Is a People’s Brexit possible?

How do we respond to the right wing chorus over Brexit and the threat of Farage to organise a 100,000 strong march? Should we line up with the pro-EU centre of British  politics that would like to overturn the referendum result? Seb Cooke argues here that we can only undermine Theresa May’s ‘Brexit for the rich’ by creating a movement for a  ‘People’s Brexit’ that places pro-migrant anti-racist anti-austerity politics at its very centre.

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A People’s Brexit would need to put anti-racist politics at its centre. Photo: Steve Eason

 

The racist right is trying to radicalise. One of its key figures, the millionaire Leave funder Aaron Banks, gave an interview last week in which he criticised each of the UKIP candidates for trying to move to the centre. Banks was unsure about the viability of UKIP if it headed in this direction and clearly felt that instead of trying to gain broad appeal, the party needed to radicalise in the wake of the referendum result. This week we have seen just what that looks like, with Banks and Nigel Farage announcing a demonstration outside the Supreme Court when it rules on whether or not parliament should trigger Article 50. This new strategic direction by the hard right is one we should take seriously and consider carefully how we might combat it.

One response that was on offer over the weekend but which was totally inadequate came from the pro-EU centre of British politics. They were reacting to the right wing press’ attacks over the high court decision that parliament should trigger Article 50.

First of all, we should be completely opposed to the hysterical and homophobic reaction from the likes of the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Express towards the three high court judges involved. However, it’s doubtful whether or not this represented some kind of qualitative shift from those papers’ regular gutter attacks on, for example, Muslims. Also, the reactionary offensive against Corbyn (which was been supported by the likes of the pro-EU Guardian) is arguably more of a threat to our democracy than the headlines that appeared on Friday morning. Regardless of the finer points though is how we actually deal with this serious threat from the racist right.

Several figures from the centre of British politics have tried to deal with it by being outraged mainly at the treatment of the judges and little else. They complain in a fairly abstract way that our wonderful democracy is under grave threat. In doing so they forget that this wonderful democracy is failing so many people in Britain today and as a result isn’t cherished in the way they imagine. By making this their main point of contention with the right, they leave themselves open to being attacked as part of an establishment that is seeking to overturn the result. Of course, we have to oppose the right wing attacks that we’ve witnessed, but we need to do so with a focus on the politics around Brexit, instead of being pinned against a wall and forced to defend the very highest sections of the British state’s judiciary.

The dangers of not doing this were highlighted by Keir Starmer’s appearance on the Today Show last Monday morning (1 November). The shadow Brexit minister talked about everything but what’s at stake with a Tory Brexit, getting stuck instead on sticking up for the apparently divine process of UK democracy. In the end, he was unable to give a coherent response on how Labour would oppose the Tories over Brexit. He seemed far more concerned with standing up for the legal system than he did in standing up for ordinary people against the government. This position is of no use in combating the right.

Our response to the likes of Nigel Farage, Aaron Banks, the Daily Mail and The Sun has to be much better. Instead of rushing to the defence of sections of the establishment that find themselves under siege, we should be hounding the racist right over the kind of Brexit they want. Revolutionary socialists should be the ones saying that the reason the hard right oppose the high court decision is that they want a Tory Brexit of less workers’ rights, more attacks on migrants and further deregulation and privatisation. It is by fighting on this terrain that we can win the argument and weaken the far right’s ability to build broad support for their reactionary agenda. We also need to pull away their potential support by demanding a different type of exit from the EU and reject moves by those who want to overturn the result by demanding a second referendum.

There are signs that The People’s Assembly Against Austerity will look to organise an event around the theme of a ‘People’s Brexit’. This could be a very good initiative and hopefully can be mirrored where I am in Wales and elsewhere. As well as focussing on the big political question thrown up by the referendum, the events can also focus on concrete issues such as housing, the NHS and anti-racism.

It is the demand for a ‘People’s Brexit’ that must be raised in response to the Leave.eu demo and those who are behind it. Farage has said that he hopes to mobilise 100,000 people for his march. We should take that claim seriously, but not so seriously that we treat it as a forgone conclusion. The far right have had trouble mobilising in Britain recently, so let’s not lift them to a position that’s totally out of step with reality. If Farage gets much less than 100,000 it will be a total embarrassment, seeing as he has set out his stall on that figure. With that in mind, we should be thinking about how we can delegitimise the demo and reduce the turnout as well as how we respond on the day. His audience is clearly the Leave vote, and with those kind of numbers in mind (and to build the kind of movement he wants), he isn’t thinking about the Leave voters form the Tory shires: he’s targeting the working class section of the Leave vote who feel massively failed by our political system. This has to inform our response.

There is a temptation to have a broad, anti-racist demo and campaign with whoever is opposed to Farage. This by its very nature could include several figures from the pro-EU centre. To be so broad, this movement would at best be non-committal about the idea of Britain leaving the EU and at worst have several elements seeking to overturn the vote. If we were dealing with a march that was called against a Mosque for example then this kind of very broad response would probably be called for. But while Farage’s march will be racist, it has been called over Brexit and that is an important distinction we should make.

An approach that runs the risk of linking up with Lib Dems out of mutual disgust with Nigel Farage would be a mistake. I can’t think anything more beneficial to the racist right than if the left were to link up with the joint architects of austerity. We may as well open the door and allow the disenfranchised to walk straight into the reactionary arms of Aaron Banks.

Politics and ideology have been thrown into a state of flux since the referendum. We need to respond with a pro-worker, anti-austerity, anti-racist message that forms around the idea of a People’s Brexit. This has to be contrasted with the Tory Brexit that Aaron Banks want to see. We need to do everything we can now to say that Bank’s march is a march in support of Theresa May’s Brexit, a Brexit for the rich. Our vision is much different.

In developing this programme, we need to build the broadest possible support right up to the Labour leadership (who have been shown to be vulnerable to pressure from the right but who are key allies).

A lot of people who supported Remain are not in favour of overturning the result, and will be open to working on the basis of a left wing exit from the EU even if they remain pro-EU. There will be those however who can’t support a People’s Brexit platform because they simply don’t want any Brexit ever. While I sincerely hope those people would join in with such a campaign (and we should constantly be having friendly arguments for them to do so), we can’t allow ourselves to be compromised by a position that seeks to overturn the result. It would be a big mistake to fudge the question of whether or not Britain should leave the EU under the guise of unity. To do so would be to seriously weaken our ability to fight against the right and pull away their support.

No to a Brexit for the rich! No to a Europe for the bosses! For a Brexit and a Europe for the people!

There are 15 comments

  1. Charlie Hore

    Some good stuff here, but the conclusion is I think the wrong way round. The key principle here is anti-racism, not support for Brexit. This matters because we can’t be for Brexit in principle, regardless of the circumstances under which it happens. If the terms of Brexit are ones that infringe on the rights of EU migrants already here, or impose restrictions on free movement, then anti-racists should oppose it.

  2. Nick

    There are two different questions here. (1) How do we respond to Farage’s plans for a march? (2) Is a ‘People’s Brexit’ possible?

    (1) Farage’s march.

    There are two reasons why people are scared by the prospect of the hard right flexing their muscles like this.

    One is that the march will be organised on the basis of racism.

    The other is the way it hopes to bully critics of its political programme, of any shade, into line. At the moment, it is by trying to invest maximum powers in May and the Terrible Three. But it will also be trying to hold May to her poujadist pose, and push her further. I thought James Butler put it well:

    “A commonplace of left-wing criticism of liberal democracy is that its formal equalities are accompanied by systemic inequalities which bias and warp its institutions; liberalism poorly conceals a horror and disdain for actual democratic practice. Certainly, some people are fantasising that this ruling will permit politicians to ignore the referendum entirely, citing Burkean cliché in their defence. This is the mirror image of the headline-writers’ anti-deliberative fantasy of a sovereign executive cutting through the tangle of Parliament or judicial check. Both fantasies are equally unlikely, both are founded in a contempt for democracy either as mass participation or deliberation, and both feed, from different sides, the resentment of a sizeable portion of the country who feel the whole thing’s a stitch-up.”
    http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2016/11/04/james-butler/warning-shots/

    So I agree it would be a mistake to make concessions to the anti-democratic instincts of many liberals, but I think it would still be possible to build a broad coalition against both the ‘fantasies’ described by James, without requiring people to sign up to a programme for a People’s Brexit.

    (2) Is a People’s Brexit possible?

    I hope so. But what are our red lines? If we argue that the result of 23 June must be respected, but also that no attacks on migrant rights should be tolerated, then how do we impose a solution that is not currently on offer?

    The terms of the mainstream debate (accepted by both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ sides, as they were by both remain and leave before the vote) are still:
    – how can tougher migration controls be imposed
    – how can British business be defended

    Corbyn has attempted to make this about
    – democratic control (but over what?)
    – maintaining worker protections (but for which workers? British citizens? current residents? all EU citizens? everybody?)
    but without taking on the argument for the right of people to live and work where they want to head on

    For a People’s Brexit to be possible, we would need
    – to win an argument within British society that the Brexit vote was not really about immigration after all. I know Lexit voters claim it wasn’t, but that’s an argument that has to be won, not with sceptics on the Left, but with a large section of the working class
    – to argue for a strategy that can be imposed not only on the British ruling class, but on EU elites through the process of the negotiations, which would presumably be quite hard if they are really as immune to democratic pressures as people have persuasively argued

    If that’s not possible, what would we settle for instead?

  3. Hanif Leylabi

    Agree with the thrust of this but two issues:

    1) ‘In developing this programme, we need to build the broadest possible support right up to the Labour leadership’ – I’m not sure this is particularly broad. The far left and a labour left coalition is actually fairly narrow. There are many in the centre of Labour, and even on the right, willing to speak out about racism and migration and we should absolutely aim to work with these people where we can. Stella Creasy and Yvette Cooper for example.

    2) Why would a rehash of other stalled campaigns work? We’ve had campaign after campaign with the far left at the centre that hasn’t really changed narratives or reached out into communities. There is a much broader question here about how we engage people. The thought of another series of another series of feel good rallies of the converted that don’t have any impact doesn’t excite. Certainly not claiming I do know the answers, but some of the work CitizensUK has done is quite interesting as is the weareundivided campaign.

  4. southamptonoldlady

    It’s simple – 1. Many like me want a Brexit, feel angry about the hindrance to article 50 and would be happy to go on the streets to say so, but not to London and not behind Nigel Farage. I am hoping to organise something in my own City that doesn’t cost lots of money – anyone else?
    2. Just because we voted for Brexit, doesn’t mean we hate immigrants. (It is easy to control people with the “Racist” word). The EU caused a big divide with the haves and have-nots in all EU countries and is not working and causing so-called third world countries to miss out. Britain has always celebrated its diversity and if you are here already – you are one of our adopted children and you are welcome. We are not stopping immigration, we just want to have control over our own borders, who we here and to be able trade with whom we choose throughout the world. We also want to have an input into our own Country, work or otherwise instead of food banks and meagre handouts to be spent on statues of MPs, who do not listen to us, in our squares.

  5. An Electronic Freedom Frontier Comrade

    A People’s Brexit is as feeble as the what the Lexit lot campaigned for. It concedes to the right that Brexit is something good; socialists just need to spray some red paint on it, and then it is good. The Brexit campaign during the referendum was one of lies. We knew that at the time, but it is more obvious now. I voted against Brexit because I had a sure idea that Brexit winning would bring us a carnival of reaction, as some have put it on the left. I did not vote to Remain because I thought the EU was rosy and Cameron or Corbyn walked on water. I fear the far-left has boxed itself into a corner. By calling for Lexit(which was a complete fantasy, and still is), they have effectively stifled any principled opposition to the Tories, because they half-agree in the first place with them. Brexit means Brexit means bollocks. The referendum was Cameron’s way of dealing with internal Tory divisions. It did not open up a space for the left. It opened up up a space for the hard-right. I said this months ago. The far-left have made a grave mistake in supporting Brexit. I doubt they will learn the lessons. Maybe the far-left do not have many comrades in workplaces. Where I work, anti-Eastern European bigotry is quite extensive; where my sister works, anti-Muslim racism is extensive. We both work in private industry.

  6. Hazel Croft

    I think the focus of this article is wrong. Its focus is solely on trying to win an anti-racist argument amongst those who support Brexit (‘for a Brexit’ it rallies at the end) rather than building the strongest voice against racism as the number one priority, including among the many workers, trade unionists etc. who voted remain. It frames the argument as one of ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’ (i.e. lib dems who supported remain) rather than one against racism. Who the hell are ‘the people’ – the people who wanted their country back, the people who want to keep out the immigrants? This is language of the people against the unaccountable elite of Brussels that Farage uses. Are the people not also migrants, people of colour who overwhelmingly voted remain and against the racism? I think to most the idea of a ‘people’s Brexit’ is indistinguishable from the rhetoric that Farage and his ilk come out with. I think it’s really wrongheaded

  7. Roderick C

    I agree with Hazel about the need for a broad anti-racist campaign being the priority – though I think a People’s Brexit campaign could have some value (if someone can find a better name for it). However, we need to think a bit more about what kind of anti-racist campaign. I think we need one with a hard anti-capitalist, anti-system edge to it, that confronts racism’s links to imperialism (including British imperialism), to capitalism and exploitation, and supports militant action by oppressed groups e.g. migrant workers. The thing I agreed with most about Seb’s article was the need to avoid a strategy based on allying ourselves with the pro-EU centre.

  8. Anita Bush

    To the original question, the answer in No. A Peoples Brexit, as others have stated, is a fantasy. Why do you keep pushing this stuff?

  9. Seb

    Thanks for these comments. As I said the other day, it was an error of me not to say this in the article: I do think we need a broad, militant anti racist and anti fascist movement against the likes of Farage that needs to fight for unity and not hinge around different positions on the referendum. We see the kind of militancy expressed over Trump and tht is clearly something we want to encourage over here. However, Brexit looms large over our political life. With this in mind, I don’t think any anti racist movement should be seen to be or actually trying to overturn the referendum result. This is clearly a danger in the current climate and I think would prevent us from building the kind of defence we need. So while support for Brexit should not be a condition of joining in with such a movement (in fact it couldn’t be because most of the people involved would be Remain supporters), it also cannot be seeking to overturn the result, which I think is something that a fairly narrow group of people see as being a viable strategy. This is why i’m worried that Another Europe is Possible have called the counter demo against Farage, because it in itsefl makes it about Leave vs Remain when it should be about Racist vs Anti racist.

    However, while we need a broad anti racist movement, we also need something else in response to what Leave.eu are doing, and that’s a movement which can argue for bold and radical left politics in the wake of the referendum that must be serious about leaving the EU under this banner, and which pitches itself against the racist right like Banks, the government of Theresa May and the pro EU centre like Blair, Osborne and Tim Farron. Unless we break from liberalism, the US election shows us we are doomed against the right. It is essential we do this.

    In terms of vote and why I think this position matters, here is a point I made the other day which i’d like to repeat here.

    “The Leave vote was full of contradictions, as was the Remain vote. I think it misses something out to say that only the conscious ‘Lexit’ part of the vote was in any way progressive, or that what happened to Greece was completely absent from people’s minds unless they were signed up members of the far left. It is surely possible to feel a sense of betrayal from politicians in the U.K and see what happened in Greece and make a connection between the two. I’ve had conversations with Leave voters in South Wales who’ve been angry at what happened to Greece, feel let down by the system at large and who think we should cut immigration. The vote was contradictory but in no means can we write it off as mainly right wing or reactionary bar a tiny group of socialists.

    It is over the question of immigration that we face the biggest task, but when i’ve had the argument with people, it’s often been that a lot of what is said about migrants is actually about housing, jobs or cuts in benefits. The right has of course had success in creating this situation, but we’d be wrong to say that it has been the clear beneficiary. In some places that voted Leave, the Tories will not stand a chance and neither will UKIP on current reckoning. I’m therefore not keen on giving up swathes of people to the right when there’s little evidence to prove that. This is why I also disagree that by and large Leave voters were ‘mobilised by the right’. It’s about as reductionist as me saying that almost every Remain voter was mobilised by neo-liberalism. People were mobilised to vote Leave for a number of different reasons, the loss of manufacturing to their community being a key one identified in a recent study by Warrick university.

    I would possibly even go further though and argue that since the referendum, sections of the leave vote have actually been mobilised by the left. Corbyn spoke at several places that voted Leave by a clear majority, including the rally I attended in Merthyr Tydfil. I find it unlikely that those crowds were made up exclusively with Remain voters. I recently spoke to a Leave voter who supported Jeremy Corbyn over Owen Smith, which was a bit surprising given they also think that we should cut immigration.

    There have been some major shifts that have taken place in politics recently which I think has opened up the possibility of re-building the left and created a space for socialist arguments. Many (if not the majority) in this left will have supported Remain for good and principled reasons. I don’t thinks it’s controversial to acknowledge that those people were on the losing side by over a million votes. I also see no serious appetite in the labour movement to overturn the result, in fact Tim Roache of the GMB even criticised Owen Smith for seeking another referendum. I think many on the Remain side are instead asking ‘what now’. In this situation, I don’t think we should be the ones echoing Tony Blairs rallying call of ‘we are the insurgents now’. We should be the ones trying to respond by saying that we aren’t all doomed outside the EU. In fact we have to go further and be honest with people by saying that in order pursue progressive polices (not least of which is the urgent necessity to tackle climate change), the EU represents a barrier.

    Even though there is no quick solution to uniting working class people in both camps, it’s only by going down this route that we have the best chance to cut across the false divide of Leave/Remain. In that context, arguing for a left wing exit makes sense. The case for doing so isn’t based around some left wing fantasy, I think it’s backed up by the evidence.”

    On the other points on how we create a people’s brexit, well there are no easy answers, but Corbyn provides an incredible opportunity. We need to get the Labour leader out to working class areas like he did for his election, but have the aim of actually organising out of these events over issues such as the NHS and housing, as well as anti-racism. We cannot organise by ducking the question of the EU, and its incumbent on us to frame our response to class issues in the context of Brexit.

  10. seb

    Thanks for these comments. As I said the other day, it was an error of me not to say this in the article: I do think we need a broad, militant anti racist and anti fascist movement against the likes of Farage that needs to fight for unity and not hinge around different positions on the referendum. We see the kind of militancy expressed over Trump and tht is clearly something we want to encourage over here. However, Brexit looms large over our political life. With this in mind, I don’t think any anti racist movement should be seen to be or actually trying to overturn the referendum result. This is clearly a danger in the current climate and I think would prevent us from building the kind of defence we need. So while support for Brexit should not be a condition of joining in with such a movement (in fact it couldn’t be because most of the people involved would be Remain supporters), it also cannot be seeking to overturn the result, which I think is something that a fairly narrow group of people see as being a viable strategy. This is why i’m worried that Another Europe is Possible have called the counter demo against Farage, because it in itsefl makes it about Leave vs Remain when it should be about Racist vs Anti racist.

    However, while we need a broad anti racist movement, we also need something else in response to what Leave.eu are doing, and that’s a movement which can argue for bold and radical left politics in the wake of the referendum that must be serious about leaving the EU under this banner, and which pitches itself against the racist right like Banks, the government of Theresa May and the pro EU centre like Blair, Osborne and Tim Farron. Unless we break from liberalism, the US election shows us we are doomed against the right. It is essential we do this.

    In terms of vote and why I think this position matters, here is a point I made the other day which i’d like to repeat here.

    “The Leave vote was full of contradictions, as was the Remain vote. I think it misses something out to say that only the conscious ‘Lexit’ part of the vote was in any way progressive, or that what happened to Greece was completely absent from people’s minds unless they were signed up members of the far left. It is surely possible to feel a sense of betrayal from politicians in the U.K and see what happened in Greece and make a connection between the two. I’ve had conversations with Leave voters in South Wales who’ve been angry at what happened to Greece, feel let down by the system at large and who think we should cut immigration. The vote was contradictory but in no means can we write it off as mainly right wing or reactionary bar a tiny group of socialists.

    It is over the question of immigration that we face the biggest task, but when i’ve had the argument with people, it’s often been that a lot of what is said about migrants is actually about housing, jobs or cuts in benefits. The right has of course had success in creating this situation, but we’d be wrong to say that it has been the clear beneficiary. In some places that voted Leave, the Tories will not stand a chance and neither will UKIP on current reckoning. I’m therefore not keen on giving up swathes of people to the right when there’s little evidence to prove that. This is why I also disagree that by and large Leave voters were ‘mobilised by the right’. It’s about as reductionist as me saying that almost every Remain voter was mobilised by neo-liberalism. People were mobilised to vote Leave for a number of different reasons, the loss of manufacturing to their community being a key one identified in a recent study by Warrick university.

    I would possibly even go further though and argue that since the referendum, sections of the leave vote have actually been mobilised by the left. Corbyn spoke at several places that voted Leave by a clear majority, including the rally I attended in Merthyr Tydfil. I find it unlikely that those crowds were made up exclusively with Remain voters. I recently spoke to a Leave voter who supported Jeremy Corbyn over Owen Smith, which was a bit surprising given they also think that we should cut immigration.

    There have been some major shifts that have taken place in politics recently which I think has opened up the possibility of re-building the left and created a space for socialist arguments. Many (if not the majority) in this left will have supported Remain for good and principled reasons. I don’t thinks it’s controversial to acknowledge that those people were on the losing side by over a million votes. I also see no serious appetite in the labour movement to overturn the result, in fact Tim Roache of the GMB even criticised Owen Smith for seeking another referendum. I think many on the Remain side are instead asking ‘what now’. In this situation, I don’t think we should be the ones echoing Tony Blairs rallying call of ‘we are the insurgents now’. We should be the ones trying to respond by saying that we aren’t all doomed outside the EU. In fact we have to go further and be honest with people by saying that in order pursue progressive polices (not least of which is the urgent necessity to tackle climate change), the EU represents a barrier.

    Even though there is no quick solution to uniting working class people in both camps, it’s only by going down this route that we have the best chance to cut across the false divide of Leave/Remain. In that context, arguing for a left wing exit makes sense. The case for doing so isn’t based around some left wing fantasy, I think it’s backed up by the evidence.”

    On the other points on how we create a people’s brexit, well there are no easy answers, but Corbyn provides an incredible opportunity. We need to get the Labour leader out to working class areas like he did for his election, but have the aim of actually organising out of these events over issues such as the NHS and housing, as well as anti-racism. We cannot organise by ducking the question of the EU, and its incumbent on us to frame our response to class issues in the context of Brexit.

  11. @pplswar

    Why is it forbidden to campaign for Remain now and why is the Brexit vote sacrosanct? If capitalism vs. socialism was put to a referendum and capitalism won, you wouldn’t still advocate socialism? I don’t get it.

    As for a People’s Brexit, the idea is nonsensical. If it weren’t, it shouldn’t so hard to outline what such a People’s Brexit would entail — i.e. what policies would need to be in place and agreements with the E.U. secured before triggering Article 50. Until someone spells out a list of progressive policy terms for a Brexit I consider the idea to be utter hogwash.

  12. Nick

    Southamptonoldlady I agree the trading of insults isn’t helpful, and yes it would be good to see something like Rock Against Racism again. But I still haven’t seen either you or Seb explain what you actually want to happen in the event of Brexit. Southamptonoldlady, you have said you ‘want control over our borders’. What does that mean? I think people should be free to move and live and work wherever they want to. I don’t see what food banks in the UK have to do with the EU. Seb talks about the NHS and housing. Again – what’s that got to do with the EU? I would also like to see ordinary people take control of our society. But how will Brexit help that?

  13. @pplswar

    “I think people should be free to move and live and work wherever they want to.” — Nick

    This is a bit of a false debate re: borders and immigration. Even if Remain had won, the U.K. still wouldn’t have had an open borders/laissez faire immigration policy. Non-E.U. nationals didn’t have an unrestricted ability to come and go before Brexit.

    The skewed terms of this debate are indicative of a bigger problem: Labour — both its Blairite and anti-Blairite wings — and left-of-Labour forces never developed a response to working-class voters skeptical of/hostile to immigration… except to call them ‘bigoted.’

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CTr8IVWBuPE

    Would like to hear from southamptonoldlady about why she voted for Brexit and what bothered her about government immigration policy.

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