EU elections: why Anti-Brexit Socialists should still vote Labour

22 May 2019

Both the major parties, or rather their leaders, hoped to avoid having to hold the European elections at all. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn want some form of Brexit. May because she hoped it might yet save her job or at least her ‘legacy’ as prime minister; Corbyn because it would throw the responsibility for the damaging consequences onto the Tories, keep the party together, and let him get on with campaigning on “social” issues.  

After Labour’s poor showing in the local elections, he said: “an arrangement has to be made, a deal has to be done, parliament has to resolve this issue. I think that is very, very clear.” Now, breaking off weeks of fruitless negotiations, he cites the divisions in the Tory Party, as if they were not apparent before the start.  In reality, the talks were doomed just as much because of the divisions within the Labour Party. Keir Starmer has several times repeated that Labour should not agree to any deal that does not include a “confirmatory vote”. Jeremy, on the other hand, has been studiously silent, beyond the statement that it was still on the table. This has left Labour’s policy on Brexit totally muddled and confused.

As for the talks, obviously the Labour and Tory red lines could never have converged because if May had conceded “a” customs union or “exactly the same benefits” (Labour’s red lines), let alone a “confirmatory vote’ (Kier Starmer’s, at least) her backbenchers would have voted it down. If Corbyn had abandoned these demands, then his backbenchers, and some frontbenchers, too, would have revolted and scuppered the deal anyway. The whole charade was aimed at a pointless delay. It is precisely this double-speak and repeated delays that have fuelled the “second coming” of Nigel Farage and Vince Cable in the EU elections (and likely beyond). Yet Jeremy Corbyn was twice elected as leader, and boosted Labour’s score in the 2017 general election, as the man who promised “open and honest politics”.

On one issue, immigration, Labour’s 2017 election manifesto was clear and unequivocal, albeit wrong and reactionary. It said: “Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union.” Indeed, Corbyn’s letter breaking off negotiations with May refers to ending free movement as one of the agreements they reached in the talks. Yet, on Sunday, on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, when pressed on why he was against freedom of movement, Jeremy said: “I’m not staunchly against freedom of movement.”

How ridiculous! For internationalists he should have been staunchly in favour of the rights of British and continental workers to seek jobs right across the EU. Unscrupulous employers, who want free movement just to hire cheap labour, can be combatted by union action here and by protective legislation to make such action illegal. In any case, there should be no pandering to the minority in Labour’s ranks who support such nationalist demands, only outright support for immigration controls would satisfy them.

Jeremy also added, “I want us to get a good deal and then let the public have a decision after that.” Is this a people’s vote or not? If it is, then why the all the ducking and diving since the Liverpool Conference last year? The truth is Labour’s “good deal” is a unicorn, no one has ever seen it. Either it means accepting May’s deal with a fig leaf or two on workers’ rights or it means accepting all the fundamental rules of the single market and customs union along with the Court of Justice which imposes them. If it is the former, why not vote for May’s deal on 3 June? If the latter, why leave the EU and lose the ability to make (and fight against) its policies?

Labour plummets in the polls

Jeremy’s latest half-hearted and evasive concession to the majority of his members’ views on free movement and a People’s Vote is simply a response to the widespread reports that Labour voters are switching to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. This should have been no surprise. The great majority of them, including in the North of England, are now opposed to Brexit and do not have racist attitudes to Polish builders, Portuguese nurses or refugees fleeing the terrible wars in the Middle East.

Opinion polls show significantly over 50 percent are now opposed to Brexit but that some are fooled by the argument that to have another referendum on the deal is undemocratic.  This is untrue.  Firstly, it is not the same “deal” that was presented by the Leave campaigners. In 2016, Farage, Johnson, Rees-Mogg and Co denied repeatedly they were in favour of No Deal and claimed they could get a good deal out of the EU. Secondly, the EU has made it clear that the deal they agreed with May, to avoid a hard border in Ireland, is the only one on offer.

The Labour leadership prior to the European elections stressed the need to hold a general election and get a Labour government in, to craft a new deal.  But if this parliament cannot agree on a deal or abandoning Brexit why would a new parliament be able to do so?  If the two main parties continued to be divided it would be a complete lottery as to what the majority in the new parliament would favour.  The answer to overcoming Labour’s divisions was always quite clear and simple; to consult the members in a special conference devoted to the fundamental question; Leave or Remain? The leadership refused to go down this obvious and democratic route because of its commitment to Brexit.  It will be up to members after the election to ensure their voices are heard and that they decide the party’s policy.

Now, in desperation at its falling vote as predicted by the polls, Labour’s argument has shifted to a negative one; that we need to keep out the far right and block Farage’s Brexit Party.  Of course that is true, but it will have a limited effect in shoring up the Labour vote because it ignores the main question posed by the election, Brexit.  The Greens, LibDems, and other remain parties all proclaim that a vote for Labour is a vote for Brexit, while the Brexit Party, UKIP and the right all claim it is an anti-Brexit party in equally loud headlines.  While the Labour leadership is at odds with the membership (and voters) the crisis in the party will continue.

Why we should vote Labour

So, given Labour’s complete confusion, why should an internationalist Labour voter, why should trade unionists, students and community activists, vote Labour at all in this election? After all, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, do quite clearly and unequivocally oppose Brexit – hard or soft – and they support a second referendum, too. On the other side, Farage and the Brexit Party could not be clearer and if they win a big majority they will claim this confirms the 2016 referendum and proves the people want a Full and Hard Brexit.

The reason socialists cannot and should not vote for these anti-Brexit parties is that an election, any election, is not just a protest vote, an expression of the voters’ indignation or approval. True, this vote will not have a direct effect on government or how the will of the majority will be carried into action in the UK. Only governments, and the parties that form them, can do that.

The European Parliament, however, is not irrelevant or toothless. It does have a say in the choice of the head of the European Commission and Brexit party MPs would vote for the most reactionary measures and candidates alongside Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orbán, if the UK fails to leave by 29 October. A landslide for Farage will push the media and exasperated public mood to the right. Yet, leaving all that aside, Labour will still be the only serious contender for power, if a general election is triggered by the inability of the Tories under a new leader to get Brexit through.

The anti-Brexit parties, with the exception of the Scottish Nationalists, cannot hope to be in government and the SNP only in Scotland and with a limited range of powers. Even more importantly, none of them are in any sense parties of the working class rooted in the Labour movement via the trade unions.

The Liberal Democrats are the only party with progressive views on Brexit that represent a serious challenge but it is, nevertheless, the junior party of British capitalism, something we last saw in coalition between 2010-15. They share completely the responsibility for imposing savage austerity, including notoriously breaking their pledge to young people to defend free education. This played a huge part in the anti-elite anger that was misdirected against the EU and immigration in the Brexit vote. Now they are using their role as the anti-Brexit party to win back their lost votes and supporters. Don’t be fooled!

More tempting for young voters is the Green Party. Greens have long warned of the dangers of climate catastrophe. But the party as a whole does not align itself with the working-class movement (though some on its left wing do).  This is a fatal weakness if you realise that capitalism with its banks and multinational corporations will never address the issue in time, dictated as they are by the thirst for profit above all else. It is increasingly clear that radical anticapitalist (i.e. socialist) measures are urgently needed for this.

Since the indispensable agency for imposing such policies is the working class, its trade unions and its party, getting a Labour government is a necessary step in the direction of winning mass support, and mass action, for a radical pro-environment policy. To weaken the likelihood of such a government would sabotage the very environmentalist programme that many Green voters and members seek to achieve.

The Labour party has over half million members, most of whom joined to fight austerity and are committed to green policies and hate racism.  They are the essential social force that has to be mobilised to defend us against the attacks of the right. Around the banner of Making Britain Great Again, Take Back Control and a No Deal Brexit, the forces of a new far right populist party are taking shape. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and even further rightwards, Gerard Batten and Tommy Robinson, are using Brexit to create a mass base for this. The sheer fact is that, today, only Labour stands a chance of standing up to Nigel Farage and the rise of the Brexit Party, let alone fascists like Tommy Robinson in the tumult of the next few years.  It is the only party capable of forming a government in the near future.

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as its leader, Labour remains the focus for most people fighting for all these objectives. Certainly, it is still a long way from developing a socialist i.e. an anticapitalist, programme, or carrying through a thoroughgoing democratic reform that would enable this to be seriously discussed, but a vote for Labour remains for now the starting point for an effective struggle for anti-austerity, green, anticapitalist policies and the restoration of the relatively progressive position on immigration and the rights of refugees it held before 2016.

For a democratic, anti-Brexit Labour

Therefore it is necessary for socialists to cast a critical vote for the Labour Party but also to redouble our efforts within it for a clear internationalism, for an anti-racist policy on immigration and for a policy of unity with our class sisters and brothers in Europe fighting against austerity and neoliberalism there. This is far from being a hopeless task.

A majority of the party membership and electorate never voted for Brexit. A survey shortly before Christmas, part of the Party Members Project, conducted by Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London, found that 2/3 of Labour members, though strongly supporting the leader, do not support his views on Brexit. 72 percent think Corbyn should openly and unequivocally support a second referendum. A parallel poll of 1,675 Labour voters found 73 percent of them believed the Brexit decision was the wrong one.

More than that, Labour’s support for Brexit was something imposed by the leader’s office, utilising the undemocratic structure and policy-making system inherited from Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair and all those who reformed Labour in the 1980s and 1990s. That is why Red Flag supporters supported resolutions calling for opposition to the negotiations with the Tories, no deal with May or any Tory leader, and an absolute and unequivocal pledge for a second referendum in which the option of abandoning Brexit altogether is on the ballot paper.

For all these reasons, supporters of Red Flag are campaigning for Labour MEPs in the European elections but at the same time we will be campaigning for the Labour Party conference to adopt a clear internationalist position of opposition to Brexit and for a referendum on the question of remaining and fighting alongside our European brothers and sisters, aiming to transform the Europe of the monopolies and the bankers into a workers’ Socialist United States of Europe.

Left wing activists, whilst fighting to get out the Labour vote on 23 May, should not remain silent about the terrible mess the leadership have made of the campaign and of the whole European policy. In the branches, the constituencies and affiliated unions we need to condemn the leadership’s stance, and demand that it do what Jeremy said he would do when he became leader: speak for the majority of Labour members and voters, rather than triangulate with the Brexit, anti-migrant forces inside and outside our ranks.

After the election, we need to ensure that every Labour MP votes to reject May’s deal when or if it returns to parliament in June. A struggle must immediately begin to reverse the party’s rotten “compromise” position, that was won in the final instance by the Momentum and Unite leadership’s intervention at last year’s conference to ensure that the motion did not clearly commit the leadership to Remain and a second referendum.

The party, through its local branches, constituency GCs , the National Executive and Annual Conference needs to make it clear that the PLP will never vote for Brexit, that a Labour government will not try to negotiate a “good Brexit” and that, if parliament votes for such a deal, it will demand a referendum and mobilise on the streets and by direct action to stop it. Labour for a Socialist Europe, the Love Socialism, Hate Brexit MPs need to mobilise for all they are worth to prevent this year’s conference from being deceived and deluded as Liverpool was.

Last, but not least, the entire Labour Left should fight to build links to workers in Europe, fighting against austerity and the neoliberal policies of the EU; policies that were pioneered in Britain under the Tories and would be redoubled under a Tory government led by the Brexiteers.

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