First off, let’s be fair to Jeremy: Brexit has split the Labour party’s voters 60/40 (the majority pro-Remain), and even a latter-day Harold Wilson would struggle to bridge the divide.
But Corbyn’s decision to back Theresa May’s Brexit Bill, regardless of whether any amendments were passed (none were) was simply craven, and ended up pleasing no-one. Imposing a three-line whip that was ignored even by Labour whips, made matters worse. His tweet that “the fight starts now” – after having supported May’s Brexit plan – was little more than risible.
Let us be clear, as Coatesy explains in a brilliant piece here: Brexit is, by its very nature reactionary, backward, isolationist, nativist and – ultimately – racist. Any leftist who thinks any good can possibly come of it (or that there is a “People’s Brexit”/”Lexit” or some such nonsense) is a delusional idiot.
Corbyn’s weakness, lack of passion and general incoherence during the referendum campaign and in parliament since, merely serves to confirm the suspicion that, as an unsophisticated non-Marxist Bennite surrounded by Stalinist anti-EU advisers like Milne, his heart was never really in the pro-Remain cause. Even the Economist picked up on this:
“Mr Corbyn did not make his first pro-EU intervention until mid-April, fully two months after Mr Cameron called the referendum. Since then he has been a bit player at best. When researchers at Loughborough University ranked the ten most reported-on politicians in the second half of May, he did not even make the list (partly by his own design: he had spent part of the period on holiday). By refusing to campaign alongside Tories—doing so would “discredit” the party, sniffs John McDonnell, his shadow chancellor—he has ruled himself out of every important Remain event and televised debate.
“When Mr Corbyn does bother to intervene, he is a study in reluctance. His ‘pro-EU’ speeches are litanies of complaints about the union. Voters should back Remain, he says, because the Conservatives would not negotiate the right sort of Brexit. On June 2nd he declared Treasury warnings about the consequences of leaving as ‘hysterical hype’ and ‘mythmaking’.”
The Corbyn leadership is evidently terrified of May’s and the Brexiteers’ charge that anyone who even questions a hard Brexit is defying the “will of the people” (if not an outright “enemy of the people”); in fact, of course, had the 52/48% referendum result been reflected in parliament last week, the government’s majority would have been 26, not the 372 that May achieved with Corbyn’s backing.
The idea that “the people have spoken” and the referendum result cannot, therefore, be opposed, needs to be nipped in the bud once and for all; by that logic Labour would simply give up whenever it lost an election.
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 weak and incoherent (Corbyn) or ignored by the media (Alan Johnson, the Labour right-winger 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.
The internationalist, anti-racist left may now have lost that argument, in part because of the weakness and political ignorance of Corbyn and his advisers. But there is a further battle worth having: instead of issuing a ludicrous and ineffectual “final warning” to those front-benchers who voted against May last week, Corbyn should do something about Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, Graham Stringer and Gisela Stuart, Labour MPs who voted against basic rights for EU citizens. And if Corbyn won’t act, Labour members should start organising to deselect these scumbags.