Million march for putting it to the people 

It’s time for Labour to create time for a public vote and prepare for elections to win in Europe, writes Mike Davis

In one of the biggest marches in British history, over one million people crammed the streets around Hyde Park to Parliament Square on Saturday 23rd March for the right to vote on May’s deal to leave the EU. It was a vast cosmopolitan gathering of young and old from all parts of the UK.

Improvised banners from ‘Brexit is poo’, ‘Build Unions not Borders’, ‘Revoke Article 50’  to ‘Don’t blame the Bulgarians, the Romanians – blame the Etonians’, along with a sea of European flags and chants, animated the demonstrators. At the Left bloc rally, shadow minister Clive Lewis and MP Kate Osamor spoke passionately against Brexit as a right-wing nationalist project that would increase racist sentiments and boost xenophobia. At the main rally, Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, and Sadiq Khan, London’s Labour mayor, spoke up for a plebiscite of the people on the deal for staying put.

These are historic times with seismic shifts occurring in British political culture. The online poll for revoking Article 50 is nearing six million. Parliament is about to take control from the government in moves unprecedented in most people’s lifetimes.

The march was staged in this cauldron of indecision and uncertainty. It was a progressive march, a march for internationalism, a march for a People’s Europe. The battle against Brexit is also the front line of the struggle against racism and xenophobia. It is the front line of those who stand up against populist nationalism, hard borders and migrant scapegoating. For these reasons alone Jeremy Corbyn or shadow chancellor John McDonnell should have been on the march.

Naysayers will say Tories were marching, that many anti-Brexiters are pro neoliberalism and austerity. They will also say that Labour cannot afford to alienate Leave voters by nailing its colours to a people’s vote. Do these objectors have such little confidence in their political ideas that they fear a handful of Tories or that they cannot challenge nationalist ‘Little England’ views?

We would say that putting May’s deal to a public vote is Labour’s hard-fought-for conference policy. It does not contradict a bid for a general election but runs alongside that campaign. Further, as many speakers at the rallies said, the people were lied to about the benefits of leaving, and the Leave campaign itself has been found guilty of improper funding and practices.

Set aside those objections. If Labour had come out campaigning for its policy of a public vote following the first 230-vote historic defeat of May’s deal in January then we would be in a stronger position now. Polls consistently show that the balance of opinion has shifted to ‘Remain’. Even if we set aside the polls, 48% of the population opposed leaving. That is more than enough for Labour to win a majority.

Moreover the demonstration signifies a wave of British electors (and EU nationals) who want a future with European people. Who recognise a future lies in collaboration, in the freedom to travel and work across borders, who want a cosmopolitan world of cultures, religions and races. A world where people can live and love together without prejudice and hate. Where the scourge of global warming and corporate tax evasion is tackled across borders. Where there is not a race to the bottom on tax cutting and wage depression. Where collaboration in promoting community safety and fighting terrorist extremism, corruption and mafia gangs is done across borders.

This is not to dismiss ‘Leave’ voters. But it has to be acknowledged that Brexit is a right-wing, nationalist project with a strong dose of xenophobia thrown in. “Take back control” was never about reinvigorating democratic structures, removing antiquated institutions like the Crown or House of Lords, but about deregulating and giving more power to the corporations and banks. It is not a project to benefit the vast majority of working people.

In 2017 Labour almost turned a double-digit opinion poll deficit into a winning majority with a six-week rollercoaster campaign across the country and on social media. It was a well organised and inspiring campaign that enthused hundreds of thousands and caught the Tories napping.

The Tories are hopelessly split and at war with themselves. We should be able to exploit those deep divisions. In a third referendum campaign (1975 being the first) Labour could retake the reins, projecting a positive future in a transformed European Union and be a decisive force in winning that vote, converting previous Leave voters and consolidating support amongst Remainers.

Revoking Article 50 would enable Parliament to take back control and create space and time to put a deal to the people in the form of a public vote. It could well transpire that Parliament seeks a longer delay from the EU on Article 50. This would mean fighting the European elections in May. Labour needs to prepare for this eventuality with a robust pro-European campaign. At its core would be a green investment-led, pan-European recovery programme to end austerity and rebuild our creaking public services.

Labour is now in danger of losing thousands of those energetic younger people and many more who want a different world based on internationalism and cooperation across borders.

The march was a big opportunity for Labour to reconnect with that movement and take leadership of it. The Corbyn-McDonnell left need to re-position with the pro-Remain and transform movement that demonstrated on Saturday and provide a clear vision of a European future. Time is running out.

Mike Davis

Mike Davis is editor of Chartist.