“There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.”
So Lenin is believed to have remarked about the overthrow of the old order in Russia more than one hundred years ago. These words could equally be applied to Brexit. But it is in this context that the concrete analysis, methodological rigour and political resolve advocated by Bolshevik leader is lacking among sections of the left.
On Tuesday, Theresa May announced to the House of Commons that she will put any revised Withdrawal Agreement with the EU to a meaningful vote on 12 March. If this is rejected, she will offer MPs the opportunity to vote for a no-deal Brexit – which would see the UK leave the EU on WTO rules on 29 March. If that fails, she will ask Parliament to vote on a proposed extension of the Article 50 negotiation process. May has warned that any extension should be short and a one-off, since taking it “beyond the end of June would mean the UK taking part in the European Parliament elections.”
The announcement of a possible extension has been expected for a while and remains the most likely short-term outcome. But there are aspects of May’s strategy that could be seen as marginally strengthening her chances of squeezing through a deal. Most notably, the proposed sequencing of the three Commons votes, putting a no deal Brexit and a potential delay on the table, is designed to spook hard Remainers while simultaneously turning the screw on the right-wing European Research Group (ERG).
Led by the eccentric Jacob Rees-Mogg, a throwback to the eighteenth century, the ERG has the support of up to 90 of a total 314 Tory MPs. They were decisive in bringing about the historic 230-vote defeat of the government when May brought her first deal before the Commons back in January. Now, however, there are indications that Rees-Mogg has softened his opposition to the backstop, and the looming prospect of a delay or a second referendum may ultimately lead the ERG to accept a tweaked deal as the least worst result.
Alongside this May will continue to lobby EU leaders in search of the elusive deal that commands a parliamentary majority and avoids the threat of a hard border in Ireland. She is also set to court the trade union movement and Labour MPs in Leave constituencies, by formally announcing a series of protections for workers and unions post-Brexit. The British Trades Union Congress (TUC) leadership have yet to endorse these proposals, although they have form when it comes to making deals with the Tories. Many will recall that the TUC swiftly fell in behind David Cameron’s campaign for Remain back in 2016, after the government pledged to dilute its vicious anti-trade union bill. Former TUC leader Brendan Barber even penned a letter with Cameron outlining how, in his view, organised labour and the Tories shared a common vision of Europe!
It remains to be seen how many Labour MPs will be bought by May’s modest concessions. But the experience of 2016 and the intervening period tells us that any such tactical alliance will only breed more division within the labour movement, strengthen the forces of reaction and keep the Tories in power.
Old wine in new bottles: The Independent Group
If things are looking up for the once beleaguered Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn has just had one of the worst weeks of his three and a half year tenure as Labour leader. The first blow came with the resignation of seven Labour MPs to form the centrist Independent Group, soon to be joined by another Labour MP and three Tory Remainers.
Addressing a press conference for the new group’s launch, the former Labour contingent spoke of their dissatisfaction with the leadership’s handling of Brexit and approach to dealing with allegations of antisemitism in the party. They promised “a new alternative”, one “not led by ideology” or “locked in the old politics of the 20th century”. However, their politics are not in any way grounded in the times in which we live, nor are their motives as clear-cut as they would make out.
To begin with, it can be seen that a centrist breakaway has been long in gestation, based on a deep hostility to the project spearheaded by Corbyn and overwhelmingly endorsed by the Labour membership on successive occasions. Six of the eight defectors voted for Liz Kendall, Corbyn’s Blairite opponent in the 2015 Labour leadership election, while another, Chuka Ummuna, resigned from the Shadow Cabinet immediately following the election. And, despite winning their Westminster seats in 2017 on the back of Labour’s radical manifesto, some with massively increased majorities, all have consistently and actively sought to undermine the party’s left leadership over the years.
Crucially, the breakaway comes at a time when the MPs in question are coming under increasing pressure at a grassroots level. Three of the former Labour MPs have lost votes of no confidence in the past year, while a no-confidence motion submitted against Luciana Berger earlier this month was eventually withdrawn by her local party after coming under criticism. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has already said that “the honourable thing for [the Independent Group MPs] to do now is to stand down and fight by-elections back in their constituencies”. Local Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) have rightly echoed this call. There is no prospect of this coming to fruition, however, as each and every one of the defectors would probably lose their seats.
Beyond rank opportunism and careerism, The Independent Group are united by a history of backing austerity and a hotchpotch of soundbites that hark back to the New Labour era, at best. On progressive taxation, investment in public services, public ownership of utilities and key industries, improved wages and working conditions, a fair welfare system, and free education, they have shown themselves to be out of step with Labour members, supporters and wider public opinion. Indeed, the emptiness of what they actually stand for was badly exposed during a relatively softball interview on BBC.
The centrists round on Corbyn
In short, The Independent Group wishes to hit the reset button and return to 2008. History suggests that this doubling down on centrism is likely to fail when put to the test. But this move has to be seen in the context of a broader and more sustained assault on Corbyn from within and without the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), one which poses a fundamental threat to the Labour left project and the grassroots movement behind it.
The main internal threat is likely to be cultivated by Tom Watson, Corbyn’s long time deputy. Immediately following the establishment of The Independent Group, Watson announced that he would be forming an internal caucus of disaffected Labour MPs – ostensibly to assuage their concerns, provide an outlet for policy discussion and preserve the unity of the party as a whole. But, again, Watson harbours leadership ambitions and is widely thought to have been supportive of past coup attempts. Newspaper reports have suggested that he played an active part in fomenting the recent split, taking part in covert discussions with centrist MPs and arch-Blairite Peter Mandelson as early as July of last year.
Watson and his acolytes have been visibly strengthened by another incident this week, involving left wing MP Chris Williamson. A Corbyn ally, Williamson has been suspended and issued with a notice of investigation following ill-judged remarks that the Labour Party had been “too apologetic” in dealing with accusations of antisemitism. Williamson has since published a retraction and detailed apology on Twitter, reasserting his commitment to anti-racism. Predictably, the Labour right and mainstream media have sought to weaponise the incident, demonstrating the lengths that they will go to in order to bring down Corbyn and prevent a radical social democratic government. Worryingly, some of the left commentariat have instinctively joined the chorus of denunciation, perhaps failing to realise that this gives undue weight to the smear that Labour is institutionally antisemitic at a time when the war against Corbyn is escalating.
Corbyn’s Brexit strategy
Amidst all of this, Corbyn has responded to the unfolding crisis over Brexit in a way that seeks to hold a divided PLP together while building a support base of Remain and Leave voters. On Wednesday, as part of Labour’s official step-by-step approach, Corbyn put forward his alternative Brexit plan which would have enshrined the party’s five demands for Brexit in law. As expected, Corbyn’s amendment for a softer Brexit was defeated in the Commons, with the Independent Group abstaining.
Following this result, Corbyn stated his party’s intention to continue campaigning for its alternative plan, to press for a general election and support a public vote. This is not a new policy, but rather is strictly in line with the decision overwhelmingly endorsed at conference last year. By contrast, the party’s Brexit spokesperson Keir Starmer has gone beyond conference policy to announce to the world that: “A public vote ought to be between the option on the one hand of a credible leave deal and on the other hand remain”.
Corbyn is banking on the parliamentary arithmetic holding up against a second referendum, with the majority of Tory MPs and at least 35 Labour MPs strongly opposed. That way he can credibly argue that he supported Remainers’ demands and was ultimately frustrated in doing so. At the same time, he can tell hard Leave voters that he explored every possible option before reluctantly supporting a second referendum. But the bottom line is that he needs to avoid the entrenched divisions and outright disaster that a re-run of the referendum would bring.
What is to be done?
The risk of this strategy that the clock is ticking while the political balance of forces are gradually shifting in favour of a second referendum and away from the possibility of a general election, pushing Labour’s popular programme into the background. Internal and external pressure on the left is growing, severely narrowing its options. We can be sure that the crisis engulfing the Labour Party will continue to intensify, building towards an inevitable coup.
Faced with disloyalty, deceit and persistent smear campaigns, Corbyn has typically responded with concessions and conciliation, even co-opting some of his most vocal critics onto the Shadow Cabinet. But it is clear that the right will not be satisfied until he is gone and the advances of the past three years are totally obliterated. To halt and ultimately reverse this onslaught, something will have to change. The Labour left, trade unions, local Momentum groups and CLPs will have to mobilise and fight, alongside those outside of the Labour Party who have been advocates for Corbyn’s project. Working-class community structures will have to be supported and integrated more deeply into the Labour left apparatus, horizontally and vertically. Political education will also need to be rolled out in order that grassroots activists can take on their opponents intellectually as well as on the streets.
This mobilisation will need to be on a scale witnessed during Corbyn’s second leadership election victory or indeed the general election of 2017. And it needs to begin now.
by Seán Byers
Originally published on 1 March 2019 at brexitblog-rosalux.eu as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.