Socialists should still oppose Brexit: a reply to Costas Lapavitsas

By Craig Lewis and Len Arthur

Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence that the UK must leave both the Single Market and the Customs Union is not just a consequence of electoral “triangulation” to accommodate leave voting Labour constituencies. It is also indicative of the extent to which the Labour leadership and sections of the trade union movement believe that a “people’s Brexit” is a viable strategy for the radical Left. This view has been developed recently in a Jacobin article by Costas Lapavitsas, a Corbyn adviser and academic economist. It has been widely publicised on the Lexit Left.

Like most of the pro leave Left, he accepts that Brexit was led by racists and xenophobes but nevertheless it was a working class revolt in areas “ravaged by the neoliberal policies of the last four decades”. The thrust of his argument is that staying within the single market will prevent a Corbyn government implementing key aspects of its “radical” programme. EU Single Market rules will undermine its industrial strategy by blocking increased public ownership, state aid to rebuild key industries and the use of public procurement to promote decent jobs and employment standards. These are all arguments commonly touted by the CP and other Lexit groups. However, in a mirror image, of arguments used by Tory hard Brexiteers, Lapavitsas asserts that WTO rules actually provide significant opportunities to implement a radical industrial strategy. Finally, like many on the Lexit Left, he seems to accept that free movement is nothing more than a business ploy to lower wages. EU rules would therefore restrict Labour’s ability to introduce a “progressive and fair migration policy”.

Much of what he says is tendentious to say the least and has been challenged by many on the Left who supported a “remain” position in the referendum. For instance the idea that free movement should be replaced by a progressive migration policy is a massive concession to the idea that low wages and pressure on public services is the fault of migration not the result of austerity. An idea which has been extensively challenged even by mainstream economic commentators as Phil Hearse has recently pointed out.

In a widely quoted report for the Renewal Journal, Andy Tarrant and Andrea Biondi have undertaken a detailed analysis of claims that EU rules would present significant barriers to Corbyn’s industrial strategy. They looked at each of Labour’s economic proposals in the 2017 manifesto (26 in total). 17 would not fall within State Aid rules at all. 7 potentially do, but these would be exempted under current EU law. Only 2 measures would need to be reported under existing regulations and these could be structured to comply. With regard to nationalisation they suggest that little of Corbyn’s agenda would be affected, and point to the far higher proportion of public ownership in other EU countries.

State aid and nationalisation rules have not stopped Germany from municipalising energy provision and it has not prevented the operation of publicly owned railways throughout much of the EU. In Germany 90% of passenger services are run by the state railway company; in France both the main train operator and the infrastructure operator are state owned; the same applies in Italy; the Spanish railways are virtually entirely in public ownership; as is the case in Belgium and Holland; even in Sweden which has started to privatise its railways 80% of services are still publicly owned and run.

Lapavitsas’s assertion that WTO rules would be more favourable than the Single Market is frankly bizarre. It focuses only on WTO regulation of state aid, procurement and public ownership. He ignores the whole economic and political purpose of the WTO, which is aimed at promoting free market competition and free trade.

The hard right of the Tory party support trading under WTO rules precisely because they understand that it will hard-wire austerity and neoliberal economics into the UK economy. Secretive bilateral trade deals under WTO auspices are not a technical matter, they reflect the exercise of raw political power in an increasingly anarchic trading environment. Will Hutton argues perceptively that leaving the Single Market in order to engage in trade deals with China, Russia, Trump’s America and the emerging economies of the global South is akin to “swimming with crocodiles”

Combined with the disruption to trade and supply chains attendant on leaving the Single Market, such deals would massively increase the rate of exploitation within British capitalism as explained below.

But Lapavitsas’s justification of a “people’s Brexit” is not just technically flawed. His argument is completely devoid of any serious analysis of the global economic and political circumstances in which Corbyn’s Labour Party and the radical Left more broadly finds itself. This is surprising for someone who had first-hand experience of the Syriza tragedy and at the time developed a much more nuanced and internationalist perspective than those on the Greek Left, like the KKE, who advocated an economic nationalist style Grexit. In fact the extent of Lapavitsas’s political analysis seems to comprise a sharp rebuke to those of us on the Left who support remaining in the EU and the Single Market to: “come to terms with the underlying realities of the referendum decision”. This is the language of Rees Mogg! It pays no heed to the political realities of Brexit.

There is of course no socialist principle that requires us to remain in the Single Market. The EU is and always has been a “businessman’s club”. It has become a vehicle through which austerity politics have been imposed by the European elite. An exercise of class power that has had particularly devastating consequences for the people of Southern Europe especially the Greek working class, where civil society has come close to collapse through enforced privatisation and massive attacks on working class jobs, living standards and welfare provisions since the 2008 financial crisis. But as socialists we must confront reality as it is, not as we would wish it. Brexit will not provide political and economic opportunities for a radical transformation of British society. There are a number of reasons why this is the case which Left remainers have argued consistently since before the referendum:

In short, the referendum was not aimed at giving the “people” a democratic say on EU membership. It was supposed to resolve the long running Tory civil war over Europe. When it went wrong the hard Right, both within and outside the Tory party, seized the opportunity to initiate a “coup” aimed ultimately at completing the transformation of Britain into a low wage, low welfare, free market economy with increasingly authoritarian forms of government. A process starkly evident in recent attempts to restrict Parliamentary Control over the final withdrawal deal, and to undermine the power of the devolved governments to take autonomous decisions.

The central purpose of Brexit, especially in its hardest and increasingly most likely form, is to attack working class living standards and increase the rate of exploitation of labour in British capitalism in order to overcome a historically low rate of profit. In concrete terms this is already reflected in the higher inflation generated by a falling Pound. In consequence, real wages have stagnated or fallen for most workers; a process that will intensify after EU exit. Tories talk openly of deregulation as a key benefit of Brexit. Despite weasel words from May and the soft Brexiteers this can only mean stripping away the last vestiges of “social Europe” protections; reduced workplace rights, more restrictions on collective bargaining and trade union rights, lower environmental and safety standards. Leaving the EU will, even by the Government’s own assessments, be either moderately or massively disruptive for the manufacturing industry ( In practice this means large scale job losses of between 35,000 – 80,000, and a further shift towards precarious work and low pay.

Finally it is undeniably true that the leave vote was high amongst working class communities devastated by austerity. Yet any serious analysis of the referendum result shows that this is neither the whole, nor even the main story. Much more important were the politics driving the vote in those communities. Like most advocates of a “people’s Brexit”, Lapavitsas downplays the fact that the leave vote was dominated by racist, xenophobic and anti-immigrant ideas pedalled by the authoritarian Right inside and outside the Tory party, and legitimated by mainstream politicians and key sections of the media. Reactionary rhetoric has continued to dominate Brexit discourse since the referendum forming a background to what Neil Faulkner refers to as “Creeping Fascism”. The ability of the Democratic Football Lads Alliance and other far Right groups to put large numbers of their supporters on the streets in recent weeks, culminating in the estimated 20,000 who marched in London demanding the release of jailed Nazi Tommy Robinson is a massive wake up call for the Left. It is clear that British fascists have been able to strengthen their ideological hold over sections of the working class by using the same “tropes” as those legitimised by the hard Brexiteer Right of the Tory Party – denouncing anyone who opposes a hard Brexit as saboteurs, enemies of the people, traitors etc. The rise of the UK far Right becomes more alarming when set in a European context. Parties of the far Right are in government in Austria, Poland, Hungary and Italy. In Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, France, Germany and Finland far Right parties are in national parliaments. As a consequence anti-immigrant and Islamophobic discourse and policies are becoming normalised in much of Europe.

The fact that Lapavitsas ignores this wider economic and political context is symptomatic of the dead end in which the Lexit Left finds itself as the Brexit process unfolds. His argument is little more than toothless anti-EU propaganda and isolationist economic nationalism, underpinning the Stalinist notion of a “British road to Socialism”. As a result he advocates a political and economic strategy for Labour that plays right into the hands of the hard Tory Right and those more sinister forces now emerging on our streets.

There is of course another way. The EU is as much a terrain of struggle for socialists as the individual capitalist states which comprise it. The radical Left in Britain needs to Europeanise and internationalise the fightback. The Party of the European Left (EL) is a starting point in this process. It covers 23 countries – not all in the EU – and 40 radical socialist and communist parties. It acts more as a network than a democratic centralist party and with regular meetings and congresses it provides an ongoing forum for socialists to develop policy, politics and coordinate action. It is intent on reaching out through the annual Summer University and European Social Forum, the next one to be held in September 2018 in Bilbao. It is coordinating action against the rise of the Right and neo-fascism as well as emphasising the fight against austerity, NATO and militarisation. The EL includes 27 MEPs and is the largest part of the 52 GUE/NGL red green group in the European Parliament. A recently agreed EL statement has been put out in the name of Gregor Gysi the EL President, appealing to the Left across Europe to work toward a joint platform against the Right, neoliberalism and climate change running up to the European Parliament elections next year.

Internationalism also needs to be an integral part of the socialist case and action in the UK. Defending these politics is what this response is all about and in practice, on the issue of the EU working with others through organisations such as Another Europe is Possible, to ensure that the socialist case for remain and fighting for a social and democratic EU is made as opposed to the ‘business as usual’ case being promoted by others. Just as important is the active defence of working class action across Europe, against the attacks of neoliberal governments such as that of Macron in France; opposing the rise of the Right, for example the AfG in Germany; and supporting social and human rights, such as the vote against the anti-abortion laws in Ireland.

The key to a radical socialist transformation of Europe remains the process of actively linking local fightbacks, with building an international socialist organisation, such as the EL. It, at least, provides a European starting point of being able to seriously and meaningfully tackle the power of international capital and the threat of climate change. Such a process becomes more urgent than ever, as parties and movements of the hard Right target next year’s European elections for their anti-migrant and Islamophobic politics.

Pulling up the national drawbridge, as advocated by Lapavitsas, would mean turning our backs on this international project, creating divisions and rendering the required transformation less likely.

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1 comment

One response to “Socialists should still oppose Brexit: a reply to Costas Lapavitsas”

  1. Jim Hutchinson says:

    As far as opposing the Far Right when do we see banners from the EL-I haven’t even heard of them. It seems their main activity is in the European Parliament. What we do see is that remainers prioritise their outings in public to marching with the Blairites, Lib-Dems and remainer Tories.
    You have failed to answer Costas’ points on renationalisation and state procurement and to suggest that it is possible to build socialism within the pro-neoliberal EU is as laughable as the British Road to Socialism.

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