“I’m going to make a speech which is hopefully slightly shorter than some you will have heard this weekend, but also one which is more frank and honest about the Brexit debate and the state of the left in Britain. I hope that it will – and, over the past two years we have learned that this is an important thing to do – offend the right people.
The discussions we have had over the past two days have been vital. It is vital, from our own parochial perspective, that the British left understands the international context.
Because we, the British left, are faced with a cross-roads greater than any in our recent history, and it is a crossroads absolutely situated in the European context.
On the one hand, we have the likes of Jean Luc Melenchon, who openly talks about migrant workers “stealing the bread from the mouths” of French workers. And we have Sahra Wagenknecht, whose Aufstehen movement is an attempt to marry left wing economic policy with an anti-migrant politics. These political tendencies come from traditions closely linked to establishment social democracy and the Moscow-aligned Communist Parties, and they hold major sway at the core of the Labour left and the Corbyn project as well. That is not to say that they control it, but the intellectual and ideological influence is absolutely there.
These people are not in favour of Brexit because it is “the will of the people”, or even necessarily because they think it will make Labour win elections. They are in favour of it because they think that Brexit is a good thing and they want it to happen. And they always have.
In short, they view the interests and strategies of capital as international and globally interconnected, and the interests of the working class and ordinary people as rooted to the spot, and nationally conscious against the global and transnational enemy.
The result is an inversion of the politics of progress but painted red, and you can read it every day in the pages of the Morning Star. It erases migrant workers, and it views free movement as a capitalist policy to be resisted rather than a right to be defended. Their vision for the future is, at root, a siege economy – little more than a 21st Century recreation of the Soviet Union in Western Europe. And that’s if they win!
On the other side is us: the internationalist left. We don’t like the EU as it it. Minimally, we need it to be fundamentally reformed. We oppose its neo-liberalism, its treatment of refugees, its lack of democracy. Many of us are anti-capitalists. But we know that the answer is not to turn back the clock to a Europe of nation states, borders and resurgent nationalism.
That is the division on which the Corbyn project, the British left – and the left across Europe – must now pick a side.
Brexit was the wrong answer to a real problem. Providing real answers to that problem – of devastated communities, political impotence, dominance of bosses over workers, falling living standards, fractured senses of belonging and dignity – is an essential task.
But endorsing, even by omission, the wrong answer, gets us nowhere. And it actively betrays the people that Brexit will affect. The millions of Europeans who didn’t even get a vote in 2016, the workers who will lose their rights, the people whose lives will be ruined by the deregulatory agenda, the far right logic, that Brexit’s exponents openly say that it represents. Their agenda is not a secret – it is an open, conscious policy.
Labour has a long, proud tradition of throwing migrants under the bus for the sake of electoral expediency. And when our 2017 manifesto said “free movement must end”, we must be clear that this policy stood in that tradition and in no other. (Much though I thought the rest of the manifesto was great and really like Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party, by the way). The left must understand that when we give ground to the right on immigration, we morally bankrupt ourselves and ruin our own narratives on who is to blame for the crisis.
And yet, 5 months – just 5 months – from Exit day, many on the left still – still – want to equivocate and swerve the issue of Brexit, to simply talk about something else. And you can see that at every level of the party. At a grassroots level, the overwhelming urge is to return, as soon as possible, to just chanting “oh-Jeremy-Corbyn” again.
On an intellectual level, the same urge is absolutely there. So many talk of the need for us to go “beyond Brexit”. And I respect many of the people who say this, I mean that sincerely. But sometimes it takes the most brilliant minds to come up with ideas that are so completely and perfectly stupid. Brexit is a project designed to Americanise the British economy, resurrect nationalism, and put the far right’s narratives on the winning side of history via a public mandate.
How – how? – when there is any hope of defeating that agenda – can we possibly go “beyond” it, other than by capitulating to it?
So, in answer to the question “what should we do”, I would say this:
Firstly, do not capitulate. We have 5 months to stop the nightmare, and the tide is turning. We have this summer seen a huge grassroots swing against Brexit. That’s been led by the Labour left, the Green Party and things have moved inside the unions as well. We have moved Labour policy forwards, and I think we can move Momentum too. But that process needs to accelerate – we need to win the argument against Brexit politically, not just in terms of process, at every level within our own organisations and the wider left.
Secondly, please understand that this is not just a battle of ideas. The conversations we have had this weekend have been vital, but we need to take the 700,000 people who marched for a People’s Vote into a real movement. We know from experience that polite A to B demonstrations can be ignored by the political establishment. We need to be willing to deliver a social movement that can beat the far right in the streets, and engage in mass civil disobedience. Theresa May needs to understand that if she attempts to drive us off a cliff, we will make the country ungovernable – but first we need a movement that can deliver that.
Finally, we need to convince the public. On streets, in communities, on doorsteps, outside your local train station. That is a task that can only be done by the left – by us – and it needs to happen at lightning speed.
So join us, and let’s fight this fight.”