Brexit and the labour movement

Submitted by SJW on 11 September, 2018 - 9:39
anti-Brexit demo

We oppose Brexit. We oppose it in the name of the rights of the three million EU migrants currently in Britain, our workmates, our neighbours, our friends, our fellow trade-unionists. To defend their right to reunite their families. To sustain the right of others across Europe to come to work and live in Britain, and the right of British-born people to go to work and live in Europe.

We want more open borders, less fences and barbed-wire and barriers between countries. The technologies and productive capacities of today indict the division of continents into walled-off nation-states.

Socialists build on the progressive achievements (and semi-achievements, and quarter-achievements) of capitalism, rather than trying to reach the future by diving back into an idealised past.

The way beyond capitalism is through united left-wing and working-class efforts reaching across borders, uniting workers continent-wide and worldwide.

In fact, the drive behind Brexit is specifically and primarily a drive against the now decades-old right to free movement across Europe. We defend that right.

The Tories want to find a formula to stop Brexit re-raising barriers along the border within Ireland, and talk hopefully about how high-tech wizardry can help. It is hard to see how it can do that decisively. Its effect on poisoning relations between the communities in Ireland is also a big reason to oppose Brexit.

Some on the left have made it their pitch that the Tories will produce a very “hard” Brexit. That may not be true. The argument against Brexit should be made on the positive and principled grounds of free movement, lower borders, social levelling-up, and a fight to democratise the EU, not just on the negative claim that the Tories will impose extreme Brexit.

In fact there is strong ruling-class pressure on the Tories for a “softer” Brexit. Their official plan is now to keep Britain in the Single Market for goods (it does not operate comprehensively for services anyway) and to keep it half-in the Customs Union: both those after a transition period from March 2019 to December 2020 in which Britain will still comply fully with EU rules.

The Tories have been explicit that in the short term they do not want to repeal “social” measures introduced into Britain from the EU, such as TUPE. Big business finds those measures mild enough to live with. The Tory leadership knows that repealing those measures and aiming to make Britain a low-social-overhead, ultra-free-market offshore production site, as advocated by some Tory right-wingers, would make trade deals with the EU very difficult, and does not want to pay that price.

The Tories have conceded nothing on free movement. However, pressure from the ruling class may well limit their regressive moves on that, too.

We point all this out, not to calm worries and tell our listeners that Brexit will not be too bad, but to make our arguments against Brexit solid, principled, and free from demagogy.

The June 2016 referendum was of dubious democratic authority. In any case it gave no mandate for the specifics of what the Tories are doing now. And in any case democracy means that minorities must retain the opportunity to argue and become majorities.

We demand Labour opposes the Tories' Brexit plans all along the line. We deny that the Tories have any democratic right to push through a specific Brexit formula - which is a very different thing from the vague prospect of Brexit voted on in June 2016 - with parliamentary votes on the detail, and a referendum on the deal on terms that allow for rejection of the deal to mean status quo, i.e. not or not yet Brexit.

We advocate such a referendum give votes to 16 and 17 year olds and to all migrants resident in the UK (at the very least, all EU citizens), and allows media coverage for a diversity of views on both yes and no sides (the “debate” in the mass media before the June 2016 referendum was very heavily a Tory vs Tory one).

We advocate that Labour debate Brexit democratically, oppose Brexit, and campaign to seek a democratic mandate for reversing it.

If the Tories push through a Brexit deal before Labour can come to office, we demand Labour commit to repealing new restrictions on free movement introduced under that deal and to re-aligning with the Single Market and Customs Union with a view to getting Britain back into the EU.

All these policies sit within a broader program of workers' unity across borders and national differences, winning democracy on a European level, social levelling-up across the continent, and replacement of the EU's free-market-ist rules with rules of international solidarity.

We have sought to build local Left Against Brexit activist groups, which organise street stalls, speakers and motions to labour-movement bodies, local debates, rallies, and door-to-door campaigning.

We will seek to join these groups together into a coordinated Left Against Brexit network.

There is strong grass-roots feeling against Brexit. The 23 June “People's Vote” demonstration, heavily dependent on social media for its promotion, drew 100,000 people. The general picture is that more left-wing or liberal-minded people oppose Brexit, and more conservative and chauvinist-minded people support it.

Yet so far the running in anti-Brexit protests has been made by the Liberal Democrats and groupings on similar wavelengths.

The Liberal Democrats, as you might expect, oppose Brexit only on the grounds that EU membership is “good for Britain” (i.e. British capitalism). They couple their opposition to Brexit with no program for democracy and social levelling-up across Europe. They support “the principle of” freedom of movement, but qualify that as meaning that “restrictions sought by the government must take account of the vital importance of EU workers to the British economy, including public services”, i.e. saying that the freedom can be restricted if the restriction does not appear to damage “the British [capitalist] economy” much.

We aim to create a pole, visible on the streets, combatting Brexit from a socialist and internationalist viewpoint.

That work should continue for years yet. Even if the Tories push through a Brexit deal, the details of the restrictions to be imposed on freedom of movement and so on will remain to be settled. The fight should continue to defeat or reverse those restrictions.

The Brexit drive is part of a worldwide picture of the chief political gains from the destabilisation caused by the 2008 crash and the economic travails since then being made by right-wing nationalist forces, “populist” in the sense of speaking demagogically and claiming to represent the “ordinary people” of a country against the (“foreign”, or foreign-linked) “elites”.

Internationally, that pattern has continued since June 2016, with Trump's victory in the USA, Erdogan's gaining of fuller powers, and Salvini's triumph in Italy.

Left-wing surges have also been generated by the economic disarray of the last decade: the Corbyn surge in Britain is one of them. The right-wing surge warns us that the alternative, in the medium term, to us finding the energy and strength to transform and improve the left sufficiently, is not just business-as-usual neoliberalism, but something uglier.

Trump is exceptional among the new right-nationalists in focusing on trade. Brexit sentiment in Britain has been mostly about immigration, not trade: most Brexit voters (according to surveys) and Brexit leaders (according to their statements) want the UK to stay very open to trade, only they dislike immigration more than they like trade.

In the USA it has been different. There is much anti-immigrant sentiment there, but it is not overwhelming nor even necessarily increasing. Skepticism about trade has been on the rise since the 1990s, both in public opinion and in Congress. By September 2010, in a poll 53% said free trade agreements “hurt the USA”, and only 17% that they “helped”, where in 1999 there had been a majority for “helped”.

Nationalism directed against trade, and nationalism directed against migrants, are not identical, but today they interlink. The Trump who goes for trade wars with China, the EU, Canada, and Mexico is also the Trump who wants to build a wall against migrants across the Mexican border. The Brexiters who want to exclude East European migrants will also raise trade barriers between Britain and the EU (though while making vague promises of trade deals in other directions).

Socialists do not endorse capitalist free trade. We are not for the unfettered rule of markets. We are for fettering market forces through social-provision and worker-protection policies, as international as possible. As the working class gains political strength, we aim to make democratically-decided social solidarity the chief regulator of economic affairs.

We are not necessarily opposed, even, to all bourgeois protectionist policies. “Nursery tariffs”, allowing new industries to make a start in weaker countries, are not our way of doing things, but they have a rationale, and we would not condemn them in favour of undiluted free trade.

In general, however, our approach is as Marx outlined in 1847:

“Do not imagine, gentlemen, that in criticising freedom of trade we have the least intention of defending the system of protection. One may declare oneself an enemy of the constitutional regime without declaring oneself a friend of the ancient [i.e. autocratic or aristocratic] regime...

“In general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favour of free trade”.

Frederick Engels explained further when republishing Marx's text from 1847: “The question of Free Trade or Protection moves entirely within the bounds of the present system of capitalist production, and has, therefore, no direct interest for us socialists who want to do away with that system. Indirectly, however, it interests us inasmuch as we must desire as the present system of production to develop and expand as freely and as quickly as possible... From this point of view, Marx pronounced, in principle, in favour of Free Trade as the more progressive plan...”

A little later, when Lenin in 1902 wanted to cite an easily-understood example of a typical socialist campaign of his day, he chose this: “Take, for example, the struggle the German Social-Democrats are now waging against the corn duties. The theoreticians write research works on tariff policy, with the 'call'... to struggle for commercial treaties and for Free Trade... The 'concrete action' of the masses takes the form of signing petitions ... against raising the corn duties”.

Free trade first spread in the mid-19th century. Tariff protection became more popular with governments later in the 19th century, but on the whole tariffs of the leading capitalist countries remained fairly low until about 1930, with the USA as the main exception.

A spiral of beggar-my-neighbour tariffs in the 1930s crashed world trade and worsened the economic slump then.

Since World War Two it has been bourgeois orthodoxy to favour making trade barriers low, with argument only about the scale and type of the exceptions to that rule. From the 1960s the running-into-a-wall of “developmentalist” trade barrier regimes in second-tier capitalist countries from Ireland to Argentina has broadened the hold of that orthodoxy.

After the crash of 2008, the chief, in fact only clear-cut, decision of the emergency G20 summit of November 2008 was to demand of all governments that they avoid building trade barriers in response. On the whole, that decision held.

The USA has always been an exception within the capitalist free-trade world order it has promoted and keystoned since World War 2.

Because of the USA's size, its relatively small (though increasing, from 10% in 1970 to 25% now) ratio of trade to GDP, and its status as home to so many multinationals, an expert comments that: “The United States has not historically worried much about how to make itself an attractive location for investment geared towards exports”, though pretty much all other governments have worried greatly and increasingly about that.

The USA has simultaneously been the keystone of a relatively free-trade world-market system, and often the most reckless and narrow-minded about the necessary capitalist give-and-take. That contradiction has been kept within bounds for decades. With Trump, it could prove deadly.

There are strong forces of inertia which will act to stop Trump's measures decisively destabilising the world's more-or-less free-trade system, at least for now.
Even the hardest Brexiters among the Tories want some trade deal with the EU, and want more trade deals with non-EU states. Nationalist-populist parties in Europe like France's Front National (now renamed Rassemblement National) and Italy's Lega and Five Star Movement have, as they have neared or looked like nearing government office, become more hesitant about policies which might reverse European economic integration.

US capitalists who have gone along with Trump in the belief or hope that his measures are only bluster designed to get new trade deals on more favourable terms are likely to rebel more decisively if they see trade conflicts spiralling out of control.

But all that is now, when the faltering economic recovery after 2008 is at about the strongest (or least weak) it has been since then.

The growth of a new far-right movement is a particular new development and part of the picture.

One element of the new movement a continuation or revival of the former English Defence League milieu, which connected often casually-racist football firms with more developed nationalist politics. But the movement also has a core of fascist and neo-Nazi activists, such as Generation Identity, as well as links with and funding from figures on the international populist hard-right such as Steve Bannon and Geert Wilders. This movement has been able to mobilise on the streets in greater numbers than any far-right movement in Britain since the 1930s. 

In this context, rebuilding a culture of working-class anti-fascism is vital, not as a campaigning activity to be outsourced to some external body (Hope Not Hate, Stand Up to Racism, or the mooted proposal of a relaunched Anti-Nazi League) but conducted by labour movement bodies - union branches and local Labour Parties - under their own banner, directly mobilising their own members, on the basis of explicitly socialist politics.

What will happen in the next crisis? The crisis for which so much explosive material is accumulating in the financial markets? Will bourgeois patience and restraint hold the line then? Quite likely not.

The response of the labour movement cannot be to endorse the more far-sighted and rational elements of established bourgeois opinion.

But it must include vigorous rejection of the drift towards trade war, and of all suggestions that there is something socially-desirable or pro-working-class about the drift.
Against a determined push by the new right-wing nationalists, the liberal bourgeoisie will not safeguard the moderate extensions of formal equality, the modest opening of opportunities to ethnic minorities, the relative freedom of movement for some across some borders, the halfway secularism, the mild cosmopolitanism, on which it prides itself.

Having already let so many civil rights be swallowed by the “war on terror” and the drive for “labour flexibility”, it will be no bulwark for the rest. The liberal bourgeoisie may not even safeguard the achievement of which it boasts most, the reduction of economic barriers between countries.

Before the USA's Smoot-Hawley tariff law of 1930, which started a catastrophic spiral of protectionism and shrinking world trade, “economics faculties [in the USA]... were practically at one in their belief that the Hawley-Smoot bill was an iniquitous piece of legislation”. Over a thousand economists petitioned the US administration against it. It went through, and its effects spiralled.

It falls to the labour movement to defend even the limited bourgeois ameliorations.

The labour movement cannot do that unless it mobilises; unless it cleanses itself of the accommodations to nationalism now so common over Brexit; and unless it spells out socialist answers which can convince and rally the millions of the economically marginalised and disillusioned. It falls to the left to make the labour movement fit for those tasks.

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