Socialist Party documents

Perspectives for Britain 2017


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Consequences of Brexit vote

8. In the 2016 British Perspectives document we stated: "It is possible that the EU referendum could become a means by which many workers express their rage at continued austerity and wage restraint. We have to pose the referendum in those terms, explaining that voting 'Leave' could lead to the possibility of getting the Tories out." This, of course, is exactly how the referendum campaign developed. The scale of the working class vote for exit, in the face of all the scaremongering by the capitalist establishment, was, at root, a revolt against all the suffering of recent decades. Unfortunately, one of Jeremy Corbyn's first concessions to the pro-capitalist wing of the Labour Party was to agree to campaign lukewarmly for Remain. This meant that the left case for exit was not heard by the mass of the population, and Corbyn lost an important opportunity to demonstrate to the mass of the working class that he represented a break with the pro-capitalist leaders of New Labour. This has had consequences. A referendum campaign can be used to cohere the working class but this wasn't the case here. Unlike in the 1975 referendum, where the majority of the trade unions campaigned for no, and the left case for voting no was widely heard, the working class organisations putting the case for a workers' Brexit were limited to the RMT, BFAWU, ASLEF, the Socialist Party, TUSC and a handful of other forces. The leaders of the trade union movement did not put an independent position but followed behind the arguments of the capitalist class. As a result an opportunity was missed to raise the consciousness and confidence of the working class.

9. Nonetheless, the primary consequence of the vote for Brexit has been a major blow to the capitalist classes both in Britain and worldwide. It threatens to shatter the Tory Party. The majority of the capitalist class want to remain in the European Union. Before the referendum 80% of CBI members said that they supported remain. Now they are scrambling around to find a way to 'step back' Brexit, without seriously undermining the institutions of capitalism. This is difficult for them at this stage. They have no clear idea how to proceed and are fumbling around trying to find opportunities to push events in their direction.

10. The pro-EU wing of the capitalist class hope that predictions of economic Armageddon will lead to a sustained shift in the opinion polls on the EU enabling a second referendum. This has not happened yet, although it could not be ruled out in the future. Ireland, for example, voted against the EU Lisbon Treaty in 2008, only to be sent back to the polls less than two years later to vote 'the right way'. However, Britain in 2017 - after nine years of 'the Great Recession' - is a more risky proposition. There is an enormous accumulation of anger at endless austerity that has the potential to explode. However, the initial Brexit negotiations are due take place over two years and are likely to be followed by some kind of 'transition' arrangement. The capitalist class hope that there will be opportunities over that time to reverse the Brexit vote, or at least make the transition arrangements permanent, thereby remaining in the EU in all but name.

11. At the same time the capitalist class have no reliable political party that can pursue their interests. The Tories could face their worst split since the Corn Laws split in 1846 which saw them out of power for almost three decades. Theresa May was anointed Tory leader as the only pro-remain figure that would be acceptable to the Tory ranks. However, her room to manoeuvre is extremely limited by the schism in the Tory ranks and the fear of a popular revolt if she is perceived to have betrayed the referendum result. The other powers in the EU - subject to their own pressures - are also part of the vice in which May is caught. They would also like to reverse the Brexit vote which, if carried through, would be a severe blow to their attempts to create a cohesive economic and political bloc. However, they are also terrified of a domino effect leading to a complete fracturing of the EU in its current form. That is why it is very difficult for them to give concessions on immigration and the single market.

12. This extremely weak and divided Tory government, with a wafer thin majority, could be toppled on a whole number of issues. The opposition they are facing in the Lords on the Higher Education Bill could be a foretaste of a movement in the universities, schools and colleges against the commercialisation of education. In general there is a revolt brewing among young people at the severe curtailment of their life chances. Another possibility is an eruption of the struggle against the 22 billion of cuts facing the NHS which will mean the closure of whole hospitals in numerous local areas. We have played an important role in campaigning for a national demonstration on this issue which could act as a springboard for a national movement of anti-poll tax style mass protests, the breakdown of the STP mechanisms etc, and the possibility of strike action.

13. The root cause of the dysfunctionality of the Tory Party, and the instability of all the major capitalist parties, is their increasingly shallow basis caused by the unpopularity that flows inevitably from defending pro-capitalist policies. This applies to the pro-capitalist wing of the Labour Party as well as to the Liberals and Tories. A record 24.9% of voters supported parties other than Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrats in the 2015 general election. More than 60% of Tory Party members are over 60. Its membership has been in a long and inglorious decline from a high of 2.8 million in 1953 to about 400,000 in the mid-1990s to 149,800 today. This compares to 515,000 Labour Party members at least on paper, dramatically swelled by the hundreds of thousands who have joined to support Corbyn. Most of those that have joined Labour have not done so out of loyalty to Labour as a party, on the contrary they have been deeply disillusioned by New Labour's record in office. They see in Corbyn the opportunity to create a new clearly anti-austerity party.

14. Given the weakness of the Tories, in other circumstances the capitalist class would have turned to Labour in order to defend its interests. Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the party, however, rules it out as a reliable tool for them. They are reduced to leaning on the pro-European capitalist politicians in all parties, with the Labour right - including a disinterred Tony Blair - playing a key role, regularly caucusing with George Osborne and others. At the same time the Liberal Democrats may succeed in a certain resurrection from their near-death experience by claiming the mantle of the most pro-EU party.


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