The Labour left’s Brexit dilemma

Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit stance threatens a rare opportunity: to build a strong socialist government sooner rather than later.

January 31. 2018

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The Labour left’s Brexit dilemma

Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit stance threatens a rare opportunity: to build a strong socialist government sooner rather than later.

Nobody deserves to have Theresa May as Prime Minister.  Even if she weren’t the weakest PM in a generation, her entire political purpose is based not on values or vision, but spite – a karaoke Thatcherism more interested in hurting the marginalised than return on investment.  May was always going to be mean as hell, but ultimately Conservatives demand results.

And even they don’t deserve her.

Following the explosive leak of a secret cabinet report on the negative economic impact of every Brexit scenario, the Tories haven’t been in this kind of trouble since the nineties.  Aside from scuppering the Brexiteers’ “stop talking Britain down!” mantra, the report is definitive proof that the government was lying through its teeth about not having carried out a Brexit impact assessment.

The knives were already out for poor Theresa, as if she were the single greatest threat to their nationalist fantasy of a post-Brexit boom.  In reality, the report confirms she could well have been the one holding it all together.  In a way, perhaps she was ‘strong and stable’ after all.

A disaster like this should be a golden opportunity for Labour to exploit, the sort of priceless open goal political strategists hardly dare dream of.  And it’s true that Labour still has the advantage here, and can let the Tories eat each other alive and ruin their chances of holding onto office for very long.  The Brexiteers are on the back foot no matter what.

But Corbyn’s stance on EU membership since the referendum – broadly, soft Brexit – now means that Labour can’t truly press that advantage.  Not all the way to an early election, when a Conservative campaign would have to carry this report like a ball and chain.  Being unable to fully exploit this gift from the government means that to some extent Jeremy Corbyn, too, doesn’t really deserve Theresa May.

His position here is not unprincipled.  Corbyn has remained consistently Eurosceptic throughout his career as a matter of leftist principle, on the grounds that the EU is a fundamentally neoliberal institution, never really designed to be democratically controlled by the working class.  He isn’t wrong, either, if we consider the horrifying austerity it unleashed on Greece and others.  It was barbaric.

And yet that nightmare didn’t stop Greek politicians who fought Europe the hardest, and who wanted to leave the EU, to nevertheless warn Britain that for us to do so would be disastrous.  Corbyn was personally warned “never would you be more dependent on the EU than after Brexit” by Yanis Varoufakis, the Marxist economist who served as Greece’s finance minister during their embattled negotiations for debt relief.

Like Varoufakis and the government he helped run, Corbyn’s principles value democracy over market forces.  Good.  Neoliberal austerity is unpopular, a disgrace to human rights, and rarely succeeds on its own terms of economic efficiency – something even the IMF now admits.  And Corbyn is right to observe the EU’s long history of ignoring any referendums that make the terrain less smooth for free-flowing capital.

But what is the ‘will of the people’?  Brexit won the most votes in 2016 and Jezza wanted to make a nation of disrespected voters feel respected for a change.  On the other hand, there are many reasons for him to move away from that position now which wouldn’t simply dislodge the Tories from Downing Street but also remain consistent with his deeply-held principles.  To many earnest voters, Corbyn’s stubbornness is a necessary and powerful tonic to the vapidity and despair of an establishment that has run out of ideas.

Alhough it’s hard to imagine now, back in 1983 the least principled man on earth – Tony Blair – campaigned to leave the European Economic Community on optically leftist grounds, which he swiftly abandoned when he found them electorally unsuitable.  The movement Corbyn represents is a direct response to what became Blairite policies – soft welfare reforms to soothe Thatcher’s wreckage, remembered now as a fig leaf for the financial deregulation that caused the 2008 crash.

For Corbyn’s supporters, however, it is Blair’s lingering soul that needs to be exorcised: the technocrat, the smooth-talker, the suck-up, the band aid neoliberalism needed while the Tories weren’t up to the task.  Blair has since made it perfectly clear that he prioritises pro-market centrism over democratic socialism.  If Corbyn were to shift his stance on Europe after all these years, wouldn’t he then be just like Tony?


The government’s secret Brexit report was kept secret because there is no good outcome for our economy if we leave.  Jeremy Corbyn’s triangulation will make it very hard for him to convince voters that he can succeed at ending austerity: he will have to explain how Labour’s economic policies are not susceptible to any of those unnecessary and painful outcomes in the cabinet report.

Cruel discipline is often visited on socialist governments by vested interests, ranging from capital flight to outright coups d’état.  Withstanding their wrath (which is the whole point) is a matter of having the ability to survive financial punishment without a heavy cost, and so many have not: ask Mitterrand, ask Allende, ask 19th century Haiti.

Ask British socialists who were purged from ‘New Labour’ in the nineties.

Then there is the issue of who to trade with if we leave the European Single Market, warts and all.  One of the worst things to have already resulted from the referendum is the British government’s heightened desperation for a deal with Donald Trump – not to mention the WTO.  This is not lesser evilism, it is praxis.  Harming the economy before a socialist project even begins will do nothing to protect the most vulnerable (which, again, is the whole point).  They can hardly be blamed if they come to resent their abandonment.

Who wins if socialist economic policies fail?  Who within Labour will point to that as a reason to return to neoliberalism?  Blairites, centrists, imperialists.  The leftist case for averting Brexit is actively undermined by ceding all pro-Europe territory to that bloc, right at the moment when Corbyn could decimate their influence.

Britain is being offered a genuine socialist platform for the first time in decades.  Jeremy Corbyn’s movement matters because it principled, which is a rare and precious thing that deserves to be treated as such.  If Labour were to shift from soft Brexit to a firm commitment to remain, those principles would be strengthened, not undermined, by having the currency to achieve their goals.  In Jezza’s own words: “we must be government-ready too, our aspirations matched by our competence.”

“We will not let you down.”


Image: Garry Knight

January 31. 2018