Waking up to reality: Why a Corbyn-style Lexit has to be part of our thinking about the future

Don Flynn poses some problems with a People’s Vote and outlines a Plan B in anticipation of Brexit actually taking place

It seems that few people are willing to give much credit to the leader of the Labour Party for the way he has played the role of opposition to Mrs May’s plans for Brexit in recent times. 

The epithets used to describe his performance in the news media are typically in the range of ‘confused’, ‘vacillating’, ‘conflicting’, through to downright cowardice and something close to stupidity.

The reason for this is usually attributable to the fact that he is a long-standing critic of the EU who may well, in the secrecy of the polling booth, have actually voted ‘leave’ back in 2016.  His views on the issue, set out in his regular column in the Morning Star, are quite unambiguous. He has attributed a good share of the responsibility for the UK’s loss of decent employment and the poor state of its public sector to the straitjacket imposed by the rules of the single market and the closure of a positive role for government intervention.

All of this is true, and we can agree that Corbyn’s rosiest red vision for the country under any government he was running would include freedom to act outside and beyond the restraints of a club which has the capitalist market written into its DNA. Disagree with this if you like, but it has to be conceded that there is nothing inherently implausible about this viewpoint. There are grounds to be concerned that it may be tainted with the belief that socialism in one country along the lines historically advocated by adherents of the Communist Party might be buttressing this perspective; but then again, maybe not. A left government operating outside the EU could feel itself empowered to appeal to other national administrations struggling to ameliorate the negative effects of neoliberal policies within their jurisdictions and to come up with lines of action which would not be possible from within the Union.  It is not out of the question that a progressive bloc of democratically-governed nations might appear on the international scene which is in a better position to challenge a world currently dominated by one sort of protectionism or another and the new cluster of ‘strong man’ regimes promulgating right wing, nationalist programmes.

Given the greater probability that the UK will find itself outside the EU come the 30th March it would be foolish for anyone on the left to rule out the possibility of this perspective tout court. The most salient criticism that can be made of this version of Lexit is that there is currently little evidence of interest in the construction of this bloc of left-inclined progressive governments. A condition for this to happen would be a revival of working class struggle in the countries most severely affected by neoliberal stagnation and austerity. This might change, and change quickly, if the rise in pubic protests of the ‘yellow vest’ kind gain momentum and push governments towards a public sector-led economic revival. But what is represented in these outbursts of populist energy is ambiguous – decidedly hard-line, xenophobic nationalism in the case of Belgium; progressive-liberal indignation from the Italian public; with the French case lying somewhere in between.    

In any event the type of appeal to centre-left governments for coordinated action to turn the tide on neoliberalism which would be the hallmark of this internationalist type of Lexit could, in principle, be made whilst still a member of the EU. It would involve a brutal fight with the forces currently controlling the destiny of the bloc, with a willingness to push state intervention in the economy to the limit of what is permitted and further.  The virtue of this happening whilst still a member would be the greater chance it would polarise the 28-member states into governments supporting the status quo on one hand, and others ready to contemplate a radical break with all the presumptions built into the single market since the mid-90s. If sufficiently strong the strategy would be the catalyst for reform of the Union, bringing it back to the point where it was when the then Commission President Jacque Delors called for a Europe-wide social democracy in the late 80s and early 90s.     

On this basis the balance of the argument between remain-and-reform and Lexit with a strong appeal to international solidarity might be more of a matter of judgment with things to say in favour and against on either side.  Does this degree of openness on the point justify what some (or many) see as Corbyn’s reluctance to go full-heartedly for Remain or Brexit?

Alternatives, rather than opposites

The Huffpost commentator and former Respect leader, Salma Yaqoob, has another take on the issue which is worth taking into consideration. In a piece written for that website earlier in December she suggested that the remain-and-reform and Lexit positions should not be seen as fundamentally in opposition to one another, but rather as a Plan A and Plan B set of alternatives. 

Plan A has to be operative as long as the UK remains on course to leave the EU at the end of next March. It has to be the first order option as long as it remains the case that insufficient forces exist at the popular level to overturn the referendum decision of 2016. This itself has to be tested by jumping across two fences. 

First of these is to mobilise sufficient support among voters for a second vote even to take place. The absence of any provision with the British polity for a triggering of a referendum by the population at large makes this a difficult task. To date, the ruling elites have only ever granted votes of this kind when they have been deemed necessary to resolve issues that have split their own ranks, like devolution to the nations within the UK, or the voting systems used for elections. Unlike other democracies the British system makes no provision for the holding of a referendum on the initiative of citizens themselves. The fact that 700,000 people march for a People’s Vote in central London carries no sway as long as the ruling party feels it is not in the interests of any of its factions to resolve a matter by this device. A general strike might be a route to a referendum, but if people felt so strongly as to take this course of rebellion to force the hand of government then the logical outcome would be to stop the proposed measure in its tracks, rather than merely hold a plebiscite.

We need to break with the line of argument that says Brexit will be an unmitigated disaster from which there will be no hope of recovery

This is not to say a second referendum is not a distinct possibility – more so now than at any other time in the months of the Article 50 negotiations. But if it is resorted to it will be driven by the depths of the crisis within the ruling party rather than the extent of the clamour on the streets. Certainly, this is a crisis that can be worsened by the adroit manoeuvring of the parliamentary opposition, making well-judged interventions that discombobulate the prime minister and her coterie and thereby deepen the discontent and fractiousness within the governing party.  It seems more likely with each passing day that May herself will trigger a second referendum in one last effort to win legitimacy for her version of Brexit.

This doesn’t mean that Labour will achieve this end by raising the issue of a second vote as something which in itself will further the disintegration of government. It might well be the case that leading on this issue, as the Umuna and Lammy factions have urged, would have healed at least some of the divisions among Conservatives on the grounds that this would be to act against the democratically-expressed will of the first vote. It seems to me that Corbyn has been canny in avoiding – or at least limiting – the impact of this accusation by insisting that a second vote should only be an option if other more traditional procedures, like a ‘meaningful’ vote or a general election, don’t break the deadlock. Instead he has sought to link the direction the Government is taking with the greater risk it poses to the core material concerns of the public in areas like employment, healthcare and other vital public services.

The route to the Brexit mapped out by the triggering of Article 50 nearly two years ago still seems to be the clearest pathway to the future. The pitfalls on the way include May losing her meaningful vote when it eventually takes place, triggering a vote of confidence in her government.  Winning that will not help her if Parliament still cannot agree on her version of Brexit, meaning that the prospect of a no-deal departure from the EU will loom even larger. If Parliament stands against that we are in the territory of an extension, or even the withdrawal, of Article 50 and further negotiations which will probably take place under the direction of a new Conservative prime minister. The odds remain in favour that, somewhere down this line, a Conservative-led government will succeed in getting Parliamentary approval for what will probably be a fairly soft Brexit.

Against Brexit as an unmitigated disaster perspective

Where would Labour want to be if this version of what might be turns out?  In my view it ought to work hard to avoid two things. The first is appearing as part of a conservative establishment which regards the sort of soft deal that May is angling for as the best that can be got. The famous ‘six tests’ are a useful yardstick to judge the deal against, but it needs to be beefed up with a strong narrative about impacts which will fall against working class interests. Voting against May’s package, now and when it comes back to Parliament in January, is essential on this point.

Following on from this we ought to maintain the position that crashing out without any sort of deal is also unacceptable. This, again, is because of the harm it will do to the key interests of working class people.

So far, so unexceptional. My next point is that, as developments move forward, we need to break with the line of argument that says Brexit will be an unmitigated disaster from which there will be no hope of recovery. My view is that leaving the EU in the way the Brexiteers are engineering it is the wrong battle being fought at the wrong time, which is why I joined the campaign and voted for remain. But in other circumstances – with a left wing government pushing to make greater use of the public sector to drag the economy out of its stagnant state – if the EU was proving to be an obstacle to the measures that needed to be taken then we would favour breaking with the bloc and working on an alternative strategy to build the links with other governments that also wanted out on austerity and more authority to address the needs of their economies from the standpoint of the interests of their citizens.

If we do find that a mixture of Conservative dogmatism and incompetence has bungled the country out the EU in March 2019, or any time thereafter, then our task will be to pull together a left strategy that incudes a crash plan to tackle all the problems that are domestic in origin: low productivity, absence of crucial skills and labour resources, low rates of workplace organisation, poor infrastructure, over-dependence on the financial sector, excessive centralisation, under-resourced public services, broken housing markets, etc, etc. In other words, at this point Brexit has to be turned into a demand for Lexit. It is absolutely essential that we stop rubbishing it as something unworkable from the start and seeing it as the Plan B which necessity is imposing as a matter of urgency.

‘People’s Plan’, not a ‘People’s Vote’

The prospect of exiting the EU in 2019 will create challenges that cannot be met by returning to the hoary old question of the wrong decision taken during the 2016 referendum and what will need to be done to unpick it all. It is out of the question that socialists should deal with the situation by demanding an abject return to the EU, begging to be let back in under any terms it chooses to impose. If currents start to emerge in the People’s Vote movement which call for such a response it is inevitable that they will have to be resisted by the left wing leadership of the Labour Party. Once out, the challenge will be to build support for a ‘People’s Plan’ to recover from the turmoil which has democratic socialism at its core.

Corbyn’s complaint is, at heart, clear and rational: that this Brexit should not happen and Labour will do all in its power to stop it

The tone of Chartist’s commentary on the politics of Brexit has generally been to give the Corbyn leadership the benefit of the doubt when it comes to criticisms of what is presented as its lack of decisive leadership. I would mark the role they have played higher than that. Corbyn has made it clear that he regards this Brexit as a mess that has its origins in the political turpitude of the Conservative camp. He has made it clear that he has his own criticisms of the EU and would, in different circumstances, have himself advocated leaving the bloc. His complaint is, at heart, clear and rational: that this Brexit should not happen and Labour will do all in its power to stop it. The Labour leadership sees some prospect of being able to honour the outcome of the 2016 referendum in a way that is not crucially damaging to working class citizens by negotiating a special customs union which meets the special needs of the UK whilst at the same time upholding the basic rules which the EU is insisting on. It is worth exploring this idea further and this can only be done by getting Labour in power so it can renegotiate a leave deal. 

I personally do not think the People’s Vote idea is worth campaigning for.  One, because it obviously seeks to overturn the 2016 vote and therefore is bound to look undemocratic. Second, because there is not a mechanism for bottom-up pressure for a vote on a specific policy issue into a referendum with the British political system. As explained above, referenda in this country take place at the instigation of the ruling elite interests and are biased towards serving their interests. A second vote might well take place on this occasion, if and when it serves the interests of May or whoever succeeds her as the head of a Conservative government. Thirdly, because no one has convinced me that Remain has a chance of winning that would justify a bet on the odds, and the consequences of losing a second time would place the right so firmly in the saddle they would not be budged for another generation.

The real challenge for the left – responding to populism

I would not say, as Salma Yaqoob does, that Corbyn has ‘played a blinder’ in the way he has handled this matter, but I understand her argument. My view is that the tensions and shifts which have moved the Corbyn project along in time are the consequences of the left’s current leadership of a political movement which has derived its legitimacy from the role it plays within parliamentary democracy and the current urgent need to relate to social and political moods that are bypassing traditional representation and instead choosing the path of populism. For reasons that can only be dealt with in another long piece, socialists should decline the temptation to be solely one or the other, but instead have to build a new democratic movement which combines the energy of direct democracy with a political structure that draws its strength not just from excitement of the moment, but also a solid understanding of history and the current form of capitalism. 

How we handle the Brexit issue is a test for all of us who think that a strengthening of democratic socialism as a force within British society is the best outcome that can come from this mess. If this is to happen it will be because we have tempered the enthusiasm for the large demo demand for a new vote (or Brexit Now for that matter) with a perspective that works with the fundamental ideas of the balance of class forces, the current form of capitalist crisis, and the resources that are potentially available to us through the actions of civil society and the parts of the state which are responsive to democratic pressure. If we can get these factors in play then, wherever the Brexit imbroglio takes us – soft, hard or remain and reform – then we will have a plan that will serve us for the future.      

Don Flynn

Don Flynn is Chartist managing editor and former director of Migrant Rights Network