Yes, Brexit does have to come first

A black-and-white picture of a checkpoint on the main Belfast-Dublin road some time during the Troubles. Cars and trucks are queueing, there is a raised barrier and soldiers or police are standing at a driver's window apparently inspecting a document. There are concrete blocks at regular intervals on both sides of the road. A distance sign gives the road number A1 and distances to Dundalk and Dublin.The past few weeks, I have noticed that there are two bitterly opposed camps when it comes to the importance of Brexit or other issues, particularly as regards the Labour party. One side seeks a second referendum and attacks the Labour leadership viciously for not pushing for it (and the interview with Jeremy Corbyn in the Guardian over the weekend very much helps to entrench their position); another says that a second referendum or reversing Brexit will not reverse Tory austerity and what we really need is a general election and a Labour government. The latter often tend to be not only Labour members but Corbyn devotees who will often hear no wrong about their leader. Declarations of having left the Labour party or being unable to vote Labour have been legion; in England the leavers often refuse to say who they intend to vote for but often imply that they would be worse than the Tories (such issues as anti-Semitism and transgender rights also influence such decisions), while in Scotland they are often in favour of the Scottish National Party and another independence referendum (or “indyref2” as they often call it, and annoyingly not just in Twitter hashtags).

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Corbyn refused to throw his weight behind the campaign to secure a second referendum or to reject Brexit; he claimed that if his party won a snap general election in the new year (which is unlikely to happen before the cut-off date of 29th March), he would continue his policy of pursuing a “better deal” by negotiation with the EU’s leaders, which they have already made clear is not on the table when Theresa May tried the same this month:

But asked if he could imagine a referendum emerging as a solution if it becomes clear that parliament is deadlocked – as the work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, mooted this week – he said: “I think we should vote down this deal; we should then go back to the EU with a discussion about a customs union.”

As to what stance Labour would take if a referendum were held, Corbyn said, “it would be a matter for the party to decide what the policy would be; but my proposal at this moment is that we go forward, trying to get a customs union with the EU, in which we would be able to be proper trading partners.”

My issue with this is that Labour needs to secure the support of Remainers to stand any chance of winning any general election because polls show that the areas where Leave support has hardened are in Tory-voting areas, not Labour heartlands. Labour has never won elections simply by clinging to old industrial heartlands, anyway; it needs to secure large parts of the suburban and student vote and will not do this if they are offering the most reactionary Tory policies leavened with a bit of Marxist rhetoric. By adopting a “respect the referendum” position at a time when Britain is heading for a cliff-edge Brexit with only a deal that nobody accepts on the table, Corbyn will lose the election because of apathy and vote-splitting: the progressive vote being split with the Lib Dems and Greens in areas Labour could win if the vote were united. The same was true in many Lib Dem seats in 2015 — long-term Lib Dem voters voted Green or Labour — and most of those have not been recovered. The upshot would be another four to five years of hard-right Tory government and international isolation; the NHS would, as has been widely reported, not be able to import commonly-used drugs without considerably expense, though as with previous economic depressions, the very well-off would not be badly affected. The rest of us would be.

Left-wing Labour activists have been reporting that they are having difficulties persuading regular campaigners to commit to them in the event of a general election in which the leadership supports Brexit. Clive Lewis, a Corbyn supporter and MP for a Norwich constituency, has said that a “solid comrade” had said this and “she’s not the first … and it’s becoming a genuine concern”. To this, former Labour and Respect MP George Galloway tweeted that Lewis was a “slippery two-faced intruiging [sic] scheming plotting coup-enabling deeply deeply untrustworthy shit”, a vulgar but typical example of the Labour left and hard left shooting the messenger rather than accepting bad news. A Labour MP for east Brighton (the bit not represented by the sole Green MP, Caroline Lewis, but also with a strong student vote) has said that his constituency would be lost if they supported Brexit.

Of course, I accept the need to get rid of the Tories but the Corbyn diehards need to understand that their position is not that of the Labour membership and will not help. Most young people who voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership because they saw him as a progressive figure who will fight for real social change will not be impressed by him if he is weak on Brexit. Most people who voted for Brexit will take fright if told that they will not be able to go on holiday in Europe without queueing for a visa. Most people who voted for Brexit for “sovereignty” will not be so keen if it means their job, or that of many of their friends, being lost because companies choose not to do business here, or close factories to move to Poland. Most people know, or have known, at least one type 1 diabetic who will not be able to get insulin if supplies from Europe are cut; the NHS will, at the very least, cease to be anything like the world-class institution it is, when it comes to treating common physical illnesses, now.

Of course we want to see an end to and a reversal of Tory austerity cuts but sleepwalking off the Brexit cliff will not allow us to do any of that. The most ‘socialist’ result of this would be a World War II-style austerity in which everyone is temporarily equalised in poverty, but the most likely result is that it would be entrenched for generations. There are three months to stop the most disastrous decision in British politics for decades and a Labour party not committed to stopping that will not be in a position to do so, as it will not be in power even if there is an election. Labour activists must not listen to people who are so devoted to Corbyn that they will follow him in what is right and what is wrong. They must save their party, and their country. Right now, this must come first.

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