The Left and a People’s Vote

Hundreds of thousands joined the demonstration for a People’s Vote on Brexit on Saturday 20 October, as the Tories’ negotiations continue as shambles and farce. While the march was mainly organised and led by the neoliberal ‘centre’, there were also socialists on the march. Unite activist Ian Allinson discusses how the left should respond.

The EU issue will continue to dominate politics in coming months and we invite contributions with a range of views.

One face of the demonstration: the Left. Photo: Steve Eason

The Brexit negotiations see a relatively powerful EU facing a minority May government barely balancing between rabid Brexiteers who want social deregulation and a more hostile environment for migrants, and the majority of Tory MPs who never wanted Brexit in the first place because of its potential impact on business. May wants the right to different regulations from the EU and the right to make trade deals elsewhere in the world but to have frictionless trade with the EU. May wants an open border between the north and south of Ireland, no border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and to “take back control” of UK borders. She leads a government propped up by the DUP. She isn’t going to get what she wants and neither is almost anyone else – irrespective of which way they voted in the referendum. It is unclear whether any outcome from the negotiations can secure majority support in parliament.

It is little wonder that sections of society are feeling increasingly insecure and alarmed, faced with such uncertainty and risks. This is the context for the turnout for the recent demonstration, which was clearly huge, no matter how much the organisers did or didn’t inflate the figures. As A Very Public Sociologist puts it “Had the left pulled off a demonstration of yesterday’s size, breathless SWP internal emails would be emphasising the opportunities it opens up and all the usual leftist suspects would be hailing it as an earthquake”.

It would be wrong to dismiss such a turnout simply because the organisers are mainly from the “extreme centre” – New Labour, the Liberal Democrats and pro-EU Tories. As Richard Seymour points out, “If it was just astroturfing” (presenting an orchestrated marketing or public relations campaign in the guise of public reaction) “there would not have been hundreds of thousands of people in the streets”.

Socialists who took part were motivated by the threat to the (limited) freedom of movement the EU provides, and the fear of a “race to the bottom” of social, employment and environmental deregulation after Brexit. Those who took part reported few union or Labour party banners, but plenty of members (by no means all associated with Progress, Labour First, Open Labour etc.), as well as groups from workplaces and of environmentalists. Many had been on other demonstrations more associated with the organised left. Lots of people were wrapped up in EU flags, but many were not. As well as placards from LabourSay.EU (a Progress / Labour First front group) there were thousands from Another Europe Is Possible (AEIP) who argue for reform of the EU (“Against Tory Brexit”, “build unions not borders: free movement for all”). The explicitly left blocks numbered a few thousand – a tiny proportion of the overall march.

There were some chants of “where’s Jeremy Corbyn” but it is unclear if these were led by the Labour right or Lib Dems or Tories. Left supporters of the march described it as “largely liberal anti-Tory”, “an anti-government demo, and overwhelmingly represented the base of the parties to the left of the Tories, whose voters are all cases, in the majority against Brexit”, “an anti-government demonstration, opposing the government from the left rather from the right. There may have been the occasional Tory there, but it was an anti-Tory demonstration”. Although we should note that others have argued that the composition of the march was similar to that of many left marches.

Many of those on the march are people we (irrespective of our Leave / Remain position) seek to work with on other issues, particularly anti-racism. And while socialists could have long, ill-informed and largely pointless debates about how the anti-Brexit sentiment connects with anti-Tory and anti-Corbyn sentiment, it is clear that the main (not exclusive) political thrust of the demonstration lay between, and in opposition to, both May and Corbyn. The main thrust did not seem to be criticism of Corbyn from the left for his failure to take on the Labour right over free movement. In its political impact, the demonstration was both anti-government from the left and centrist, irrespective of the widely varying intentions and motives of its participants.

So why, despite the efforts of socialist participants, was a left agenda not more visible? Few would know that there were left blocks on the People’s Vote demonstration, or that many marchers opposed the politics of its chief organisers, just as left voices on both sides of the EU referendum debate were drowned out in a tussle between two wings of the Tory party, and its UKIP external faction. People’s Vote is registered at the Millbank address of Open Britain. As Seymour explains “Open Britain is the successor to Britain Stronger in Europe, the official campaign of Downing Street during the referendum”. George Osborne’s London Evening Standard enthusiastically backed the demo. The New Labour backers of the campaign favour a hostile environment for migrants and neoliberal policies. For Nick Clegg and Chuka Umunna, People’s Vote is about trying to split Labour and the Tories to create a new centrist party.

The other face of the demonstration. Photo: Steve Eason

Some socialist supporters of the People’s Vote march recognise these problems, but blame the left for failing to give an alternative lead to the anti-Brexit campaign, leaving the field to the centrist hypocrites. Parking for a moment those of us who voted Leave, who obviously wouldn’t provide such a lead, this is still a serious question. Remain was supported by the Labour Party, the TUC, most unions, the Greens, the SNP, Sinn Fein and Plaid Cymru and the backing of most union and Labour Party activists, though most support was on a pro-EU basis, rather than a left anti-EU but tactically pro-Remain basis. So why is the organised labour movement and left so absent from campaigning for a referendum, or from shaping it?

I was at the Unite Policy Conference this year where many motions calling for another vote were on the agenda. They (along with pro-Leave motions) were defeated in favour of an Executive Statement that fudged the issue, leaving it open. It’s worth running through why a conference which overwhelmingly opposed Brexit decisively voted down the motions calling for another referendum:

  1. There’s a fair chance that May’s negotiations will fail to produce anything that has parliamentary support. A call for a referendum potentially gives her a lifeline to stay in office – with the added risk that the Tories set the question again, with no options the left wants. Better to push for a general election.
  2. A significant minority of Labour voters voted Leave. Nationally, Labour’s vote comprised a quarter of Leave voters and 51% of Remain voters according to Ashcroft’s polling, but this varied considerably around the UK. Many who want to see a Labour government were terrified at the last election that the Tories would mop up all the Leave vote. Corbyn was successful in pushing the political agenda onto other issues which could unite Labour voters irrespective of which way they voted in the referendum. Another referendum would push the political agenda away from issues where Labour feels strong (health, austerity etc.) towards immigration, nationalism and international trade, where the Tories tend to fare better.
  3. The Tories are in a mess, with their divisions exposed. Why replicate that on the left?
  4. The experience of the referendum was bad for the left, with competitive nationalism, racism and pandering to business from both official campaigns (albeit the mix was different in each). Few want to repeat that experience.
  5. The hard right would be able to claim (with justification) that democracy was being subverted by elites, who ask us to keep voting until we vote the way they want. UKIP and worse would feel vindicated and get a huge boost.

The elements within the union pushing hardest for the referendum were the right – those most embedded in partnership with employers and most hostile to free movement. The arguments haven’t been the same in every union.

I think that part (but by no means all) of the unevenness in the labour movement’s attitude to Brexit relates to the industries they represent.

At one extreme UCU represents staff in further and higher education drawn from around the world, whose employers make money by drawing in students from around the world, who benefit from EU funding for ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses, whose research relies on knowledge from around the world. UCU conference backed another referendum.

On the other extreme, union members in manufacturing are acutely aware of the devastation wrought to their industries and communities by intensified product market competition linked to globalisation – a key Thatcher policy to crush working class resistance from 1979. The Single Market, which Thatcher took the UK into in 1993, aimed to increase competition and concentration of capital within the EU to allow companies to compete more effectively in global markets. It is no coincidence that the areas most negatively affected by this globalisation, which saw young people leaving to find employment elsewhere, also tended to vote Leave, while cities that drew people in and benefited from growth in service jobs mainly voted Remain. The failure of the left’s anti-globalisation movement of the early 2000s to successfully challenge free trade globalisation meant the right have been able to relate to the same anger, but redirecting it against free movement of people rather than product market competition. The impact of Brexit on the economy will be very uneven. Some sections of manufacturing capital, particularly automotive, have tightly integrated their “just in time” supply chains at an EU level and will be forced to make significant changes. The EU encouraged the geographical concentration of capital and specialisation, and the City of London had positioned itself as the primary financial centre for the EU. It too will face significant changes. Manufacturing employers, alongside unions, campaigned hard for Remain, but failed to persuade their embittered workforce.

But the political arguments that convinced pro-Remain Unite delegates to oppose another referendum aren’t persuasive to those feeling most alarmed by Brexit in relation to migrants’ rights. While it’s not a position I share, some may feel that a Corbyn government outside the EU would be worse for migrants than a Tory one inside the EU. People who think Corbyn outside the EU would be better can reach the same conclusion if they are sceptical there will be a Corbyn government anyway.

Though the official demand of the campaign is for a referendum on the final proposed deal, all the supporters of the demonstration I’ve heard from want Remain as an option in that referendum, and would support that option. Fundamentally, it is not for a particular deal on Brexit, the driving force behind it is to retain EU membership.

In this article I won’t rehash the arguments about the nature of the EU, or which way socialists should have voted in the referendum. I will just say that the idea that the racist, nationalist right can be effectively countered by defending the neoliberal status quo seems to me both the wrong goal in principal, and deeply unrealistic, having learned little from why Leave won in the first place.

I think the socialist supporters of a second referendum are partly driven by a belief that all the realistic prospects for change in the short term are worse than the status quo. Costas Lapavitsas calls this a lack of confidence and radicalism on the left. However, this isn’t just a criticism of those who backed the march, or voted Remain but opposed the march. Those of us who voted Leave have failed to develop a sufficiently convincing positive campaign for change. Important parts of the left who supported Leave were tarnished by nationalism and opposition to free movement. Those who weren’t got little hearing in the storm of the referendum campaign.

Sadly, I think it unlikely we will succeed in fully defending the partial freedom of movement that the EU provides across the British border in the short term. I don’t think Britain will remain in the EU, and in any case none of the major parties support even this level of freedom of movement. I think we can defend the current rights of existing EU migrants, and Labour’s policies suggest we could see some improvement for some non-EU migrants. This argument won’t end with Brexit, particularly given the increases in migration that we can expect as a result of climate change. We have to campaign for freedom of movement, not rely on the side-effects of free trade deals.

Campaigning for a new referendum sustains divisions in the left that hamper us in tackling the issues we agree on and can make headway on. We should be trying to win the argument for free movement more widely, opposing the hostile environment and deportations, providing aid to refugee camps, opposing foreign wars and the climate change that will create millions of refugees. We should be pushing for a general election and a Corbyn government.

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