by nationalist, at times racist arguments against immigrants. Nigel Farrage from UKIP and many high-ranking Conservatives used the Brexit referendum to stoke anti-foreigner sentiments. As a result, wider society has become toxic for foreigners as well as many non-white British people. Hate crime has been on the rise across the country. The artificially created ‘hostile environment’ facilitated incidences such as the Windrush scandal.

Hence, opposing Brexit is not only about the economic losses, a departure from the EU would entail. Opposing Brexit is about the very nature of Britain’s identity and outlook onto the world. Will Britain become an inward looking country, based on a nationalist, anti-foreigner identity, or will it remain open to the world, supporting the free movement of workers across the EU? Will it remain committed to a multicultural environment of tolerance and social justice? As Jeremy Corbyn made clear at the 2016 Labour Party conference:

‘It isn’t migrants that drive down wages, it’s exploitative employers and the politicians who deregulate the labour market and rip up trade union rights.

It isn’t migrants who put a strain on our NHS, it only keeps going because of the migrant nurses and doctors who come here filling the gaps left by politicians who have failed to invest in training.

It isn’t migrants that have caused a housing crisis; it’s a Tory government that has failed to build homes’ (Labour Party conference, 2016).

Another Europe Is Possible, combining support for the socialist policies of the Labour Party leadership with opposition to Brexit, delivers precisely this, social justice combined with tolerance and openness. Another Europe Is Possible offers a principled position for the Labour Party, with which it can move socialist policies forward with an open vision to the wider world. In short, this is the time for Labour to support openly a people’s vote on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations!

Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

3 September 2018

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