Labour’s failure to put forward an independent vision for Brexit can allow neoliberal and right wing forces to make the running.
The danger was shown when FBU firefighters’ union official Paul Embery joined the Leave Means Leave rally last Friday. Embery had previously denounced labour movement figures who spoke alongside Tories and big business on the People’s Vote march last month.
He then lined up with some of the most vehement enemies of the working class last week.
He spoke alongside Nigel Farage, former Tory minister Mark Francois and right wing newspaper columnist Julia Hartley-Brewer. Another prominent speaker was Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin—who denounced a recent strike at two of his pubs as “gun boat diplomacy”.
Why would a union official fall into that disgraceful position? For Embery the “divide is between those who respect democracy and those who don’t, between democrats and anti-democrats”.
This means any reactionary—as long as they back Brexit—is a potential Embery ally. And his bigoted beliefs on issues such as abortion rights and LGBT+ rights chime with other reactionary ideas.
Some pro-Remain activists in Labour link such ideas to Lexit—the left case for leaving the European Union (EU).
An article by activist Sabrina Huck claimed that “a cocktail of left wing economics and socially conservative values is on the ascendance in Corbynite circles”.
It’s true that some right wing Labour members or Embery support Brexit. Their project is based on a patronising, pessimistic view of working class people as basically conservative and racist. And they see Brexit as a chance to bolster their nationalist politics of “family, faith and flag”. But this isn’t down to Lexit. It’s a set of right wing ideas already existing within the Labour movement.
Restricting immigration, for instance, is Labour’s official policy—and is supported by politicians who back the EU.
Labour is committed to retaining full access to the single market and a customs union, the chief demand of big business. At the same time it wants to dump freedom of movement and bring in a discriminatory “skills-based” immigration system.
There is a socialist case against the EU that does not line up behind big business or bigots. The Lexit campaign—which the Socialist Workers Party was a founding member of—never shared platforms with Ukip or the official Leave group.
The EU is a regional capitalist bloc whose member states compete globally with larger rivals, such as the US and China. That means the EU wants free movement of capital, goods and services and labour within its territory—and tight control over what’s allowed in from outside.
These borders are protected by its “Fortress Europe” policy, which has turned the Mediterranean into a mass grave of refugees. And, because the EU is a capitalist bloc, free market policies that protect profits are hardwired into it.
Single market rules restrict left wing policies, such as nationalising whole industries to run them as public services. So a Corbyn-led government could renationalise Royal Mail, but it would still have to compete with private rivals.
There are differences among Lexit supporters. Some object to the EU on nationalist grounds. If only we left the EU, their argument goes, a Labour government could get on with implementing left wing policies in Britain.
And many accept right wing myths that immigration undercuts wages and conditions.
The EU does block left wing policies, but leaving it won’t usher in a socialist utopia. Yet it could weaken a racist, neoliberal institution. And when our rulers and their institutions are weakened, it opens up opportunities for working class people to force through change.
A left wing vision of Brexit should be based on an internationalist defence of workers and migrants. It should say, “Yes to freedom of movement,” and, “No to the single market.”
The Tories’ crisis gives the left an opportunity. To grasp it we need to put forward an independent class position that doesn’t tail rival sections of the establishment over Brexit.