By Joseph Choonara
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Can the left shape Brexit?

This article is over 5 years, 4 months old
Now that Britain’s exit from the European Union has been triggered, there will be a battle over terms. Joseph Choonara assesses the strengths of the different forces at play.
Issue 423

Theresa May has enacted Article 50. Her letter has been despatched, and so the two-year process of Britain leaving the European Union has begun. Where does British politics stand on this occasion? Not quite, perhaps, where some had expected. A few days before the referendum, one left-wing blogger spoke of a Leave vote paving the way for an “incoming government headed by Johnson, Gove, IDS [Iain Duncan Smith], and Farage”. Such claims were commonplace in the run-up to the vote.

This bleak vision has not come to pass. The UK Independence Party is presently a rudderless and declining force. Its farcical attempt to select a new leader to follow Nigel Farage dredged up serial fantasist Paul Nuttall, who failed to come close to winning the Stoke Central by-election. The party’s sole MP, Douglas Carswell, broke with UKIP to sit as an independent. There may be a revival of political forces to the right of the Tories in the future, but that is not the challenge we face today.

Instead we confront a government led by Theresa May — not Johnson, Gove or IDS — with a substantial lead in the polls and, on the surface, an air of confidence. The façade of stability will not last. For one thing, May, having ruled out an early general election, is reliant on a slender majority in parliament. Her government has already been forced to retreat after seeking to raise national insurance contributions for some self-employed workers in the recent budget.

Plans to cut school funding in many areas are also sparking a revolt among Tory MPs. With impressive hypocrisy, one of the leading figures to emerge in this rebellion is spiv, Evening Standard editor and occasional parliamentarian George Osborne, who seems determined to take any opportunity to nettle the woman who sacked him — whether from the backbenches or from his editorial office.

These problems come before Pandora’s Box opens and the Brexit negotiations commence. It does not take much imagination to predict Tory backbenchers’ likely reaction to the EU’s demand for a €60 billion payment from Britain to cover its existing commitments. The German finance ministry has recently insisted: “Any Article 50 agreement will have to include the UK’s assurances that it will honour the financial commitments it undertook as an EU member state.”

Even if that issue is resolved, there is likely to be a prolonged delay until after September’s German federal elections. As any deal has to be ratified before Britain leaves, that allows only 12 months to conclude a fiendishly complicated and contentious negotiation. There is now widespread concern that no trade deal at all will emerge and that Britain will crash out of the bloc in a disorderly manner.


While some Tories greet this prospect with glee, the more serious representatives of capitalist interests fear the consequences of this hardest of Brexits — and there are signs of growing recognition of this among ministers. The bureaucratic dimension alone is daunting. The Confederation of British Industry recently pointed out that, unless Britain remains under the remit of at least some EU agencies, the government will have to set up and staff 34 new regulatory bodies in areas such as energy, transport and communication.

Faced with the likely turmoil ahead, the radical left must find a way to unite following the controversies of the referendum campaign. Attempting to overturn the referendum result cannot provide the basis for this unity. It is, of course, possible to turn out reasonably large numbers of people who do wish to reverse the result of the vote, as was seen in London at the end of March as a protest drew tens of thousands onto the streets.

However, this was hardly an environment hospitable to the forces of the radical left. The official website for the march featured a banner composed of alternating EU flags and Union Jacks. One of the compères on the stage was Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s hated spin doctor during the Iraq War. The final speaker was Nick Clegg, who, as Liberal Democrat leader during the coalition years, presided over the austerity programme that left 1 million people dependent on food banks.

This is a movement to preserve the status quo, and to do so in the interests of British capital. It would be a tragedy for sections of the radical left to become embroiled in their strategy. This is all the more so because there is no constituency among the working class for reversing the referendum result. Only a quarter of voters want a second referendum on the final deal with the EU; the number who desire another referendum ahead of that must surely be lower.

The most serious left forces who campaigned for a Remain vote, in particular those close to Jeremy Corbyn, accept the result. Corbyn’s proposition that we should fight over the terms on which Brexit occurs is a sound one, which can lay the basis for real unity. But here too there are problems. Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, has laid out six “tests” upon which his party’s support for Brexit will rest. Unfortunately these tests focus on defending the interests of business, not workers.

One test is that Brexit must deliver the “exact same benefits” as the single market. But the vote on 23 June was precisely a rebellion by people who do not think they have benefited from British membership of the world’s largest free trade area. It is the multinationals who are most wedded to the single market. Another of Starmer’s tests is that Brexit must ensure the management of migration “in the interests of the economy and communities”. This panders to those who claim that migration undermines “community cohesion”, while simultaneously hinting that firms should be able to get the migrants they need to ensure the smooth functioning of their businesses. The left should reject Starmer’s approach in favour of a genuinely progressive vision.


First of all, and most importantly, this means a fight to defend the rights of EU migrants in Britain — a cause that has already been adopted by Stand Up to Racism (SUtR). It is a scandal that 3 million EU citizens fear for their future when May could, with a few words, have unilaterally guaranteed their right to stay. This is an issue over which the left can win. Polls since the referendum have consistently shown majority support for the right of existing EU migrants to stay in the country, and there will almost certainly be some kind of deal. But the precise terms on which they are allowed to stay — as citizens with equal rights or as second class exploitation fodder — are important.

The socialist left would like to go further, defending the existing right to free movement across the EU, one of the demands raised by the protests on 18 March organised by SUtR. More generally, if the Tories begin to face greater problems, we can expect May to use racism to try to bolster her position. Building effective SUtR groups is an essential part of our response to Brexit.

The second issue is the return of the Scottish question. In the previous referendum the bulk of the radical left supported independence. The breakup of Britain would weaken its capacity to act alongside the US as an imperialist power and would strengthen the possibility of forcing a break with austerity in Scotland. That remains the correct stance. There are, however, obstacles to independence. Calling the referendum in the next two years requires a confrontation with the Tories, who have said that there will be no new poll until after Britain leaves the EU. In addition, the Scottish National Party’s attempt to associate Scottish independence with membership of the EU must be challenged. Identifying independence with the EU is divisive, especially given that those who voted for independence last time were slightly more likely to have voted to leave the EU than those who voted to retain the union with England. The situation is made more difficult by Labour’s determination, so far, to defend the union, an approach that has proved catastrophic north of the border.

A third area on which the left should focus is the range of social issues that will be raised by Brexit. The “great repeal bill” promised by May will transfer all current EU laws onto the UK statute book. However, there are fears that the use of so-called “Henry VIII clauses” will allow ministers to change laws with little or no parliamentary scrutiny. Corbyn was right to say, “I don’t think the record of Henry VIII on promoting democracy, inclusion and participation was a very good one.”

The left should oppose any watering down of existing protections for workers or the environment as part of this process.


Finally, there are the range of wider questions raised by the government’s continued attacks on the NHS and education, including its ideologically driven desire to create grammar schools, an issue that even enrages some moderate Labour MPs.

One crucial factor in these confrontations is the role of Corbyn and those who back him. For some of his erstwhile supporters, hopes in Corbyn have dimmed. Some sections of his base have been alienated by his position on Brexit. However, the bigger problem is that those who have joined Labour largely believed that it could make a breakthrough as an electoral force on the left — yet the party is currently 19 percent behind the Tories in opinion polls, the worst position in three decades.

One obvious reason for the party’s dismal polling is that the Parliamentary Labour Party remain at war with their leader and the minority of MPs who support him. This also puts these parliamentarians at odds with the much of the membership. Last month saw yet another attack by deputy leader Tom Watson, who claimed to have exposed a plot by the left wing campaign group Momentum to join forces with the Unite trade union to take control of the party. It is not easy for Corbyn to advance when he is being shot at from behind.

However, we are also seeing the playing out of some of the limitations of Labourism more generally. Historically Labour has tended to accept the existing consciousness of workers as more or less fixed and to accommodate to it in order to win elections. But to make a breakthrough on the basis of a truly radical agenda requires, instead, the transformation of the ideas and aspirations of workers on a large scale.

That cannot be achieved through an orientation on the structures of the Labour Party or through parliamentary manoeuvres, and it certainly cannot be achieved through compromise with the right, which confuses precisely the elements of Corbyn’s politics that appeal to disenfranchised Labour voters. Instead it is essential to raise the level of struggle outside parliament, giving hope to those currently suffering the effects of Tory rule and, where possible, drawing them into activity.

The great demonstrations of the Stop the War Coalition a decade and a half ago were, in reality, built by an organised core of a couple of tens of thousands of people — the far-left, those in local Stop the War groups, some Muslim organisations, peace activists and so on. This movement in turn had a colossal impact on British society and public opinion over the Iraq War. This was achieved with no organised presence by any mass party of the left.

Now, imagine the potential if even a substantial minority of Labour’s half a million members saw it as their main priority to mobilise, alongside forces outside of Labour, in defence of the NHS or comprehensive education, or in support of striking workers or of EU migrants. This is a potent force for transforming British society, and opening up a greater space for the left, if it is harnessed in such a manner. If, though, the politics of compromise win out, that potential will be lost and the left will be all the weaker for it.

Those of us on the revolutionary left must constantly seek to draw the supporters of Corbyn into common struggles to shape the terrain as Brexit unfolds, while patiently explaining the limitations of the parliamentary road and the need for a more fundamental transformation of society.

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