by David Bush
On July 9 Jeremy Corbyn announced that the Labour Party will now support a second referendum. This is a major setback for the left in the UK. The beneficiaries of this change of position will be the entire establishment, who have steadfastly opposed the Corbyn project from the beginning.
On the political front Corbyn’s second referendum position will throw a life preserver to a crisis-ridden Tory party and provide an opening for forces to their right such as Nigel Farage and the newly formed Brexit Party. Just seven months old, the Brexit Party is polling at 20 percent, and would likely to surge in the polls if Brexit is not delivered. The Brexit referendum saw over 33 million people vote, with over 17 million voting to leave. Taking a position to rerun the referendum allows the Tories and the far-right to claim the mantle of defending democracy.
The second referendum position undermines trust in the Corbyn project, while also diverting attention from the substantive issues that differentiate it from the politics of the establishment. Rather than uniting on the basis of rejecting austerity and racism, a second referendum will deepen divisions within the working class. This is precisely why the Labour right has hammered Corbyn repeatedly over the issue of a “people’s vote”.
The dangers of a second referendum
Although most Labour voters voted for Remain, a significant number of Labour voters supported Leave. In fact, 409 out 605 seats in Parliament voted Leave, while 107 of 150 of Labour’s most marginal seats also voted Leave. In highly contested seats that Labour would need to win to form government, the vast majority of them are in Leave-voting Conservative marginals in England and Wales. An about face on Brexit would make winning those seats much more difficult.
Most importantly, supporting a second referendum puts the whole Corbyn project on its backfoot politically. Dismissing a clear vote for Brexit will not simply cost labour votes in the Midlands, it will actively stoke disillusionment and resentment amongst the millions who rejected the EU — and that can only boost the fortunates of the far-right. While some voted Leave in 2016 due to xenophobic and racist reasons, it is simply not the case that all Leave voters are racist. And indeed, some of the biggest proponents of Remain are xenophobes arguing for even greater EU restrictions on the flow of migrants and refugees.
For many Leave voters their ballot was more a rejection of the EU and the UK establishment tout court. There was a clear correlation between social class, income and voting preferences the more wealthy you were, the more likely you were to vote Remain. In fact, the only social class to vote clearly for Remain was the AB grouping, representing upper and middle management.
Without a clear Labour alternative vision for Brexit, the far-right and the Tories (including the Brexit Party) will be united and unchallenged in shaping the Brexit position along the most reactionary lines.
This is not conjecture. A brief review of the 2016 referendum should remind us that the Brexit debate was a reactionary carnival, with repugnant establishment figures like David Cameron, Tony Blair and George Osborne duking it out with vile xenophic reactionaries like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. The left was virtually squeezed out of the debate.
Rerunning the referendum does not bode well for the Corbyn project. In practice, Labour’s campaign will be forced off the favourable terrain of healthcare, housing, minimum wage, and public services and forced to focus on the question of the Brexit where it enters the field split and confused. This is without a doubt a losing proposition for Corbyn, no matter the outcome. Should the Remain forces win a second referendum, British capital and their political representatives will be emboldened while the Labour right that campaigned against Corbyn for a second referendum would come out on top. Should the Leave forces prevail – the pro-Brexit Tories and more likely the Brexit Party will benefit while Corbyn’s Labour will be discredited for acquiescing to a second referendum.
The EU is, and always has been, a bosses club. While it presents itself as “civilized” and upholding “free movement,” the EU is synonymous with the racist Fortress Europe. Its militarized border has sent thousands of migrants from North Africa to their death in the Mediterranean and supported undemocratic leaders in places like Sudan. Tragically, much of the left is confused on the nature of the EU. Some see it as a progressive bulwark against reaction, others see it as flawed multinational institution that could be progressively reformed.
The reality is much different. The economic policies of the EU have served to hamstring any left alternative inside the Eurozone, instituting brutal austerity in countries like Greece, and imposing budgetary constraints and curbing the rules around nationalization. The EU has been a breeding ground for the far-right parties in countries like Germany, Hungary, Poland, Austria, France and Italy. Illusions about the nature of the EU in the Brexit debate makes it much harder for Labour supporters to see the second referendum for what it is: a trojan horse.
Roots of the political crisis
The Tory party has been hopelessly divided over Brexit for years. Theresa May, who along with David Cameron backed a remain position in the 2016 referendum, has been unable to pass a Brexit deal in parliament. Hard Brexiters in her own party regularly have voted against her Brexit deals in the hopes of dashing a soft exit from the EU. The Labour party has been split between those who accept the results of the referendum and those who want to remain at all costs. Meanwhile, the other pro-remain parties in parliament, the SNP, Lib-Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru, all support a second referendum and have voted against May’s deal repeatedly.
The humuliating parliamentary defeats suffered by May over her Brexit deal from January to March, including the largest parliamentary vote against a government in the UK’s history, spelled the end of May’s leadership. But as awful and ineffective as May was, the inability of the government to navigate Brexit is symptomatic of a much wider political crisis in the UK.
The source of the crisis in the ruling class is two-fold. The first is that the ruling class is almost universally opposed to Brexit. Large corporations and the City of London have no desire to leave the EU. The Tory Party’s internal division over Brexit does not reflect a consensus among capital’s, rather it is generated by a long standing eurosceptic current within the ruling class and an emerging nationalism in the party’s voting base. The failure of globalization and free trade to deliver either economic stability or improvements for most people has made voters more open to nationalist — and protectionist — sentiments. This is a trend that extends well beyond the UK or even Europe.
Cameron had promised a second referendum in his 2015 election manifesto in order to win back UKIP voters, silence the longstanding rift within the Tory party over the EU and strengthen his ability to negotiate terms with the EU. Cameron’s short-term tactical outlook turned out to be one of the biggest strategic blunders for the British ruling class. Since at least the 1970s the British ruling class has come to largely accept that British capitalism’s fate is tied to that of the EU. With a faded empire and after decades of decline in its manufacturing base, British capital today is even more reliant on access to the European market and on being a semi-detached financial hub to the EU. Brexit has robbed the British ruling class of its central strategic orientation for the last 50 years.
The other side of the crisis equation for the British establishment was Corbyn’s victory. His election as leader of the Labour Party in the summer of 2015 came as a surprise to most observers, even to Corbyn himself. His clear articulation of anti-austerity working class politics as well as his principled stand on issues of war and peace distinguished himself from a field of milquetoast Blairite candidates. The one member one vote rule adopted by the Labour Party in 2014, and designed to curb union influence and prevent left-wing candidates, actually allowed members to voice overwhelming support for Corbyn who won the nomination with 60% of voters in a four-way race.
The threat of Corbynism
While Labour party members overwhelmingly supported Corbyn, his fellow MPs and the party apparatus despised him and his politics. And the ruling class feared him. Corbyn stood for a politics that rejected austerity, opposed the drive to war, and placed human needs over profits.
When the Tory party thrust the entire ruling class into crisis over Brexit, the Corbyn-led Labour Party could no longer be a junior partner to the British establishment, to see it through troubled waters. As a result, the ruling class became mired in an intractable political crisis. Its first option was to push for the removal of Corbyn as leader. This explains why the Blairite wing of the Labour Party has been so relentless in its attacks on Corbyn. Despite several tries — including and fomenting a new leadership challenge in 2016 — it has been unable to overcome Corbyn’s popularity within the Labour Party ranks.
The 2017 election, which was supposed to strengthen Theresea May’s hand in Brexit negotiations within her own party and drive Corbyn out of leadership, ended up doing the opposite. Corbyn ran on an ambitious anti-austerity platform that centred the needs of working class people in the UK. The result was one of the largest increases in vote share for the Labour Party in generations. Corbyn’s better than expected results forced a change of gears from the establishment. Instead of immediate removal they aimed to sap his leadership through drummed up controversies such as the anti-semitism allegations and by driving a wedge inside the party over Brexit.
With their “remain and reform” position during the first Brexit referendum, the weakness of Labour’s position on the EU is apparent. During and immediately after the Brexit referendum the Labour right loudly complained that Corbyn’s position was ineffective and he should resign. After the referendum, Corbyn’s position was to immediately accept the overwhelming results of the vote and push for a people’s Brexit. This position made its way into the 2017 election manifesto:
Labour accepts the referendum result and a Labour government will put the national interest first. We will prioritise jobs and living standards, build a close new relationship with the EU, protect workers’ rights and environmental standards, provide certainty to EU nationals and give a meaningful role to Parliament throughout negotiations. We will end Theresa May’s reckless approach to Brexit, and seek to unite the country around a Brexit deal that works for every community in Britain.
While Corbyn was focused on delivering a people’s Brexit, concentrating on issues of improved public services, jobs and the environment, the Labour right, backed by the elements of the soft left in labour, pushed through the second referendum position at the 2018 Labour Party conference. This position did not commit the Labour Party to supporting a second referendum but did allow it as an option. This internal maneuvering by the right-wing inside the Labour Party dovetailed with the large public campaign for a ‘peoples’ vote’, the big business funded campaign backed by the likes of Tony Blair and Alaister Campbell. Even with the May government in a deep crisis, the pressure on the Corbyn leadership to acquiesce to a second referendum has been unrelenting in the media and within his Parliamentary Labour Party. In a bid to pressure Corbyn to change his position on Brexit seven rightwing Labour Party MPs resigned from the Labour Party in February and founded the Independent Group, which later became Change UK.
In the wake of the May European Parliament elections that saw Labour perform poorly, thought not as badly as the Tories, the pressure to change Labour’s stance on a second referendum reached a fever pitch. Sadly, steadfast Corbyn supporters such as John McDonnell and Diane Abbott changed their position on backing a second referendum. The leadership of the 40,000 member pro-Corbyn Labour organization, Momentum, argued that Corbyn must back a second referendum in a bid to stave off the Labour right, even though that is the Labour right’s position winning it can only bolster their confidence. Even more tragically, Momentum leader Jon Lansman took the bait and legitimized the drummed-up charges of anti-semitism inside the Labour Party.
Only one element of the institutional support for the Corbyn project has remained consistent in its position over Brexit: the trade union movement. Trade union leaders, who represent members spread across the country in both Leave and Remain voting areas, well understand that calling for a second referendum about destroying Corbyn’s leadership and any political alternative to neoliberalism in the UK.
Corbynism and the crisis
For now Corbyn still holds the position that if Labour were to achieve a victory in a snap election in the fall and negotiated a people’s Brexit (itself an unlikely proposition, given the experience of both Britain under a Tory government and Greece under an ostensibly more radical Syriza government), Labour could avoid a second referendum. But having ceded the ground to a second referendum already it would be no surprise if Corbyn were pressured into fully backing a so-called “people’s vote.”
Even if Corbyn were somehow to win the next election, the buckling of the Labour left under pressure does not portend well for what a Corbyn led government could accomplish in government, where it would obviously be under even more pressure from global capital. And indeed, it was only last Sunday that we witnessed the ouster of Syriza from government in Greece and its replacement by the Tory equivalent New Democracy. Elected with much hope and fanfare as an alternative to neoliberalism, and armed with an unprecedented mandate to reject the austerity imposed by the EU, IMF, and the European Central Bank Syriza ended up squeezed and debased by comprise and pressure from the EU and the ruling class. This is all the more tragic given the incredible willingness of the working class to fight, having launched no fewer than 50 general strikes since 2010.
Corbynism is by no means dead. But the terrain is much more difficult. Even with this compromise, the ruling class in the UK is headed towards a major crisis in the fall. There are no easy solutions for them, which is why the pressure on Corbyn is escalating now. It is impossible to predict what exactly will happen, but for the working class to take advantage of the crisis in the ruling class, the left must focus on uniting workers around a vision for a more just, equal and democratic society. A second referendum will make that task much more difficult.