Opinion polling on 10-11 October showed 64% saying that the Tory government is doing “badly” in negotiating Brexit, and only 21% saying it is doing “well”. 47% said that, with hindsight, they thought the vote for Brexit in June 2016 was wrong, 40% that it was right.
Only a small minority say that Brexit will make Britain better off economically — only 23% overall, and only 12% of Labour voters. 44% think Brexit will make Britain worse off. 39% expect Brexit to be bad for jobs, 22% bad. 31% expect Britain to be bad for the NHS, 25% bad. Among Labour voters, 51% expect “bad for the NHS”, 17% good.
Meanwhile the Tories’ talks with the EU are going badly. On Thursday 19th and Friday 20th ministers, and then chiefs, from the 27 other EU states will hear a report from Brexit negotiations after five rounds of talks. The EU 27 are insisting that the UK must promise a clear list of closing-the-account payments before they will even start discussing a new deal on trade. That new deal itself will be difficult. Canada’s trade deal with the EU, with much less baggage to impede it, took eight years to negotiate and ratify, and nearly collapsed.
There is no sign of progress towards the trade deals with other countries which the Brexiters airily promised back in 2016. With right-wing nationalists like Trump gaining ground in many countries, the terrain is more difficult for such deals. All that should be a signal for the left and the labour movement to start a drive to stop Brexit.
We should oppose and harry the Tories at every point. We should demand — as some pro-EU Tories are already demanding — that any exit deal must be voted on by Parliament. Not just in the my-way-or-the-highway alternative the Tories are offering — their deal or a crash exit with no deal at all. And not just by Parliament.
The June 2016 referendum had the defects of all referenda — a poor form of democracy. It was biased because 16-17 year olds and EU citizens resident in Britain were denied votes. It was run in a way which artificially limited the mass media debate to a Tory-vs-Tory contest. And on top of all that, it was a one-off vote about a very vaguely-sketched alternative.
Democracy means stopping elites like the Tories grabbing full power to make and shape things to their own liking from such vague mandates. The populace must retain its say. Minorities must retain a chance to become majorities. Given we’ve already had the first referendum, probably the only way to stop the Tories trashing people’s rights is a second referendum.
“A Labour MP”, quoted by the Financial Times on 17 October, said: “the public would need another vote on whether to go ahead, given that the Leave camp had offered a more positive manifesto [than any possible exit deal] in June 2016... It would be a ‘final say’ now that we know the facts. The people would want to have the final say over all of this”. That MP also told the FT: “this would not be a ‘second referendum’, despite all appearances to the contrary”. Huh? It would be second, and it would be a referendum, wouldn’t it?
In any case, the MP is right. We didn’t want the first referendum, but now it’s happened we must demand a “final say” for the populace. The alternative is to let the Tories have their way unchecked, to let them cancel the rights of EU citizens and of British citizens to be able to work and study in the EU, to let them make difficult-to-reverse decisions, all on the authority of an old referendum and the Parliamentary majority of a moment. Our basic guideline should be working-class solidarity and social levelling-up across borders. Immediately, we should also be backing French workers in their battle against the very pro-EU but anti-worker Macron government.
Also, however, we cannot let the immediate issue of the re-raising of economic and social barriers, and the suppression of rights to free movement, wait on the general and longer-term issue of reorienting the labour movement towards a workers’ Europe. “Stop Brexit” and “Second referendum on any exit deal” should be immediate slogans, alongside “Freedom of movement”.
On 12 October, Jeremy Corbyn said that he would vote Remain in a second referendum, but in these terms: “There isn’t going to be another referendum, so it’s a hypothetical question but yes, I voted remain because I thought the best option was to remain. I haven’t changed my mind on that”.
Last week I met by chance, on a bus, a member of Corbyn’s inner circle, someone I’ve known for decades. I can’t quote him by name, because it was a conversation on a bus, not an on-the-record interview. But those who have followed Labour statements on Brexit will recognise his responses as only a snappier and more candid rendering of the official line.
What should Labour do about Brexit? Response: oppose the Tories, criticise the Tories at every step, wait and see, and avoid further commitment. What if the Tory government falls before it can complete a deal? Won’t Labour then have to say something definite? Response: long silence. Then: “That would be very difficult”. The Corbynista insider was sure of one thing: Labour cannot, must not, come out for stopping Brexit. Labour must equivocate in order to keep both its pro-Brexit and its anti-Brexit supporters on board.
This craven, manipulative approach to politics is incompatible with socialism, and unlikely to work in the long or even medium term. Tens of thousands joined a “Stop Brexit” march at the Tory party conference on 1 October in Manchester — some of them chiming in with pro-EU Tories like Stephen Dorrell, some of them going on to join the anti-austerity march the same day.
So far there’s still a majority for the resigned view: Brexit will be not very good, or positively bad, but now we just have to go through with it. That majority is beginning to break up. Probably it will wane and wax in the next months and years as the talks between the Tories and EU go worse or better. A determined drive by the left and the labour movement can and should turn the majority into a minority, and stop Brexit.