Labour must seek to persuade Leave voters, but make no concessions to nativism
By Martin Thomas
It is conceivable that within a year or so there will be no European Union, or not much of an EU, for Britain to quit.
In Italy, Salvini’s right-wing nationalist and anti-immigrant Lega Nord may be able to seize the initiative after the likely defeat on 4 December of prime minister Matteo Renzi in Renzi’s referendum on increased executive powers. Or it may be the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo, who has tacked left sometimes but who greeted Trump’s election with right-wing bombast. Trump, Grillo said, had defeated the “journalists and intellectuals of the system, serving the big powers. Trump has screwed over all of them — Freemasons, huge banking groups, the Chinese”. The Lega Nord wants Italy to quit the euro, though not the EU; so does Grillo; so does Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia.
In Austria, also on 4 December, neo-Nazi Norbert Hofer may win the presidency. Next March and April, Marine Le Pen of the Front National could win the much more powerful French presidency. She is way behind in the polls at present, but then so was Trump for a long time. She wants France to quit the EU as well as the euro. Her likely second-round opponent, François Fillon, is not quite a “call out the border guards” type, but he is a social conservative, a Thatcherite, who rejoices that “France is more rightwing than it has ever been”.
The Netherlands also has elections in March 2017. Since Britain’s Brexit vote, Geert Wilders’ anti-immigrant PVV, which wants the Netherlands to quit the EU, has usually led the opinion polls. Maybe none of these dislocations will happen. 65 years of European capitalist integration, since the Coal and Steel Community of 1951, have created a web of connections with staying power. But even one upset, in Italy, France, or the Netherlands, could unravel an already-shaky EU.
Probably, in the short term at least, a looser free-trade area would survive, rather than a full return to frontier fences, heavy tariffs, and high military tensions, but “Brexit” as such would dwindle to a detail. If the EU survives on present lines, its anxieties and tensions will work against easy terms for Brexit. They will make “hard Brexit” probable whatever the Tories want.
Already many of the Tory ministers positively want “hard Brexit”. That will be regression. A break-up of the EU would be worse regression. It would increase divisions between the working classes of different countries. It would threaten the rights and security of 14 million people in Europe who live, currently as EU citizens, outside their countries of origin.
The new border barriers would make things even harder for refugees from outside the EU. The break-up would sharpen competitive pressures on governments to squeeze their working classes, and reverse the mediocre and patchy, but real, processes of social levelling-up which have come with the EU. It would expose each country more to the gusts of the world markets. Foolish is the idea, circulated in some parts of the left, that a break-up or partial break-up of the EU would be good, because all disruption of the existing system must be good.
Salvini, Grillo, Hofer, Le Pen, Wilders will not replace the EU’s neoliberalism by anything more generous. They will only add anti-immigrant and nationalist venom. The mainstream left, the “centre-left” as it shyly says these days, is alarmed, but unable to respond with flair.
In Austria, the Social-Democratic SPÖ has a coalition government with Hofer’s neo-Nazi Freedom Party in the Burgenland province. In Italy, the Democratic Party, the main remnant of the once-huge Italian Communist Party, is led by Renzi, whose drive for strong executive powers and anti-worker policy has given the right their opening. In France, on 25 October a poll found only 4% of voters “satisfied” with the record of Socialist Party president François Hollande, whose latest move has been to slash workers’ rights with a new“Labour Law”.
The choice, not just between progress and stagnation, but between progress and rancid regression, depends on the clumsily-emerging new forces on the left, like the Corbyn movement in Britain. We must stake out political ground, win arguments, rally people to principles, remobilise the labour movement at ground level, pull together into political effectiveness young people who still overwhelmingly reject the new nationalism and racism.
Neither the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership of the Labour Party, nor Labour’s biggest left grouping, Momentum, is doing well on this. In the run-up to the June 2016 Brexit referendum, John McDonnell said, rightly, that: “One of the fundamental rights the EU protects for its citizens is freedom of movement. I think this is critical. The right of working people to live and work where they choose is a hard-won gain of the labour movement… We should stand foursquare for freedom of movement in Europe. The right to travel and seek employment is a fundamental one”.
Now McDonnell suggests that freedom of movement is a curse, but one worth tolerating as a price for free trade. “Labour will insist that any deal with the EU includes, at least as an interim, tariff-free Single Market access… Full Single Market access implies freedom of movement, as in Norway’s European Economic Area deal… There is a robust economic case to be made for the benefits of free trade over the perceived costs of migration. Labour is prepared to make that case”.
And not even that. Labour is not making that case. At first, after the the 3 November High Court ruling that the Tories cannot use the “Royal Prerogative” to start Brexit proceedings by “Article 50” without debate in Parliament, Jeremy Corbyn rightly said that Labour would vote against “Article 50” unless the Tories committed to single market access. Right-wing deputy leader Tom Watson then said Labour would refuse to take advantage of the Tories’ difficulties. Labour would vote for “Article 50” regardless. Corbyn deferred. The available report of the 22 November meeting of Labour’s National Executive records no dissent from the claim that: “our party must not try to subvert the decision of the British public (as the Liberals seem to be planning). This would play into the hands of the Tory government” — i.e. that Labour must give the Tories a blank cheque for a Tory Brexit.
The one and only thing Theresa May has made clear about the Tory Brexit is that it will block freedom of movement. On 5-8 December the Supreme Court will decide on the government’s appeal against the 3 November court ruling. This time the Scottish government will join in, arguing that the Scottish parliament too must be consulted.
A third angle has been raised by a pro-EU pressure group basing itself on a plausible argument by George Yarrow that the “default” form of quitting the EU is to fall back to European Economic Area status (like Norway: EU semi-membership, including freedom of movement), and it requires a further specific decision to quit the EEA. (47 years ago, as it happens, Yarrow was the person who convinced the present writer to join the revolutionary socialist movement, then in the form of the IS, today’s SWP. Since then he has become a neoliberal professor of economics at Oxford University).
Meanwhile the Tories’ own Office of Budgetary Responsibility estimates the costs of Brexit to the government budget at £6 billion a year. The Financial Times estimates the residual payments which Britain will have to pay into the EU budget, to cover commitments already made but not yet paid for, at €20 billion. We are a long way from the Brexiters’ promise of £350 million a week extra for the NHS from savings on payments to the EU, a promise dropped as soon as they won the referendum.
The 23 June vote represents no fixed-forever “decision of the British public” which obliges Labour to give away the rights of migrant workers (and British workers and young people who want to work, study, or live in Europe) by abandoning freedom of movement. In fact, since some Leave voters wanted something like EEA status, even on 23 June there was probably a majority for keeping freedom of movement. Plebiscitary democracy — democracy via referendum snap votes, on questions shaped and timed by the established powers — is the thinnest form of democracy. Usually it just serves those already in office. This time a strong sub-section of those in office (Johnson, Gove, etc.) were able to surprise Cameron, in a public debate which was essentially Johnson-Tory plus UKIP versus Cameron-Tory, with Labour voices neglected by the media (Corbyn) or silent (Alan Johnson, the Labour right-winger supposedly leading Labour’s Remain campaign).
That does not make it more democratic. The referendum excluded 16-17 year olds, excluded EU citizens living in the UK (though they can vote in local authority elections), was run on poor registers missing out seven million people; and such a narrow snap vote is no democratic authority to deprive millions of freedom of movement and probably impose new borders between England and Scotland and between Northern Ireland and the South.
All but the thinnest democracy includes a process of the formation, refinement, revision, and re-formation of a collective majority opinion. Without such a process, and without organised democratic political parties which collectively distill ideas and fight for them, democracy means only rule by whatever faction of the rich and well-placed can sustain itself through judiciously-chosen successive snap popular votes. It has almost no element of collective self-rule.
Labour should fight for freedom of movement, for substantive democracy and against Article 50.
This article also appears in the present issue of Solidarity and on the Workers Liberty website.