Corbyn and Brexit: Why a socialist approach to the EU is the only way forward
Hannah Sell, Socialist Party deputy general secretary
As the general election draws nearer, and people become more aware of what Jeremy Corbyn stands for, the gap between Tories and Labour in the opinion polls has started to close.
Jeremy Corbyn, armed with radical left policies, could win on 8 June. It would then take a bold socialist programme to defeat the far more formidable obstacle than the Tories: capitalism.
Clearly this is the best outcome for working class people in Britain, which the Socialist Party is doing all we can to bring into being. Nonetheless, many enthusiastic supporters of Corbyn are wondering why he is having to fight to catch up rather than soaring ahead in the polls given the Tories record and his popular policies.
Since 2010 the wealth of the richest 1,000 people in Britain has doubled, while the rest of us have suffered austerity – surely Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity alternative should be on course for a landslide victory?
It is clear to all Corbyn supporters that he does not face a level playing field. The capitalist class are determined to defeat him and this has been reflected in the establishment media systematically setting out to discredit him.
But that will always be the case with all party leaders who represent a step forward for the working class. Despite the inevitable avalanche of hostility Jeremy Corbyn could now be in a much stronger position than he currently is.
The fundamental problem that Jeremy faces is that a large section of his own party is trying to sabotage him. Labour really is ‘two parties in one’ with the right-wing pro-capitalist section of it – including a majority of MPs – seeing Jeremy’s defeat in a general election as a means to remove him as leader, and therefore a positive thing! Ultra-Blairite Peter Mandelson even told The Times last September that he prayed for an early general election in order to “end the Corbyn disaster.”
Unfortunately, the Labour left’s strategy over the last 20 months has been to try vainly to compromise with the Blairite saboteurs, resulting in the muffling of Jeremy Corbyn’s message prior to the general election campaign. As a result the general election campaign is the first time that millions of voters have heard what Jeremy stands for.
Now, in the course of a few weeks, there is a battle not only to get the word out but to show that Jeremy Corbyn’s wing of Labour really is something different to the pro-capitalist, expenses swindling, privatising, warmongering New Labour, which lost five million votes over its time in office.
One of Jeremy’s earliest concessions to the right wing was on the question of Brexit, reluctantly agreeing to campaign for Remain. In doing so he was abandoning his own position on the issue.
During the first Labour leadership contest, Corbyn said he had “mixed feelings” on the EU and refused to rule out campaigning to leave. At one GMB union hustings he stated: “I would advocate a No [i.e. Leave] vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”
And prior to standing for the leadership he had repeatedly made clear that the EU attempts to impose free market policies across Europe. For example, speaking against the Maastricht treaty in 1993 he stated: “It takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers who will impose the economic policies of price stability, deflation and high unemployment.”
Before the referendum Jeremy Corbyn’s agreement to abandon his previous position probably seemed to many of his supporters to be a reasonable compromise. However, as we warned at the time, it was a significant missed opportunity.
Seize the moment
In politics, above all in the class struggle, there is, as Shakespeare put it, “a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
All is not bound in shallows and miseries here – there is in this general election campaign another opportunity to seize the moment and bring fortune to the majority which, with his election manifesto, Jeremy is attempting to do.
Nonetheless, the failure to put forward his own views on the EU during the referendum campaign, by fighting for an anti-racist, internationalist Brexit, was a major factor – along with a majority of trade union leaders uncritically campaigning for Remain – in why the right-wing nationalists were able to dominate the leadership of the exit campaign.
A referendum is a binary choice between yes and no, which means inevitably there are many different motivations behind people voting on each side. Nonetheless, the size of the working class vote for Leave represented – in essence – a revolt, a cry of rage, against the low pay, cuts in public services and insecure housing that have become the norm for the majority.
Some have tried to deny this but the most detailed exit poll at the time of the referendum shows otherwise. It found that Remain voters were a majority only in the AB social group (professionals and managers), by 57% to 43%, while 64% of working class C2DE voters backed Leave. Two-thirds of council and housing association tenants voted Leave, as well as a majority of the unemployed, and two-thirds of those retired on a state pension.
The official campaigns – both for Leave and Remain – sounded a relentless drumbeat that this was a referendum on immigration, which inevitably had a certain effect. Nonetheless, it is not true that migration was the main issue for exit voters in the referendum. Nor is that the case now.
A recent opinion poll by Opinium, published in part in the liberal Independent and in full in the right-wing Daily Express, asked people to rate out of ten the most important issues for them in the Brexit negotiations. The highest at 8.31 was “ensuring the UK’s public services are well-funded” followed by “ensuring jobs are available in the UK” at 8.28.
“Reducing the number of people immigrating to the UK” scored 6.88 – so it was an issue, but was thirteenth out of the twenty-two issues listed, and only one place ahead of “ensuring that EU citizens already in the UK are able to stay” on 6.78 (which Jeremy is correctly promising to guarantee).
Corbyn could have harnessed much of the anger and determination of leave voters had he campaigned for exit on a socialist basis, explaining that the EU is a neoliberal bosses’ club that forbids nationalisation and systematically undermines workers’ rights.
This could have been linked to the need for a completely different confederation of Europe, based on socialism. Such an approach would have transformed the character of the whole referendum, winning many who voted remain because they were repelled by the ‘little Englanders’ of Ukip and the Tories.
The call to vote Remain in the EU came from all sides – from Obama to Merkel to the leaders of all the major parties in Britain. Unlike the right of the Labour Party who campaigned together with David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, to his credit, refused to appear on platforms with Tories.
Nonetheless, he missed a chance to show to all the workers who withstood the pressure of the capitalist class and voted for Brexit that he was in their camp and not that of the capitalist establishment.
The result is the ludicrous situation that exists now. May is banking on being able to win a general election purely on the lie that she alone is able to effectively represent ‘Britain’s interests’ in Brussels.
This is nonsense of course. She wants an increased majority because she knows full well that any Brexit deal she negotiates will lead to increased suffering for the working class and a major revolt against her government.
Jeremy Corbyn can cut across this by making clear he will fight for a Brexit in the interests of the working class majority. Labour’s manifesto makes clear that there will be no worsening of workers’ rights as a result of Brexit.
However, they should go further, making clear that the starting point of his ‘Brexit negotiation policy’ would be to implement policies in the interests of the working and middle class, starting with his election manifesto, annulling every EU law that is an obstacle to doing so.
The manifesto also talks of “retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union” but this is mistaken if it means accepting its neoliberal rules. Many working class communities know that – to the cost of industries such as car, steel making and shipbuilding – the capitalist single market doesn’t act in the interests of workers but the multinationals, who want to protect their profits by manufacturing in the lowest-cost economies.
A Corbyn-led government should introduce an enabling declaration that all EU treaty provisions and regulations which go against policies that advance working class interests – like the rules on state aid, nationalisation or the posted workers’ directive – would no longer apply and that any attempts by the EU institutions to legally enforce them would be annulled.
On every issue he should take a firm approach in the interests of the working class, both in Britain and internationally. He has made some positive statements along these lines, but they are not always clear enough to reach the mass of the population.
In the furore over how much Britain will have to pay to leave the EU, for example, when May was cynically posing as tough in her row with Juncker, Corbyn only responded by mildly stating that, “megaphone” negotiations would not work, and that talks instead be approached with “respect and sense.”
Yet Juncker is the head of a European Commission which far from treating the peoples of Europe with “respect and sense” has intervened to demand the government of Ireland does not abandon the hated water charges tax, and has acted to drive the population of Greece into the dirt. Prior to that he was prime minister of the notorious tax haven of Luxemburg for 20 years!
The row between Juncker and May really was a scrap between a reptile and a crocodile, which Jeremy could have cut across much more effectively by making clear that a government he led would not pay a penny destined to subsidise the capitalist elites of Europe. It would be a different question, of course, when it came to assisting workers struggling against austerity in other European countries.
In just a few weeks of election campaigning, Jeremy Corbyn has already given a glimpse of how putting forward policies in the interests of the working class majority of society can transform politics. This is true even if the time proves too short for Jeremy to win on 8 June.
However, there is a real prospect of him doing so, which we have to fight remorselessly to achieve. Whatever the outcome of the general election, the capitalist saboteurs of Corbyn inside the Labour Party will continue to organise against him, terrified by the left ideas he is putting forward.
One axis around which they will organise – possibly even breaking away to form a new party – will be as defenders of the capitalist EU. It is not ruled out that they will be prepared to join forces, not just with the Liberal Democrats, but even the Osbornites to achieve their goal. An essential part of defeating them will be taking a clear socialist and internationalist position of opposition to the EU.