The socialist left should vocally oppose the Tories’ Brexit plans. It should argue for a united Europe, and for the UK to rejoin the EU. It should fight for the broad labour movement, including the Labour Party, to argue and campaign for this too.
Almost all the Labour-leader candidates say that we have no choice but to “move on” while the Tories “get Brexit done”. Even Emily Thornberry, the most vocally anti-Brexit candidate, says only that Labour should have been more anti-Brexit.
That is wrong. Actual, really-existing Brexit involves a range of attacks on the interests of the working class. How could it not, with this government? And the scope and degree of that range is not fixed in advance. Johnson’s announced plans are unworkable, so he will end with something different. What “something different”? That depends.
Sure, the UK has formally left the EU. That is unlikely to be reversed within the transition period ending on 31 December. Yet that does not settle how the left and labour movement respond. Accepting that Brexit is happening should not mean accepting Brexit.
Everyone in the Labour Party accepts that Labour should vote against the Tories’ immediate plans, on issues including immigration, environmental protection, and workers’ rights. But as yet there is little talk of doing more than that. We need to rouse ourselves, sound the alarm and organise action on as many fronts as possible.
The urgent priority is opposing the assault on migrants. The Tories want to end freedom of movement, moving (non-Irish) EU citizens who want to come here into a category similar to that already occupied by many other migrants. Free movement will be replaced by the division of EU migrants into “skilled” and “unskilled”, with harsher restrictions on both, but particularly the “unskilled”. The result may or may not be less immigration – but it will certainly be a more unpleasant, tightly-controlled and precarious reality for migrants, and thus for all workers.
Solidarity supports free movement for everyone, everywhere. We won’t win that without defending the free movement with EU countries which we’ve had for decades. Lisa Nandy’s and Keir Starmer’s calls to defend UK-EU free movement are welcome, though their poor records on defending free movement previously are another matter.
Organisations like Labour Campaign for Free Movement, Labour for a Socialist Europe and Another Europe is Possible should take up this call, while mobilising on the streets against the Tories’ attacks. That is necessary to defend our migrant brothers and sisters, and to strengthen the labour movement’s increasingly shaky stance on migrants’ rights.
The assault on migrants is of a piece with the Tories’ wider Brexit agenda. As The Economist puts it (4 February), Boris Johnson has “set course for the hardest possible Brexit”. Self-glorifying rhetoric about a glorious new era of “free trade” does not change the fact that the UK and EU are at odds over many issues and that it will be extremely hard to get a trade deal before 31 October.
The Tories are determined to diverge from EU rules and regulations – of course, in a right-wing direction. As The Economist says, “the risk that Brexit will happen on December 31st with no trade deal at all in place must be substantial”. Even if they succeed, the Tories’ model of success is the kind of trade deal closest to a no-deal Brexit, citing Australia’s relationship with the EU.
There will be extensive chaos and disruption on this road, and plenty of opportunity for the labour movement to mobilise – if it chooses to.
The issue is not just the type of Brexit, but Brexit itself. Reversing the unification of Europe, in train for the best part of two centuries, is radically regressive. The organised working class, for which international solidarity is so essential, must actively oppose this regression, and the re-erection of higher barriers in its midst. To fail to do so is politically bankrupt and self-defeating.
We should do much more to support and learn from struggles like the eruption of strikes and demonstrations in France – not shrug or cheer at the raising of borders between those struggles and ours.
We must confront the pro-Brexit forces that run the Labour Party and many union machines. We must convince those who accept their arguments regretfully, often out of weariness, that they do not need to do so.
We should argue to reverse Brexit and rejoin the EU. Of course, the EU is not the Europe we want. Europe, like Britain, needs radical transformation, won by the labour movement from below. But the route to a better united Europe does not run through breaking up the one that exists. We need to build a much stronger, more international, cross-border labour movement, not help throw up new barriers in the way.
Different demands have different kinds of applicability, immediacy and relevance. Calling for Britain to rejoin the EU is in many ways a harder argument than the much more radical one of winning a socialist Europe. That is because it immediately cuts hard against the nationalist project currently riding high. Whatever the tactical issues – clearly rejoining cannot be won quickly or without serious upheavals – we should pursue it.
In the first place, the argument needs to happen in the Labour Party, where even anti-Brexit voices have noticeably run scared of this demand.
“United action, of the leading civilised [i.e. economically-developed] countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.”
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1847)
“[If in World War One] German militarism succeeds in actually carrying out the compulsory half-union of Europe… what would then be the central slogan of the European proletariat? Would it be the dissolution of the forced European coalition and the return of all peoples under the roof of isolated national states? Or the restoration of “autonomous” tariffs, “national” currencies, “national” social legislation, and so forth?
“Certainly not. The program of the European revolutionary movement would then be... complete annihilation of tariff barriers, the unification of legislation, above all of labor laws, etc. In other words, the slogan of the United States of Europe... If the capitalist states of Europe succeeded in merging into an imperialist trust, this would be a step forward as compared with the existing situation, for it would first of all create a unified, all-European material base for the working-class movement.”
Leon Trotsky, The Programme of Peace (1915)
Oppose retrospective “justice”
After the knife attack by Islamist terrorist Sudesh Amman in Streatham (South London) on 2 February, the government is doubling down on its proposals to increase the prison population and curb civil liberties.
The main new item is a proposal for longer prison sentences to apply retrospectively. Retrospective changes to legal penalties is a dangerous violation of basic principles of justice.
Of course society and political authorities should debate how to keep citizens safe. That is not straightforward in the face of violence- and death-obsessed movements like radical Islamism. But more people in jail for longer will not address the basic problem; only a rebirth of social hope can do that, and everything this government does actively works the other way.
Serious debate is exactly what the Tories do not want, preferring to use demagogy to bludgeon critics and rush through their changes.
Javid plans more cuts
Much of the press has parroted Johnson’s claims about the Tories abandoning austerity in favour of more generous spending on public services.
The reality is shown by Chancellor Sajid Javid’s leaked letter to cabinet ministers demanding 5% cuts in all departmental budgets, specifically telling them to each axe ten programmes not connected to health, crime or regional inequality, and to consider “radical options”.
Javid says: “We have been elected with a clear fiscal mandate to keep control of day-to-day spending. This means there will need to be savings made across government to free up money to invest in our priorities.” In other words, vicious austerity will continue.
Local government will continue to be systematically demolished. Now that the general level of benefits has been driven down, the benefit freeze as such is ending: but the government has confirmed it will restart the “roll out” of Universal Credit in July.
The notion that spending on health, crime and tackling regional inequality can be neatly separated from wider public spending is absurd. The Tories’ austerity agenda will greatly increase ill-health and demands on the NHS, for instance.
On top of all that, Javid’s plans assume that reforming Whitehall can unlock major savings and that the economy will continue to grow – just as the Tories prepare to pitch us deeper into a hard, and maybe a no deal, Brexit.
After all the speculation about how the Tories will keep voters who switched to them in December on side, it looks as if they’ve decided to stick two fingers up and hope that nationalism will keep people distracted. New analysis from the (Tory-controlled) Local Government Association shows that these areas are set to lose most in the new round of council cuts.
After so many defeats, there’s a sort of unspoken idea that there’s not much left to fight for. If the labour movement doesn’t start fighting there’s a lot to lose; if we do, the Tories are vulnerable and we can push them back.