By KD Tait
The defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s motion of no confidence was a desperate act of self-defence by the hypocrites on the Tory backbenches who had only just failed to overthrow their leader themselves, and had then joined the opposition in voting against her deal.
After suffering the biggest defeat in parliamentary history, Theresa May’s government still uses the threat of a no-deal Brexit to blackmail the warring Tory factions, knowing that their mutual loathing is outweighed only by the need to avoid a split that could pave the way for Corbyn in Number Ten.
Corbyn, on the other hand, hopes to precipitate this split by demanding that ‘no deal’ is ruled out, by suspending Article 50, and by wooing the Tory Remainers with the prospect of Labour support for a ‘bespoke customs union’ deal.
But the threat of no deal on 29 March has been May’s strongest card; there is no chance of her voluntarily withdrawing it until she is convinced she has got a majority for her deal. That will remain her strategy unless is she is forced to change by parliament on Monday, when she presents her “new” Brexit plan.
As things stand, any Tory deal to leave the EU will require Labour support – but the concessions that Corbyn demands would split the Tories. Corbyn’s strategic objective is to force the Tories to take responsibility for Brexit while avoiding a split in his own party.
The government’s offer of support for John Mann’s amendment on workers’ rights, and Yvette Cooper and Bomber Benn’s talks with Theresa May, raise the prospect of a free vote to avoid a formal split, or strategic abstentions by Labour MPs, arranged with Tory whips behind closed doors.
History shows the Labour right wing would have no hesitation in voting for May’s deal on the grounds that it was in the national interest to avoid a “no deal” exit on March 29. In fact, Corbyn’s own strategy is not so very different. He, too, wants Britain to leave the EU, but he demands assurances on workers’ rights – as if they would be worth anything as long as the Tories remained in power.
In his letter to the prime minister, explaining why he was boycotting her offer of negotiations, Corbyn asserted that Labour has,
“set out an alternative framework for a better deal: based upon a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union; a strong Single Market deal; and guarantees that there can be no race to the bottom on rights and standards.”
This summarises the project of a ‘People’s Brexit’ in which a Labour government will negotiate a deal which simultaneously allows us to secure “the exact same benefits” as we currently have whilst gaining a host of new advantages.
But no such deal is possible. The reality is that a new customs union would be on worse terms. Above all, there can be no single market access without freedom of movement; the EU has made this clear. Indeed, Corbyn himself has already ruled this out, realising, correctly enough, that this was the number one red line of the Leave decision.
The working class has already experienced a race to the bottom in wages, jobs, and housing for decades, something that will not be improved by engaging in a spectacular act of economic and political self-harm. Indeed, the economic effects of Brexit, including loss of jobs in trans-European industries, the loss of markets for British firms, any trade deals with Trump, etc. will make the situation facing any incoming Labour government far worse than if we were still a member of the EU.
Corbyn’s strategy is motivated by a mixture of electoral opportunism, believing against all the evidence that this will maximise the Labour vote, should there be an election, and the obsession with leaving the EU as a precondition for ‘socialist’ measures. This line is inherited from the Communist Party of Britain’s goal of ‘socialism in one country’, a reactionary utopia. Unfortunately, ex-CPB members remain influential in the top echelons of the labour movement.
The real problem is the division in the Labour Party between the leadership, with its national strategy and the members’ instinctive internationalism. By continuing to obstruct Labour’s members from bringing party policy into line with their overwhelming opinion, Corbyn has placed a huge explosive charge under the whole Labour Left project.
Many Labour Party members have expressed surprise or anger that Corbyn has not moved to back a second referendum after the patent failure to secure a general election. This is because he prefers to occupy the weeks ahead with a futile series of no confidence motions, in order to keep alive the mirage of a general election, with the referendum left “on the table” gathering dust. Meanwhile, if May is forced into an election, Labour would fight it on its existing Brexit manifesto.
The Labour leadership’s real policy has been entirely consistent, and mirrors May’s; to run down the clock, waiting for parliament to accept her deal, the only deal. It is a dishonest policy smuggled in without members’ consent, nothing short of triangulation worthy of a Blair or a Mandelson. Clearly, the Liverpool conference policy was a dud as far as reversing the rush to Brexit was concerned. Those who hailed it as a major success were deluding themselves. The consequences of pressing for a people’s vote, rather than concentrating on changing Labour’s policy, are now clear for all to see.
If Corbyn and/or a large number of Labour MPs end up rescuing May’s deal (even if with cosmetic changes) this will alienate all those progressive, internationalist and antiracist forces that brought him to power. It will sow demoralisation and disorganisation in the labour movement and strengthen the anti-Brexit nationalists, the Greens, and the Liberal Democrats.
But there is another road, the road of struggle, which would enable the left to regain the initiative by calling on the NEC to call an emergency conference on the single issue of Brexit and to allow the members’ delegates to reject not only May’s deal, with or without addendums on rights, but to reject Brexit altogether and with it the reactionary policy of ending freedom of movement.
On this basis, Labour should make clear it is fighting for a united struggle by the entire European working class; firstly, against continuing austerity, which has been a Europe-wide capitalist offensive since bailing out the banks in the 2008 crisis, secondly, a fight against the rising tide of racism and nationalism across the world and thirdly against the undemocratic institutions of the EU itself.
Armchair psephologists aside, there is no evidence that supporting Brexit would be the winning ticket in a general election. Everything points to the opposite. Labour’s leadership would stand divided from the membership that installed it; having failed to press the offensive against the right wing, it would also have a treacherous PLP with the knives out.
It would feel compelled to make attacks on the rights of migrants a central emphasis in order to “win back” Leave voters. Finally, the EU, so inveterately hostile to a Labour government according to the pro-Brexit left, is hardly likely to give Corbyn more favourable terms than those they offered to May.
Therefore we believe rank and file members of the Party and its affiliated unions must fight for:
- No deal with May and no vote for a compromise Tory Brexit
- Call a special Labour conference now to decide for or against leaving the EU
The labour movement as a whole should launch a campaign of mass demonstrations and rallies around the slogans:
- Down with racism and nationalism
- No to Brexit
- Unite with workers in Europe against austerity and racism, and for a socialist united Europe