BRITAIN’S departure from the European Union tomorrow night will be seen as the end of an era. It has the potential to be the beginning of a new one.
Three years, seven months and eight days after the country voted to leave, the delivery of the mandate of a referendum the overwhelming majority of MPs promised to honour is a victory for democracy, given the huge efforts to overturn the result we have seen since 2016.
Much remains to be negotiated. But the fact of our departure needs to herald a new approach to the process from the labour movement and its mass party, Labour — one in which we prioritise our vision of what needs to change about this country and how we achieve that.
Our whole movement, bar a viscerally anti-Jeremy Corbyn chunk of the parliamentary Labour party (PLP), celebrated when we broke Theresa May’s majority in 2017. Labour’s biggest vote increase since 1945 was immensely significant. It exploded the myth that socialism could never succeed at the ballot box.
But some consequences of the advance were less happy. Labour didn’t have the parliamentary strength to deliver a Brexit on its terms. But it had gained the strength to frustrate the process.
It wasn’t inevitable that it would do so. But its new clout in Westminster strengthened the MPs, who comprised the section of the party least enthusiastic about Corbyn and most wedded to the status quo, and gave them greater relative leverage compared to the mass membership.
The ability to inflict defeats on the government could have been a powerful weapon if the parliamentary party had been united behind its leader and able to act in concert with the industrial and extraparliamentary movements, with the devolved government in Wales and Labour councillors and mayors in our towns and cities.
No such unity existed either within the PLP or beyond it. The result was a parliamentary strategy based on the prejudices and priorities of MPs. Legislation taking Brexit forward was blocked at every turn.
Labour’s policy was a disaster. It cost the party more than two million votes in two years. It handed control of the Brexit process to enemies of the working class in Westminster and Brussels, who will thrash out the remaining agreements in line with the demands of transnational capital without reference to the concerns of trade unions or workers.
Now Brexit is happening, Labour urgently needs to do what it should have done in 2016, the essence of which was actually outlined by Corbyn in 2018: to recognise the positive potential of a departure from the EU.
These include expanding public ownership without worrying about the strictures of the Lisbon Treaty, or the “rights” of parasitical firms exploiting our public services for profit; to plan economic development sustainably, intervening to clean and green our economy without allowing transnational companies a “fair playing field” on which to ruin our planet; rewriting public procurement rules so contracts are allocated based on public interest and the welfare of workers and users.
For the moment, none of this is on the table. Brexit is an opportunity, because it removes certain treaties and regulations which are barriers to a socialist transformation of society.
But it is no more than an opportunity. It has not liberated anyone. Britain has elected a hard-right government which is already breaking promises to end austerity and will wage ruthless war on our communities and our workforces. It is a pro-imperialist government aligned as slavishly to an aggressive White House as was Tony Blair’s.
Some on the left will blame all this on Brexit. Actually it marks a continuation of the policies of the past four decades rather than a departure from them. Labour can keep mourning the EU, keep pleading for total alignment with all its anti-worker treaties and court rulings, keep reproaching people for failing to understand what we could lose rather than inspiring them with a vision of what we can win.
Or it can move on. The bankers’ crash exposed the instability of the capitalist system, austerity exposed its fundamental injustice, and runaway climate change exposes its suicidal drive for profit.
The EU, which writes free-market principles into its founding treaties, which imposed devastating austerity on Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain and others, which bans the kind of holistic economic planning vital to meet the challenge of climate change, has no role to play in dealing with any of these issues. But “the labour movement is the hope of the world” — or can be, if it accepts we have left and throws itself into the fight for a better future.
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