At the start of 2018 the British Labour party’s position is that it supports Brexit and does not support a second Brexit referendum. Jeremy Corbyn also maintains that there will, in all likelihood, be an election before the end of 2018, which he expects Labour to win. However its position on the first scenario radically reduces the possibilities of the second. Here’s Why.
Short of a Tory-supported vote of no confidence in Theresa May’s government, there is no logical reason for a general election in 2018 or any time before the next scheduled general election, in 2022. Whilst Michael Heseltine suggests that a Corbyn-led Labour government would be a lesser evil than Brexit his sentiment does not translate into a shift in Tory party mood to oust their leader. However weak and unstable she is, May remains a significant block to a Labour ascent to power and therefore retains critical support amongst her MP’s.
Quite paradoxically, Labour’s refusal to argue for a second referendum is emboldening the Tory party right to push for an increasingly extreme Brexit, where Britain leaves the EU, the Customs Union, and the Single Market in March 2019, with a less than two year transition period following its withdrawal.
If it plays its card right, however, Labour is in the potentially fortunate position to be able to combine into one, a campaign against the Tory party, its brutal, poverty-inducing permanent austerity programme and its ruinous Brexit strategy, whilst promoting its vision of socialism.
There is a very strong reason for Labour to do this, and now. The major lesson from the 2017 general election is that Labour can change public opinion and build support for a socialist alternative to austerity through a massive grassroots campaign. For Labour to become the UK’s governing party and enact its socialist manifesto will require a sustained level of mass activism. A campaign for a second Brexit referendum based upon a socialist Remain platform could catalyse the quantitative expansion, and qualitative strengthening, of the party’s membership, by increasing party recruitment and raising an electoral war chest.
If such a campaign were to succeed in forcing the government to hold a second referendum, and if Labour were to make and win the case to remain in the EU it would in all likelihood spell the end of Theresa May’s premiership and generate pressures for an early general election. Viewed from this perspective there is a four step-dynamic towards Labour’s ascent to government in 2018 or 2019: First a push for another referendum, second a campaign for a Remain vote, third an offensive to drive May out of office and for a general election, fourth a mega grassroots-driven operation to get Labour elected to government. Such a four-step scenario would occur throughout 2018 and early 2019 would provide continual impetus for a rising level of activism by Labour’s membership, and by its parliamentary leadership through its clarification and projection of a socialist alternative to Tory austerity-driven Brexit.
In such a scenario, Brexit-supporting Tory’s and their backers in the media would portray Labour as subverting the popular will. Such an argument could easily be countered: Those who voted Leave in 2016 did not vote for a ruinous economic outcome, which is now materialising. One of the Leave campaign’s main arguments was that the National Health Service would receive an additional £350 million a week post-Brexit. The reality is that Britain’s ‘divorce bill’ with the EU will reduce funding to the NHS and other public services even further than under the current austerity drive. Theresa May’s government has refused to engage in any meaningful public discussion about the social costs of leaving the EU, and has effectively attempted to preclude such a discussion through not conducting impact assessments. Finally, what could be more democratic than another vote?
As significant as a campaign for a second referendum and then against Brexit, would be Labour’s socialist vision for Britain. In the 2016 referendum the Remain side had no attractive alternative to the fantastical projections of the Leave campaign, because it was led by austerity-imposing David Cameron and George Osbourne. By making the case for a social-justice, green, high-wage jobs-based Remain vote, Labour would be connecting a Remain campaign to the post-referendum quest for a general election and a Labour party victory.
Of course, there are risks to such a strategy. A second victory for the Leave side would strengthen May and embolden her extreme vision of Brexit. However, even the political legitimacy gained from a second victory would be short-lived, given the economic turmoil that leaving the EU will unleash. But a loss for Leave would finish off May’s premiership, plunge the Tory party into a potential terminal civil war and open the door to a genuinely progressive Labour government, powered by its mass base, hungry for a radical democratisation of British economy, society and state.
There are sections of the left who support Brexit, arguing that membership of the EU makes public ownership of industry and services more difficult, and acts to suppress trade unions’ strikes. The reality is, however, that a Labour government within the EU could nationalise widely and influence privately-owned industry to favour workers to a very significant degree before EU rules begin to limit such endeavours. Moreover, strike days across most of EU countries are markedly higher than in the UK, suggesting that it is less EU strictures and more national law that determines levels of trade union combativeness.
The bottom line for Labour is that a Tory-led Brexit will inflict immense damage on its working class support base, further fragmenting communities in the most deprived parts of the country, and setting back opportunities for constructing a progressive alternative. Labour has a unique opportunity, some would say responsibility, to push for a radical transformation of the UK. It must not be squandered.