The Tory crisis is fuelling calls for a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU). Some say the Tories are making such a mess of Brexit that it would be better to retreat from it altogether.
Labour’s Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said last week that Labour was not calling for a new vote but was “not ruling out a second referendum”. Deputy leader Tom Watson said the same in a Radio 4 interview on Tuesday.
On the surface, this can sound progressive. Why not give ordinary people a say—and undermine the Tories at the same time?
The problem is, ordinary people have already had a say. They voted to leave the EU. And if Labour politicians really want to undermine the Tories, they should be fighting to force them out.
Instead some are limiting their criticism or even backing Theresa May in a bid to appear “responsible”.
Labour MP Jess Phillips tweeted on Sunday that May “should hold her nerve” against her Tory critics. And Watson said, “Do we want to work with the government to get the best deal for the country? Yes we do.
“Is the current meltdown in the government good for anyone? Electorally it might help my party, but that’s no good. We want a good deal.”
There are two wrong assumptions being made here. One is that the wrangling at the top over Brexit is about producing a “good” deal for ordinary people.
The second is that the EU is progressive. That’s why some back a “soft” Brexit that would see Britain continue to have close ties to the EU. And it’s why others want a second referendum to overturn the Leave vote altogether.
But the rows over a Brexit deal are focused on getting trade agreements that will benefit British businesses, not workers. Bosses fear that a so-called “hard” Brexit deal will hurt their ability to make profit.
They are piling pressure on May to go for a “soft” deal. Asda boss Roger Burnley was the latest to issue dire warnings about a hard Brexit this week.
The bosses’ panic says a lot about the nature of the EU. The overwhelmingly majority of Britain’s bosses backed staying in the EU because it benefits them.
It was set up to promote and protect the interests of capitalists in member states, and help them better compete with bosses elsewhere.
The EU isn’t about promoting internationalism or solidarity between workers. Its rules aim to keep people from outside the EU out, even if that means they drown in the sea.
EU institutions have imposed austerity and privatisation that has wrecked workers’ lives. And EU rulings have blocked workers from taking action.
Those in Labour and on the wider left who hope for a “soft” Brexit say they want to protect ordinary people’s living conditions. Yet they are arguing to keep close links with a neoliberal, racist body.
And by seeking to overturn the referendum result they are stoking cries of betrayal that will boost the far right and divide working people.
The key thing determining our wages, conditions, pensions and services is not whether Britain is in the EU or not. It’s how much struggle there is by ordinary people against those at the top.
May seemed to have survived to fight another day as Socialist Worker went to press, but the crisis for the Tories will continue. The government was to publish a White Paper on Brexit on Thursday following a deal drawn up at Chequers last week.
Tories backing a hard Brexit are already demanding changes to it. The threat that Tory disunity could let in a Corbyn-led Labour government might persuade some to fall into line.
But May’s critics could call a vote of no confidence in her if they don’t get what they want.
There is real potential to force May out and deepen the crisis for the government—but we need more struggle to realise it. Labour should be focusing on building that struggle and getting the Tories out—not doing deals with them.