in ‘historical thunder and lightning’
by Stiofán Ó Nualláin & Seán Byers
Events have moved so fast in the past two weeks or so that has been difficult to keep pace with or make sense of them, especially since they have been accompanied by an escalation of rhetoric and the flailing of arms.
Last Monday the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, seemingly delivered a ‘bombshell’ by ruling that he would not permit a third meaningful vote on Theresa May’s deal unless MPs were asked a different question or presented with a deal that had been substantively changed. Instinctively, the right-wing press went on the attack, some accusing Bercow of an ‘ambush’ and of ‘sabotaging Brexit’, others descending into more personal insults. Cries of ‘constitutional crisis’ abounded, while the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the British TUC joined forces to warn that the UK is facing a ‘national emergency’. Alongside this reports began to emerge that the British military had set up a team in a nuclear bunker to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, with 3,500 troops said to be ‘at readiness’ to help deliver contingency plans.
For all the panic and bluster, the main consequence of Bercow’s decision was to assist May in pulling the meaningful vote, temporarily sparing her another humiliation. It also put wind in the sails of those behind the so-called People’s Vote campaign, as they geared up for their march against Brexit in London last Saturday.
In the event, the #PutItToThePeople march was attended by somewhere between 300,000 and 1 million people, depending whose report one believes. Undoubtedly, the protestors included among their number those who are pro-immigration, vaguely internationalist, not necessarily well-off and are generally fearful about what Brexit might mean for them and their families. The march also featured a small Left Bloc comprising of left-wing politicians, trade unionists and activists who sought to represent the progressive case for staying in the EU based on demands for a Green New Deal, trade union rights, free movement of people, democratic reform and combating racism and the far right.
These good people and good intentions notwithstanding, there is no getting away from the demonstrably elite and anti-left character of the march and the People’s Vote campaign as a whole. The campaign is fronted by unpopular centrists such as Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former spin doctor, the Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable, the recently established Independent Group of Labour and Tory defectors, and is linked to a number of corporate interests. This coalition of centrist forces is united not only by its desire to remain within the EU but also by its determination to drive a wedge between the mass of the people marching behind them and the possibility of a progressive Labour government. This is obvious from the fact that Jeremy Corbyn, rather than Tory government, forms main target of the campaign’s ire. There is also an air of anti-working class intellectual superiority about the campaign, evidenced on Saturday by the display of obnoxious placards directed towards ‘the ignorant masses who voted for Brexit’. It is difficult to see how these predominant features can be reconciled with any attempt at left-wing ‘messaging’, much less the practical task of building a socialist movement.
More fundamentally, socialist involvement with the People’s Vote campaign rests on a denial of the fact that there is no parliamentary majority for a second referendum, nor is there a clear majority for one across the country. While there are many polls showing increased support for Remain or for another ballot, there are many others showing the exact opposite. For example, the most recent ComRes poll puts Remain on 35 points and Leave on a combined 50, the biggest lead since the 2016 referendum. An earlier poll by the same company pointed to a strong sense of betrayal on the part of Leave voters and a feeling that Parliament is out to thwart Brexit.
Thus, it remains the case that a second referendum would not resolve the social, economic or political contradictions that led to Brexit or the societal divisions it has opened up, but instead widen those divisions, further alienating working-class Leave voters and pushing them into the arms of the right.
The March to Leave
While it is difficult to know what the reaction to revoking Article 50 will be until it happens, the most vocal proponents of Brexit have begun to mobilise in an effort to prevent any such ‘betrayal’ and, equally, to exploit any broad disaffection that might evoke. On Friday 29March, the day that the UK was due to leave the EU, thousands of people made their way to Parliament Square in London for the March to Leave organised by right-wing Leave Means Leave campaign group. By all accounts, the bulk of the march was good-natured, with the BBC reporting ‘a lot of quiet but angry, angry people who believe that Parliament has “betrayed” Brexit’. The online political magazine Spiked, a pro-Brexit outlet and supporter of the rally, noted the presence of newly politicised sections of the working class, motivated principally by their concerns about democracy.
A smaller fringe rally was hosted by UKIP and supported by Tommy Robinson, which ended with far-right protestors clashing with the police resulting in five arrests. Some media outlets were inclined to lump these far-right elements in with the bulk of ordinary protestors, thus conflating the two marches into one. But, regardless of this conflation, there is no doubt that the day’s proceedings were dominated by the forces of the right, and that the barriers between the centre and far right are breaking down. Speakers on the main Leave Means Leave platform included the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, the DUP’s Ian Paisley junior, the Tory MP Peter Bone and a number of right-wing commentators and business figures. The General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), Matt Wrack, released a strong statement condemning Labour MP Kate Hoey and one of his own members for sharing a platform with Farage, going on to say that ‘there is no place in the labour movement for lining up with Tories, hedge funds and others in big business on either side of the Brexit debate’.
The living dead
As the March to Leave came together in London, Theresa May’s deal went down to a third defeat in the Commons. Her pledge to resign in return for MPs backing her deal failed to win over enough hardline Tory rebels, although the prospect of a leadership contest did prompt individuals such as Boris Johnson to reconsider their ‘principled’ commitment to a hard Brexit. When asked to explain why May would bring the same deal to the Commons, knowing that it was sure to be defeated, one Tory frontbencher was quoted as saying:
Fuck knows. I’m past caring. It’s like the living dead in here. Theresa May is the sole architect of this mess. It is her inability to engage in the most basic human interactions that has brought us here. Cabinet has totally broken down.
This breakdown at the heart of government is total and without an immediate, internal solution. May has lost the support – if she ever had it – of almost half her Cabinet, yet the competing agendas and leadership ambitions of individuals within this grouping mean that they have been unable to coalesce around an alternative. More broadly, the Tories continue to tear themselves apart over Brexit and the long-term future of the party. These contradictions won’t be resolved with May’s departure alone, but neither will they be resolved without it.
Parliament takes control?
May’s dogged refusal to compromise on own red lines and find a solution that commands a Parliamentary majority, coupled with her very public attack on MPs, soon led the House of Commons to ‘take control’ of the Brexit process. In practice, this meant two rounds of ‘indicative votes’ – as opposed to legally binding votes – to ascertain whether MPs could come up with an alternative plan that could conceivably be passed. On both occasions, the soft Brexit options were rejected along with the motion that would put any deal agreed by Parliament to a public vote. The veteran Tory MP Ken Clarke’s motion for a permanent UK-wide Customs Union was only narrowly rejected by three votes. Clarke’s colleague Nick Boles resigned the Tory whip following the defeat of his Common Market 2.0, Norway-plus proposal, blaming his party’s refusal to compromise.
The indicative votes process was revealing in a number of ways. Firstly, the results show that Labour’s whip held up fairly well, with only those MPs in strong Leave constituencies opting to defy the leadership’s instruction that they support the soft Brexit options and the proposal for a second referendum. This is not at all surprising, nor should it give Corbyn much cause for concern.
Secondly, the decision of The Independent Group (TIG)’s eleven MPs, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and a number of Liberal Democrats to vote against both a UK-wide Customs Union and Boles’ Norway-plus proposal raises serious doubts about their determination to avoid a no deal exit. In fact, it can only suggest that they are willing to risk that very outcome in their now fanatical pursuit of a second referendum, and that they wish to scupper any deal that might bring down the government and trigger a general election. Norman Lamb MP has said that he is considering quitting the Lib Dems because the party is becoming a ‘mirror image’ of the European Research Group (ERG) of hardline Brexiteers. But while we have come to expect these antics from the TIG and indeed the Lib Dems, it is disappointing to see the Greens allowing themselves to be taken for a ride.
Finally, the process confirms that the political crisis runs much deeper than straightforward parliamentary arithmetic, which is shifting in response to wider social and political imperatives. As Richard Seymour has argued, ‘there is a deep-rooted crisis of the British state, its representative structures, and its organisation of its legitimacy’, which requires a solution to Brexit, a transformative political response and a ‘constitutional reformation’ from the left.
May sets her trap
The latest twist in the saga came following a seven-hour meeting of the Cabinet yesterday, with May’s public call for Corbyn to engage in talks to help deliver Brexit. This brazen appeal for ‘compromise’ and ‘national unity’ comes after months of Corbyn offering just that, while the Prime Minister continued to run down the clock and attack Labour’s position at every turn.
In effect, May is asking Corbyn to back her Withdrawal Agreement in return for possible changes to the Political Declaration outlining Britain’s future relationship with the EU. One problem with this, as May well knows, is that the Political Declaration is not legally binding. Given that she has pledged to resign with the passage of her deal, making way for a hard Brexiteer, she is in no position to offer Corbyn any guarantees into Phase 2 of the Brexit negotiations.
Relatedly, there is no clear support within the Cabinet or wider Conservative Party for an extension much less a permanent, UK-wide Customs Union along the lines proposed by Labour. This is clear from the results of the indicative votes process, while fourteen Cabinet members are said to have opposed a delay during yesterday’s meeting. Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson have since come out against May’s plan to involve Corbyn, which leaves open the possibility that they could yet round on the Prime Minister and force her into another retreat.
May’s move should therefore be seen for what it is: a desperate attempt to pressurise Corbyn into supporting her deal in order to keep the Tories in power and Labour in opposition. In this she will no doubt be assisted by centrists within and outside of the Parliamentary Labour Party, who will lay the blame for any resulting failure squarely at Corbyn’s feet.
Corbyn’s initial response has been to take up May on her offer, agreeing to talks without preconditions. There is every chance that he has no intention of supporting May’s deal, regardless of the ‘concessions’ she offers.
Either way, now is the time to hold firm. The EU has indicated that will only support an extension in the event of a process to find a consensus, a second referendum or a general election. The only progressive path available to Corbyn is to reject May’s cynical overtures and push for a general election, where he can put his Brexit plan to the people and work to unify the labour movement around his party’s transformative programme. There is of course the risk that this would lead May to adopt a ‘my deal or no deal’ position. But the current crisis demands that these risks are taken.