By Alex Callinicos
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2538

Stop playing the Labour right’s Brexit game

This article is over 5 years, 6 months old
Issue 2538
Shadow business secretary Clive Lewis
Shadow business secretary Clive Lewis (Pic: Wikimedia Commons/Kinversam)

The Labour Party is getting itself into yet another pickle. This time it’s over Theresa May’s plan to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and start the two-year countdown to Britain leaving the European Union (EU).

Jeremy Corbyn said last week he would instruct Labour MPs to support triggering Article 50. But now we learn from the Financial Times newspaper that “scores of Labour MPs” plan to vote against.

This is predictable enough among right wing New Labour supporters who campaigned to stay in the EU and then blamed Corbyn when they lost.

But shadow business secretary Clive Lewis, backed by some on the left as a future leader, says triggering Article 50 is “not in the best interests” of his constituents.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones has come up with the even more helpful line. “Jeremy Corbyn has no choice but to back Article 50, and some of his MPs have no choice but to defy his order to back the triggering of it,” he wrote.

Opposing Article 50 makes some sense if you are a to-the-bitter-end opponent of Brexit and will do anything to stop it. Often this stance goes along with a contemptuous and elitist dismissal of the majority of voters who opted to leave.

So far the hope that people will eventually change their minds when confronted with the reality of Brexit doesn’t seem to be working out.

The latest YouGov poll puts support for leaving the EU single market at 57 percent and for leaving the European Customs Union at 56 percent. Understandably, remainers are much less enthusiastic than leavers.

Clive Lewis and the Labour right want to stay in the neoliberal single market but dump freedom of movement for workers throughout Europe.

Pressure from them and from Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has pushed Corbyn into weakening his support for freedom of movement. Though he did this in such a hesitant and half-hearted manner that he succeeded in satisfying no one.


The rebellion over Article 50 will simply add to the confusion at a moment when the Tories are beginning to get their act together.

May had the confidence to threaten last week to walk away from the negotiations with the rest of the EU because she thinks she has a new ally in Washington.

She hopes Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for Brexit and disdain for the EU will give her “global Britain” a powerful alternative in a free-market “Anglosphere”. Never mind that it’s quite unclear how this vision fits with Trump’s declaration in his inaugural speech that “protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”

The Sunday Telegraph newspaper reports that Trump “is planning a new deal for Britain”, involving closer financial and defence cooperation and fewer trade barriers.

Then will come a “full monty” state visit to Britain in the summer. According to one crony, “Trump has taken to calling Mrs May ‘my Maggie’ in private.”

No doubt there’s a lot of wishful thinking on both sides, if not pure fantasy. Nevertheless, May hopes to seize on Trump’s advent to office in the hope it can give Brexit a coherence that the pro-leave right has so far failed to provide.

In these circumstances it is completely irresponsible for EU supporters within Labour to start a fight over Article 50.

This isn’t just because it will allow the Tories and Ukip to portray Labour as anti-democratic and seek to tear away those of its supporters who voted to leave. Accepting Brexit is indispensable to offering an alternative to neoliberalism.

Back in September Corbyn made a speech arguing that the vote to leave reflected “the failure of an entire economic model to provide the chances and opportunities to a generation of our people”. It started mapping out a set of alternative policies.

It’s essential for Corbyn to continue on this path. He hasn’t done so sufficiently coherently or robustly—witness his U-turn on maximum salaries.

These hesitations have a lot to do with the barracking and outright sabotage of the Labour right. Lewis, Jones, and their like should stop playing the right’s game.

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