The Anti-Brexit Left: A Critical Appraisal

The confused goals and loyalties of the anti-Brexit Left have rendered it unable to follow its convictions through to their meaningful conclusion.

Last month, Labour Party Conference passed a motion affirming that a second Brexit referendum is still ‘on the table’. This development was widely hailed by campaigners and journalists as a win for anti-Brexit forces calling for a public vote on the final deal. While the media narrative was undoubtedly a success for the anti-Brexit spin operation, the policy itself was the dispiriting culmination of a series of missed opportunities to stop Brexit while building on Labour’s radical vision for the future.

What follows is an analysis of Labour’s impossible and inadequate position on the EU, starting from the conviction that securing a better future for workers should be the key task for socialists. The motion passed at conference is correct in its acknowledgment that the Brexit deal being pursued by Theresa May is a threat to jobs and freedom of movement; it will commit the UK to American-style deregulation and make it much harder for a future Labour government to deliver on its promises. These will be material losses for British workers.

Those Lexiteers who argue that the EU is the principal obstacle to the ambitions of a left-wing government in the UK should consider the vicious record of the British ruling class in suppressing socialist movements which entered the mainstream. Imagining that a left-led Labour government will be able to achieve everything it desires outside the EU should lead us to question our entire strategy, for it implies that Labour’s policy aims are not sufficiently transformative to threaten capital. Instead of engaging in fruitless speculation about which neoliberal governing institution is worse, socialists should focus on building rank-and-file movements to oppose capitalism, and support policies which allow for the best possible conditions to do so across borders.

It is a shame that the confused goals and loyalties of the anti-Brexit Left have rendered it unable to follow its convictions through to their meaningful conclusion: an effective campaign forcing Labour to support and campaign for staying in the EU.

Labour’s position

From the start, Labour’s position on Brexit has been an uncomfortable compromise. An overwhelmingly pro-EU membership chafes against Corbyn’s intuitive Euroscepticism and the leadership’s fear of losing popular votes from pro-Leave ‘Labour heartlands’. The Eurosceptic tendency has won out. Since the day of the referendum, Labour has been decisively committed to ‘carrying out’ Brexit. Before the dust from the vote had settled, the Labour leadership had disavowed free movement and hailed the authentic voice of the Brexit-voting masses. If there had ever been any doubt, it became obvious that no principled challenge to Brexit would be forthcoming from the party leadership when it whipped its MPs to vote in favour of triggering Article 50.

Instead, Labour developed the ‘six tests’, which allow the Party’s position on Brexit to be all things to all people. The six tests mean Labour does not oppose Brexit, but would support only a Brexit deal which delivers the ‘exact same benefits’ of the single market or customs union, and ensures the ‘fair management of migration’. The problem with the six tests is that there is no possible Brexit deal that meets them, which seemingly suits the Labour establishment just fine.

The six tests cherry-pick the EU’s ‘four freedoms’, which in their inseparability form an inviolable cornerstone of the EU. To deliver the ‘exact same benefits’ of the single market and customs union, the UK would have to stay in the single market and customs union. What would be the point of a trade and customs union which afforded non-members the ‘exact same benefits’ as members? The Norway option, which would allow membership of the single market and customs union, would also mean accepting free movement, inconceivable as part of a Brexit deal and directly contradicting long-standing Labour Party policy as articulated in another of the six tests.

If we begin from the other end, looking first at the promise to deliver ‘managed migration’, the UK would have to negotiate a bespoke agreement on trade and customs, which ends free movement while also securing tariff-free trade. This would be a Canada-like deal which would include significantly expanded barriers to trade in services, falling down on the ‘exact same benefits’ test.

The six tests were never designed to be met. They were designed to allow Labour to coast to Brexit Day in opposition without a breakdown of its electoral coalition or a mass rebellion of its membership. A section of Corbyn-supporting members call this a smart strategy for balancing competing interests. The problem with balancing acts is they always have to end when you reach the other side of the tightrope.

Labour now faces growing discontent from its membership and electoral base over the rapidly crystallising realities of Brexit, and a steadily increasing likelihood of a general election or second referendum. Yet it still has no strategically or ideologically sound position on the question of Brexit itself.

The Left Against Brexit

Last month’s Conference was widely expected to be a watershed moment for Labour’s position on Brexit. A consensus emerged in the weeks leading up to conference that Brexit would have to be discussed and voted on, in contrast to last year when the topic was kept off the agenda to avoid awkwardness for the leadership.

Conference saw an unprecedented 150 motions submitted by constituencies on Brexit, which were duly prioritised for debate with consent from the trade unions. Most of these were variations of a radical pro-EU text originating with the campaign group Another Europe is Possible (AEIP) and its various spin-off groups. The grassroots push was designed to snatch wind out of the sails of the centrist, free-market People’s Vote campaign, and demonstrate that left-wing, Corbyn-supporting members were driving the anti-Brexit narrative in the Labour Party.

This laudable organising effort was rendered toothless by its irrevocable commitment to Labour’s six tests. The campaign’s demands were limited to calling for a second referendum in the event that a Brexit deal did not meet the six tests and was voted down in parliament. AEIP’s campaigners at conference were instructed to frame all of their interventions around the democratic case for a ‘public vote’, and to refrain from being critical of the leadership or demanding a ‘remain’ option.

The final Brexit motion that emerged contained only two important phrases. Neither of these constituted a real shift in the party’s position heading into the final act of the Brexit nightmare. The first states that ‘conference believes we need a relationship with the EU that guarantees full participation in the single market’, a slightly evolved re-assertion of the wording in the ‘six tests’.

The second adds the words “including campaigning for a public vote” to Labour’s longstanding insistence that “all options are on the table” if Labour cannot secure a general election once a Tory Brexit deal is voted down. This is nothing but a repeat of the current pick-your-own-Brexit position with the explicit articulation of one possible option. It allows campaigners for a second referendum to claim victory while doing nothing to make the leadership accountable for delivering it.

Most importantly, without a corresponding promise to campaign for a ‘remain’ option in a second referendum, a commitment to the vote itself means little. A referendum without a ‘remain’ option leaves only the Tory deal or no deal, which Labour has already ruled out. Even if external pressure forced the government to allow a ‘remain’ option on the ballot, Labour would not make a strong positive case for why staying in the EU was the right choice. How could it, having spent years assuring the public it would never do so, and having just outmanoeuvred its own membership at conference to avoid such a shift?

As it stands, the leadership will look to keep staying in the EU off the table altogether, coalescing around a ‘better Labour Brexit’. We saw this in Corbyn’s closing speech, where he left open the option of voting for a Tory Brexit deal, and triumphantly pronounced that Labour would call for a general election if the deal were voted down.

This treading of water wasn’t just an unfortunate defeat for a left campaign which had fought for more, but was in fact the inevitable end-point for the organised anti-Brexit left. Left-wing anti-Brexit forces struggled from the start to articulate a public position independent from free-trade liberals, eventually coalescing around AEIP. AEIP was able to quickly grow in prominence and hegemonise the radical anti-Brexit space due to a generous pot of funding from George Soros, allowing the campaign to hire full-time staff, maintain office space, and produce glossy campaign materials.

Just months after a defeat in the referendum, AEIP regrouped with a new mission to fight across all parties and in civil society to ‘build a coalition around a deal that preserves the progressive elements of EU membership’. When a Corbyn-led Labour defied expectations in the 2017 General Election and became a serious contender for government, AEIP began campaigning more explicitly within Labour, adjusting its messaging to imply support for staying in the EU in the event of a second referendum. But its foundation as a cross-party coalition immediately limited its ability to build a strong base in the labour movement, just as it was becoming clear that Labour was the only force with a real chance of stopping the Brexit juggernaut. The campaign was partly politically beholden to the liberal interests of Greens and Scottish Nationalists, preventing it from taking explicit pro-Remain positions based on the advancement of the working class.

A related barrier was the campaign’s lack of a clearly articulated ‘alternative’ for Europe. Pro-Brexit commentators criticise AEIP supporters for their belief that Europe’s neoliberal institutions can be ‘reformed’, pointing out that the campaign has failed to set out any plans to do so or forge lasting links with European organisations. This is a valid critique, and one that a Left anti-Brexit campaign firmly embedded within the Labour movement could have overcome with a class-based argument laying out the benefits of staying in the EU.

Such a campaign would have been clear that its support for staying in the EU is not support for EU institutions, or even a statement of a concrete hope to reform them from within, but a commitment to forging fighting alliances with labour movements across Europe to stand up to neoliberal institutions at all levels, beat austerity, address the refugee crisis, oppose militarism and imperialism, and take bold action on the climate. It would have urged the Labour Party to support a public vote on the Brexit deal with an option to remain, not as an end in itself, but in support of achieving these aims. It would have pressured the party leadership to argue and campaign for a remain option on these grounds. This position would have also strengthened the argument that Labour’s platform for the next election should include an unqualified defence of migrants, a commitment to close all detention centres, end deportations, and fight for freedom of movement across the world.

What next?

There are still many ‘options on the table’, to borrow a phrase, for Labour’s role in the Brexit end-game. But crucially, there is one option that is now off the table - Labour coming out in favour of staying in the EU and fighting to stop Brexit.

Labour says it would vote down the Chequers Plan “as it stands”, but has not completely ruled out the option of voting for a Tory Brexit deal (presumably the six tests would be sacrificed at the altar of political viability, as was always intended). It is difficult to imagine a governing party allowing an early general election leading to near-certain defeat, but in the unlikely scenario of a general election, Labour is now committed to standing on a promise of negotiating a ‘better’ Brexit which is near-impossible to conceptualise.

If a Tory Brexit deal is voted down and the Tories stay on, Labour’s membership and conference policy will push it towards supporting a second referendum. Since conference, the Left anti-Brexit campaigns appear to have doubled down on ensuring a second referendum materialises, with messaging centred around pressuring wavering Labour MPs to vote against May’s Brexit deal and building for popular mobilisations in favour of another referendum. But what is the point of a second referendum without any major political force campaigning for a different outcome than the one currently on offer?

It didn’t have to be this way. AEIP and assorted allies successfully marshalled a large number of grassroots campaigners to submit an unprecedented number of motions to conference, spearheaded a series of highly effective media interventions, and ran a formidable ground game at conference. They successfully snatched the anti-Brexit media narrative away from the People’s Vote and reclaimed it for those committed to defending migrants and workers’ rights.

If the campaign had raised an uncompromising demand, calling on the Labour Party to not only support a second referendum, but to come out in favour of staying in the EU and fighting tooth and nail to stop Brexit, its impact might have been enormous. As it stands, little has really changed.

The only way of stopping Brexit has always been, and remains, winning the argument on the question of Brexit itself, creating an inescapable and relentless groundswell of opinion in favour of remaining in the EU. As a working-class opposition party with a popular left-wing leader, Labour should have been leading the struggle to expose to its voters the lies they had been sold by the British ruling class.

The moment for bringing this pressure to bear on the Labour leadership has passed. The moment to create an organic groundswell of opinion in the public for a ‘remain’ option in a second referendum may still lie ahead, but is just as likely to float past unless anti-Brexit socialists can quickly re-orient their message.


Urte Macikene (@urtemm)

Urte Macikene is the Youth Officer for Dulwich and West Norwood CLP.