After an unexpected vote
Mike Macnair introduced the discussion at the CPGB aggregate on the fallout following the EU referendum result. This is an edited version of his speech
The United Kingdom has, of course, narrowly voted in the referendum for ‘leave’, although we, along with pretty much everyone else (including Ukip leader Nigel Farage soon after polling had closed), expected a narrow majority for ‘remain’. Predictably, David Cameron immediately fell on his sword, while Brexiteers moved very rapidly to try to cool expectations. Then, as we know, the Labour right launched their anticipated coup against Jeremy Corbyn. So far, so clear. Beyond this, however, the situation is exceedingly unclear.
We called this aggregate meeting for this date for several reasons, but partly because we expected a narrow majority for ‘remain’, which would have meant that discussing the outcome instantly would be relatively simple. We also did not anticipate the immediate launch of a Blairite coup in the Labour Party. The result of the ‘leave’ vote is that, apart from the Labour right, who are desperate to exploit the result to get rid of Corbyn, pretty much everyone in politics both in the UK and globally - and local and international market actors - are still considering their positions, and today is too early for a firm assessment of the consequences of the vote. It may even be that a week’s time would be too early.
That said, the Provisional Central Committee met over Skype and the collective view remains basically unchanged from what we said before the referendum. That is, that even with the vote, in the absence of a very large majority for ‘leave’ there would be rabbits pulled out of the hat to avoid an exit. I will raise some thoughts of my own in relation to that - they are speculative and not necessarily shared by anyone else on the PCC.
There are a number of things we can see already. Firstly, this was a narrow vote for exit: 51.9% to 48.1%. It is important to keep remembering that this is indeed a narrow vote, because the press are hyping it in various different directions - positive and negative - as saying more than it actually does about ‘Britain’ and about ‘public opinion’, whether positive or negative. It is a very strongly and sharply divided vote. London, for example, voted ‘remain’, apart from the outer east and west industrial areas and a few suburbs.
This is not the only geographical divide. Scotland voted ‘remain’. Hence, the Scots question is immediately reopened. This is not as straightforward as it seems from Nicola Sturgeon’s immediate response. The Scots want to talk to the EU institutions about remaining in the EU, and the immediate response from the latter is to say we will not talk to regions that want to secede. We might talk to you after any secession, but not before. This response has been toned down since, and whether this will actually be carried through is an open question, but it is an issue.
The Northern Ireland result is also very pertinent, because the Six Counties voted for ‘remain’ on a scale which shows that this was the position of many unionists, whom one would have expected to go for ‘leave’. Sinn Féin, I think not stupidly, has said that now there should be a vote on Irish reunification. I say ‘not stupidly’ because what we saw in the last round of the devolved elections was some convergence of the politics of the north and south, with Sinn Féin emerging as a major player on both sides of the border, and the southern far left also emerging as a (small) player in the north, which also reflects southern struggles over austerity. Six Counties political dynamics thus are beginning - slightly - to look like Irish-wide political dynamics. In the past, Ulster political dynamics were profoundly different both from those in mainland Britain and also from those in the 26 Counties. There is some convergence there.
Wales, on the other hand, voted the same way as England - for ‘leave’ - although curiously the west-of-Wales coastal areas voted ‘remain’. I would have understood a ‘remain’ vote along the lines of the people who voted for devolution, while I would have expected those who were against devolution to vote along the same pattern as England. But Wales overall voted the same way as provincial England.
Within England, as I said, London voted for ‘remain’. West Yorkshire in the main voted the same way - although the constituency of the late Jo Cox voted for an exit. I am not terribly surprised by Sheffield voting for ‘leave’, but it seems it was mainly the areas of ex-steelworkers and council estates that swung it.
So, if Brexit were to take place, which I think is still very uncertain - and possibly even if it does not take place - the question of the break-up of the UK is pretty clearly and directly posed. Indeed, an online petition for a referendum on the independence of London quickly gathered a couple of hundred thousand signatures! A few of my colleagues in Oxford are asking whether the Thames Valley could be attached to London, because Oxford was one of the strongest ‘remain’ centres in the country. Joking aside, the Brexit vote poses the question of the continuation of the UK state in its current form.
We saw all of these major questions opened up by the vote.
Before the referendum, Cameron had said he would not resign if there was a ‘leave’ vote, while Brexiteer MPs also said he should stay. Neither was believable. It was almost like what happens when everyone knows that a minister is about to be sacked, but the prime minister announces his ‘confidence’ in that minister - a sign of death!
So we have the opening of a Tory leadership campaign, and the rightwing press fairly clearly thinks Boris Johnson is the favourite to win. Michael Gove has thrown his hat in behind Johnson, but then there is perhaps an ‘anyone but Boris’ candidate that the cabinet may put forward. Theresa May was a ‘remainer’, but a quiet one - she might be the one to go with.
The other side of this coin is that the Labour right has launched a coup against Jeremy Corbyn on the basis that - we are told - his performance in the referendum campaign was “not that of a leader”. Hilary Benn was sacked for organising this campaign, as far as we can tell. We have had massive resignations from the shadow cabinet, and a PLP vote of no confidence. So far this has not forced Corbyn to ‘go quietly’.
There is an astonishing side to this, in that there are two narratives running in the press simultaneously, sometimes even on the same page. According to narrative one, Jeremy Corbyn has messed it up and lost the vote by failing to campaign for ‘remain’ hard enough. Narrative two is that the Labour Party has irretrievably lost touch with its core working class base because it campaigned for ‘remain’; Labour lost touch with its roots because it failed to recognise that the EU is anti-democratic, and that the working class base is concerned about immigration. This narrative contends that immigration is badly affecting public services, which is, of course, a lie - but it is a widely believed lie.
These two narratives are mutually contradictory. For both to be believed simultaneously requires an astonishing degree of public gullibility. It cannot both be true that Corbyn lost the vote for ‘remain’ by failing to campaign hard enough and that Labour lost touch with its working class base by failing to take immigration seriously enough. The claim that Corbyn lost it for ‘remain’ is merely the latest big lie served up by the media - this time to help the Blairites get back full control of the Labour Party.
In fact the best interests of Labour, as we have said over and over again, would have been served if Corbyn and the Labour leadership had avoided getting contaminated with the ‘remain’ brand. We said Labour should have boycotted this fraudulent referendum. It certainly has been characterised by fraud on both sides, not to mention the technique of the big lie. Someone I know said that Michael Gove should be re-characterised as Joseph Michael Goevvels simply because of the scale of the big-lie operation which the Brexiteers have conducted. Paul Dacre could be similarly characterised as Mr Julius Paul Deicher.
We saw from the left essentially two lines. On the one side there was the Morning Star, the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales, with their line that this was a ‘blow against the empire’. Apparently the result has opened up opportunities for the left and the government is now very weak. There could be a Labour government very soon. I have to say that this idea is unbelievably illusory. If anything, the way the campaign was conducted and the determination of the Blairites to tag the Labour Party with the ‘remain’ policy will almost certainly see Labour being badly hit at the next general election.
The earlier that election takes place, the worse this will be, and it does actually seem likely that, once the new Conservative leadership is in place, the 2010 act establishing fixed-term parliaments will be repealed, allowing an early election. To suspend the act requires a higher vote than to repeal it. Repeal requires a simple majority, whereas calling an early election while it is still in place would need a two-thirds majority. Therefore it seems to me the likelihood is that a new Tory leadership elected in October would go for an early general election and would win it by a large majority, with the Labour Party to a considerable extent marginalised because of the position it adopted in relation to the referendum. In this scenario there will be Ukip gains - we certainly should not be surprised to see Ukip take Rotherham, for example.
So the Brexit camp was badly mistaken. On the other hand, however, there was Left Unity, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and Socialist Resistance, which elected for ‘remain’. This section of the left declares that we have seen purely and simply a victory for nationalist reaction and racism. While I would agree that the campaign was marked by chauvinism and nativism, that is not the same thing as the classical racism of either the 19th or the 20th century.
The paradox of these two contending views is that both the triumph and the despair contain an element of truth. There is no doubt that the result comes as a massive blow to global capital’s current project. It is a populist reaction to the project of neoliberal, financialised globalisation, and the international ‘rule of law’ as an alternative to political democracy. At the same time, it is also true that it is massive blow for chauvinist, nationalist reaction.
The final points I want to make are considerably more tentative. To repeat, we think that by far the most likely outcome is that there will be rabbits pulled out of hats to find a way in which the referendum result need not lead to a UK exit. We have signs of that in two respects. One of which is Johnson and Gove both saying the UK must go slow on the negotiations, a sentiment echoed at first by Angela Merkel. The idea is to allow as much time as possible for those rabbits to be pulled out of hats.
The problem, however, is a political one. Having gone for a referendum, and having declared that that is a democratic way of reaching a decision (which is untrue), it is very difficult for any politician to say that we should defy the result. It might be different if political leaders had said loud and clear that referenda are anti-democratic, but no-one (apart from Ken Clarke, who is retiring at the next election) said such a thing.
So the petition signed by four million people (on June 29) calling for a rerun of the referendum on the basis that it was an insufficient margin of victory does not seem particularly persuasive to me. Unless something like 18 million people sign it, the petition appears merely the work of sore losers, and could therefore help the Brexiteer demagogues to extract promises from MPs not to overturn the referendum.
That said, the likely consequences of the Brexit vote, and the belief that there will definitely be a UK withdrawal, is that the run on sterling - which began on June 24 and reduced the value of the pound by eight percent against the dollar and six percent against the euro - will continue. On this basis, at some point in the near future, people will start getting letters from the companies with which they have booked holidays, saying that they need to pay a 40% surcharge because of the fall in the pound. Petrol prices will go up to £1.50 or possibly even £2 a litre.
Then, if you wait for a week or two and these negative economic consequences start to feed through, then it seems to me that at that point it would become possible for parliament to pull a rabbit out of the hat - for example, to pass a sovereignty act to give the UK supreme court the right to rule on the constitutionality of EU legislation, which the German supreme court has already done. Nothing can be done about the immigration issue, but the process of renegotiation would be restarted and the UK would end up not leaving the EU. All that would happen is that the Conservative Party has a new leadership and that the Labour Party has screwed itself up by backing ‘remain’. (It would have been worse if Labour had backed ‘remain’ enthusiastically, so at least Corbyn was right on that: calling for ‘remain’ in a very qualified way was much better strategy for the survival of the Labour Party.)
Now let me raise some very cagey buts, which other comrades on the PCC do not agree with. First, the responses from the European capitals are not just Merkel being cautious and asking us to spin it out, but a significant amount of people saying the UK should get on with it. According to a lawyer who specialises in the EU whom I read, talking informally to the other member-states about the referendum result might amount to giving notice under article 50 and the two-year deadline would kick off from that moment. Cameron spoke to the European Council on June 28, so if that lawyer’s view is correct the two-year period may have already begun.
While some EU leaders have a soft plan B for Brexit - play it nice - there is also a hard plan B, which is to make it really tough on anybody who exits in order to prevent the whole thing falling part. That means, as far as people who have the responsibility are concerned, they cannot let the UK set the timetable, but must force it to go for a quick exit outside the single market and the tariff barriers (or at most the UK can have the same status as Switzerland, remaining subject to all EU law, including freedom of movement, but without any voice in decision-making). There quickly appeared more of a consensus for the hard line in European capitals, although within a few days that was less clear.
Legally it is entirely possible for parliament to disregard this referendum. Parliament is sovereign and the referendum is advisory. But that would be very difficult politically.
There are two ways the politics of disregarding the referendum could be approached. The first is - and there are MPs and others saying this - to contend that the result was procured by fraud. The NHS issue was a straightforward one - Farage, having said there would be extra money for the NHS during the campaign, came out with the opposite after the vote.
Another matter which has been repeated over and over again by Brexiteers, is that the EU commission makes the laws and is unelected. That is just a lie. The council of ministers makes the laws with the consent of the EU parliament. The council of ministers consists entirely of politicians who have been elected in their home countries. The parliament is elected. The commission drafts the laws and has the right to propose legislation. The EU parliament has no such right and the commission has a veto over the parliament’s proposals to set the agenda. Having said that, how many private members bills, which is the British equivalent of this, have been passed in the last 30 years? One? Two? What actually happens is that private members bills get through all the stages and then are thrown out on the third reading. After that the government comes up with its own bill, introducing changes that safeguard the interests of ‘stakeholders’ (banks, lobbyists, etc) and so on.
Who drafts the UK laws? Civil servants in the parliamentary draftsman’s office (according to the Statute Law Review, the role of this office is to stop politicians making excessive changes to the law. An act of parliament has to be passed by the Commons, the Lords and the queen. Is this more democratic? The whole idea that the procedures in the UK are more democratic than the EU is nonsense.
What about the European Court of Justice? Is it unaccountable? Well, the US Supreme Court is completely unaccountable. I admit that there is no procedure by which you can impeach members of the ECJ, but then when was the last time a member of the British judiciary was impeached? It was 1724!
The United States Congress consists of the House of Representatives, which is more or less representative, and the Senate, which is grossly unrepresentative because there are two senators per state. And the states are far from being equal in population terms. There is extensive gerrymandering of the House of Representatives, but that applies also to the House of Commons. The EU parliament is elected mainly by a form of proportional representation. The Council of Ministers, whose role is similar to that of the US Senate, has one representative per member-state, so that it is very undemocratic in the sense that it does not take into account their relative populations, although there is qualified majority voting, which does take the weight of each state into account. The Senate also has a 60% majority rule.
My point in saying all this is that the EU does have an undemocratic constitution, but the same is true of the UK constitution. The idea is that people in glass houses should not throw stones. The UK is a hereditary monarchy with an appointed and partly hereditary House of Lords. The United States constitution is as bad as the constitution of the EU.
There has, in other words, been an astonishing amount of big lies told to us by Goevvels and his confederates. The problem is that, suppose we are to repeal the referendum on the basis that it was procured by fraud, who has conducted this fraud? The answer is that it is not just or even primarily the political leaders of the referendum campaign, but the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Sun. Are MPs willing to say, the big lie tactic is destroying British democracy, and therefore we are going to revive the old impeachment procedure and use it against Johnson, Gove, Farage, Dacre, and so on? I regret to say that it is unlikely. The big lie technique did not start with this referendum - ‘Saddam Hussain had weapons of mass destruction’; ‘Gordon Brown caused the crisis by spending all the money’; ‘Ed Miliband was not a serious politician’; ‘The Labour Party is riddled with anti-Semitism’. These are no different from ‘Marinus van der Lubbe burnt down the Reichstag’ or ‘Leon Trotsky was a fascist’. So I do not think that the big lies told in the referendum campaign will cause MPs to face down the rightwing press. The big lie has become too normal in British media political culture.
Another possibility is that the economy will be badly hit and in a few months’ time the government might be able to argue, ‘We were wrong - it is a disaster’. Under such circumstances people might be persuaded to change their mind, and accept the fact that parliament is overriding the referendum result, if it was obvious that the decision to go for Brexit has caused an economic disaster.
My hesitations about this are two. First, European states might say ‘good riddance’. There is some justification for this. The historian, Brendan Simms, wrote a book called Three victories and a defeat (2008), in which he said that in the 18th century, when Britain was in alliance with other European states, it had victories in 1702-13, 1740-48 and 1756-63, but when it tried to go its own way in 1776-83 it suffered an enormous defeat. Simms, however, was a Brexiteer in this referendum. The reason he gave was that Europe desperately needs to move to full federalism and a centralised ‘fiscal transfer union’ in order to make the euro work and escape the economic stagnation trap that it is in. The obstacle to its doing so is the UK and so the way forward is to get rid of the UK, and then continental Europe can develop towards federalism.
That is one side of it. The other side is to ask, can the world afford a British crash in order to persuade the British to change their vote in the referendum? The problem essentially is that the world economy is seriously fragile. The Weekly Worker has published articles from Michael Roberts arguing that recession is posed again in the immediate term. There are plenty of mainstream economists saying the same - although the world economy has been bumping along, a global recession is due in the next year or so. There is a real problem if a recession takes hold, or if there is a serious run on the pound, because that may trigger another 2008.
That suggests - and I say no more than suggests - that it might be the case that the economy will turn out to be not so badly hit, and the electorate will not be persuaded to accept a reversal of the result of the referendum. Under such circumstances MPs would not be prepared to sacrifice their careers by looking for a loophole or rabbit to pull out of the hat in order to ignore the result of the referendum.
As I have said, all this is very tentative and other PCC comrades are of the view that caution will prevail in European capitals, and that there will be sufficient problems and scare stories to induce MPs to find an excuse to go for a second referendum - or even just a parliamentary vote to ignore the referendum. Certainly that is the view we have held for the past year and I am not calling it into question. It is merely that I think it is possible that there will be an accident as a result of the intersection of the routineness of big-lie demagogy and the fragility of the world economy. An intervention which prevents a run on the pound would have the effect of stopping ‘leave’ voters changing their minds.