Jeremy Corbyn was in Manchester yesterday telling activists to get ready for a General Election and pledging to stop Prime Minister Boris Johnson leading the country to a “no deal” Brexit. Since, apart from the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Theresa May and rejected three times in Parliament, that is the only Brexit now attainable, this does mean that Labour is now, at last, clearly opposed to Brexit.
Socialists need to understand how right we are to be in this position. For all the many flaws of the European Union, the only paths which lead the United Kingdom out of the EU also take us further away from a place where a socialist-led Labour Government could legislate in ways that would empower our class.
The common misconception (on the “Lexit” left) that the “leave” vote was some sort of working class rebellion has been comprehensively demolished by academic analysis of the votes, of which a recent serious example observes that “Labour voters with observables that put them in the Leave camp – male, older, less educated, less likely to be in employment, etc. – are significantly more likely to express a preference for the status quo of remaining in the EU. Voters with similar socio-economic profiles who identify with the Conservative Party are more likely to vote Leave.”
Translating this from academic language, these results explain that, whilst we know that there a various social characteristics which were more closely associated with “leave” than “remain” voters in 2016 (being male rather than female, being old rather than young, white rather than black, having a lower level of educational attainment etc.) there was an independent effect of Party loyalty – as the academics put it “among individuals with similar socio-economic characteristics, Labour supporters are more likely to support Remain while Conservative supporters are more likely to support Leave”.
These findings – from a thorough and convincing analysis relying upon both individual and geographical data – reinforces the observation made based upon data collected at the time that “the typical Leave voter is white, middle class and lives in the South of England.” It emphasises that they are also a Tory. Whilst there were millions of Labour supporters who did vote Leave, they were greatly outnumbered by those who followed the policy and recommendation of the Party and voted Remain.
This reflected a significant change since the 1975 referendum; “In 1975, those living in Scotland, Labour party supporters, and those of a left-wing disposition were strong components of the anti-Common Market vote, as were readers of the Daily Mirror. In 2016, the forces of the political right – whether based on party support for UKIP or the Conservatives, or anti-welfare and social authoritarian ideological dispositions, or newspaper readership – were pivotal to the decision to leave.”
This change is hardly surprising since (without the “Lexit” left having noticed it would seem) the arguments for and against membership of the European Union had, of course, changed very dramatically in forty years as had the world economy. In 1975, a labour movement which was still growing in strength domestically, in the context of a world dominated by the competition between global capitalism and a global alternative could look askance at the (then) EEC as part of a Cold War institutional infrastructure.
By 2016 – and particularly as the referendum campaign unfolded this became ever more clear – the choice to vote Leave was an expression of a reactionary rejection of globalism, migration, tolerance and social progress. Of course, there were those who voted Leave who did not take this view. But they weren’t those who shaped either the decision or its subsequent interpretation.
To the extent that the Party’s policy since 2016 has been to “respect the Referendum” in order to appeal to “Labour Leave” voters, we have been largely – and fruitlessly – chasing working class Tories in Labour voting areas (to say nothing of alienating many of our supporters who are disgusted to see us pandering to a decision which they perceive – and not wrongly - as having been motivated in large part by racism).
Fast forward to 2019 and we face the prospect not of a second referendum (for which there is no Parliamentary majority – and wasn’t even when Labour MPs were whipped to vote for it) – but a General Election. A Prime Minister committed to the hardest achievable Brexit so that the United Kingdom can become a bargain basement, low wage, low productivity economy off the coast of Europe is hardly likely to opt for a referendum he would probably lose when he can have a General Election and the chance of victory.
The Scottish National Party leveraged 45% voting for independence in 2014 to an overwhelming landslide in the General Election a year later, because the anti-independence majority were split between different parties. Johnson plainly hopes either to broker a deal with the Brexit Party or to appeal so successfully to their supporters that he can repeat this trick, relying on the minority who would vote to Leave the EU in a referendum now to deliver a Parliamentary majority. His monumental self-regard probably means that he will convince himself that he can do this.
We therefore need to prepare for a General Election. There will be those who will prioritise an argument about how “remain supporting” Parties should stand down in each other’s favour in order to try to frustrate Johnson’s project – in Brighton Pavilion we will once more face the argument that no one ought to stand against our incumbent Green Member of Parliament (whilst we await her beatification). Such a formal deal at a national level, even if it were desirable, is unachievable (although some progressive voters may will vote tactically in marginal constituencies).
Time spent arguing about who should stand down for whom, which is not spent campaigning for Labour votes in Labour-Tory marginal constituencies, will not turn out to have been time well spent. (The same will apply to time spent on any other debates within or beyond the Party which do not relate to winning the General Election).
We need to mobilise our membership as we have never been able to before, both around our positive socialist policies – and around a clear position of opposition to Brexit (because any conceivable Brexit would stand in the way of all of those positive policies).
Corbyn was crystal clear in Parliament this week (in asking one of the many questions which Johnson ignored) that Labour would support a referendum in which we would campaign for remain – but the Party is failing thus far to communicate this position effectively.
I hope that we will see clarity and radicalism urgently from the Party nationally – but local Parties do not need to wait to be offered a lead.