Building a left movement against Brexit

Submitted by cathy n on 14 November, 2018 - 6:46 Author: Interview: Michael Chessum
AEIP placards

Michael Chessum is the organiser of Another Europe Is Possible. He talked with Martin Thomas from Solidarity ahead of AEIP's conference on 8 December

Martin Thomas: In the June 2016 referendum, Labour was for “reform and remain”, but unenergetically. Straight after the referendum, Labour said it now agreed Brexit must go ahead; and then in November 2016 Labour dropped its support for free movement within Europe. That position has remained fixed ever since, except that over 2018 the Labour leadership has edged towards saying that a new referendum may become an option. We need to change Labour policy. How?

Michael Chessum: We’ve got a very limited time to change Labour’s policy. We had a strategy to change it which involved mobilisation round Labour Party conference, but there is a lot more to do.

The only way Labour is going to shift to an anti-Brexit position is sequential: the government’s deal is voted down; Labour calls for a general election; the Tories defeat that; then Labour goes for a new referendum. It is unlikely that any other logic will carry the Labour leadership with it.

One of the crucial arguments here is that defeating the government’s Brexit agenda is the only way to bring it down before 2022. Obviously that reasoning is not necessarily the politics we broadcast; those are anti-Brexit and pro-free-movement. Now that conference is over, we have no big democratic levers to pull, but we are still mobilising grass-roots pressure from the CLPs [Constituency Labour Parties].

The trade unions are beginning to shift slowly too, at membership level and at leadership level. And we’ve got a lot of ground-level activity – stalls, doorknocking, local actions. The Labour Party conference [in September 2018] opened up a space for an anti-Brexit turn, and inched Labour’s policy in the right direction. But it did so in weak terms.

The big holes in the conference policy are: what if we get a general election? What would go into the Labour manifesto? We now face a battle to get a referendum into the Labour manifesto.

The second issue is: at what stage does a referendum stop being an option on the table and become Labour Party policy? The recent survey by its members of Momentum [a Labour left group] moves that debate on: there’s majority support for the idea that as soon as you can’t get an election, then a referendum is the go-to.

The exact dynamics of how things work within the top tiers of the Labour Party are more complex. For the next few weeks all guns must be trained on the parliamentary vote [on the Tories’ Brexit formula], which could be very soon. We want to mobilise a massive demonstration — probably on voting down the Tory deal, rather than Brexit as such — and we need a campaign of civil disobedience.

Going for a new referendum is good. But on its current policy, in such a referendum Labour would vote against Remain and for “negotiating a better deal than the Tories”.

If a referendum happens, and a Remain option is on the ballot paper, the Labour leadership will have to campaign for Remain. The feeling will be so strong.

But that requires people inside the Labour Party saying that Labour should switch to opposing Brexit, and winning support for that view.

There are some people who envisage Labour coming to power, negotiating a new deal, putting it to a referendum, and then advocating the option of Remain against their own deal. I don’t think that makes sense. We have to kill the idea that Labour can negotiate a better deal. It can’t.

Yes, we need to win the political argument. But for that narrative to come into play, we need a national crisis to create room for the Labour leadership to carry out a U-turn and claim they are not giving way to our arguments. That will need a national crisis, a moment of political chaos. That could happen when the government can’t get its deal through Parliament and won’t call a general election. That’s the context in which things might shift.

The leadership have got to be convinced that opposing Brexit is their quickest route to power; and that, if Brexit goes through, they will be screwed when they win power. That is the argument that will win over the middle ground within the leadership, who broadly think that Brexit is a bad idea, but are most concerned with winning elections and winning power.

The Tories might produce a deal which gets Britain formally out of the EU on 31 March 2019 but leaves a long transition period in which little changes and leaves open the relationship at the end of the transition period. Labour might win an election before the transition period is finished. What should Labour do then?

We need to make the case that there is no democratic mandate for any Brexit. If Labour comes to power, it should try to get the UK readmitted before the transition period ends. That will be quite difficult, because new joiners to the EU are supposed to take the Euro and Schengen as conditions of joining.

But it is not impossible that Corbyn could have a Wilson moment [like Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in 1974-5]: go into negotiations and come back with something which he could present as a new deal with the EU, then put it to the people.

The basic bottom line is free movement — both as a moral question, and as essential for building an internationalist left.

I was concerned that after the Labour Party conference AEIP said that the conference had committed Labour to “defend freedom of movement”. It hadn’t.

We had hoped to get a separate debate on freedom of movement, but it was eaten up by the main composite. Explicit defence of freedom of movement didn’t get in there. What got in was a line which said: “The Brexit deal being pursued by Theresa May is a threat to... freedom of movement”, and some text about bosses not migrants being to blame for falling wages and crumbling public services.

There was a job to be done after the conference about defining the meaning of the motion. The motion was inevitably a fudge, but a much better fudge than what came before it. It was important to establish the meaning of the motion in the public eye.

It can’t help in winning Labour to defend freedom of movement to say that it already does. Why campaign if you’ve already got what you want? In fact Labour’s “six tests” explicitly reject freedom of movement.

It was a motion that implicitly supported freedom of movement. The six texts arguably contradict freedom of movement, but only for people who read them carefully, and you could get into a semantic debate over exactly what “managing” migration means...

And for the leadership!

For the leadership, the point of the six tests was they are unmeetable. The point was to restate those criteria in order to ensure Labour MPs vote against the deal. The six tests have essentially served their purpose as far as we are concerned.

Up to now AEIP has essentially been an NGO — it gets money from grants and philanthropists and such to pay an office staff to do activities which people out in the field may then support. Now it is allowing people to become “members” and calling a conference on 8 December. I’m worried, though, that the conference may give little time to what should be its main purpose, allowing members to debate and decide policy and structure.

The conference agenda hasn’t been drafted yet. Probably a strategy document and a structure document will be got out to members after 19 November, and they will be amendable. I don’t think we want a whole day of motions and detailed discussions, or a line-by-line debate on every detail of our policy, but the anticipation is that this will be a democratic conference. For example, we could have a debate on whether to say “stop Brexit” or “stop *Tory* Brexit”, but I think the disagreements are not especially sharp.

We’d want some points agreed. That AEIP should campaign for free movement upfront, including at its times of maximum visibility: there was no mention of free movement in the AEIP model motions for Labour Party conference, or in the AEIP model motion after conference. That AEIP should explicitly campaign to change Labour policy to opposing Brexit. And that AEIP should explain that the “other Europe” in its name means a socialist Europe, not just a Europe much like now but with better policy advisers, which seemed to be the line from the Europe For The Many conference [26-27 October].

That’s not a fair description of Europe For The Many.

The post-conference motion has now been updated, and now does mention free movement. Free movement is at the top of the agenda, and is the main issue Another Europe campaigns on. It is the core ideological issue around Brexit.

Obviously we do want to change the Labour Party’s policy on Brexit. That’s pretty self evident from the fact that we are going round CLPs with a model motion that is anti-Brexit.

A socialist Europe? We helped organise a big conference drawing in the pan-European left. We campaign for democratisation of the EU constitution, we are critical of EU refugee policy, we want levelling up of wages and conditions.

What about the criticism of the Europe For The Many conference on inviting Syriza leadership speakers?

I disagree with Syriza’s policy on the bailout, but it if you are looking to bring together the European left, it is clearly part of the conversation. We want to create a broad political space to talk about another Europe, to help the British left develop an international perspective. The policies and intent to transform Europe are all there, if not in the detail you want.

The issue is not that the Greek finance minister, for example, was invited, but that there weren’t Greek socialists invited to debate him.

It could have been better, but I don’t think this tells you very much. It’s not a sign of a crisis for AEIP’s internationalist politics.

So far AEIP has operated by funds coming “down” from the top to the staff. To change towards an activist movement, funded by its own efforts, is a big deal.

In the long run we should be independently funded by our members. We may go for grants for additional activities, but it will be good if our core functions are funded by members.

This year AEIP has turned outwards. In the year after the referendum we were very top-heavy. We produced reports and so on, but there was not much grass-roots activity. Now there is a lot of grass-roots activity.

At present AEIP has a steering group made up of people who founded AEIP, plus more people co-opted, and twelve people elected at a conference in April 2017. The steering group meets every few weeks, and is the guiding body.

We should come out with a council or committee of people elected by conference and/ or by members online, plus delegates from affiliates, including local groups in my opinion. I envisage a fully democratic structure, but not one where faction fights emerge or slates run against each other. We have to keep the tensions within AEIP under control. We want the culture of the democracy to be quite consensual, and not sharp.

Electing online guarantees a committee dominated by the best-known people — mostly the less left-wing people already on the steering group — and a committee which could be quite out of line with the conference. We all like to do things consensually, but who decides what the fixed points should be for the consensus, and what lies outside the consensus?

Ultimately we’ll need to elect a group of people responsible for leading the organisation and mediating the debates, and have staff who carry out the bidding of the elected committee.

AEIP conference 8 December

Solidarity and Workers' Liberty have worked with Another Europe is Possible since the referendum campaign in 2016. On 20 October we joined the "left bloc" organised by AEIP for the big People's Vote demonstration that day.

For most of its life, AEIP has operated as a sort of left NGO. It has gained philanthropic grants which pay for an office staff, supervised by a rather shadowy "board" or "steering group".

But on 25 October AEIP opened itself up to supporters to join. It announced that it will be holding a members' conference on 8 December in London, and that members will now have "a say in how we are run, what campaigns we do and what our strategy is".

We hope that the conference will allow real democracy in the movement; we encourage readers to join AEIP and come to the conference.

We'll be arguing for AEIP to campaign for free movement upfront; explicitly to demand that Labour reverse policy and campaign to stop Brexit; to call for a workers' socialist Europe; to have a committee democratically elected at the conference; and to sponsor local Left Against Brexit groups, but allow them autonomy.

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