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IF THE recent declarations of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price are anything to go by, it is tempting to exclaim: “We’re all Lexiteers now!”
Before and during his meeting with EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on January 8, Johnson insisted that a post-Brexit trade deal must allow Britain’s rights to rescue failing industries with state aid; favour British business with public-sector procurement contracts; control UK fishing grounds; conduct an independent immigration policy, and exclude Britain from EU Court of Justice jurisdiction.
Chancellor Sajid Javid and the Prime Minister have also made clear their opposition to any substantial alignment with EU Single Market rules after this year’s transition period.
Von der Leyen and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier have both claimed that all this will make the conclusion of a deal on future UK-EU relations all but impossible by Johnson’s end-of-year deadline.
Obviously, having no consistent principled position on these matters, Johnson may well redraw his “red lines” in pink, if he doesn’t bargain them away altogether. As the Financial Times reports, he is under considerable pressure from the City, the CBI and motor manufacturers to reach a no-tariff trade deal with the EU that provides for the continuing free movement of capital and no attempts to sabotage London’s lucrative Eurobond market.
Nonetheless, the Tory government’s opening positions closely resemble longstanding policies promoted by the Eurosceptic left in Britain and — fisheries aside — in other European countries.
Then, early this week, Adam Price executed a 180 degrees about-turn to propose that Wales should seize the “new opportunities” and “flexibilities” soon to be available outside the EU.
Previously, he had described Brexit as a “hope-crushing wrecking ball.”
Now, once free from the “constraints” of EU law, he wants the Welsh National Assembly to expand the work of the Wales Development Bank, devolve and vary VAT and other taxes and levies, use new procurement rules and “import substitution” to support the “foundational economy” of Wales, establish freeports and — far less likely — issue Welsh work permits as part of a Welsh immigration system.
In finest Welsh chapel tradition, it would be churlish not to rejoice at the repentance of even a single sinner.
But — almost alone in Wales — the Communist Party has been promoting the opportunities opened up by Brexit for the past four years at least.
Welsh Communists have highlighted the 70 policy-making powers that would be repatriated from the EU to the Welsh Assembly and Government in relation to the environment, natural resources, land use, planning, energy, transport and agriculture. Notably, too, they have long pointed to the damage being done to the local steel industry by EU free-trade and public-procurement rules (something confirmed by the Welsh Government’s own 2016 report on Public Procurement of Steel and subsequently buried).
On the other side, Price has been describing Brexit as a “hope-crushing wrecking ball” and his predecessor Leanne Wood — yet another lapsed Eurosceptic — led Plaid Cymru’s efforts to frustrate the majority wish of Welsh voters to leave the EU.
Yet whereas Wood had opposed attempts to join the Tories in an anti-Labour “rainbow” coalition in the National Assembly, Price formed an anti-Labour pact with the Lib Dems and Greens in the 2019 general election and may now be preparing the ground for a new anti-Labour alliance — this time with Tory and Brexit party Assembly Members (AMs) who sniff a possible Labour defeat in the 2021 Assembly elections.
Faced with this new danger, Welsh Labour appears determined to follow Scottish Labour into electoral oblivion. Tailing the SNP government, its Welsh Assembly AMs have have tried to block Brexit to the bitter end, presumably preferring those 70 decision-making powers to remain in Brussels rather than come to Cardiff.
Likewise, the Scottish government’s anti-Brexit stance has meant opposing the transfer of 111 areas of responsibility from Brussels to Edinburgh, including additional powers over the criminal-justice system, civil and commercial law and policing.
The tragedy is that things could have been so different for Labour in last December’s general election, not only in Wales but across Britain. Had the party and its MPs stuck to their previous pledge to honour — which could only mean to implement — the EU referendum result, Labour might have won the election instead of losing 2.6 million votes and handing 52 Brexit-voting seats to the Tories.
In the 2017 general election, that pledge had helped Jeremy Corbyn and Labour to win an extra 30 seats and 3.5 million votes.
Better still, before or immediately after the May 2016 EU referendum, the Labour Party could have adopted the Lexit-style positions once voiced by Corbyn and now embraced by Johnson and Price.
What had been a referendum defeat for the pro-Remain Tory government and big business could have been turned, subsequently, into a general-election victory for Labour as the only major party representing the views of the majority of working-class people and the voters generally.
Labour representatives in the Westminster, Scottish and Welsh legislatures could then have led the charge for the kind of Brexit that would empower those bodies to attack the basic economic and social problems besetting millions of their electors.
Why did none of this happen?
Fundamentally, because much of the Labour left ceased analysing, exposing and criticising the EU in class terms, as the anti-socialist alliance of capitalist states that it is.
Consequently, hundreds of thousands of new and young Labour Party members have never heard the working-class, left and democratic case against the EU as formerly argued by Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot and Tony Benn. They know nothing of Lenin’s warnings against a capitalist United States of Europe.
Instead, they mistake the “internationalism” of monopoly capitalism and its states for the international solidarity needed between the workers and peoples of different nations.
They miss the capitalist motive for the free movement of capital, labour and other commodities and instead see the EU as the protector of rights and freedoms.
Knowing little or nothing about the origins of the EU and its forerunners, Labour and liberal idealists imagine that it has always been a force for international peace and cooperation, not a Cold War construction to promote monopoly capitalism and hold back working-class advance and socialism.
Not having studied the basic treaties of the EU, they know little or nothing of their anti-democratic, neoliberal and now pro-Nato militarist character.
Hence the relative ease with which anti-socialist Labour MPs were able to launch their “Stop Brexit” and “Stop Corbyn” offensive in 2016.
Their alliance with top New Labourites, Lib Dems, pro-EU Tories and the Guardian-reading intelligentsia proceeded to vilify Corbyn, brand most or all Brexit supporters as gullible, foreigner-hating racists and portray a post-Brexit Britain as some kind of isolated fascist wasteland.
The millionaire-funded anti-democratic “People’s Vote” crusade helped change Labour policy in stages: from honouring the Brexit result, to holding a second referendum as an optional last resort and, finally, to holding one regardless.
Then, on the eve of last December’s general election, leading shadow cabinet members Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and John McDonnell announced their intention in a second referendum to campaign against any new EU withdrawal treaty negotiated by their own incoming Labour government. Compounding the confusion, Corbyn declared that he would be a neutral prime minister rather than fight for his own government’s exit deal.
The purged and pro-Brexit Tory Party and its chief strategist Dominic Cummings must have thought Christmas was coming early.
Labour MPs and “liberal” intellectuals had spent three years belittling, misrepresenting and betraying the hopes of millions of working-class Labour supporters. All the Tories had to do was promise to “Get Brexit Done” and pledge to raise wages, respect workers’ rights and invest massively in the NHS, education, transport and policing.
Joined in the gutter by past and present Labour MPs, the anti-Labour media had done the rest.
Not surprisingly, the pro-EU and anti-Corbyn factions in the Labour Party have since tried to evade their prime responsibility for Labour’s defeat.
They deny that the shift towards a pro-Remain stance played the major part in Labour’s loss of 52 Leave-voting seats to the Tories.
They blame working-class voters for switching in large numbers to Tory and Brexit candidates, although even in those 52 seats no more than one in ten of Labour’s voters did so. Many abstained from voting at all.
Furthermore, the Brexit deniers and Labour’s other enemies exaggerate the scale of the party’s defeat.
Although its tally of 202 seats is indeed the lowest since 1935, Corbyn’s Labour won a bigger share of the popular vote (32 per cent) than Michael Foot in 1983, Neil Kinnock in 1987, Gordon Brown in 2010 or Ed Miliband in 2015. The majority (32) of the seats lost to the Tories were marginal before the 2019 election and 33 of them remain marginal.
Where does this leave the labour movement and the left in today’s Tory-run, post-Brexit Britain?
First, the Eurosceptic and anti-EU Labour left must end its silence and join the struggle to turn Brexit into a “Lexit.” As Corbyn did in 2018, socialists should point out how freedom from EU Single Market rules can open the way to left and progressive policies.
Second, Johnson and his cabinet should be challenged to stand by their “red lines” in negotiations with the EU.
Third, secretive EU-style TTIP-type trade deals with the US or anyone else which further expose our public sector to privatisation or allow transnational corporations to sue elected governments in special courts must be opposed.
Fourth, wherever possible, powers repatriated from EU institutions should be devolved to Scotland, Wales and elected bodies in England as part of a new settlement for progressive federalism in Britain.
Fifth, in place of “free movement” and “Fortress Europe” rules designed to facilitate the super-exploitation of mobile labour, the Tory government must be challenged to introduce a non-racist policy based on the principles of human rights and international solidarity.
Finally, the Labour left must also break its recent silence and reject nuclear weapons and British membership of the aggressive, expansionist Nato alliance. That would mean opposing further involvement in the pro-Nato EU Common Foreign and Security Policy, proposing instead an independent foreign and defence policy for Britain.
Until reactionary public opinion is changed, Labour will always be vulnerable to false accusations that it would ‘“leave Britain defenceless” against imaginary threats from Russia, China, Iran or the People’s Republic of Absurdistan.
Alongside this strategy, battles against austerity cuts and a new round of anti-strike legislation have to be taken into workplaces and local communities. We need to renew and rebuild our trade unions, trades councils, People’s Assembly and CND groups, Stop the War, the National Assembly of Women, the labour movement and its Communist Party.
Mass militant opposition plus divisions within the ruling class over Brexit strategy could yet destabilise Johnson’s regime before the end of its five-year term.
As the Communists’ centenary year slogan puts it: “Resist, Fight Back, Change the World!”
Rob Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain
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