Interview: What happened in Labour on Brexit

Submitted by AWL on 17 November, 2020 - 2:53
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Michael Chessum, national organiser for Another Europe Is Possible, spoke in a personal capacity with Sacha Ismail. Written up and edited by George Wheeler.

You’ve written an article on openDemocracy, arguing that the anti-Brexit Left made a serious mistake at the 2018 Labour Party conference. What’s your thinking?

We’re in this period of mopping up after Corbynism, and I wanted to challenge myself to reflect about what we might have got wrong, rather than what others got wrong. I don’t conclude we were wrong in any of the politics we advocated. What I conclude is that we began determined not to have a split in the Brexit composite.

We wanted to be able to say we’ve won and Labour is on the right road. We saw the prize as being able to spin a narrative out of it as we went into and came out of conference. Going into conference the narrative was that anti-Brexit is a left-wing thing, it’s not controlled by the Blairites, and then afterwards Labour is on the road to backing a referendum. And there was a certain amount of lingustic skulduggery we used to spin that, citing this and that phrase in the composite.

Underneath it all I think were terrified of having a moment of confrontation where we went for a vote out in conference itself.

[Note of explanation: It became common practice for the Labour Party machine to exert pressure for each compositing meeting - chopping up and sticking together motions submitted by CLPs, unions and others in a given subject area - to produce only one motion to go forward to the conference. "Splitting the composite" would have meant anti-Brexit activists in it insisting on producing a separate motion from the leadership's, expressing a clear anti-Brexit view. This would have gone forward to the conference to be passed or defeated - as opposed to what was actually produced, a single "consensual" motion which papered over the cracks.]

In case we lost?

We knew we would lose, but the key point is that it felt like it would be the end of the world. We felt like it would have been a disaster because that would have given the opponents of a referendum within the Corbyn project a clear opportunity to turn round and say that’s been rejected. It was a mistake because the fudge was as good as losing. We got our narrative to spin but the leadership got the room for manoeuvre it wanted and in the end it continued to behave as if we had lost the vote.

Better to have split the composite and have our own motion, even if we’d been a minority. There was a fog, a lack of clarity and no clear lines.

From a purely electoralist perspective Labour might have been better off going clearly either way. Looking back on 2018 it was the last chance for Labour to pick a clear position.

If we’d lost, there would still have been a fudge, but at least it would have pushed things towards clarity.

Yes, the leadership actually wanted a fudge, they wanted an ambiguous position they could present as they wanted. If we’d had a vote out, they could have said “You lost”, but we could have said “This is a fudge, we need clarity”.

Do you think the rank-and-file delegates weren’t up for a fight?

No, they were. We absolutely prepared all the delegates for a fight. They were prepared to fight over every line, and we briefed them with the red lines. We had a working group of six or seven key delegates and were in constant touch. The issue is we didn’t want to split the composite. There were certain things we would have split over, like a positive commitment to deliver Brexit! The point is we set our red lines way too far back.

And can you remember, in 2018, were there any significant arguments about all this? I remember at conference AWL largely went along with the “step forward” line you’re criticising, but not long after the conference we started criticising it.

There was no audible voice as we were going into conference. We had 150 delegates preparing for the compositing meetings and there was no audible voice in the room, there was no one saying let’s press the button and split the composite.

Among the organisations that had got motions to the conference there was a bit of a spectrum. Another Europe was at the centre of it all, but the other two organisations were Labour for a Public Vote, who were probably most keen on compromise and least up for a split, and Remain Labour, who are politically neutral and probably to the right of LPV, but were more confrontational. But for sure at that stage no one within Another Europe, including your comrades, was arguing a different line.

Can you remember at what point the anti-Brexit left started arguing to try to reverse Brexit?

Another Europe always said there should be a confirmatory vote on the outcome of negotiations. At that stage, back in 2017, we didn’t push that argument in Labour. It just didn’t have any legs. We focused on a soft Brexit and defending free movement. It was in early 2018 we began to talk about “The Left Against Brexit”. In terms of organising the fight within Labour, Labour for a Socialist Europe wasn’t set up until what, January 2019. Should we have been quicker off the mark and bolder about reorienting?

What’s your response to the argument that Labour lost the 2019 election because it was too anti-Brexit?

Well, at the 2019 conference we'd lost. The policy that won was written by the leader’s office and their allies. They did not adopt the policy that we wanted and that was needed. It’s true that they had to argue for a second referendum because we’d won that point. Some of them would have wanted an unambiguously pro-Brexit position, but that wasn’t possible. If they’d put that forward at conference they would have lost.

At the 2019 conference we did what we should have done in 2018, we went for it. We split the unions, we peeled off Unison and USDAW and we may well have won a majority of CLP delegates, but of course we’ll never know as they didn’t allow a card vote.

However, even if we’d won, it was too late.

We’d already had the European elections fiasco.

Yes, the European elections and all that had unfolded but also the damage to Corbyn’s brand. The prolonged ambiguity had badly damaged Labour’s credibility on all sides. There's a very simple bit of arithmetic, which is that we lost 1.9 million voters to Remain parties and 1.8 million voters to the pro-Brexit parties. If Labour had shifted further towards delivering Brexit, I think it would have faced even worse electoral melt-down.

But by 2019 I don’t think a clear remain policy would have worked magic either. Even the 2018 conference was very late.

What Labour needed to do was go out to the country and fight to convince people of a clear, comprehensible policy. Much more time and consistency and conviction were needed. If you judge it from a purely electoralist point of view, that could have been a whole range of different positions.

Politically, what was needed was argument about what the context of Brexit represented. We couldn’t defeat or significantly mitigate the Tories’ Brexit project, in one way or another, without acknowledging and explaining what the whole thing was aiming to do. We should have counterposed class politics to nationalism aggressively. Ambiguity couldn’t work when the issues were so salient.

In the 2017 election it seemed like we could evade the issue but that soufflé wasn’t going to rise twice.

It seems like there was an argument along the lines of don’t push this issue and endanger the project, as if we could just get on with building the left while ignoring the rise of the nationalist right...

Yes, which is bizarre — until you remember that many on the left were actually in favour of Brexit. There were the people at the top, like Andrew Murray and Seamus Milne, who come from a Communist Party tradition of Lexit, a Lexit which in terms of the actual Brexit outcome it wanted barely has an L in it. I don't mean the more contradictory bit of the left, like the SWP or the Bakers' Union, who support Brexit but are generally opposed to nationalism and support free movement. There is this idea that becomes more and more prevalent within Corbynism that we can somehow reclaim nationalism for the left, with a conception of the working class which is old school to say the least, men over fifty who are white and speak with a regional accent.

Ironically I don’t think Corbyn himself really shared those views. We know he was personally very cut up when Labour abandoned free movement, and Diane Abbott too.

Ok, so what was going on then, with Corbyn and Abbott and McDonnell?

Part of the answer is electoralism, particularly after 2017. Before 2017 there’s a real sense of depression within the Corbyn project, it was limping along. Then the election happens and everyone’s asking “Who gave Corbyn the magic beans?” The people who can stake that claim are the people running his office and so you get a real head of steam behind the leadership and its bureaucracy, its close advisers. It's seen as a vindication of "constructive ambiguity" on Brexit. This at the same time that the right are pushing against free movement. Politically two things came together, a nationalistic version of Lexit and a straightforward move to the right on immigration. The two fitted together well and reinforced each other. You’ve got this “socialism” in one country stuff, closing down the borders, but let’s not forget there is also just a basic triangulation to the right.

What now?

We need to say to people on the left, regardless of their view on Brexit as such, they need to oppose the Tories’ agenda, in the same way they’ve opposed the spycops bill and the overseas operations bill and so on. Nadia Whittome and Dan Carden and others were right to take a stand on those things. It’s a problem that when it comes to Brexit people suddenly become reticent about fighting things they would normally be opposed to. Another Europe is campaigning for EU citizens’ right to stay, all the other opposition parties are signed up to it but Labour hasn’t. We’ve got a Labour leader who says nothing about issues which he previously claimed he would die in a ditch for. But where is the noise on the left? The left is against attacks on migrants, against deregulation and so on — well that’s what Brexit is. Why the silence?

An extreme case was a Momentum person who recently argued to me that the Stop the Coup campaign [in summer 2019], which Momentum actually worked on with Another Europe, was a mistake, because it just played into Johnson’s hands. Well yes, in a sense. In a sense BLM played into Trump’s hands. Smashing up Millbank was music to David Cameron’s ears, in one sense.

Militant strikes in the 70s did actually help pave the way for Thatcher.

Yes, all these things point in two different directions, depending on a struggle. That level of understanding is not there with a lot of Corbynites. They're not in the zone of meeting challenges head on, and making political hay out of the struggle. A serious sense of confrontation and struggle is something I think a lot of the Labour left hasn’t got its head around.

• For the debate in 2018, see here.

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