Brexit can still stopped. The first step, though, is to halt an emerging mood of retreat among anti-Brexit people.
“People switch off from responding to every depressing political twist and turn of Brexit”, one activist wrote to us this week. Another: “people in my local [anti-Brexit] group feel down after Jeremy Corbyn’s responses on 28 and 29 January”. Yet others have said: “Face facts. Brexit is going to go through. No amount of agitation now will make much difference. The task now is to prepare the left for after Brexit”.
Versions of the same sentiment appear among the not-politically-active — “of course Brexit is wrong, but it’s too complicated, I can’t deal with it” — and among the defer-to-Corbyn types — “only the mainstream media is really bothered about Brexit. We should focus on other social issues”.
This phase gives a textbook example of how a minority ruling class rules in a formally democratic political system.
Working-class people “switch off”, persuaded that the rulers can always spin diversions and evasions faster than we can keep up with. The job of socialists is to overcome this inertia and resignation. Sometimes we lose. By definition, as long as capitalism remains stable, mostly we lose. But in the case of Brexit all the improbabilities remain still open.
May may eventually get enough of the DUP and Tory right to settle for some minor fudge on the backstop that she can get a tweaked deal through with help from some Labour rebels. But the EU will give her little — very little indeed before 14 February, maybe a little more as the “cliff-edge” approaches. The logic is clear: a “backstop”, by definition, can fall as soon as a working alternative is available, but only then. Moreover, a significant number of the Tory right are positively happy with “no deal”.
The problem with May doing a deal with the Labour front bench through warmer words on workers’ rights and a lasting customs union is not lack of common ground, but that neither side really wants to do such a deal. For May to get a deal by defying the Tory back benches by instead wooing the Labour front bench would mean splitting the Tory party. Conversely, Labour’s Leader’s Office want to appear to be “seeking unity” and “not blocking Brexit”, but they do not want to end up taking responsibility for May’s formula and risking a Labour split. A no-deal Brexit is now more probable.
Yet the Tory government will do a lot to avoid becoming seen as the team who caused a no-deal crash-out because they were incompetent to make a deal. Jeremy Corbyn dropped talk of an early general election, let alone a referendum, in his response to May on 29 January. It will be hard for him avoid re-raising them if May fails to fix something on 14 February, as she almost certainly will. In short, there will be continued turmoil and disarray at the top, at least up to 29 March, and very likely longer. A postponement of Article 50 is quite likely, but will not end the turmoil or resolve the impasse.
The Labour leadership is still under diverse pressures. All the outcomes are improbable, but one of them has to happen, so we can be sure that an improbable outcome will happen. The improbable outcome of a complete impasse in Parliament which leads to an early general election, or a new public vote, is still on the cards. Labour-focussed campaigning is especially vital in keeping that option open.
Where are the three M's taking us?
The Tory government is floundering, seeking to square the circle for a Brexit deal. They are scratching around for a formula which both avoids a “hard border” in Ireland, and placates the Tory right who want no link to EU standards and rules after Brexit and don’t care about Ireland. Yet, as the Tories lurch from chaos to crisis and back again, the Labour leadership has dropped its call for an early general election, and abandoned even the lip-service it gave to the demand for a new public vote on Brexit.
Labour’s shift was symbolised, and expressed, by Jeremy Corbyn’s meeting with Theresa May, the day after the Commons votes on 29 January, to discuss Brexit plans. To meet May with him, Corbyn took his backroom “director of strategy” Seumas Milne and “chief of staff” Karie Murphy, plus the chief whip, the old Labour right-winger Nick Brown. He sidelined shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer and shadow chancellor John McDonnell.
Starmer is no left-winger, but has favoured a new public vote and even (on 5 February) free movement. McDonnell has said that a new public vote is “inevitable” and that he would vote Remain in it.
Milne, Murphy, and their close associate Andrew Murray, were not elected to their high posts by the labour movement on the basis of their activity in the movement. Milne and Murray were members of Straight Left, the ultra-Stalinist fragment of the old Communist Party, in the early 1980s. Their world-view remains much the same. Murphy comes more from an old Labour-right background — she used to work for Labour deputy leader Tom Watson — but has allied with Milne and Murray.
Solidarity vehemently opposes Milne’s and Murray’s world-view. We want to deal with it by open debate and discussion in the labour movement rather than by bans or proscriptions. But Milne’s and Murray’s influence at the top of the Labour Party (and their well-paid jobs: over £100,000 a year for Milne) come not at all from them having won debates and established their standing through activity in the ranks of the labour movement. Before 2015 Murray worked for the Morning Star as a journalist, and then (no thanks to any activity in the union as a rank-and-filer) in different unelected-official posts in the Unite union. Milne was a senior journalist for the Guardian.
When Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership in 2015, it was by a surge of scattered social revolt at the base, not by the triumph of a long-organised and well-formed Labour left. Corbyn cast around in the top circles of bourgeois society for “experts” to run his “Leader’s Office”, and ended up with Milne. Murray, and another old Straight-Lefter, Steve Howell, followed later.
Labour’s policy on Brexit should be decided by democratic debate, not by office cabals. Labour should call a special one-day or half-day conference on Brexit, as demanded by the rail union TSSA and groups such as Labour for a Socialist Europe. That special conference would be the best way to marginalise those in the anti-Brexit section of the old Labour right who are whispering speculations about a split to team up with pro-Remain Tories (and maybe the Lib Dems) to form a new “centre” party.
The reversal of the economic integration, the lowering of borders, and the limited social levelling-up achieved in the EU would be a step back, not forward. The EU’s bureaucratic and neoliberal shape should be changed by cross-Europe labour movement struggle, not used as an excuse to move to equally bureaucratic and neoliberal, but more walled-off, nation-states. Labour should take its stand on those truths, and campaign to win a majority for them, not dither and “triangulate”.
Since 29 January the Labour leadership has offered no more than mild demur to the eleven shadow ministers who abstained on the Cooper amendment which would have empowered Parliament to stop a “no-deal” Brexit. It has complained only in a mutter about the 14 Labour MPs, mostly right-wingers, who voted against the Cooper amendment, and the few who voted for the (right-wing Tory) Brady amendment. It looks unlikely that the Labour leadership will actually do a full-scale deal on a Brexit formula with Theresa May. The backlash against such a pact, on both Tory and Labour sides, would be too much. Short of that, though, the current Labour stance could well license enough Labour MPs, in pro-Brexit constituencies, to vote for the Tories and get them through their crisis.
The revolt against the Labour front bench’s plan to abstain on the Tories’ Immigration Bill, on 28 January, forced the front bench at the last minute to switch to opposition. That shows what can be done. It shows the way forward. Build Labour for a Socialist Europe. Call a Labour special conference. Stop Brexit. Force a new public vote.