The Chairs of Labour Students and Young Labour, respectively Melantha Chittenden and Miriam Mirwitch, have issued a letter calling for a vote on Brexit policy at the 2018 Labour Party conference.
The response from the Momentum-sponsored left majority on the Young Labour National Committee has been uproar, and an angry statement in response.
Yet Brexit is overwhelmingly unpopular among Labour Party members, and among young people in the UK. Further, according to the National Centre for Social Research, opinion polls have shown that “remain in the EU” has enjoyed a steady lead over “leave the EU” for about a year.
Young people voted overwhelmingly against Brexit, with a 64% turn-out and 70% Remain vote amongst 18-24 year-olds. Polling of Labour Party members finds that over two-thirds are still opposed to Brexit.
And people are right to be sceptical of Brexit. The Leave campaign was fuelled by, and in turn fed, a campaign of corrosive xenophobia and reaction. The referendum was immediately followed by a surge in hate crimes against not only East European migrants but also disabled and LGBT people and people from ethnic minorities.
Undoubtedly the government’s “hostile environment” policy, including the harassment and deportation of non-European migrants of the Windrush generation, is being boosted by Brexit’s carnival of hate. The Tories have promised that Brexit will entail a “bonfire of the regulations”, giving capitalist free rein to exploit, discriminate, sack, pollute, and kill and maim as they please.
So it seems logical that the Labour Party should at least have a discussion about Brexit at its annual conference. And that Young Labour should have a particular interest in driving that discussion. No?
True, Chittenden, Mirwitch, and the LabourSay.EU campaign that they endorse in the letter are from the party’s right, backed by Labour First and Progress, factions which are no consistent friends of migrants. The last time Chittenden and Mirwitch’s factional allies held state power, they used it to pursue a demagogically anti-migrant agenda, “triangulating” towards the racist views that paved the way for the 2016 Leave vote.
But the opposition to their call from the Young Labour committee majority is wrong and dishonest.
They say: “Young Labour’s national committee wishes to reaffirm its strong opposition to a second referendum on British membership of the European Union.” This is not a response to someone calling for a discussion and vote on the matter at party conference.
They go on: “[a]s socialists and democrats, we respect the result of the 2016 referendum. We do not believe that it is the job of Young Labour to ignore and condescend Leave voters and believe that to do so would damage the credibility of the Labour Party in the eyes of the British people”. The writers seem to think that democracy is served by a single referendum vote followed by a ban on reconsideration, amendment, or the opportunity for the minority to convince the majority.
They’re wrong: and this “plebiscitary” vision of democracy owes a lot to both Blairism and the top-down model of organising embraced by the Momentum head office since 2016. Socialists need a fuller vision of democracy.
Moreover, it is the authors of the response who are condescending to Leave voters: by implying that they are all incapable of changing their minds, of being persuaded. And perhaps it is the role of a left-led Labour Party and a socialist youth movement to change people’s minds, to undermine right-wing politics instead of triangulating towards it?
The letter expresses a familiar Blairite theme: smother dissent and discussion in the party in the name of supporting the leadership at all costs. But that’s a disastrous course, and it will undermine, not improve, the prospects of Labour and the socialist left.
The next line in the letter lays the politics of the matter bare: “we fight for a Labour government that can deliver a departure from the European Union which guarantees the greatest benefit for the working class movement and provides the most advantageous way to implement a full socialist programme”.
In fact the authors of this letter seem to have signed up to a “Lexit” fantasy: the idea that, instead of being driven by, and driving, a rising tide of bigotry, Brexit can somehow benefit the very workers’ movement that it will divide through anti-migrant repression.
But most young people, indeed, most left-wing young people, do not share this cranky, marginal political fantasy. They see very well the damage that Brexit politics and attacks on migrants will do.
The challenge for the socialist left is to give a political leadership to the movement of young people dissatisfied with Brexit.
We have to displace the Blairites and Liberal Democrats and build an internationalist movement that raises the voice of the working class and migrants, not big business.