Socialists should still oppose Brexit: Remain and Transform!

Theresa May’s strategy of delay and prevarication over Brexit continues, write Craig Lewis and Len Arthur. A so called “meaningful vote” on her withdrawal agreement has been postponed yet again to within a fortnight of the Article 50 deadline. Stopping Brexit should now be the immediate priority for the radical left. Whether this is achieved by a General Election, a second referendum or a combination of both along with a delay in Brexit is not a matter of socialist principle.

Labour has been unsuccessful in its attempts to force a general election and its version of Brexit was defeated in Parliament. More opportunities to force an election may arise but Jeremy Corbyn’s apparent endorsement of a final vote should be welcomed by socialists as a step in the right direction. It does at least open up the possibility of winning Labour to a radical “remain and transform” position.

Of course Labour’s Brexit ambiguity remains. At the recent Scottish Labour conference Corbyn downplayed the significance of Brexit and Scottish independence as “constitutional issues” of less concern to working people than climate change and austerity. A worrying unwillingness to accept the negative impact of any Brexit on these crucial issues.  Labour’s current intention to abstain on May’s deal whilst supporting a “confirmatory” second referendum is fraught with dangers. The unpredictable parliamentary arithmetic, the Blairite split and divisions within the PLP could yet see Labour inadvertently becoming the “midwife of a Tory Brexit”. Recent meetings between Corbyn and Oliver Letwin reinforce such a possibility. This would be a tragedy for working class people and a serious setback to the prospects of the UK radical left.  Labour’s difficulties stem partly from electoral concerns amongst MPs from leave voting constituencies, which persist despite recent polling evidence that Labour has more to gain by backing a remain and reform agenda. But they also reflect the persistent influence of Lexit mythology on the Corbyn leadership and some leading trade unionists.

Here we review and update the socialist case against Lexit outlined in an article on Left Unity’s website last year. The article was a response to a piece by Costas Lapavitsas in Jacobin magazine in May 2018, setting out a case for Labour to pursue a hard Brexit under WTO rules. Since then Lapavitsas has developed his critique of the EU and support for Brexit in his new book (Lapavitsas 2019). He will be the key speaker in a series of meetings planned for the run up to Brexit Day on March 29, organised by leading Lexit groups and figures including the Communist Party of Britain, Counterfire, Tariq Ali, the Guardian’s Larry Elliot and, bizarrely, Baron Glasman of Blue Labour: Transforming Britain after Brexit.

Like most of the pro-leave Left, Lapavitsas 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”. Both the Jacobin article and his new book develop the standard anti-EU arguments widely rehearsed before the referendum and subsequently by Lexit supporters.  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, and the use of public procurement to promote decent jobs and employment standards.  Trading under WTO terms will provide more favourable opportunities.  Free movement is nothing more than a business ploy to lower wages and Labour needs to replace it with a “progressive and fair migration policy”.  A radical left government outside the single market and the customs union will not be subject to ECB blackmail or EU interference in government spending through the “fiscal compact”.

Those of us on the radical left who support remaining in the EU and fighting to transform it have consistently rejected such arguments. We certainly accept that a radical Corbyn government will face internationally co-ordinated ruling class attacks.  But it will do so whether or not the UK remains in the EU.  To focus on EU policy towards southern Europe during the debt crisis is misleading to say the least. Britain is not a Eurozone country. The ECB does not have the power to strangle bank liquidity and threaten to ruin the UK economy as in Greece. For the same reason the UK would not be subject to the fiscal compact and the EU could not impose sanctions for breaching public spending limits as it has recently threatened with Italy.

Lapavitsas’s support for “a progressive migration policy” is not supported by all Lexit groups. But the fact that it is supported at all indicates the extent to which sections of the Labour and far left have accommodated to right-wing nationalist ideas. It will inevitably make migrant workers more precarious. By creating a two-tier workforce, it will allow unscrupulous employers to intensify exploitation, undermine workplace rights and worsen employment conditions. At the same time it will sow division, fracture collective solidarity and in consequence further weaken trade union organisation and resistance. Support for an end to free movement also represents a massive concession to the idea that low wages and pressure on public services is the fault of migration not the result of austerity.  A contention 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. See here.  In fact in recent years the UK has actually spent less on state aid as a percentage of GDP than most other EU states.  This has been the choice of successive Westminster governments, not the result of EU diktat.

Surprisingly Lapavitsas has little to say about the direct impact that trading under WTO rules would have on production, jobs and living standards. Other Lexit proponents take a similarly dismissive attitude. For instance John Rees of Counterfire implies that trade is of secondary importance in modern capitalism: “Mature capitalism depends on its productive base. Trade of course plays an important role in opening or closing markets.” But for him trade is: “only the primary form of capitalism in its early mercantile period”.  Socialist Worker’s Tomas Tengeley-Evans writes in support of a hard Brexit that:“A free trade area would be a chink in its (the EU’s) customs union and its “Fortress Europe” policy that locks out refugees.” (Socialist Worker, 13 Feb 2019). In a recent Socialist Review Joseph Choonara reiterates Lapavitsas’s concerns on EU state aid but when it comes to trade relations implies that socialists should be agnostic: “Precisely what trade arrangements this would entail is a largely tactical question — the socialist left cannot have a one-size-fits-all position in favour of protectionism or of free trade. But any progressive deal would have to free the British government from constraints such as the restrictions on creating state-run monopolies imposed by the EU.”

The problem with such sloppy thinking is that it ignores the very nature of the capitalist accumulation process itself. Globalisation and the internationalisation of capitalist production did not evolve as a conspiracy in Brussels. It reflects the inescapable driving force behind capital accumulation; the need for businesses continuously to seek improved efficiency and profitability in order to compete. It is that fundamental process that has created an international division of Labour. Almost 150 years ago Marx and Engels foresaw how the logic of capitalist production would develop: “The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country”. (Marx, Engels 1848)

Trade relations are central to the functioning of an internationally integrated capitalist production process. Socialists cannot afford to dismiss the impact of Brexit on trade. For nearly 45 years the “cosmopolitan character” of UK capitalism has involved complex and interconnected production, distribution and exchange systems throughout the European Union.  These are totally dependent on EU trade structures, most important of which are the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union. It is borderline ultra-leftism for Socialists to ignore the devastating impact on working class living standards, jobs and employment rights attendant on disrupting these links in favour of a retreat into economic nationalism. Recent announcements of closure and cutbacks from the likes of Honda, Nissan, Land Rover, Airbus and most recently BMW are concrete examples of how unpicking trade links will impact on workers.

It is facile to think that this is just “project fear”. The right-wing of the Tory party support trading under WTO rules precisely because they understand that it really will hard wire austerity and neoliberal economics into the UK economy.  Dismantling EU supply chains and market access will massively increase pressure to intensify the rate of exploitation within British capitalism in order to maintain competitiveness and profitability. Will Hutton argues perceptively that leaving the Single Market in order to engage in secretive trade deals with China, Russia, Trump’s America and Modi’s India is akin to “swimming with crocodiles”.  Link here. He is correct, but we need to recognize that this is deliberate.  It is part of a hard right-wing strategy to supercharge neoliberalism and complete the ERG agenda of establishing a low wage, low tax economy with minimal welfare provision and workers’ rights. Lexit supporters risk becoming complicit in this strategy by actively promoting a Brexit under WTO rules.

There is of course no socialist principle that requires us to remain in the EU under all circumstances. Left Remain supporters totally accept that it is “a guarantor of neoliberalism and corporate interests”.  In its current form the EU has become a vehicle through which austerity politics has 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.  See here and here.

To their credit the more perceptive Lexiteers recognise the radical left’s current weakness. But as Trotsky once said about the Comintern leadership “they are blinded by their own theories”. (Trotsky 1933). They persist in offering nothing but abstract propaganda against EU neoliberalism, whilst berating left Remain supporters for ignoring the “working class revolt” evidenced by the referendum. (Lapavitsas 2019). They continue to downplay the fact that, if there was such a revolt, it was led by racist, xenophobic and anti-immigrant ideas pedalled by Tory ultras and darker forces further to the right.

Plenty of commentators have discussed the intellectual and electoral collapse of European social democracy since the financial crisis of 2008. At the recent “No Pasaran” Conference in London speakers from left parties and campaigns throughout Europe testified to the emerging influence of far right ideas that are increasingly filling the political vacuum left by that collapse. Some spoke in worrying terms of fascist forces on the streets of Hungary and Poland, emboldened by the reactionary politics of right-wing nationalist governments. Others from France, Germany, Italy and Spain spoke of the normalisation of racist and anti-migrant discourse in mainstream politics where far right parties have increased their parliamentary representation or entered coalition governments. This is alarming evidence of what Neil Faulkner has called “creeping fascism”. But it was also clear from conference participants that Europe-wide resistance is growing in workplaces and communities, both to the far right and the politics of austerity that feeds it. A real concrete opportunity is emerging for Corbyn’s Labour Party to lead a radical “Remain and Transform” campaign; not just in Britain, but across Europe by focusing such resistance.  It would be tragic if abstract Lexit propaganda diverted Labour from such an opportunity.

The Remain-supporting radical left must fight alongside those within the Labour Party and wider campaigning groups who seek to commit Jeremy Corbyn’s party to a policy of delaying Brexit to secure a second vote or a General Election. In doing so we should argue boldly for a “Remain and Transform” position.  We do not support a “people’s vote” to maintain the status quo in Europe.  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 build on the emerging struggles by Europeanising and internationalising 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 Forum, the next one to be held after the May European elections. 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 in May.

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 European Left. 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 and other Lexit supporters, would mean turning our backs on this international project, creating divisions and rendering the required transformation less likely.


Additional References:

Lapavitsas, C. (2019), The Left Case Against the EU, Cambridge: Polity Press,  ISBN: 978-1-50953106-6.

Communist Manifesto:  Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol. One, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1969, pp. 98-137.

Trotsky, L. (1989), Fascism, Stalinism and the United Front, Bookmarks.



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