When tens of thousands of people take to the streets you know you are dealing with a spontaneous movement writes Andy Stowe. This of course means that they might turn up with all manner of home-made placards saying what they think and prefer these to something that has been prepared for their benefit by small left-wing organisations. They might also be sporting an assortment of flags – from that of the European Union (EU) to the union jack, not usually seen at demonstrations organised by the left.
And so it was on Saturday June 23rd at the protest in favour of a vote on the final Brexit deal, a position Socialist Resistance supports. This has led some on the left to take a sneerily dismissive attitude arguing that “Those who wave EU flags or even union jacks as some sign of progress really need to take a reality check.” They’d probably have made a similar point about the Russian workers carrying religious icons during the 1905 revolution in St. Petersburg.
No one denies that the demonstration was big. Most press reports say it was in the region of 100 000 people, apart from those which refer to the small neo-fascist counter protest but don’t mention the main event at all.
The real significance of the demonstration was not that its figureheads were firm anti-Corbyn members of the Labour right such as Tony Robinson, or even that it had some anti-Brexit Tories. It was that tens of thousands of people were saying that they reject the hard, English nationalist Brexit that Johnson and Rees-Mogg are fighting for. For many of them the EU represents freedom of movement and a rejection of the wave of anti-migrant racism sweeping Europe. It is only possible to discuss the downsides of the EU when you appreciate the positives that those demonstrators saw in it.
Coming two weeks after the frightening appearance of a new coalition of the international new right, Ukip and street-fighting neo-fascists the left should be welcoming a demonstration representing what our enemies hate. It is true that Saturday’s demonstration was more white and drawn from more affluent sections of the working class and middle class than we would have preferred, but one can make exactly the same point about the demonstration in defence of migrants which Jeremy Corbyn addressed on the day he became Labour leader. It’s a weakness to be addressed but it doesn’t somehow make the event irrelevant.
The Labour right is using the Brexit issue to attack Corbyn and, with a depressing inevitably, its house journal The Guardian is helping out with egregiously dishonest reporting of the demonstration with quips like “Labour’s position on Brexit was subject to critical chants from the crowd, who sang: “Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?””, while failing to point out that he was in a refugee camp in Jordan.
This makes it all the more crucial that those of us on the left of Labour who oppose Brexit, strongly support Corbyn and don’t feel constrained to regard his every word as holy scripture act to make the left case against this right-wing project.
There are a few things we can do immediately. The Left Against Brexit has begun organising public meetings with people like the economist Ann Pettifor, Catherine West MP, Green Party leader Caroline Lucas MP and Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association general secretary Manuel Cortes. We can offer to help organise these locally with the support of Another Europe Is Possible.
Those of us who are in Momentum can try to use its laughably undemocratic structures to influence its policy by signing this petition calling for a members’ vote on whether to oppose a Tory Brexit and using that as a springboard for a campaign inside the Labour Party.
The two opposing demonstrations on Saturday comprised people who understood what Brexit really means. The smaller was made up of racists, English nationalists and neo-fascists who are desperate to begin in England what Salvini and Orban have started in Italy and Hungary. The much larger was made up of people who want to avoid that. No one on the Labour left should need to think for a nanosecond which side of that argument they are on.