On 29 March, Theresa May will trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, starting the clock on the UK leaving the EU. Unless the UK and all the EU states agree to a special extension on negotiations, the UK will quit the EU in or before March 2019.
Already, the Brexit vote is leading to stresses on migrant workers, and an increase in nationalism and xenophobia in the UK; and strengthens the worst, most right-wing elements in the ruling class and their political party, the Tories. The labour movement needs to carve out a pro-worker, pro-migrant vision of the future, with ties as close to the EU as possible, and fight to protect workers’ rights. We should champion the right to remain, and to move across borders — both that of other EU nationals living in the UK or wanting to move here, and of UK nationals living, or wanting to live, in the EU.
The UK is one of the biggest economies in the world, the second largest in the EU, and will remain so after Brexit. But with Brexit its competitive edge against its European neighbours — which will become more sharply its economic rivals — will be maintained or increased on the backs of workers.
Migrant workers will be more ruthlessly exploited than some EU migrant workers are at present. Loss of EU migrant workers who staff public services, and pay a lot of taxes into the state budget, will increase pressure for social cuts. A whole wing of the Tories want a Britain which competes with Europe as an offshore production base for global capital offering lower social overheads, fewer workers’ rights, less regulation of capital, to offset the costs of tariffs and border paperwork.
The claims by Theresa May and other Tories that “no deal is better than a bad deal” signals their openness to that option. Our alternative to Brexit is to fight for workers’ rights and solidarity across Europe and the world! For freedom of movement! Against nationalism everywhere!
Lexit — an exit from the EU shaped by the left, to the benefit of workers — was advocated last year by influential forces on the left, such as the Morning Star and the SWP. It was always an illusion. It is obvious now that it was an illusion. No-one on the left now really argues that pressure on the Tories can shape Brexit to be positively advantageous to workers. The only way Brexit damage can be minimised is by minimising Brexit, by keeping the borders between Britain and the EU low.
The Labour leadership has wavered and wriggled on Brexit. In the June 2016 referendum Jeremy Corbyn rightly argued for “Remain”, and rightly insisted that Labour should campaign independently from pro-”Remain” Tories. However, he then said that the referendum result must be accepted as the last word. Until November 2016 he continued to defend free movement across European borders, and said that Labour would vote against Article 50 unless the Tories committed to staying in the Single Market. Then he bowed to Labour’s right wing.
When Theresa May brought Article 50 to parliament in February, making clear that she wanted a “hard Brexit” taking Britain out of the Single Market and (for most purposes) the broader Customs Union, and refused accountability to parliament on the negotiations that would ensue, Labour imposed a three-line whip on MPs to vote with the Tories. 47 of Labour’s MPs defied the whip and voted against.
After the Article 50 trigger vote in Parliament, the headlines could have read that Labour opposed Brexit, a Brexit in which the Tories’ policies and approach will dominate. Instead, Labour’s amendments were a damp squib that will scarcely be noticed by most voters, including Labour supporters.
Labour Party membership, which soared with Jeremy Corbyn’s two leadership victories, has now dropped from about 543,000 to about 483,000, while Lib-Dem membership has doubled (to about 80,000). Shadow EU-exit minister Keir Starmer now says that Labour will refuse to back an exit deal unless it meets six tests. Trouble is, Labour has already voted to authorise the Tories to negotiate without provision for checks or vetoes by parliament, and on the final deal to offer only an “our way or no way” vote, either the Tories’ formula or a crash exit with no deal.
When the SNP put an amendment calling off Brexit if parliament fails to approve the exit deal, Labour MPs were whipped to oppose it. (19 Labour MPs defied the whip and voted for the amendment). The six tests are: 1. Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU? 2. Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union? 3. Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities? 4. Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom? 5. Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime? 6. Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK? The tests say nothing about the “management of migration” being fair to migrants and their families.
On a “Question Time” TV special on 27 March, Starmer claimed that Labour had won some “boring and process-y” concessions from the Government during debate on the Withdrawal bill. Unfortunately, nothing boring and process-y is going to stop Brexit or the worst effects of Brexit.
There have been a number of large demonstrations opposing Brexit since the referendum vote. The recent Unite for Europe march on 25 March drew tens of thousands. Labour has not been involved in organising these, or intervened into them in any concerted way. The Lib Dems have an undeserved prominence among those campaigning around Brexit. Labour should give a bold lead against re-raising borders.
Since the referendum, the stock market has fared relatively well, and some Brexiters argue that this proves that re-raised borders are no problem economically. However, the pound has weakened by 15% relative to the dollar and 12% to the euro. This makes imports more expensive, and is one of the factors leading to increasing prices in the shops. Most economists reckon that Brexit will damage economic growth, and an ultra-hard Brexit even more so.
Who voted leave?
In the referendum on 23 June 2016, 51.9% of voters voted to leave the EU; national turnout was 72%.
There were significant differences between the UK’s constituent parts. Opposition to Brexit in Scotland has given the Scottish National Party a lever to seek a new independence referendum. The
prospect of a new “hard” border with the Republic of Ireland complicates the political situation in Northern Ireland.
Remain Leave %
England: 46.7 53.3
N. Ireland: 55.8 44.2
Scotland: 62.0 38.0
Wales: 47.5 52.5
London: 59.9 40.1
Age difference: younger people, those whose future will most be shaped by Brexit, opposed it.
Remain Leave %
18-24: 75 25
25-49: 56 44
50-64: 44 56
65+: 39 61
Most Labour voters backed remain: the pro-leave minority among Labour voters was not much higher than among SNP or Lib-Dem voters
Remain Leave %
Conservative: 42 58
Labour: 63 37
Lib Dems: 70 30
UKIP: 4 96
Green: 75 25
SNP: 64 36
Source: Lord Ashcroft Polls