Labour’s leadership is “walking a tightrope” to get the right position on Brexit. That’s what shadow chancellor John McDonnell told Labour supporters at an event in central London last Saturday.
His problem by now is familiar. Labour’s leadership has tried to satisfy those in the party who want to remain in the European Union (EU), while also seeking the support of Leave voters.
Where previous splits in Labour were so clearly driven by the resentful right, the divide over Brexit is not so obviously clear cut. At least not at first glance, anyway.
A number of Labour-focused campaigns describing themselves as left or “Pro-Corbyn, pro-EU” have recently been set up to call for Corbyn to back a second referendum.
A new group, Labour for a People’s Vote, wants the party to back a second referendum. And the “soft left” Open Labour faction, together with the Unison union, launched a pamphlet on “The Left’s relationship with Europe” at the same event McDonnell spoke at.
With contributions from former left wing Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and TSSA transport union leader Manuel Cortes, it gives the EU a “socialist,” “internationalist” colouring. Both campaigns give voice to the mistaken view that the EU is—or can be—a progressive force.
Coming straight to the launch from a march against Brexit, Cortes dismissed as “a load of crap” claims that EU rules prevent nationalisation or state aid.
Labour MP Alex Sobel went further. He argued that a Corbyn government could not achieve its left wing manifesto promises “outside of the European family”.
They’re both wrong. The EU was set up as a capitalist trading bloc—and it will remain so. Membership of the EU depends on sticking to its pro-market policies.
So, for instance, even though an EU country could own a single rail company, rules demanding market competition mean it could never nationalise the entire industry.
The truth is that everything the EU does is in the interests of big business and the bosses. The most revealing part of McDonnell’s discussion of the EU last Saturday was a claim that Labour’s position on Brexit was appealing to them.
“When I speak to the city managers, asset managers and bankers, they now see the greater element of stability for them both in terms of the long term future of the economy and investment—and on Brexit itself—comes from us rather than from the Tories,” he said.
This is when Labour’s dilemma over Brexit reveals the real, constant conflict in the party. Labour’s leadership doesn’t just have to satisfy its own right wing MPs.
It also has to pacify the bankers who threaten economic sabotage against a future left wing government.
Trying to find a balance between the bankers and Labour’s working class supporters is what causes the left to become undone.
Varoufakis tried to find a solution to end austerity in Greece and appease the EU at the same time—and was callously cast aside. He should have learned his lesson.
The EU was only interested in forcing ever-harsher cuts on Greeks, and pressured the left wing Syriza government to do it.
McDonnell recalled how, during the referendum, he warned Labour MPs not to appear alongside Tories on Remain-backing platforms or else “you’ll be seen as the establishment”.
That warning could just as easily apply to campaigning alongside most of those leading the drive to halt Brexit today. Tens of thousands marched last Saturday for a second referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal. Among them were people who are anti-racist and anti-austerity.
But the direction of the campaign is pro-EU, which pushes racism and free market policies.
The alternative is to campaign for a real, left wing alternative vision for Brexit—one that promises nationalisation and a full defence of migrants’ and workers’ rights.
That’s the kind of Brexit the left should unite around to challenge the austerity-mongers who love the EU.