Whatever happened to the Lexit lads?
Life has driven the left advocates of Brexit into ever greater confusion, argues Paul Demarty
Amid all the Brexit frenzy - has it ever taken so much fratricidal warfare, humiliation and failure just to kick a can down the road? And some voices are easily missed in the din.
As it always threatened to do, the issue of the European Union has destroyed a Conservative government - so utterly that Theresa May might even envy John Major at this point. Her ministers, having apparently given up on collective cabinet responsibility altogether, do not so much brief against each other as openly make statements contradicting both their colleagues and the threadbare excuse for an official government position. Even that level of decorum is too much for the Brexit true believers, as exemplified by Mark Francois’s verbal one-fingered salute to Philip Hammond.
With such bloodletting going on, and the Labour leadership keeping to its pursuit of tactical embarrassment of the government, there is little enough room in the national mind for those rather abashed comrades on the left who urged a ‘leave’ vote in 2016. In truth, however, their voices are diminished not only by the fireworks in the Commons (nor even by the mainstream media’s inherent bias), but also by their own contradictions. The standard-bearers of ‘Lexit’ are tangled up by their granted wish - either reduced to gabbling without seriously addressing the political questions raised, or farcically playing down the issue.
It is, indeed, quite remarkable to consider that the three largest British left organisations outside Labour’s ranks all took a Brexit line back in 2016 - we speak of the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, without commenting on the rather inscrutable matter of their relative size at present. The SWP hailed the opportunity to get rid of David Cameron (mission accomplished) and the Tories (failed, in spite of everything). The CPB and SPEW both played up the ‘bosses’ club’ aspect of the EU - Viking, Laval, state aid and the rest - and the CPB additionally frothed about national sovereignty, a serious concern for its unabashedly national road to socialism.
Today, in the midst of Britain’s biggest constitutional crisis since the 1840s, things are inevitably more confused than ever. We might begin with an editorial in The Socialist, SPEW’s weekly paper. Certainly, the overall line seems not to have changed - we need a “workers’ Brexit”.
As a starting point, that means the immediate repeal of all EU laws that limit workers’ rights or place obstacles in the way of anti-austerity policies. It should be clear that any big company using Brexit to threaten closures or job losses will, where necessary, face nationalisation under democratic workers’ control and management, with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need.
Leave aside the little fact that most laws which hobble trade unions and most obstacles in the way of anti-austerity policies are home grown, and not EU in origin, the emphasis throughout is on fighting for a general election, and particularly on Jeremy Corbyn fighting for a general election. The comrades are exultant at recent polling that suggests a 41%-36% Labour lead, so presumably they want him to win (although one never can tell, given SPEW’s previous suicidal insistence on running candidates through its ever-emptier Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition alliance). Interestingly, this emphasis seems to rule out a short-term cliff-edge Brexit:
It looks increasingly likely that either Britain will leave with no deal on April 12 or Theresa May will be forced to call a general election. There is a huge burden of responsibility on Jeremy Corbyn and the workers’ movement to fight to ensure it is the latter.1
There are a couple of striking things wrong, or even missing, from this. The first is that there is a third option for the bourgeoisie - a national government, before or after a general election. Though it shows up routinely in the bourgeois press, it is weirdly invisible to the left: only we and, occasionally, the Morning Star seem to have picked up on the danger. Such is the laser focus on fighting for a general election that not even the most perfunctory wargaming is done of the potential negative outcomes.
‘Perfunctory’ is just the right word, however, for SPEW’s programme for a “workers’ Brexit”. Frankly, the editors write as if there was not an international division of labour at all, never mind a long-standing trade deficit. Nationalising enterprises threatened with closure is, all things being equal, a very good idea; but take one set of so threatened businesses - the remnants of Britain’s car industry. How long will a ‘socialist’ Britain, taking back (democratic workers’) control, be able to feed its factories? This is not a speculative matter. In fact, we may turn to a useful article by Alex Callinicos of the SWP, arguing (perhaps too strongly) that Brexit is not “a key cause” in the decline of the car industry. Alongside long-term decline in demand, he points out:
A new free trade agreement between Japan and the European Union … came into force last month. By 2027 this will scrap tariffs on Japanese cars imported into the EU. Ironically this was included at the behest of the British government to support the Japanese car companies based here. But they invested in Britain in the first place to get round the tariff barriers that used to keep their exports out of the EU. Soon they will be able to produce for the European market directly from Japan. Both Honda and Nissan are shifting the production they are scrapping in Britain to Japan.2
Callinicos has his own reasons for arguing this line, but it is a neat indicator of how dependent the dreary remnants of British industry are on the good graces of the world market. While the Tory Brexiteers have a plan for reintegrating Britain into the world economy, SPEW does not; it has only rhetoric.
The SWP itself is in much the same boat, however. An article in last week’s Socialist Worker by national secretary Charlie Kimber, which criticised Corbyn for his talks with Theresa May, is typical:
Amid [all] this chaos there needs to be a clear voice calling to link Brexit to other class issues. These include the destruction of the NHS, squeezed living standards, the brutal universal credit regime, the rise of racism, lack of action over climate change and much else.3
Linked how, exactly? Another article by Tomáš Tengely-Evans attempts to be that “clear voice” - principally by denying that ‘Lexit’ has anything to do with small-minded conservatism:
It’s true that some rightwing Labour members [like the Fire Brigade Union’s Paul] Embery support Brexit. Their project is based on a patronising, pessimistic view of working class people as basically conservative and racist. And they see Brexit as a chance to bolster their nationalist politics of ‘family, faith and flag’. But this isn’t down to Lexit. It’s a set of rightwing ideas already existing within the Labour movement.4
The punchline will be familiar to seasoned SWP watchers: “Leaving [the EU] won’t usher in a socialist utopia,” Tengely-Evans wisely informs us. “Yet it could weaken a racist, neoliberal institution. And when our rulers and their institutions are weakened, it opens up opportunities for working class people to force through change.” The conditional “could” is the only thing unfamiliar from the ‘Vote leave to get rid of Cameron’ line, which suggests that Tengely-Evans cannot even quite convince himself of it. He concludes with a call for a “leftwing vision of Brexit … based on an internationalist defence of workers and migrants”.
In both these cases, it is as if - with apologies to the prime minister - there is a magic socialism tree, that the intrepid leftwing journalist can shake when he or she needs to impose some progressive sparkle on something that, on the face of it, is not terrifically progressive at all. The Brexiteers who matter are uniformly quite unpleasant people, from a socialist point of view. But both SPEW and the SWP feel it is enough to proclaim, via vapid counterfactuality, the need for a perfect Brexit which is all sunshine and rainbows. Not a socialist utopia, perhaps, but certainly clean of the anti-migrant sentiment that, in reality, motivated a large part of Brexit voters. To put it bluntly, a Brexit to the SWP’s specifications - “Yes to freedom of movement … no to the single market” - would be considered quite as much a betrayal of the 2016 vote as a straight remainer coup by a great many ‘leave’ voters. The idea that the political situation can be wrenched left by these empty formulations is utterly fatuous.
For the Morning Star, alas, things seem even grimmer. The extraordinary absence of Brexit from the paper’s front pages in recent weeks, when one half expects to find it on the cover of angling magazines, must be a conscious editorial decision. It pops up every now and again on the editorial pages, at least, where the paper’s Brexit bona fides are implicitly omnipresent, but the emphasis is invariably elsewhere. Take a broadside from the end of last month:
In the 2017 election, over 85% of voters backed candidates who pledged to respect the referendum result. Labour, by accepting that the people had spoken, but pushing an agenda of wealth redistribution and social regeneration, successfully moved beyond the divisive polarisation of the 2016 campaigns.5
It is polarisation that seems to concern the Star, which goes on to argue that any socialist Labour government “has to bring leavers and remainers together”. Kumbaya, my Lord!
We are reminded - unfortunately - of the Commons vote on gay marriage. Opponents seemed shy of openly declaring that they considered homosexuality shameful or contrary to their religion or whatever, and instead huffed about how the debate was a ‘diversion’ from the real issues facing the country. Brexit is a deeply divisive issue, on which the Star is radically out of step with its ‘broad’ labour movement target readership; thus this issue, which is absolutely core to its politics, is now toxic and embarrassing for the CPB. So the Star tucks the news away on page 7 and writes Delphic editorials about how awful it is that people are so ‘polarised’, as if it were some smug liberal imbecile delivering a TED talk.
The problem is perhaps more acute for the Star/CPB because it is an avowed defender of ‘our’ national sovereignty, and thus will find it harder to detach itself from the common run of Brexitism than its Trotskyist contemporaries. Yet all are in the same bind, which is the product of long decades of political errors.
For the CPB, anti-Europeanism dates back at least half a century, to the days when the ‘official’ Communist Party’s loyalty to the Soviet leadership demanded opposition to the pro-American alliances that included what was then the Common Market; Militant, as it was then, ingested this tankie nostrum at one remove, through accommodation to the wider Labour left; and the International Socialists, as the SWP was then, abandoned their plague-on-both-houses attitude to the EU and UK ‘bosses clubs’ in deference to shop-floor feeling in the unions. Both those paths to left Euroscepticism are markers of the indirect influence of the old CPGB.
In 2016, of course, the geopolitical landscape had changed immeasurably from its layout in the days that gave left Euroscepticism its birth. The line, however, had not. In 2019, things are immeasurably worse for the Lexit perspective, seeing as how it has been put to the test of practice. Left remainers, while equally politically hamstrung, are in a better position in some ways. They may be reduced to the role of spear carriers for the liberal bourgeoisie and its paid persuaders (in some cases, they are paid persuaders); but at least the script of this drama actually has a role for spear carriers. The Lexiteers are reduced to stammering idiocy or shamefaced silence because they are surplus to requirements.