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3 January 2019updated 04 Oct 2023 9:39am

An open letter to Jeremy Corbyn: Brexit would destroy your political project

Labour must back a second referendum – a socialist programme is not achievable outside of the EU.

By Francis Beckett

Dear Jeremy

I voted for you to become Labour leader, and have been proud to support and defend your election. Last year I published a book equating your tenure with a rebirth of Labour England.

But in the very first weeks of 2019, everything we hope for from your leadership could be destroyed. The government is determined that we will either accept the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, or crash out of the EU with no deal at all.  Either of these will damage the living standards and quality of life of the people whom you have spent your political life championing, and will end any hope that a future Labour government may have of transforming British society, or developing an ethical foreign policy.

You have it within your power to prevent this act of self-harm. You can back a second Brexit referendum with Remain as an option. If you don’t, the issue will be decided by the Conservative Party, which has shown that it is prepared to cynically sacrifice the nation in the cause of its own survival.

Of course I understand why you have hesitated to use that power. You can see the choices we might have made had there been a more responsible government during the two years since the Brexit referendum. But those choices have gone. Theresa May’s government has frittered them away.  There is only one alternative route which you can deliver, and that is a People’s Vote.

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You have a degree of power seldom given to opposition leaders. Were the Labour frontbench to unambiguously support a People’s Vote, it could be secured. You are the Labour leader who can bring that gift to the British people.

Should you refrain from delivering it, you will always be the Labour leader who withheld it from the people. You will be the Labour leader who, in effect if not in intention, collaborated with the most cynical and incompetent government of our lifetimes to force a bad deal, or, even worse, no deal, on the British people, without giving them a say.

It isn’t an easy choice for you. In 1975, when Britain voted to join what was then called the European Economic Community, you and I voted against, believing that Europe might thwart the radical measures of a future Labour government.

But over the subsequent years, Britain took a far more reactionary turn than the rest of Europe.  Even when Labour was in power, the Blair government blocked directives which would require employers to inform and consult trade union representatives when closures were contemplated; give agency workers the same rights as permanent workers; and ensure that no one was forced to work more than 48 hours a week except as part of a collective agreement. Most of Europe wanted these; but the Blair government was determined to block them.

So the idea of British workers’ rights being held back by free-market Brussels bureaucrats, which seemed reasonable in 1975, is now clearly wrong. There is no aspect of Labour’s 2017 manifesto that would be blocked by the EU. It is a mistake to suppose that government investment to regenerate industry would not be permitted.  

There are, however, huge portions of Labour’s programme that could not be carried out if we were outside the EU, for we would be negotiating trade agreements with very few cards to play. Donald Trump would certainly demand policies which align with his world view, and benefit American business, as the price of a US trade deal. So would any conceivable replacement for Trump, Republican or Democrat.

It is not merely Labour’s domestic programme which would be compromised. The party’s foreign policy objectives would be imperilled too. Here is just one example. Emily Thornberry has eloquently spelled out the need for tighter arms sales policies. This would antagonise Saudi Arabia because it might deprive them of the destructive weapons which they deliberately use against the Yemeni civilian population. The pressure the Saudis could exert upon a British government shut out of Europe and desperate for trading partners might well be an insuperable obstacle.

You are concerned that Labour heartlands would feel betrayed. This is to underestimate Labour voters. It’s true that about a third of them backed Brexit in 2016, but around three-quarters of Labour voters now believe it was the wrong decision.

They can see that when you send the executive away to negotiate something, it is reasonable to await the results before signing on the dotted line. They can also see that a working class-friendly Brexit was not something that the wealthy reactionaries who have dictated the terms of trade since the Leave vote were interested in.

And it’s precisely the new, young, idealistic voters brought into the Labour Party by your leadership who most desire a second referendum. The class make-up upon which the Attlee settlement was built has changed fundamentally. In the 2018 local elections, Labour made major and spectacular gains in some areas that stayed Tory even under Blair.  

These voters are part of your harvest. These are Labour’s new voters: the young, the idealistic, the generation that feels betrayed, the people who used to believe that there was little point in voting because all the parties were all the same. These are the people who helped make you Labour leader and then enabled you to deprive May of her parliamentary majority.

And they are, overwhelmingly, Remainers. The bitter disillusion with the political class, which decayed into a sort of sullen nationalism, and which gave us Brexit, does not touch most of them.

Of course there were socialist arguments for leaving the EU. But Brexit as it has been conducted is essentially a mean-spirited, right-wing, reactionary undertaking. It is not true that all Brexiteers are racists – but it is true that all, or most, racists are Brexiteers.  It is their mean and narrow world view which has dictated the Brexit we are being offered.

This is a moment for the left to be flexible – to understand, as it was forced to in the 1930s, that circumstances have changed and we must change with them.

After 29 March, unless you act, the progressive government which should be your legacy will be impossible. All your objectives, both at home and abroad, will become vastly harder to achieve, if not impossible. Britain will become not just poorer, but meaner, more divided and more reactionary.

Whether socialism in one country was ever achievable, it will certainly not be achievable in a Britain outside the EU, dependent upon the goodwill, not just of the American president, but of the Chinese, the Saudis, and anyone else who might be inclined to trade with us.

Yours fraternally,

Francis Beckett

Francis Beckett is a journalist and the co-author of Jeremy Corbyn and the Strange Rebirth of Labour England

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