TODAY the Prime Minister is to trigger Article 50 and begin negotiations over leaving the European Union — and that means the left needs to seriously up its game.
The EU question has obviously divided the labour movement.
Early last year the left was on the front foot: Labour had elected a socialist leader for the first time in decades, was seeing swings towards it in by-elections and was forcing government U-turns on everything from personal independence payments and tax credit cuts to dodgy prison deals with Saudi Arabia.
Since the result of the June 23 vote, almost everything has gone wrong, with the significant exception of the left’s success in mobilising even more Labour Party members to re-elect Jeremy Corbyn in 2016 than in the previous year.
To those who see Brexit as a victory for narrow nationalism, this is hardly surprising.
The vote to leave the EU is interpreted as a triumph for the right which has predictably knocked the stuffing out of the left.
But the risk is that assuming people voted to leave the EU for right-wing reasons, and that Britain will therefore lurch to the right in consequence, is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Corbyn has always opposed such a dogmatic approach to the referendum result, pointing out that the decision to leave was a resounding rejection of an economic consensus that marketised our public services, prioritised the rights of business over the rights of workers and failed to invest in our industries or communities.
The European Union does its best to make these neoliberal policies unstoppable, enshrining Thatcherism in law and since 2008 imposing privatisation and cuts on sovereign states and even (in Italy) helping to depose an elected government that was unwilling to collaborate.
The 2016 vote was a bid to take back control from the unfeeling tyranny of the market. It presents a real opportunity for the left if it can articulate that demand from working people to change direction.
A convincing left-wing resurgence requires unity. The labour movement cannot afford to rerun the arguments of the referendum ad nauseam, but should be pursuing a set of economic demands — the new deal for workers agreed at last year’s TUC is a good place to start — and framing any approach to the exit negotiations around how we meet those demands.
Instead, we are allowing the liberal ultras to drive a wedge into our movement, shaming those who voted to leave as either racist or idiots taken in by the lies of the Leave campaign.
This doesn’t compute: polls before and after the referendum show that politics is among the least trusted professions in the country.
Millions who regard the entire political class with (often justified) cynicism will hardly have taken everything said by either referendum campaign at face value.
But the effect of this delusion is to divide us, and as negotiations begin that is a luxury we cannot afford.
“Stop Brexit we want to get off” might win a few southern seats for the Lib Dems, but it’s by definition a minority cause and worse, one which tries to maintain a status quo that has been explicitly rejected.
The rosy view of Brussels being pushed by Remainers is not only belied by the bloc’s anti-democratic nature but fails to acknowledge that the EU is still mired in deep crisis.
It continues to pursue policies which are forcing poverty on its southern member states, causing enormous social unrest and provoking an angry backlash from Portugal to Greece, with bigger fish like France and Poland simmering with resentment.
A determined push from the left to secure a British exit deal that promotes working-class demands and an end to neoliberalism will find an echo across Europe and help shape a progressive future.