The British Parliament voted last week to trigger Article 50 — the first step on the road towards withdrawal from the European Union. This move has predictably been greeted with fury by many of those who voted against Brexit in last year’s referendum. Less predictably, perhaps, much of that fury has been directed towards the Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn, rather than towards the political actors which are actually responsible for taking Britain out of the European Union.
This is ostensibly because Corbyn directed Labour MPs to vote in favor of triggering Article 50, thus signaling Labour’s willingness to accept the result of the referendum, while bringing forward amendments that would have constrained Britain’s Conservative government in the negotiations to come. However, discussion of Parliamentary tactics has usually been a proxy for a much wider debate about the correct approach to Brexit. More often than not, Corbyn and Labour are being condemned for things which they have not done, or which they cannot (and should not) do.
The British left badly needs to find its bearings in a complex and confusing environment dominated by the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. There are no perfect choices available; every potential course of action has its dangers and drawbacks. But Labour’s current approach — accepting that Britain will leave the European Union, while pledging to resist Theresa May’s vision of a “bargain-basement Britain” founded on tax cuts and xenophobia — is far better than the proposed alternatives.
Blocking Brexit: Bad in Principle
Votes cast in Parliament should always be part of a wider political strategy. Many of Corbyn’s critics believe that the wider strategy should simply be to stop Brexit from happening. When Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that MPs would have to be consulted on the process of leaving the European Union, they saw it as a heaven-sent opportunity to halt that process altogether. Corbyn’s unwillingness to do so was, from their perspective, a gross betrayal. In reality, the supposed “opportunity” to stop Brexit is more like a mirage. Chasing after that mirage can only end in disaster for the British left.
Trying to overturn the result of last year’s referendum is a dubious idea in any case. Various arguments have been put forward for doing so. The turnout wasn’t high enough; the majority wasn’t big enough; the Leave campaign based their pitch on lies; the referendum wasn’t binding on Parliament in any case; MPs should exercise their judgement and think of the national interest — that’s a fair summary of the talking points that have been swirling around.
In fact, the turnout was reasonably high: at 72 percent, it was higher than any national election since 1992, and three million votes higher than in the previous year’s general election. The 52:48 margin of victory for the Leave camp wasn’t huge, but it was clear enough; crucially, there had been no requirement for a quorum or a supermajority imposed when the referendum was called, so demanding one afterwards smacks of special pleading.
It’s well worth stressing the narrow margin between Leave and Remain when Britain’s right-wing press talk as if there was an overwhelming mandate for Brexit. The fears of the 48 percent who voted to stay in the European Union should not be dismissed in a cavalier fashion. But nor can they reasonably expect to be given priority over those who voted Leave.
The argument that the referendum was not binding is legally correct and politically useless. Nobody thought they were voting in a glorified opinion poll last June; everyone understood that it was a straight choice between staying in the European Union and getting out. There were plenty of lies told by the politicians who spearheaded the Leave campaign, but ruling a referendum invalid on that basis is a very dubious idea (how many elections and referendums, in Britain and elsewhere, would have to be struck out on the same grounds?).
Those who insist that MPs should overturn the referendum result often fall back on an elitist, Burkean view of political representation, according to which MPs should ignore public opinion when it conflicts with their understanding of the national interest. This is awkwardly combined with the idea that MPs should also be accountable to their constituents, so long as their constituents voted Remain (since about two-thirds of Westminster constituencies voted Leave, applying this principle consistently would ensure a big majority for Brexit in Parliament).
The idea seems to be that MPs should act either as delegates with a binding mandate or as Burkean representatives, depending on what would help the anti-Brexit cause.
Blocking Brexit: Worse in Practice
Let’s say you find all of these arguments against setting the referendum result aside unconvincing and think Brexit should be stopped anyway. In practice, there would be no better way of ensuring that the most destructive and reactionary version of Brexit will be put into effect.
There are two possible ways of stopping the process in its tracks: one would be to vote it down in Parliament, the other would be to call a second referendum. Before discussing either, we should remind ourselves of one crucial fact: there is no evidence of large-scale disillusionment among those who voted for Brexit last June.
At most, there have been marginal shifts between Leave and Remain blocs picked up in the opinion polls. Anti-Brexit liberals have insisted repeatedly that the tide of public opinion is turning in their favor and that a clear majority would vote for Remain if the referendum was held again tomorrow; they have clutched at every piece of evidence that seems to back up this claim.
But the overall picture doesn’t suggest anything of the sort. As one leading pollster reported:
I was asked again and again to share how my polling and focus group insight revealed voters’ deep disappointment: how leavers, who were now obviously regretting their folly, would vote differently given the chance. The evidence did not support this at all.
There is no groundswell of public opinion demanding that MPs overturn the result, or call a new referendum; in fact, there is more evidence of Remain voters accepting the outcome than there is of Leave voters moving in the opposite direction. This may change in the future, but as things stand, eight months after the referendum, we can find little evidence of the much-vaunted “Bregret.”
What would happen if MPs voted to halt Brexit altogether anyway? This could only work, even in the short run, if the Conservative Party was willing to go along with it. Both Labour and the Tories would be storing up grave problems for themselves at the next general election, allowing the UK Independence Party (UKIP) to pose as the only champion of democracy, “the voice of the 52 percent,” etc.
But in any case, the Conservatives have no intention of playing along: despite harboring a clear pro-Remain majority in their parliamentary party before the referendum, including the current Tory leader Theresa May, they have rallied behind May’s pledge to respect the referendum result and translate it into reality.
That leaves Labour and the other opposition parties with very little ammunition to fire. If every last one of their MPs had voted against triggering Article 50 in Parliament, the Tories would still have had a comfortable majority of their own (not to mention support from the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party, with another eight MPs). Just one Tory MP, Ken Clarke, signaled his intention to vote against Article 50, and did so last week. Supposedly “liberal” Conservatives were not even prepared to vote in favor of a Labour amendment that would have guaranteed the rights of EU citizens currently resident in Britain.
If the opposition parties had voted as a bloc against Article 50, and somehow persuaded enough Tory MPs to defect, would that have been the end of Brexit? Not a chance. Theresa May would have used it as an opportunity to call a snap election, running on a pro-Brexit, British nationalist platform, accusing the other parties of showing contempt for democracy and denying the right of the British people to make decisions about the future of their country. And she would have done very well with that message.
Under the British electoral system, the Conservatives don’t need to win 52 percent of the vote, or anything close to that amount; 40 percent or thereabouts would do very nicely and give them a comfortable majority of seats. They would then have a free hand to implement Brexit in the manner of their choosing, and a mandate in their back pocket to justify every step they took.
A second referendum would be a slightly more plausible way of reversing the outcome, but still offers a very uncertain prospect for those who want to keep Britain in the European Union. In Ireland, we had the opportunity to vote on two EU treaties no less than four times, after rejecting Nice and Lisbon at the first opportunity; people grumbled at being told to vote again, but the pressure from European governments to fall into line won out in the end.
I would not count on the same thing happening if Britain was asked to vote on Brexit a second time. The Irish protest votes against Nice and Lisbon came before the Great Recession and were much softer than the Leave vote in Britain. Calling a second referendum might just as well provoke a hardening of pro-Brexit sentiment. And if there was anything less than an overwhelming majority for Remain, what would stop the Brexit partisans from demanding a third go?
Many of those demanding that Labour vote against Article 50 are understandably horrified by the vision of post-Brexit Britain set out by Theresa May and her Tory colleagues since the referendum was held. May has opted decisively for a so-called “hard Brexit,” giving immigration control priority over membership of the European single market, and good relations with Donald Trump priority over a semblance of national dignity. But there is a way of challenging May’s toxic blueprint that does not require outright opposition to Brexit in any shape or form.
While people knew full well that they were voting to leave the European Union last June, there was no clarity from the leading figures in the Leave camp about what that would entail (in particular, politicians like the current Tory foreign minister Boris Johnson denied that it would mean leaving the single market).
The 52 percent who supported Brexit weren’t all signing up to a hard-right, xenophobic agenda, even if the effect of their vote has been to strengthen that agenda: they included about one-third of Labour and Scottish National Party (SNP) supporters, and one-third of black and Asian voters (in a marked contrast to the vote for Donald Trump, who was supported by less than 10 percent of African-Americans).
There was a strong xenophobic and reactionary current in the Leave vote, but also a more politically ambiguous desire to give two fingers to Britain’s ruling elite. The most sensible course for the British left is to try and build bridges between those who opposed Brexit and those who voted for it without embracing the full platform of UKIP, the Tory right, and the Daily Mail.
This appears to be the approach that the Labour leadership has decided upon: they have stated clearly that they will respect the result of the referendum and not attempt to block Article 50 altogether, while opposing the particular form of Brexit that May’s government intends to carry out. Political commentators have presented this as a necessity dictated by pragmatic considerations: two-thirds of Labour supporters voted Remain, especially in the major cities, but the rest backed Leave, as did many of the voters the party needs to win over if it is going to make electoral gains, and the majority of current Labour MPs represent Leave-voting constituencies.
This is all perfectly true, but there is also a wider logic behind what Labour is doing. “Stop Brexit” is not a tenable position, for all of the reasons given above; “Stop Theresa May’s version of Brexit” is much more likely to gain traction. Whatever judgement we may pass on the parliamentary tactics used to advance this strategy, about which there can be reasonable disagreement, in terms of the overall picture it seems the only realistic course to follow.
It’s useful to compare Labour’s approach with the positions of its two main rivals on the opposition benches, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats. The SNP was the only party at Westminster to vote against holding a referendum on Britain’s EU membership in the first place, so its MPs cannot be accused of hypocrisy in voting against the outcome of that referendum last week. The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has a semi-plausible route towards blocking Brexit: a majority of Scottish voters supported Remain, and the country already has its own devolved institutions.
Sturgeon can demand that Scotland be excluded from any “hard Brexit” deal; failing that, she can push for Scottish independence in order to keep the country in the European Union (indeed, the SNP appears to see Brexit as a golden opportunity to reopen the question of independence after its defeat in the 2014 referendum). Everything the SNP does at Westminster fits into that overall strategy.
But Remain voters in England and Wales can draw little comfort from this. The SNP in no position to shield them from the worst excesses of Tory rule; in fact, its approach to Brexit implicitly relies upon things getting much worse in the rest of the United Kingdom, so that a majority of Scots will be ready to take the risk of voting for independence.
The Liberal Democrats deserve only contempt for their posturing over Brexit. Their leader Tim Farron understands the political logic as well as anyone; he knows perfectly well that if Article 50 had been voted down at Westminster, May would have called a snap election, won a big majority of seats, and proceeded to impose the hardest of Brexits. Farron and his colleagues have no interest in preventing this outcome. Their only priority is to win support from the minority of Remain voters who want the referendum result to be ignored.
The party was almost wiped out at the 2015 election, after five years of propping up the Tories while living standards fell for all but the richest people in Britain; now, the Lib Dems see Brexit as an opportunity to launder their reputation and airbrush the memory of their stint in government from the history books. They would be quite happy to see the most damaging and dysfunctional version of Brexit put into effect if it meant their share of seats at Westminster rose into double figures.
With liberal media outlets like the Guardian holding them up as the champions of public decency, these snake-oil merchants may well gain some votes on the back of their stance, but left-leaning Remain voters should know that they are being led up the garden path (Farron has said that he would repeat the coalition with the Tories if the chance arose).
There have been some unlikely defenders of Corbyn’s position on Article 50, from Labour MPs who usually carp at his every word, to the arch-Blairite commentator John Rentoul, who believes that a leader from the party’s right wing would be taking much the same approach.
More typical has been the brazen hypocrisy of pundits like the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee. Toynbee has denounced Corbyn and accused him of supporting a “hard Brexit,” having previously attacked him for his pro-immigration stance — “a jaw-dropping kamikaze mission” — and his reluctance to call for “reasonable controls” (since restrictions are already in place for non-EU immigrants, the “reasonable controls” Toynbee had in mind would certainly require Britain to leave the single market — otherwise known as a hard Brexit).
Tellingly, there was no outrage from this quarter when Sadiq Khan — the Labour mayor of London and a declared opponent of Corbyn — lavished praise on the Tories for their approach to Brexit, claiming there was “no evidence” that May’s government wanted to erode workers’ rights, and suggesting that current levels of employment protection would prove to be “a floor and not a ceiling” after Britain left the European Union. This gift to May from Khan, a clear attack on his own party’s position, was gratefully accepted by the prime minister, who had cited it in the House of Commons within twenty-four hours.
Corbyn’s critics have resurrected the canard which underpinned the failed leadership heave of last summer. Back then, Corbyn was accused of sabotaging the Remain campaign and secretly desiring a victory for the Leave side. This argument didn’t hold up well under scrutiny: 63 percent of Labour supporters voted for Remain, compared with 64 percent of SNP supporters, and the only evidence of “sabotage” turned out to be Corbyn’s refusal to say that immigration was a bad thing, to share a platform with Tory politicians on the campaign trail, or to speak about the alleged benefits of the TTIP treaty. Now, Corbyn is accused of foisting his own Euroskeptic viewpoint on the Labour Party, as if there was no other conceivable logic behind Labour’s stance.
When these arguments are not simply deployed in bad faith — a case of “any stick will do” — they betray a complete lack of imagination or understanding on the part of those making them.
They simply cannot believe that a long-standing critic of the European Union would be anything other than a keen supporter of Brexit when the opportunity arose. In fact, many socialists who had always been sharply critical of the European Union called for a Remain vote in the referendum, without being subject to the same pressures as Corbyn, who had to speak for the Labour Party as a whole and could not simply give his own personal view.
The majority, like Corbyn and the Another Europe Is Possible campaign, put across a “Remain and Reform” line: the European Union was badly flawed, but it was better to stay and try to change it from within. A more radical minority argued that while the European Union could not be reformed, the nature of the Leave campaign meant that a vote for Brexit at this time would strengthen the Right.
As Paul Mason argued shortly before the poll: “Even for those who support the left-wing case for Brexit, it is sensible to argue: not now. The time to confront Europe over a left-wing agenda is when you have a Labour government, and the European Union is resisting it.” (Mason’s view was essentially my own.)
This was a perfectly honorable and consistent position to hold and argue for — far more so than the self-satisfied “Europhilia” of Britain’s liberal commentariat, which celebrates a Platonic ideal of the European Union while turning a blind eye to its actual record. Far from being the polar opposite of UKIP’s “Little Englander” xenophobia, this faux-cosmopolitanism is its mirror image, reading European politics purely through the prism of British debates. Anyone who can discuss the question of Europe without mentioning the fate of Greece still has a few things to learn about internationalism.
There have been frequent complaints that Corbyn and Labour failed to make “a positive case for the European Union,” from people who have never asked themselves whether such a case exists. Support for certain aspects of European integration — such as the right to work and travel freely in European Union member-states currently enjoyed by all of their citizens — can and should be separated from support for the European Union project as a whole.
If the attacks on Corbyn over Brexit and Article 50 had merely come from the likes of Polly Toynbee, they could be shrugged off easily enough. But some of the anger has spilled over from liberal circles into a section of Labour’s left-wing base. The Canary, a widely read political website which is usually pro-Corbyn, attacked his line on Article 50 in an editorial that cited Tim Farron and the right-wing Labour MPs Chris Leslie and Ben Bradshaw approvingly.
It’s true that the Canary has always been a rather breathless publication with a taste for clickbait sensationalism, which has only prospered to any extent due to the lack of more serious left-wing media outlets. But any impressionistic survey of social media would find the same views being expressed by people who are well disposed towards Corbyn in general.
In part this reflects genuine confusion about Labour’s position, which should have been communicated more clearly to supporters. The Labour leadership must also take some responsibility for the muddle over its line on free movement for European Union citizens.
A speech by Corbyn in early January was flagged up in the media as heralding a major shift in policy, but only served to muddy the waters: the party leader stated that Labour was “not wedded” to free movement in principle, but would not rule it out either, and refused to say that current levels of immigration were too high and would have to come down. This rhetorical fudge managed to annoy some of Corbyn’s strongest supporters, without offering any satisfaction to those right-wing Labour MPs who want full-scale capitulation to UKIP.
There is something more to the anger over Article 50 than confusion, though. Stephen Bush of the New Statesmen recently suggested that Brexit has inspired a surge of Europhilia among Labour’s activist base:
For the last twenty years, the Labour membership has been overwhelmingly pro-European, but only in the same sense that Britain is overwhelmingly a Christian country. Most might like the idea, some might even attend church at Christmas, but very few were genuinely devout . . . But the Labour grassroots is undergoing something of a religious revival as far as pro-Europeanism is concerned. I’m reliably informed that more than 7,000 people have quit the Labour Party in the last week over the party’s Article 50 stance. For many inside and outside Labour, supporting a Remain vote has become a proxy not just for how you feel about the European Union but a wide swathe of issues: pro- or anti- immigration, for or against social liberalism, and so on.
However deep-rooted or shallow this phenomenon may be, Bush hasn’t conjured it out of thin air. In a way this lurch into pro-Europeanism is an understandable reaction to the boorish triumphalism of right-wing Brexiteers: newspapers like the Mail and the Express have been in a xenophobic frenzy since last year’s referendum, ever eager to sniff out traitors and enemies of the people. It also clearly owes something to popular revulsion at the sight of Donald Trump taking power in Washington — not to mention Theresa May’s eagerness to align herself with a far-right, white-nationalist regime in the hope of getting a few crumbs from the Trumpite table.
But ultimately this mood is based on an illusion. The European Union is not a bastion of liberal values. Nor is it a safe harbor in the geopolitical storm. The economic agenda promoted by the European Commission and the European Central Bank since the Great Recession began — and now formally locked into European treaties — has done as much as anything to promote far-right advance in recent years.
If Greece now has an openly neo-Nazi party that can poll circa 10 percent of the vote, we can thank the troika for that; if Golden Dawn has thus far been unable to push beyond that level, we can thank the Greek left-wing and antifascist movements. In France and the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders are soaring in the polls (and would still be soaring whether or not Brexit had happened).
The same forces that lay behind the Brexit vote and the victory of Trump are at work in continental Europe, and the European Union will be helpless to contain them if they reach a critical mass. To adapt an old left-wing slogan, “neither Washington nor Brussels” should be the maxim of the hour. If our goal is to halt the rise of far-right nationalism, we can only rely on ourselves.