Labour’s strategy of constructive ambiguity over Brexit isn’t working. Our overwhelmingly pro-Remain voters and supporters are demanding clarity. To seize the initiative in the face of activist demoralisation and voter disenchantment, Labour must link unequivocal opposition to Brexit with a socialist programme and lead a new international coalition of resistance to root out the far right. This is the bold vision anti-Brexit activists from Labour for a Socialist Europe, Another Europe is Possible and Open Labour are campaigning for ahead of September’s party conference, where members will set the party’s direction for the upcoming year.
Labour leaflets in the recent European elections implored people to “vote Labour to stop Farage”. Some strategists clearly hoped this message would be enough to stir enthusiasm while skirting the Brexit issue, but this is a delusion. It is impossible to separate Brexit from the rising tide of right-wing reaction across Europe and the world. Brexit is just one example of the increasingly organised efforts of chauvinist extremists to exploit and mislead the communities that have suffered the most obvious consequences of a decade-long economic and social crisis.
Anger at the devastating effects of austerity and de-industrialisation is justified, but lasting solutions must be found through political leadership aimed at tackling the root causes of economic injustice, not capitulation to nationalist narratives. Any Brexit, even the soft version advocated by Labour, will open the floodgates of deregulation and privatisation as post-Brexit Britain scrambles to compete on the international market. It will bring down the full force of the British immigration and detention system on millions of EU citizens and leave huge gaps in the labour force of essential services. Far from allowing the country to move on from a period of heightened social division, Brexit will mean job losses, deepening inequality, and will surely be followed by US trade deals enshrining increased insecurity.
Instead of seeing Brexit as a distraction from its popular domestic programme, Labour should frame international co-ordination as essential to delivering and expanding the lasting change it has promised. To tackle climate change, create a stable economy with secure jobs and greater protections for workers, expand public investment and ownership, and end anti-immigrant scapegoating, we will need far more democracy and international cooperation, not less.
To be sure, Europe’s anti-democratic financial institutions will present barriers to radical economic transformation, but so will the conservative establishment in the UK, which has so effectively administered austerity and stoked racism in recent years. Staying in Europe means better conditions for organising across borders with socialists who are waging the same struggles, because they are oppressed by the same international system of capitalist exploitation. We cannot hope to defeat it without them.
Until Labour comes out with a socialist alternative to the liberal consensus around Remain, the Corbyn project will continue to weaken. The dynamism of Corbynism has always come from ordinary Labour members fighting for a democratic, accountable party to defend their interests. The Corbyn surge remapped Britain’s political terrain not through a strategic calculation designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but because of mass support for its promised “straight-talking, honest politics” and bold proposals to rebalance society away from the rich and leave austerity behind.
Now, witnessing the party’s continued ambiguity and evasion, many of the members who resolutely defended Corbyn as leader in the face of an establishment onslaught are asking themselves whether the values of straight-talking honest politics only apply if you agree with the leader. Going into a general election with the current policy on Brexit would be disastrous. By bringing its policy back into line with the democratic will of its members, and anchoring its support for Remain in a programme of cross-border resistance, Labour can clearly differentiate itself from the pro-business globalism of the Lib Dems and the utopian optimism of the Greens to win back disillusioned supporters.
With a vision aimed at defending the interests of all workers, British or not, Labour can win here and lead a Europe-wide offensive against capitalist exploitation. Co-ordinating this cross-border coalition will require conferences and organising events attracting activists with shared goals from across Europe. Labour can be the force to convene such events on a mass scale, to begin the fight for a democratic, socialist Europe.
This year’s conference can be the opportunity Labour needs to re-energise the Corbyn project and put the party back on the front foot, by recognising that the only way to fight back against an international system is to wage an international struggle. Stopping Brexit is just the first step.