Today (31 January 2020) the UK leaves the European Union, nearly four years after the referendum, entering a transition period due to last until the end of 2020. The Tories couldn’t care less about the fate of EU migrants and workers in industries likely to be disrupted by their plans. Ian Allinson asks whether the battles of the coming months provide an opportunity for greater unity on the left and a focus on resisting the new Tory government.
The question of EU membership has divided and often paralysed the British left, as well as contributing to Labour’s recent electoral defeat. While many are just sick of the issue and wish it would go away, it won’t. But as Boris Johnson uses his new majority to ram his agenda through parliament, the left should be looking for opportunities to move on to new and potentially more productive ground.
We already know some of the battlegrounds for coming months: the accelerating climate crisis; intensifying internal and external border regimes as millions of EU citizens face increased insecurity; increasing state repression under the guise of opposing extremism and terrorism; new trespass laws aimed at Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities; free speech on Palestine; plans to make effective transport strikes unlawful; continuing austerity; subservience to a declining but vicious US imperialism; Scottish independence – and all this in the context of a slowing world economy.
For the rest of this year Britain will be locked in negotiations with the EU over their future relationship, as well as trying to secure deals with other countries, including the USA. While only a tiny minority in the labour movement are now aiming at re-joining the EU, a larger minority are still agitated about the risk of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. This seems vanishingly unlikely. Neither the UK nor EU have an interest in that level of disruption, and agreement on many topics is uncontentious. There is almost certain to be a deal, the uncertainty is over what deal – in terms of both scope and content.
The demand for ‘a good deal for Britain’ obscures the fact that the idea of a ‘national interest’ is a myth, part of ruling class ideology. Capitalist societies are riven by classes and much of the time what is good for the rich is at the expense of the vast majority. Belief in a national interest underlies much of the infuriating nature of mainstream Brexit debate which argued over what outcome was ‘best for Britain’. Many remainers claimed EU membership was better for ‘the economy’, while millions felt that their lives had deteriorated even when the economy was growing. Many leavers claimed that Brexit would enable an ‘independent’ Britain to freely pursue its ‘national interest’, putting ‘British business’ first, or even supporting ‘British workers’ against workers labelled as ‘foreign’. Class arguments rarely got a look in.
While it isn’t yet entirely clear what Johnson will seek from, and offer to, the EU and other countries, we can bet it won’t be in our best interests. The Tories will be looking for opportunities to deregulate at the expense of the environment, workers and consumers. But our job is not to argue for maximum alignment with the EU. For example, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy is so awful that the Tory Agriculture Bill has had a relatively warm reception from environmentalists.
Chancellor Sajid Javid has said the UK will not be aligned with EU rules, but that there wouldn’t be divergence for the sake of it, only if it ‘was in the interests of British business’ – showing no squeamishness about pursuing ruling class interests. However, individual capitalists do not share precisely the same agenda; they are a ‘band of warring brothers’ as Marx put it. Javid has acknowledged that any change will produce winners and losers even amongst business. Which will he be prepared to throw under the bus to protect the interests of the City of London?
As some employers cut jobs or close plants there will be a huge temptation for parts of the movement who opposed Brexit to ‘blame Brexit’. Sometimes Brexit will genuinely be a major factor. But the danger is that focusing on this in the face of job losses encourages workers to see themselves in partnership with their bosses as joint victims of forces outside their control. Whatever the economic context, job losses are always decided by employers and allowed to happen by governments. Effective defence of jobs relies on a willingness to fight employers and government.
A similar argument applies when it comes to resisting the government’s racist agenda around immigration. The Tories haven’t waited for Brexit. They have long been ramping up the hostile environment and using migrants as testing grounds for attacks on users of welfare benefits and public services. They will seek to use the 2016 referendum result to legitimise further attacks and the left should avoid doing the same. If we say that the referendum vote was simply a vote for attacks on migrants or that attacks on migrants are an inevitable consequence of Brexit, we both legitimise the Tories attacks and make resistance to them appear futile. Migrant solidarity and opposition to borders have to be built on their own terms rather than through the proxy of Brexit.
John Kelly, in his classic book Rethinking Industrial Relations: Mobilization, Collectivism and Long Waves (1998), sets out a number of conditions for workers to turn an issue into a grievance and then into collective action. Amongst them is the idea of ‘attribution’ – assigning blame to those responsible for a problem. If you don’t recognise that your problems are caused by actual people, and that those people could choose (under pressure) to address your problems, you have no hope. Not for nothing did the Chicago teachers argue as part of their strike movements that schools were ‘broke on purpose’ and that the city authorities made a ‘choice’ to run them down.
The EU has functioned as an excuse for many years. Governments could claim their hands were tied by EU regulations: preventing them from doing things they never wanted to or forcing them to do things they would anyway. Ills caused by capitalism and domestic government policy could be laid at the door of the EU. Union leaderships pinned hopes on the EU and legal judgements or pleaded powerlessness in the face of them – whichever would divert members from action. Now those excuses are being stripped away from the British government and those who claim to lead the working class movement. It would be a terrible mistake to help employers and government to replace the EU excuses of the past with shiny new Brexit excuses. We must hold them to account for all their actions and all their inaction. Attributing blame for our problems to leave voters (or even Tory voters!) diverts our focus away from those responsible – just as the right’s success in attributing blame to migrants and the EU (for all its faults) has.
We face a break from the status quo, significant change, and a weakening of both Britain and the EU. This comes when millions are learning that electoralism offers no prospects of meaningful change for the foreseeable future. The Tories plan boundary changes to cut Labour seats and voter ID to disenfranchise poor and young people. Meanwhile Labour’s leadership is moving right and backing the witch-hunt against opponents of Israeli apartheid.
Many of the liberal figures held up as representing ‘the left’ in the public eye are terrified of a weakened Britain. A Tory Brexit will seek benefits for the rich at the expense of the vast majority. The EU did act as some sort of safety net from the worst excesses of British governments. But the EU is also a ceiling to block radical change, as Greece revealed so starkly, even if British governments were so awful this was rarely experienced here. These prominent liberals are terrified of change; they want to protect the benefits they get from the status quo. For most of us, however, the status quo is failing us daily and leading us towards climate catastrophe. Old EU excuses are being stripped away from the British government. Avoiding buying into new Brexit excuses and focusing on united action against employers, landlords and government will be the key to ensuring that Britain joins the global wave of revolt and that Johnson doesn’t get his way.