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Analysis #35 

Dear Corbynistas: Don’t Be Blackmailed into Thwarting Brexit

Lee Jones

28 August 2019

Anti-Brexit forces committed to making the Labour Party into a defender of the neoliberal status quo are gearing up to bully socialist party members to back Remain. Here's why all the arguments they are using are wrong.

 

Remainers in parliament have pledged to do everything possible to frustrate a “no deal” Brexit in the Autumn. This will almost certainly involve an early no-confidence vote in the government, precipitating a general election in October. It is highly likely that the Labour Party, while trying to make this election about anything but Brexit, will fight on a Remain platform, reflecting the ascendancy of left-liberal, middle-class forces within the party. Those drawn into Labour by Jeremy Corbyn’s promise of socialism will come under tremendous pressure to join this campaign, placing party loyalty ahead of core left-wing principles, and liberal-left preferences ahead of working-class interests. The lines that will be used are already clear – and not a single one of them should be accepted.

 

Falsehood 1: We must avoid a “damaging Tory Brexit”

This line insists on sacrificing the restoration of popular sovereignty and parliamentary democracy to short-run electoral calculations: because the government of the day is Conservative, not Labour, we must not return the power to make all our laws to parliament, but must stay in the EU.

 

This is misguided for two key reasons. Firstly, it misunderstands the nature of Brexit, which has no determinate political content. Brexit is simply about leaving the political and legal structures of the EU and restoring the unfettered power of parliament to make laws that govern the UK. A Tory government may well make use of this newfound freedom to enact policies the left does not like. But that government can then be voted out at the next election and a different set of policies introduced. In other words, there is nothing permanent about a “Tory Brexit” because the Tory part can always subsequently be unpicked. The only reason to believe otherwise is that one doubts the capacity of the left ever to win an election. That is merely an expression of defeatism and cowardice.

 

Secondly, those peddling this excuse fail to recognise that remaining within the EU would ensure that, even if the Labour Party were subsequently to win an election, it would be constrained to behave very much like the Conservative Party. As several Full Brexit contributors have repeatedly demonstrated at length, EU law binds the hands of national governments, who voluntarily surrender their sovereignty as a condition of membership, preventing even mildly socialist policies like nationalisation, state aid and capital controls (see Proposal #2 - Quit the Single Market; Analysis #33 - Nationalisation and the Fraud of “Remain and Reform”). Short-term fear of a Tory government therefore promises to destroy the prospects for even modest social-democratic reform in Britain. The Blairite wing of the Labour Party must be delighted.

 

Falsehood 2: Remaining in the EU is necessary to fight the “far right”

The second line is that Brexit will only enable the far right. Since the Corbynista left defines itself above all as anti-racist and anti-fascist, this fear will be manipulated to force many erstwhile “Lexiteers” into line in the autumn.

 

In reality, the far right is simply not a serious political threat in Britain today. There is confusion on this point partly because the term “far right” has been stretched to breaking point. Indeed, as far back as 1995, Cas Mudde, today a leading scholar on right-wing populism, noted that the label “right wing extremism” was being used to smear political enemies. In search of precision, Mudde surveyed a vast literature, producing a definition of far right-parties as those espousing some combination of:

  • extreme nationalism, premised on nativism and maintaining internal homogeneity;

  • racism, including a “newer” variant that does not espouse racial hierarchy but nonetheless insists that different “races” cannot coexist harmoniously and must develop separately;

  • xenophobia, i.e. fear, hatred and hostility towards foreigners;

  • anti-democracy, based on the idea that democracy is degenerate, undermining national unity; and

  • a strong state – authoritarianism, hostility to political pluralism, harsh “law and order” policies, and militarism.[1]

In the British context, the only party that really approaches this definition is the British National Party (BNP). In the 2017 general election, it attracted just 4,642 votes across the entire UK, up from 1,667 votes in 2015. So, in the period when there was supposedly a surge of far-right racism, facilitated by the EU referendum, fewer than 3,000 people in a population of over 66 million turned towards Britain’s principal far-right party.

 

UKIP is often branded “far right”, though the criteria above suggest otherwise, at least up to 2016. In any case, UKIP’s vote collapsed from 3,881,099 in 2015 (12.6 percent) to just 593,852 in 2017 (1.8 percent). Since 2016, UKIP has certainly moved towards the far-right to try to arrest this decline, notably by ramping up its anti-Muslim rhetoric. However, this has only further undermined its support: in the 2019 European elections its vote declined even further, to 554,463 – barely 1.2 percent of the UK’s 45.8m voters. UKIP is a spent force, its rightward lunge only consigning it to the trash heap.

 

As for The Brext Party (TBP), it is clearly does not meet any of Mudde’s criteria. TBP is an alliance of convenience between anti-EU democrats of the left and right, its meagre policy platform reflecting this basic orientation.[2] There is nothing remotely “far right” about a commitment to leaving the EU or investing £200bn in infrastructure in the North. It may well develop a Thatcherite economic programme, reflecting its domination by pro-business conservatives, but, again, that cannot reasonably be called “far right”.

 

TBP and pre-2016 UKIP are better understood as national-populist (lite) parties, as described by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, leading experts on fascism, the far-right, and populism. In National Populism they clearly distinguish between far-right/ fascist movements and national populism. Populists emphasise:

  • the popular will, promising to reform democracy so that the popular will is respected;

  • plain, ordinary people, whom they promise to defend and aid against elites and (in its right-wing variant) immigrants;

  • ousting corrupt, distant elites, though through a moral, not physical, call to arms.

While the second feature can overlap with far-right xenophobia (though, again, only in its right-wing manifestation), the rest clearly clashes with the anti-democratic and nativist attachments of the far right. It differs even more starkly from fascism in particular, which is characterised by appeals to a holistic, organic nation, promising to forge a spiritual community that demands total subjugation; promises to forge “new men”, led by powerful figureheads; and promotes an authoritarian fusion of capital and the state.[3]

 

The most absurd attempt to find a far-right bogeyman came with the hysterical labelling of Boris Johnson’s new Conservative government as “far right”, which not only stretches the term to breaking point but actually inverts reality in key respects. The appointment of a government more ethnically diverse than all of its predecessors put together, for example, was shrilly denounced as “tokenism”, with non-white ministers essentially branded as race traitors by self-declared progressives.[4] That Johnson is far more liberal on migration than the xenophobic Theresa May was ignored, as was his in-principle support for an amnesty for illegal immigrants. Reacting to his commitment to introducing a (liberal) points-based immigration system, one Green member of the European Parliament exclaimed: “What will my beloved country turn into? We are being ruled by a fascist”.[5] Johnson’s journalism is twisted to paint him in the worst possible light: his claim that women wearing burqas resemble “letterboxes” makes him “Islamophobic” (yet the article defended the right to wear the burqa, against calls to ban it);[6] his use of the term “piccaninny” makes him “racist” (yet the word was actually used mockingly, to criticise Tony Blair’s colonial treatment of Africa).[7] The truth is that Johnson hails from the metropolitan liberal wing of the Tory Party. Yes, he uses obnoxious language at times; yes, he peddles Thatcherite guff about “global Britain” and free ports; and, yes, his style is clearly populist-lite. But to call him or his government “far right” is patently absurd.

 

Inflating the threat of the far right is simply an evasion by the left. It fails dismally as an analysis of contemporary politics, being unable to identify what is truly objectionable about a Tory government. Its only function is to create a bogeyman to scare the left away from leading a transformation of British politics.

 

Even worse, by clinging to the status quo, the left is supporting conditions that really do favour right-wing populism. In the closest thing possible to a natural experiment in political science, Brexit has demonstrated that national populism’s appeal depends on whether established parties listen to the electorate. UKIP’s support collapsed in 2017 precisely because both major parties pledged to respect the 2016 vote. National populism has only returned – in the form of a Farage-led Brexit Party and a Johnson-led Tory Party – because, three years on, the people’s decision has still not been implemented (see Analysis #27 - The Brexit Party: Creature of the Void). If Brexit is ever cancelled, as many Labour Party elites now propose, this would only fuel right-wing populism.

 

As for continental Europe, the EU is directly fuelling populist ructions by entrenching a neoliberal policy set that mainstream political parties are all shackled to, making them congenitally unresponsive to ordinary voters.[8] Don’t take my word for it: here is Paul Mason, writing in 2016:

 

Hungary is one electoral accident away from going fascist; the French conservative elite is one false move away from handing the presidency to the Front National; in Austria the far-right FPÖ swept the first round of the presidential polls. Geert Wilders’s virulently Islamophobic PVV is leading the Dutch opinion polls. The EU’s economic failure is fuelling racism and the ultra right… [This] prompts the more basic dilemma: do I even want to be part of the same electorate as millions of closet Nazis in mainland Europe?[9]

 

Mason is clearly wrong to conflate the supporters of national populism with “Nazis”. Nonetheless, he is right to blame the EU for fuelling populism – though characteristically superficial in blaming “economic failure” rather than the de-democratisation of policymaking that EU strictures involve. Incredibly, however, Mason advocates remaining within the EU. The only way to justify this is to claim that an even greater threat from the “far right” would arise from leaving the EU. This entirely subordinates left strategy to the supposed requirements of fighting largely imaginary fascists: “forget about transforming society in a socialist direction, comrades – otherwise the ‘Nazis’ will win!” This is not a socialist orientation; it is a line used repeatedly by liberals to tame the left. Arguable even in the 1930s,[10] it is even less compelling today when the far right is entirely marginal.

 

Falsehood 3: The election is not all about Brexit

The third line used to bring Corbynistas in line will be that Brexit is just one policy area among many, and not really the most important one. There are many other considerations for voters, many of them allegedly more immediately pressing, like the level of the minimum wage, social care, the state of the National Health Service, and so on. It is not worth sacrificing all these important things just for Brexit. We have to rally behind Corbyn to promote progress on these issues.

 

This bait-and-switch is deeply unprincipled, seeking to convince working-class voters to abandon their demands for popular sovereignty and democracy in exchange for state largesse. The proposed bargain has been made explicit by John McDonnell, who says that Remain lost in 2016 because it “didn’t promote sufficiently the transformative policy programme we are constructing for many of the areas that in frustration and anger voted for Brexit”, saying that it can only win now if coupled with promises of “large scale economic investment”.[11] This patronisingly attributes the Leave vote purely to an irrational emotional outburst, which can be soothed merely with anti-austerity policies: “There, there, we get that you’re upset, have some more state spending and get back in your box.” The workers can be promised anything, from Paul Mason’s “post-capitalism” to Aaron Bastani’s “fully automated luxury communism” – anything, that is, apart from democracy. Nothing’s too good for the workers, it seems – except self-determination. 

 

This position is not only opportunistic and unprincipled, it is also unlikely to work electorally. The Labour Party will certainly try to talk about anything but Brexit during the election campaign, as they did successfully in 2017. But they cannot repeat this trick now, two years down the line, with the Brexit deadline looming. This will be a Brexit election, like it or not. Moreover, McDonnell’s pitch reflects a failure to grasp the depth of ordinary people’s attachment to democracy and their desire – encapsulated in the powerful slogan, “take back control” – for greater control over their everyday lives and for politicians to heed their grievances (see Analysis #2 - Popular Sovereignty and “Taking Back Control”: What it Means and Why it Matters). The Labour Party attracted support in 2017 precisely because its promise to respect the referendum result raised hopes that they would take this desire more seriously – hopes that are now being dashed (see Analysis #34 - Labour’s Brexit Capitulation is the End of Corbynism).

 

Finally, the idea that one can just park Brexit and focus on anti-austerity politics overlooks the fact that Brexit is a necessary step to the “transformative policy programme” that McDonnell claims to be offering. As noted earlier, this is simply not possible within the EU. As Paul Mason admits:

 

The EU is not – and cannot become – a democracy. Instead, it provides the most hospitable ecosystem in the developed world for rentier monopoly corporations, tax-dodging elites and organised crime… Its central bank is committed, by treaty, to favour deflation and stagnation over growth. State aid to stricken industries is prohibited. The austerity we deride in Britain as a political choice is, in fact, written into the EU treaty as a non-negotiable obligation. So are the economic principles of the Thatcher era. A Corbyn-led Labour government would have to implement its manifesto in defiance of EU law.[12]

 

Mason, of course, now champions “remain and reform”, despite having very clearly recognised the constitutionally neoliberal character of the EU and the impossibility of democratising it. As The Full Brexit contributors have explained in detail, “remain and reform”, “remain and revolt” and its increasingly silly variants are all complete fantasies (see Analysis #23 - The Folly of “Remain and Reform”; Analysis #29 - “Remain and Revolt”; Analysis #32 - “Remain and Reform” Really Just Means “Remain”; and Analysis #33 - Nationalisation and the fraud of “Remain and Reform”).

 

Those promoting these ideas are either completely ignorant of how the EU actually works, or – more likely – are simply acting in bad faith. Repeatedly challenged to respond to these criticisms, or simply to describe in detail the mechanisms by which they would achieve reform of the EU, they simply never reply.

 

For Blairites, the reason is obvious: they do not care about socialist transformation – indeed, they are actively opposed to it and would like Corbyn and his acolytes to be destroyed – so they have no reason to work through the contradiction between socialism and “remain and reform”. The thinking of the Labour left is harder to work out. Some may cling to “remain and reform” merely to evade the painful cognitive dissonance that would arise if they faced the truth: that they are seeking to retain British membership of an institution that renders illegal and impossible their avowed political programme. Others may simply not be serious at all about genuinely transforming British society, in reality seeking little more than a slightly souped-up Blairism, which is about all that can be managed within EU strictures.

 

The analysis of the three emerging excuses for Labour’s conversion to Remain reveal that the primary force animating the contemporary British left is fear. Fear that the Tories will dominate electorally, fear of a phantasmal far right, and fear of the ruptures required to bring about genuine social transformation. This leaves the left clinging to an unequal, alienating and undemocratic status quo, ceding the shaping of the future to the right. History will not be kind to those who, facing an unprecedented split in the British ruling class amid a slow-burning crisis of neoliberal capitalism, decided to side with the Confederation of British Industry and the Financial Times, sacrificing the prospect of radical change for the sake of just-in-time production.

References

[1] Cas Mudde, “Right-wing Extremism Analyzed: A Comparative Analysis of the Ideologies of Three Alleged Right-Wing Extremist Parties (NPD, NDP, CP’86)”, European Journal of Political Research 27 (1995), pp. 203-24.

[2] See www.thebrexitparty.org/invest.

[3] Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy (London: Pelican, 2018), ch.2. See also Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (London: Penguin, 2004).

[4] See Kenan Malik, “Johnson’s cabinet may be diverse but it doesn’t reflect modern Britain”, The Guardian, 28 July 2019. 

[5] Alexandra Phillips MEP, Twitter, 25 July 2019: twitter.com/alexforeurope/status/1154343536084602880.

[6] Boris Johnson, “Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that's still no reason to ban it”, Daily Telegraph, 5 August 2018. 

[7] Boris Johnson, “If Blair's so good at running the Congo, let him stay there”, Daily Telegraph, 10 January 2002.

[8] Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy (London: Verso, 2013), esp. ch.4.

[9] Paul Mason, “The leftwing case for Brexit (one day)”, The Guardian, 16 May 2016. 

[10] For a critique of the national governments of the 1930s, see Tony Benn, “A disgrace in 1931, and now”, The Guardian, 11 December 2008. 

[11] John McDonnell, message to the “Love Socialism, Rebuild Britain, Transform Europe” meeting, 15 July 2019, available at: twitter.com/LoveSocialism/status/1150835267005296641.

[12] Mason, “The leftwing case for Brexit (one day)”.

About the author

Dr Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London and a co-founder of The Full Brexit.

This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.