Corbyn’s decision to support May’s plans for triggering article 50 is a craven capitulation to nationalism. It also won’t work: hard-line Brexiteers and racists will remain unconvinced, while to the rest of Joe and Joanne public it just looks like a combination of panic and opportunism – which it is. Even in Stoke Central, the so-called “Brexit capital of the UK”, my local contacts tell me that Brexit isn’t the key issue: the overall state of the party and the credibility of its local campaign, is.
This shambles also calls into question the kind of advice that Corbyn is receiving from the cabal of politically illiterate Stalinists in his inner circle.
It needs to be stated loud and clear that the referendum result 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 the EU and 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 weak and unconvincing (Corbyn) or ignored by the media (Alan Johnson and Labour’s official 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 oppose Article 50 and demand a second referendum, at which we advocate remaining in the EU.
Whether Labour activists should ally themselves with the newly-formed Labour Against Brexit remains to be seen, and largely depends upon whether it turns out to be a right wing campaign to simply get rid of Corbyn: something that isn’t as yet clear.
Finally, a frank word to those good comrades who are talking about resigning from the party over this: we are not in politics as consumers who simply buy into a political party when we like the look/sound of what’s on offer. The uncritical adulation of Corbyn in the early days of his campaign and leadership was as silly as the claims now of being let down and the suggestion in some quarters of dropping out of the Labour Party.
Labour under Corbyn was always going to have crap politics, because Corbyn himself has always had crap politics – as demonstrated by his half-hearted stance on the EU and willingness to endorse the Morning Star. Most of the PLP have crappier politics still. We are arguing and mobilising for socialism in a world where politics is shifting to the right and British politics is dominated by questions of Brexit and national identity, which is simply not the terrain on which to build class politics, in the way that the NHS, workers’ rights and inequality is.
Our job is to rebuild Labour as a working class party. That process is only just beginning and will take years. People need to get stuck into their branches, CLPs and Momentum (whatever its faults). Serious comrades need to get their hands dirty delivering leaflets and travelling to Stoke and Copeland.
On article 50 Corbyn is clearly wrong, and we should say so. But instead of getting bogged down on the minutiae of the Brexit process, we need a laser-like focus on the NHS, housing and workers’ rights. Workers need inspiration and hope: maybe Corbyn can’t give it but a mighty battle against tory destruction of the NHS can in a way that article 50 never will.
Finally, socialists should be in the Labour Party now and for the foreseeable future, just as we should have been (and some of us were) under Miliband. What’s crucial is the party’s class nature, not its leadership at any given time. If there was a better Labour leader with better politics we could elect tomorrow I’d be in favour of doing so. But there isn’t and we can’t. We must not follow the example set the right wing Labour MPs who are resigning their seats to cause by elections as a strategy to get Corbyn out. If socialists throw up their hands in despair because things are not coming up roses just at the moment, how the hell do you think we’ll ever overthrow capitalism?
(NB: thanks to comrade Dave for the closing rant).