There are now less than 200 days to go before the UK officially leaves the European Union and still no agreement has been reached over the terms of the UK’s departure.
As Theresa May and many of her European counterparts meet in Salzburg, they will be hoping that with enough fudge they will be able to deliver a deal which survives a ratification vote in the British parliament. But the opposition of as many as 70 Tory MPs could be enough to shatter their proposals and send the UK crashing out of the EU without any deal on 29 March 2019.
Many are now speculating on what exactly could happen if May fails to get her compromise deal through parliament.
Recently, the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, warned that the economic impact of a no-deal Brexit “could be as bad as the financial crash 2008”. Meanwhile, in August, Chancellor Philip Hammond predicted that leaving the EU without a deal would erase as much as 7.7% from the UK’s national income, relative to the maintenance of the status quo.
With such a prospect in view for British capitalism, the idea of having another referendum on Brexit - a “People’s Vote” - has become increasingly prominent over the last few months.
In particular, this demand is being pushed ever harder in the run-up to Labour Party Conference, where many pro-EU campaigners hope the demand will be debated and even passed as party policy.
The question of Labour’s stance on a People’s Vote is particularly important considering the weakness of the so-called “centrists”. As the Independent notes, “if there is to be a Commons majority for a referendum, it will require the Labour opposition and Conservative pro-Europeans to join forces”.
This belief is shared by Labour Remain, a group in the Labour Party calling for a second referendum, who state that “Brexit can be stopped but only through the Labour Party”. Indeed, Robert Shrimsley, the editorial director of the Financial Times has even advised Blairites to delay their inevitable split, as “there is a fight to be had now over Brexit and any breakaway from Labour will weaken that battle”.
But unfortunately for the Blairites, as much as they may take heed of Shrimsley’s advice, they are too sidelined and discredited within the Labour Party to make a successful push themselves. If the right wing is to win its fight on Brexit, therefore, it will ironically need the support of the very Corbyn-supporting left that it has been slandering and expelling since 2015.
Consequently, the focus of campaigns for a second referendum (a “People’s Vote”) has shifted from toxic figures such as Tony Blair to left-wing, pro-EU campaigns such as “Another Europe is Possible”.
This shift has also seen the cross-party campaign of “entrepreneurs” against Brexit, Best for Britain, donate £70,000 to Another Europe, despite fundamentally disagreeing with Corbyn’s programme. Meanwhile, much of the liberal media has been quick to promote the new left face of the anti-Brexit movement - when they aren’t attacking Corbyn and the left over anti-semitism, that is.
The last few weeks have also seen pressure building within the trades unions. Tim Roache, the leader of the GMB, has come out in support of a second referendum, with or without a general election. Meanwhile, both the recent Unite policy conference and the TUC Congress have passed motions that leave the option of campaigning for another referendum on the table, if it is not possible to force an early general election.
Inside the Labour Party, motions calling for a second referendum have been passed by over 100 CLPs. These are backed by a variety of campaign groups, including Another Europe is Possible, Labour for a People’s Vote, Progress, Labour First, Best for Britain, Labour Remain, Labour4EU. This raises important questions for socialists in the Labour Party.
The first question which must be asked is: what exactly would be gained if the Labour Party were to campaign for a second referendum on the EU?
If the vote were simply between the Tory government’s deal and no deal at all, campaigners would find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Instead, many People’s Vote campaigners argue that a new referendum should include another option - to stay in the EU after all - and that Labour should campaign for this.
But even assuming that such an option would win, which is by no means a foregone conclusion, at best this would represent a return to the same status quo that so many millions of people rejected back in 2016.
The main argument raised by prominent Remainers, such as Chuka Umunna MP, is that Brexit will have a catastrophic effect on the profitability of British business and so it must be prevented “in the national interest”.
This argument has also even been used on the left of the Labour Party. But it necessarily means that workers can only gain when business prospers. If this is the case, then no gains could ever be fought for during a crisis, because they would almost certainly harm the bosses’ profits, threatening a slump and rising unemployment.
Any programme which limits itself to only fighting for gains when times are good is like an umbrella full of holes: useless precisely when you need it.
Brexit is not the only risk posed to the British economy, even in the short term. While Carney has estimated that a no-deal Brexit could be as damaging as the 2008 crash (and not without reason), Gordon Brown has recently warned that the world is “sleepwalking into a financial crisis” like that of 2008.
Clearly, Corbyn cannot suspend his programme when threatened with this; in fact it would make a genuine socialist government more necessary and urgent than ever.
Trade union leaders such as Frances O’Grady have highlighted the need to defend workers rights. But campaigning to remain in the EU is not the way to do this.
In her keynote speech at the TUC Congress, O’Grady gave a ringing endorsement of the “new plan for better working lives” offered by Jacques Delors, who as the President of the European Commission addressed the TUC Congress in 1988.
But 30 years on, this dream has not materialised. Today, after more than 40 years of membership of the EU and the Common Market, millions of workers face Dickensian working conditions, increasingly long hours, and low pay.
Real wages fell 5% between 2007 and 2015 - a time when most people considered Brexit impossible. Over the last eight years, in particular, workers everywhere have seen their conditions and job security ruthlessly attacked by the bosses, who continue to make a killing. All the while, EU legislation hovers pristinely above the fray, neither enforced nor even noticed by many.
Elsewhere in Europe - in Greece, Italy and Spain - workers have come under ferocious attack, all under the direction of the EU and its institutions. For British trade union leaders to tie the fate of British workers to the EU would come across as highly ironic to the workers of these countries.
If O’Grady is prepared to mobilise six million union members for anything, it should be to bring down the Tory government, put Corbyn in power, and end the suffering of British workers. Instead the TUC is lining up with the Blairites and big business in the hope of going back to the ‘good old days’ of 2016.
As Mike Cash, general secretary of the RMT, said during the debate at the TUC Congress: “How are you going to win a deal? It is to mobilise, it is to get on the streets, it is to fight back.”
The only power in society capable of winning a real improvement for all workers is the working class itself. Without an organised, militant fightback and an end to Tory rule, the onslaught on workers’ rights will continue to worsen regardless of the UK’s relationship to Europe. But this can only be achieved on the basis of the strongest possible unity of the workers’ movement.
If the leaders of the labour movement were to campaign not only for a second vote, but also to stay in the EU, in the face the poorest and least organised workers who voted to Leave, the working class as a whole would emerge weaker whatever the result.
Nothing could do more to drive millions of Leave-voting workers into the open arms of racist demagogues like Boris Johnson than to see the Labour Party working alongside pro-EU Tories to reverse the last referendum. This would be a tragedy of immeasurable proportions.
Leave voters cannot be won over by being told to vote again until they “get it right”, as Irish voters were patronisingly told in 2002 at the time of the Lisbon Treaty. Instead, we must win all workers over to Labour’s programme by offering a real alternative to the establishment politics and pro-capitalist policies epitomised by the EU.
Reform or revolution
The vast majority of Labour Party members clearly see an early general election and a Labour government as the party’s main priorities, regardless of their position on Brexit. But it has been argued that a left-wing government in the UK could only carry out its programme successfully if it remains in the EU, or at least the Single Market.
As the Independent put it: a Tory hard Brexit would be so damaging for the economy that “even an incoming Corbyn government could not end austerity”.
But such an assertion conveniently neglects to mention that countries both firmly inside the EU (such as Italy) and outside it (such as Turkey) are also facing deep economic crises. The problem is the global crisis of capitalism, not simply Brexit.
Elsewhere, Labour for a People’s Vote has claimed that if a Tory Brexit deal is signed, “a new Labour government will be unable to deliver on its promises”.
The answer to this problem, according to People’s Vote campaigners, is for Labour to campaign to stop Brexit and try to reform the EU from the inside.
But on what basis? The EU is an entirely capitalist institution, set up by and for the bosses of Europe against the workers of Europe and the world. Not only that, it is an institution in deep crisis, resorting to ever more brutal and undemocratic methods to protect its core interests at the expense of the rest.
If a Labour government were to try to carry out the “fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families”, as promised by shadow chancellor John McDonnell, the EU would immediately see this as a threat - because it is threat.
The EU has just as much reason to fear Labour’s programme as the City of London. Far from being unable to deliver on his promises outside the EU, Corbyn would be unable to deliver them inside of it, without coming into direct conflict with its institutions and the giant capitalist interests that they were created to serve.
The election of a left-wing government does not change the class nature of society. The election of Syriza in Greece did not change the need of French and German banks to liquidate the Greek state to cover their own balance sheets. There is no reason to expect a different approach to a radical left-wing government anywhere else, least of all in one of the world’s largest economies.
For a Socialist Europe
The task of a socialist Labour government should not be to try to patch up this broken system, but to wrench control of the economy out of the hands of the bankers and put it firmly into those of the workers.
Rather than trying to “save Europe from itself”, such a government would have to reach out to the workers of Europe and call on them to join in building a new socialist Europe, based on the joint international struggle of the working class: the very antithesis of the “European project” under capitalism.
The crisis of Brexit and all that it threatens cannot simply be reversed - it must be faced head on. With a socialist and internationalist programme, Labour can lead this fight and win.
This is why socialists should say No to a People’s Vote, Yes to a socialist Labour government, and Yes to a Socialist United States of Europe.