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Brexit: Theresa May’s End Game!

Editorial Left Horizons

Theresa May’s period in office as Prime Minister has been the longest car crash in British political history. The accident-prone saga of her leadership of both the Tory Party and the government seems now to be approaching a denouement. As it has been with every Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher, May has been undermined by the anti-European, xenophobic and Union-Jack-waving sections of her own party, one wing of which has now effectively morphed into UKIP (UK Independence Party), while UKIP itself has morphed into the EDL (English Defence League).

Although she has won her vote of confidence among Tory MPs – by an uncomfortably low majority, heavily dependent on the ‘payroll vote’ – in the words of former Tory Chancellor George Osborne, she is “dead woman walking.” Or, as another Tory put it, sarcastically changing a phrase used by Thatcher, “We limp on. We limp on to win.”

It is not an accident that the political representatives of British capitalism are the most ineffective and effete for generations, unable or unwilling to work in what is even in the best interests of its own class. As we see with Macron in France and the man-child in the White House, it is becoming a generalised feature of world politics that the crisis in capitalism is reflected in a crisis in its political leadership.

The entire logic of the Brexit saga has pushed Theresa May into a position where she cannot possibly appease both wings of her own party. The argument is not fundamentally about the so-called Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ agreement. It is about the fact that the UK is thereby placed in a ‘temporary’ EU/UK customs union. In other words, it is about the  nature of the UK’s eventual relationship with the European Union.

As we wrote in an editorial in July, after the so-called ‘Chequers’ plan that was unfurled and hastily amended: “It is still the most likely outcome that the May government will manoeuvre in negotiations with the EU towards a close alignment with the EU customs union and single market because that is the only way to avoid the kind of chaos against which the Financial Times is warning…The problem for the Tories is that this will inevitably lead, come the autumn and the re-convening of Parliament, in more splits than ever before”.

Theresa May Running Down the Clock

By postponing the vote on her deal in Parliament last Monday, it looks as if Theresa May is intent on playing a game of ‘chicken’ with the EU and with MPs. By pushing the vote back to the end of January – effectively only eight weeks before the Brexit date – it looks like she is aiming to put pressure on Tory MPs (and not a few Labour MPs) to support her deal. The argument will go along the lines that “it is either my deal or the economic chaos of a cliff-edge Brexit”.

Following the challenge to her leadership, that strategy still applies, although the postponement still does not guarantee the deal a parliamentary majority. Indeed, unless there is a big defection from Labour’s ranks, the size of the Tory vote against May – 117 MPs – gives an indication of the scale of the mountain May has to climb to get it past the House of Commons. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group will be more than happy to see the government run down the clock so that increases the likelihood of British capitalism crashing out of the EU without a deal.

No Tory Brexit!

Left Horizons has argued throughout this sorry period that the aim of the Tory Brexiteers is to fundamentally undermine the wages, conditions and living standards of the working class. They want a bigger version of the Singapore economy, off the coast but accessible to Europe, and based on low business-taxes, low-wages and low-skills. A part of the much-vaunted push for non-EU trade deals, especially with the USA, is the abolition of all EU regulations on food standards and the environment. Liam Fox and Boris Johnson will happily let the hoi polloi eat ‘cheaper’ chlorinated chicken from the USA, and beef pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones. They will not partake of such food themselves, of course.

The main thrust of the Brexit campaign in 2016 was against immigration and refugees and a Tory Brexit migration policy would be strictly based on what is in the interests of business. EU workers already settled in Britain will find their security and peace of mind rudely shattered. It is not surprising that for the first time in years there is now a net movement of EU citizens out of the UK, where they no longer feel welcome; they understand that post-Brexit, for them the UK will indeed be a “hostile environment”. It is for these reasons that we have said No to a Tory Brexit! We can have no confidence in any political process fostered by one wing of the Tory Party, and the most rabidly nationalist wing at that.

We understand that the EU is a customs union and a single market of capitalist states. Its laws and regulations are fundamentally tilted against all public enterprises and public services in the interests of profit. Greek workers have had their hopes as well as their living standards crushed by the IMF and the European Central Bank. They know better than most that the structures of the EU have a merciless and a relentless disregard of the interests and needs of workers. In the last four weeks we have seen the French workers take to the streets in their hundreds of thousands. EU membership has no answer to their needs.

Tory Brexiteers are Peddling an Illusion

In 2016 there were many genuine lefts in the labour and trade union movement who voted Brexit for the right reasons. Trade union members in the rail industry, to take one example, were quite rightly alarmed at the possibility of any restrictions being imposed on public ownership or public works as a result of EU competition rules. But the privatisation of rail was not done by the EU: it was the John Major Tory government.

If the EU single market, the most integrated capitalist market in the world, cannot provide answers to the problems of austerity and cannot satisfy the needs of the majority of its population, then the answer is not to break this integrated capitalist market into 28 separate, fragmented capitalist markets. That idea is a reactionary utopia.

Socialists always stand and fight where they are. Our main enemy has always been the capitalist class at home, whether British capitalism is a part of the EU or not. Left Horizons refuses to foster the illusion that leaving the EU will somehow take us one step closer to socialism or make the fight for socialism one bit easier.

Tory Brexiteers are peddling an illusion – worse, they have in mind a conscious aim to undermine jobs, conditions, food and environmental standards. Socialists have a responsibility to fight against the xenophobia and economic strategies of this reactionary wing of the Tory party. We must tell workers the truth and we cannot support an economic illusion, moreover one that provides an opportunity to scapegoat migrants, when socialists should support the free movement of labour.

The question of a second referendum – a so-called “people’s vote” – is now assuming more importance as a way out of the impasse the Tories now find themselves in. The supporters of such a referendum started off as a handful of middle-class activists but they have now drawn in a growing number of Tory MPs, right-wing Labour MPs, business and trade union leaders. Even the august Financial Times has supported a new referendum as a ‘second best’ in the event that Theresa May’s deal is rejected by the House of Commons.

Left Horizons is opposed to political alliances like the “People’s Vote” campaign which blur over the fundamental differences of economic interests between the rich and powerful on the one side and the working class on the other. Those in favour of a “people’s vote” assume that a second referendum will reverse the first, although that is not a foregone conclusion. Worse, they are promoting a mirror-image of the same illusion peddled by the Brexiteers – that all the ills of society would somehow disappear “if only” the spectre of Brexit were to be exorcised.

That idea is false to the core because in a very real sense, the whole Brexit issue is a side-show. The most important issues facing the big majority of the country have been the squeeze on their living standards and the state of collapse of the public services upon which they depend. The old, the sick, the poorest and the disabled have suffered appallingly from Tory austerity in the last eight years – a policy that has been, in the words of Labour’s John McDonnell a “political choice and not an economic necessity”. Although the Tories boast a record number of people in employment, millions of today’s jobs are precarious, low-paid, low-skill dead-end jobs. Not surprisingly, millions, of younger people especially, feel utterly cut off from the possibility of being able to afford a decent home and a future for themselves and their families.

The Real News of 2018 was not Brexit

Lost in the chaos of Brexit in the last month, the real news of last month was not Theresa May’s ‘deal’, but the statement by the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in the UK. We quote here some extracts from this report:

“14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. The widely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a 7% rise in child poverty between 2015 and 2022, and various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40%. For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one…
…through it all, one actor has stubbornly resisted seeing the situation for what it is. The Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial… but it is the mentality that has informed many of the reforms that has brought the most misery and wrought the most harm to the fabric of British society. British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach”

These are real issues and the ones on which the labour movement must focus. Labour is absolutely right, therefore, to demand a general election. This would be a real referendum on poverty, on low pay, on the strangulation of the NHS, on public services, on the housing crisis and on other issues.

An election campaign would have to be fought on policies in the interests of working-class people: the cancellation of austerity, the restoration of cuts made in services and the NHS, the renationalisation of the railways, Royal Mail and public utilities plundered by private companies, and so on. But Labour must go further and campaign also for the public ownership of banks, land and the big monopolies that dominate the country and leech off the contracts of public contracts.

It would only be by mobilising mass support for a democratic socialist plan of production, using all the resources, wealth and skills of the country, that Labour could really offer a decent life and living standards ‘For the Many not the Few’. If such a Labour government was swept to power and was determined to carry out socialist policies and if it was then obstructed by the EU, then that would be a fight worth having. That would be a ‘Brexit’ worth fighting for.

But in the present political and economic crisis, it is not enough for the Labour Party to restrict itself to demanding an election in the august chamber of the House of Commons. The Tories might be in disarray, but they will not easily agree to a general election in which one of them would lose their seats.

Labour must take a leaf out of the book of the gilets jaunes protest movements in France. Labour must set in train a series of demonstrations – not only in London, but in every major city – to demand a general election and the end of this hated government. There has never been a better time in recent years than there is at present, to demand an end to the rotten, corrupt and out-of-touch Tory system we have and to demand a fundamental change of society in the interests of the huge majority of the population.