Taking a left turn on the road to Brexit
By Frieda Park
The Tories and the interests they represent are in for a bumpy ride as Britain heads towards its possible exit from the European Union (EU). Though the Tories were ambivalent about the EU, the Brexit vote was not one that the dominant section of the ruling-class had wanted or planned for and it throws up a number of problems for their Tory government. Negotiating Britain’s exit will be a big job which will take up time and resources. The government has yet to make a clear statement of how it sees a post-Brexit Britain. Politically, economically and militarily what will relationships with the EU, its member states and the rest of the world look like?
Trump's election as President of the United States must change things too. Although it is difficult to know exactly what he will do when he takes office, on the campaign trai and in victoryl he welcomed both Brexit and Nigel Farage. Will this translate into a warmer post-Brexit relationship with Britain? It will be somewhat different from Obama’s disdainful put-down that Britain would be at the back of the queue for the US in agreeing trade deals.
As the Lib-Dem's victory in the recent Richmond by-election shows, there is a debate around whether there should be a “soft” or “hard” Brexit. A hard Brexit would mean a radical break with the EU whereas proponents of a soft Brexit wish to maintain membership of the Single Market and Customs Union. The main problem with the soft option is that it would mean adhering to EU rules and regulations with no say in how they are formulated. This raises the uncomfortable prospect that, despite voting to leave, Britain would become an adjunct of the EU without any input into it. This is unlikely to sit well with voters who supported Leave. Proponents of soft Brexit use similar economic arguments as were deployed by the Remain side in the referendum campaign about the economic importance of trade with the EU. Most importantly, for these commentators, is the threat to the City of London as the financial capital of Europe.
There is virtually no scope for a middle road between the two positions as Britain is negotiating from a position of weakness. The EU has no incentive to make its departure any easier than it needs to be and has a vested interest in making an example of Britain in case any other countries are foolish enough to follow its example. There are elections next year in France and Germany and nothing will be done which might encourage Euroscepticism, all the more so with Trump in the White House. Unless the EU radically reviews where it is heading, then there will be no concessions around access to the Single Market and certainly none on the “free movement of people”.
Despite the disadvantages of a hard Brexit, the rhetoric of the Prime Minister and her team has begun to veer towards that option. Given that both hard and soft Brexits represent less than ideal outcomes for capitalism, the option remains of any deal being put to another vote either in Parliament or through a referendum. Indeed the media were quick to play up the increased share of the vote achieved by the Liberal Democrats at the by-election caused by David Cameron’s resignation ascribing it to pro-EU sentiment among the voters. This is clearly trying to create grounds for having a re-vote on EU membership. There has been outrage across the political spectrum among Remain supporting MPs who now wish input into the formulation of the Government’s stance on Brexit. This is intended to stall the process towards triggering Article 50, prevent it happening or at least maintain membership of the single market. The guerrilla war being conducted against Brexit scored a success when the High Court ruled that the Prime Minister does not have the power to trigger Article 50 without a vote in Parliament. Regardless of whether this is correct as a point of law or not, the intervention of the Court represents the interests of main trend within British capitalism which opposes Brexit.
Brexit and the Left
Unfortunately, however, it is not only the Tories who have problems with Brexit the left and the Labour Party also have difficulties. The nature of the EU has not been at the forefront of debate on the left in recent years. Only a minority put forward the analysis that the EU is a thoroughly capitalist project whose interest is in exploiting the people of Europe and beyond.
The Remain supporting left also faces the problem of how to respect the Leave vote. During the referendum campaign some became more zealously committed to the EU than even its most ardent supporters on the right. This passionate attachment to the EU can be understood as a reaction to the xenophobia of the right-wing Brexiteers and a fear that without the EU we would be totally at the mercy of an uncontrolled assault by the Tories. Others were more reluctant Remain supporters who saw the failings of the EU but were concerned about the outcome of a Brexit controlled by the right and the impact of this politically, economically and socially.
Material factors also promoted Pro-EU sentiment among certain sections of society. Trades Unions have declined in membership and influence and some see reliance on EU regulations as a guarantee of rights that we are not able to fight for and win ourselves. In some sectors EU grants are a major source of funding, especially where there is little or no cash from the British Government. This also makes a pro-EU sentiment understandable. Then there are those who aspire to work, study travel or live in other EU countries.
The view from working-class housing estates
The world, however, looks very different from working-class housing estates across the country, where people have reaped no immediate material benefit from the EU, who do not have extensive opportunities to travel and whose children are unlikely to benefit from Erasmus programmes. There is a danger of a huge division being opened up between middle class people who see benefits from EU membership and working class people who see none.
The challenge to the Remain supporting left is how to engage with the Brexit process and created a positive vision for Britain outside the EU. This is absolutely essential to ensure that the Leave supporting working-class voters are not abandoned to the right. Leave and Remain voters need a progressive alternative. The urgency of this is further underlined by the outcome of the US Presidential election, where Trump was able to capitalise on working-class discontent with a Democrat candidate who represented the problems of neo-liberalism in the eyes of many. It will be difficult not to get bogged down in the Brexit debate but we need an agenda which seeks to transcend this. Post the referendum we must end divisive labelling which sees the middle class as a Latte-drinking elite and the working class as bigoted and ignorant. The reality is that all our lives are being made miserable by lack of affordable housing, decent jobs and attacks on the welfare state.
Forging unity around the kinds of policies that Jeremy Corbyn put forward in his successful Labour leadership campaign will be vital. Combating racism must remain central to our work and there needs to be continuous pressure on the Tories while they are grappling with their own problems. We need to stop catastrophising about the negative and challenging situation we find ourselves and look to the positives. Many are down-hearted, but in Britain we have a huge advantage with Jeremy Corbyn re-elected for a second time as leader of the Labour Party and with hundreds of thousands of people flocking to join it. We need positive and hopeful messages about what we can achieve. However, just as the Tories had not done much thinking about Britain’s future outside the EU prior to the referendum, neither had the left. At least we should be clear that we are not going to be cheer-leaders for the interests of the banks and financial institutions, but beyond that what?
Britain outside the EU
We should not be constrained by the straight-jacket of soft versus hard Brexit or limit ourselves to defending rights which might be under threat. We should think more imaginatively about how Brexit could enable us to develop the British economy and build peaceful and equitable relationships with the rest of the world. Freed from the stringent capitalist requirements of the EU we can invest to support industry, infrastructure and public services. We can, for example, renationalise the railways, end compulsory competitive tendering and protect the NHS from privatisation. We can reject austerity, the economics of neo-liberalism and the free-market, which are enshrined in the EU through the Treaty of Rome, the Lisbon Treaty and the Fiscal Compact. We can set our own budget and decide our own taxes. We would not have to bail out failed banks, but could let them go to the wall instead and use the cash saved to invest in more productive economic development. Without EU rules dictating procurement procedures, public bodies could take account of ethical considerations and workers’ rights in awarding contracts. We can address the vexed question of what a progressive immigration policy might look like. We can begin to reset our relationship with the rest of the world based on promoting peace and respect for other nations. We should aim to build trade and economic development treaties which are equal and fair.
All of the above measures are impossible whilst we remain within the EU, outside it we can fight for a progressive alternative.
The interests of most of those who voted Leave and Remain are not so very different. We all want decent, well-paid jobs, good public services, housing and so on. A progressive programme for Brexit can undermine the domination of the debate by the right and move it on from xenophobia and fear. It can unite Leave and Remain supporters around economic and social policies which will create a more just, more equal Britain and world.
"We can reject austerity, the economics of neo-liberalism and the free-market, which are enshrined in the EU through the Treaty of Rome, the Lisbon Treaty and the Fiscal Compact."
"Without EU rules dictating procurement procedures, public bodies could take account of ethical considerations and workers' rights in awarding contracts."