As expected the Supreme Court on Tuesday demanded that Parliament take the decision on how Article 50 is triggered. Today (26th Jan) we will hear how the government intend to carry that out. Now the debate will intensify in the Labour Party about what it does.
To start with, we should recognise the weakness of the Tory revolt against Brexit. Article 50 will almost inevitably be triggered on Theresa May’s terms. Even Anna Soubry has confirmed she will vote for it. Poor old Ken Clarke looks to be completely on his own on the Tory benches. The Tory parliamentary majority will hold. That will make inevitable a rapid 2 year exit from the EU.
So, even though it won’t save Britain’s membership of the EU, should Labour still vote against the triggering of Article 50 when May brings it to the Commons in the next few weeks?
I believe they should. The issue is not whether Britain can be kept in the EU – Tory unity will make sure that can’t happen. But what is at issue is how the Labour Party indicates it will act in the course of the Brexit process.
While an assured Tory majority for Article 50 is inevitable, the main reason to vote against is to make clear that we oppose what May will inevitably include in her Brexit package.
Why vote against?
A vote for Article 50 would strengthen the impression that May has wanted to portray, that 52% of the people voted not only for Brexit – but for ANY Brexit – UNCONDITIONALLY.
In other words it could concede that the result of the referendum justifies 1) accepting immigration controls and 2) pulling out of the terms of European regulations that protect the environment, workers rights, women and part-time workers rights, whipping up national hostilities through trading conflicts etc etc.
There is all sort of talk about Labour amendments to whatever Bill the government brings forward today. It is unclear exactly what tactics will be adopted on either the government or the Labour front bench.
But Party spokespersons are pretty clear. After Labour amendments have been put, which will inevitably fall, MPs will be instructed to vote for Article 50 when it is put to the vote.
Instead of trying to separate the issues through debate and public argument – Labour concedes that at the end of the day ‘Brexit means (Tory) Brexit’.
The Labour front bench claims it has no choice – that it has to respect the referendum result, particularly driven by the fear of losing Labour votes to UKIP. But the arguments for Brexit were usually dishonest and generally ambiguous. So we may respect the decision but we should never accept the far right’s arguments for it.
Anti-Corbyn elements on the right wing of the Party hope to exploit the current confusion against Corbyn. But many of them, probably most, such as Chuka Umunna who never misses an opportunity to attack Corbyn, also agree with voting for Article 50 – although Chuka hedges his bets by saying that he is ‘minded to’.
The worrying accommodation to immigration controls and racism
Chuka Umunna was one of the most prominent on the right of the Party to call for increased immigration controls in the wake of the referendum. He has been joined by Yvette Cooper, Stephen Kinnock and many others. They all know that would require Brexit and a ‘hard’ one at that.
Unfortunately it is not only on the right, but also on the left, that we hear arguments to accept further immigration controls. Or at least we have heard calls for the Party not to stop a Brexit deal in which they are a feature.
The logic of the argument is that immigration controls should be accepted, even though such controls will do little or nothing to solve any of the economic problems of workers here. As we all know immigration is not the primary cause of the strain on housing or our other services. It is neither the cause of unemployment nor low pay. Corbyn was very clear on that at the last Labour Conference. The right, and anti-immigration left, may not have liked Corbyn saying that, but they know it is true.
The argument is that those who voted Brexit perceive that immigration causes such problems – so standing up against racist arguments becomes an ‘electoral liability’.
If other policies were also seen to be an electoral liability, would we see further concessions advocated? Perhaps on defending human and workers’ rights? If a survey of Brexit voters were to show that they thought that the gains won through the EU for rights at work was somehow not in the ‘interest of the nation’, would we surrender them? If not, why not?
Certainly those on the left of the Party would never concede workers’ rights in Brexit negotiations or in interviews with the press, so why concede the rights of migrants? What reason could you possibly have to treat migrant rights differently from indigenous workers rights?
The only possible reason would be that those people believe that you can’t fight racist illusions whilst you can fight illusions that climate change controls, human rights or workers rights are not in the ‘interests of the nation’.
As it is, we will quite likely see May making exactly those arguments about EU legislation having ‘tied business up’ with regulations on working hours, maternity pay. She will claim ‘that is why the British people voted for Brexit’.
If we vote for Article 50, we not only accept that the Brexit decision was unconditional, we are also weaker in challenging May’s claim that she has that mandate to rip up so many of our rights. We need to signal now that we will fight against any of the damaging possible results of a Tory ‘hard Brexit’.
In effect a vote for Article 50 would be a hard Labour exit from the Brexit debate.
What if the Tories didn’t have a majority for Brexit?
Again, voting down Article 50 in the Commons is not going to happen regardless of how Labour MPs vote. But if Article 50 could be stopped now that would be a good thing.
It would mean that the Labour could continue the argument against all the reactionary aspects of a Tory Brexit.
Labour could only benefit from the opportunity of explaining how it is self-defeating for workers to go along with the demonisation of migrants. It could have a long term campaign to point out how some of the European legislation was to the advantage of workers. It would be a campaign not just carried out in Parliament but more importantly in the working class communities that Labour failed to get to in the referendum.
And that campaign would continue until the Tories could cut a deal with the opponents from other opposition parties, in particular any Tory rebels.
But this is hypothetical. There are virtually no Tory rebels. Just as they conceded a referendum in fear of UKIP so they concede Brexit.
Would Labour suffer an electoral disaster if it voted against Article 50?
Ever since the referendum Labour’s vote faced fragmentation along several fault lines.
Of the approximately 80% of Labour voters who apparently voted Remain, some may defect to Lib Dem or SNP. Of the 20% who voted Leave, some may defect to UKIP. The Party’s previous decision to vote Remain may already have lost some of the 20%. But it will fool no-one to simply adopt some UKIP-type policies because they ‘led’ the 52% who voted Leave.
The reason why we lost the referendum in many traditional Labour areas is because Labour hadn’t effectively championed their interests as workers. The Party has done little so far to try to reverse that and relate in class terms to those who have felt left behind by Labour over decades. And if Labour doesn’t do well in Stoke or Copeland, that will be the reason. Not the fact that we are honest about our concern about the undefined consequences of a Tory Brexit.
We need the courage to believe in our own policies, strengthening workers rights, bringing in a £10/hr living wage, mass council house building, taxing the filthy rich and the hugely profitable corporations, renationalising the NHS and rebuilding our services etc. If people reject all that because the only thing they want is the earliest possible, unconditional exit from the EU, then they are not likely to vote for us anyway.
But if we are headed out of the EU anyway – why the fuss?
Even if at the end of the day Britain doesn’t stay in the EU, as now looks inevitable, we need to prepare ourselves for the future.
There will be jobs lost as a result of changes in increased national competition for trade. There will be distressing consequences of the restrictions on movement of EU workers both British and others. The Tories will rip up many rights. We need to be able to say we did the maximum to stop this.
As nationalism spreads dangerously across Europe and America, we need a stronger movement to campaign against Britain retreating even further into national isolation. In particular, we need to strengthen the labour movement with internationalist principles.
Up to now, Corbyn has argued against immigration controls as he also argued for Remain. However some close to him, such as Seamus Milne or Unite Chief of Staff Andrew Murray, are not keen on opposing immigration controls and earlier were in favour of Brexit.
So ambiguous phrases have crept into interviews and speeches of front benchers such as being in favour of ‘fair immigration controls’ rather than wanting ‘no further restrictions on freedom of movement’. It has also led to confusing press briefings and headlines, claiming Corbyn wants immigration controls. That has to stop!
The catastrophist right and a second referendum?
Some on the right of the Labour Party predict that there will be a catastrophe in the event of EU withdrawal. It becomes a matter more important than Party politics. They use this to justify a strategy (i.e. a second referendum as soon as possible) that could lead to serious damage to Labour’s influence in many working class communities. For many on the right this isn’t a problem.
Many of those who voted Leave are from the ‘politically-inactive classes’ as some Blairites used to call them.
From the late eighties onwards but particularly during Blair’s leadership, the main game was to compete with the Lib Dems and left wing Tories. To win over the middle classes in ‘Middle England’.
The ‘politically-inactive classes’ increasingly and understandably revolted at this definition. As an active organisation the Labour Party had virtually disappeared in many of the areas where that revolt was developing. And so, UKIP and right wing populism filled the vacuum.
The truth is that the Tories, and yes their Lib Dem friends, are bigger threats to the interests of workers than Brexit. A Tory and Lib Dem Britain IN the EU would be worse than a Labour Britain OUT of the EU – if, and that is a big IF, if that Labour Government was energetically renewing a cross-national strategy in alliance with the European workers movement.
The cross-Party opposition to Brexit fronted by Soubry, Chuka Umunna and Nick Clegg some while ago has collapsed with only Nick Clegg voting against Article 50. The Lib Dems are only voting against as they have nothing to lose.
What a fighting post-Brexit policy should look like.
There would need to be a wave of left wing radicalism across Europe for this to happen. Groups like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain grew amazingly from 2012 to 2015. After the collapse of the Syriza government, the nationalist right has been on the ascendancy helped not only by the collapse of anti-austerity hopes focused on Greece but also the Syrian refugee crisis where the EU failed dramatically – primarily because of the divisive meanness of its governments driven by austerity. The meanest, of course, being the British Tory government.
Working people can be popularly mobilised against internationally divisive trade disputes, alliances and treaties whether they originate within the EU or outside of it. It helps for those mobilised to have access to those negotiating. It helps if there are structures that give an opportunity for international coordination. Many of those are lost in the wake of withdrawal.
But protests on the streets are just as important – if not more so. It is to them that any clever negotiator will point. “If you don’t make concessions, it is THEM you will have to deal with.”
What we are seeing now are nationalists exploiting this popular distrust. It is for us to organise popular working class dissent. There are all sorts of organisational difficulties with this after a Brexit but it is not impossible.
The key factor for socialists is contributing to building a powerful, working class movement across the world that will change it. For us – that means starting off in Britain and Europe, with a movement that genuinely propagates and practises international working class solidarity.
That is why we have to resist the drift to nationalism. It is why freedom of movement has to remain a watchword for Labour. Why we need to maintain a total hostility to the Tory terms of a Brexit. And why a vote against Article 50 would be preferable.
The re-establishment of the influence of the Labour Party within sections of the working class that voted Brexit is a major strategic priority for the Party. The Party lost that influence over decades. We cannot simply defy the Brexit vote without winning those workers to internationalist and anti-austerity politics.
If it were possible to do this before Brexit is forced on us, then that would be good.
We believe that MPs should vote against Article 50 until the government gives clear assurances to defend the current freedom of movement and ensure a continuation of all the rights of working class people through existing EU legislation and directives.
But we cannot go along with the Lib Dems or anyone else who campaign to remain in the EU in a way that drives many poorer working class people further away from Labour’s politics. We therefore believe that to call for a second referendum at this stage would be that and also be an electoral gift to UKIP that could be catastrophic.
The EU always had a parliament with feeble powers. Key decisions were taken by the Council of Ministers driven by the greed of the European banks. Its economic policies towards the weaker European economies such as Greece were brutally exploitative. However the disintegration of the EU will create dangerous opportunities for right-wing nationalisms across Europe. In or out of the EU we need to actively and continually promote European-wide working class action both against xenophobia and austerity.
The Labour Party should be a Party of all workers living in Britain regardless of their national origins. We are internationalists. It is clear that only international action can humanely respond to the refugee crisis, counter the threats of war and climate disaster or be capable of seriously challenging the power of the banks and the multinationals.
The Party should never pose its answers to workers problems in Britain by bringing hardship on workers elsewhere. We oppose curbs on immigration or freedom of movement.
We instead advocate policies on progressive taxation that are co-ordinated as much as possible across Europe, dealing with the power of the banks and multinationals, promoting public ownership and job creation, public health, education and social services and improved workers rights and pay.
We should do this on the widest terrain possible and call for stronger links between trade unions and anti-austerity parties across Europe in pursuit of a united and socialist Europe.