Owen Smith’s Mistakes: Lexit Lives On
“Lexit is dead. Democracy is alive.”
So declared former big pharma spokesman and failed Labour leadership contender Owen Smith MP at the end of his Guardian column last week. Scions of the Labour Right, like David Miliband, gleefully tweeted Smith’s piece, cheering the death of the “unyielding job-cutting, standard-shredding, equality-reducing, regulation-shaving race to the bottom” Brexit. But, in reality, the article was intellectually vapid.
This is hardly surprising. Owen Smith is an archetypical anti-Lexit figure: a Guardian writer, a Labour “centrist”, Fabian type, with a fundamentally liberal economic outlook. What unites this cadre is that they have never once practiced the politics of socialism and the working class. For them, pledging support for the EU seems akin to confession for Catholics: it absolves the guilty of their sins. All the Tories and Blairites who happily cut, privatised, and bombed are now supposedly born-again “progressive” icons. But their feeble pretensions ring hollow.
Smith began by branding Brexit “a project of the right, for the right and by the right”. We often hear this, but what does it actually mean? Apparently, it signifies nothing deeper than the fact that people like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson led the Leave campaign. But this reveals little about the referendum’s political character: the Remain campaign was also led by figures on the right: David Cameron, George Osborne, most of the present Tory government, and Thatcher-era holdovers like Michael Heseltine. Labour and socialist figures featured in both campaigns but were stuck on the sidelines, with the forgettable Alan Johnson leading the “Labour-In” campaign and Labour Leave marginalised on the other side.
Left political analysis is meant to look beyond simplistic liberal categories to consider class and historical developments. In this tradition, we might ask, to rephrase Smith’s barb, what is Remain but a project of capital, for capital and by capital? As even a child can see, big business – banks, corporations, financiers, etc – are the most vociferous supporters of the EU. What is the “Right” if not the organised representatives of capitalism, those who spawned austerity, the bedroom tax, cuts to disability services; the authors of anti-trade union legislation; those who invaded Iraq and cheered on reckless military adventures in Libya and Syria? Viewed from this perspective, Farage and Johnson are hardly distinguishable from those who led the Remain campaign – or those who constitute the main power brokers in the EU.
Smith harks back to someone who actually understood all of this when noting that Tony Benn “believed that the EU was undemocratic, a proxy for elitist neoliberal globalisation through alliances with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and others”. Crucially, Smith never actually bothers to refute this charge – perhaps because Benn was obviously right. Was it not the European Commission, in alliance with the European Central Bank and the IMF, that imposed crippling austerity on the Greek people on behalf of French and German banks?
Smith then attempts a confused, liberal defence of the EU, claiming that a “leftwing Brexit… is an oxymoron. It’s irreconcilable with those values of freedom and equality that are at the heart of what we stand for.” But what values of “freedom and equality” does the EU actually uphold? The EU’s four “freedoms” are the freedom of capital to move goods, services and money across national borders, and the freedom of labour to be exploited by capital in any EU territory. And what of “equality”? The EU is not equal. It has entrenched massive wealth disparities, between Europe and the global south, between the old imperial core of Europe and its periphery, and between Europe’s working classes and the financier classes.
Does Brexit impede a future socialist project? Smith thinks so: it “would mean not just lower living standards but also less tax revenue for a radical Labour government to do anything about it.” But this only reveals the paucity of his so-called “socialism”. It implies that a future Labour government would make its radicalism dependent on the tax revenue it could gain from corporations. This is not “radical” at all: it is the New Labour model of assisting capitalist expansion to finance modest redistribution. Moreover, attempting anything genuinely “radical” using corporate taxes would only spur companies to offshore their wealth, which the EU’s rules on the free movement of capital would facilitate. Indeed, tax havens like Ireland and Luxembourg flourish within the EU. Preventing this would require capital controls that the EU has outlawed.
Smith decries Lexit as a “fantasy”, but he is the real fantasist, depicting a collection of neoliberal treaties on goods, service, capital and labour as the only thing standing between Britain and the abyss. He crows that “Lexit is dead” because Labour has embraced the customs union, and all the EU rules that comes with it; but this only highlights the stupidity of current Labour policy. If Lexit is dead, it is because the Labour party failed to campaign against an EU that – viewed objectively – is an enemy of socialist transformation. Labour only grudgingly accepted the referendum outcome in its 2017 manifesto; it never embraced it as a real opportunity for radical change. So “Lexit” was never theirs to kill.
Brexit is not the end of the socialist project, nor necessarily the start of one. Even if we had a clean, WTO rules Brexit, followed by a Labour government, this would not inherently be “Lexit”. Lexit is what comes after Brexit: using the powers, presently surrendered under the European treaties, to empower a socialist government to rebuild Britain for the benefit of the working class and not the financier class. Socialists support Brexit not because a "Left" Brexit might happen but rather because Brexit must happen for socialist transformation to occur: leaving the EU is essential to break with neoliberal capitalism.
For a Left Brexit to be dead, the socialist movement itself would have to be dead, yet for as long as there is a working class this movement and support for Brexit will endure any amount of Guardian columns.
Josh Jackson is the Youth Officer for Aylesbury Labour