Brexit: Labour must let its members decide its next step

 If the Tories cannot be brought down, the party should back a second referendum and Remain – Lexit is a political fantasy. 

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More than 200 Constituency Labour Parties are expected this month to support calls for an emergency party conference, aimed at securing support for a second Brexit referendum. But now they’re facing opposition from more than simply a handful of Labour MPs who secretly want Brexit. They’re up against the ghost of Lenin.

The Morning Star newspaper, which supported Leave in 2016 and has called for a “People’s Brexit” ever since, responded to the grassroots Labour call for second referendum by publishing an article about Lenin’s attitude to party democracy. The short summary is, they’re against it.

“A revolutionary organisation cannot be seduced by the sirens of ‘primitive’ or ‘toy’ democracy, the false radicalism of direct representation so often advocated by young intellectuals and anarchists,” writes Zoltan Zigedy, citing Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet What is To Be Done.

Zigedy, whose real name is Greg Godels, a member of the US Green Party, has been wheeled out to instruct Morning Star readers in the fine art of crushing democratic dissent. With 88 per cent of Labour members in favour of Remain, and 72 per cent supporting a second referendum, it’s going to take some crushing.

So what’s really going on? The short answer is, a small group of Labour MPs, who for two years claimed they were being forced reluctantly to enact Brexit in order to respect the referendum, were in fact quietly hoping Theresa May could achieve it. Then, went the reasoning, we can get back to the bread and butter issues Labour voters really care about. Now they're panicking because they'll have to explain to their constituents that Brexit cannot happen.

The position of these closet Lexiteers is all the more dishonest because there is a perfectly good left-wing case for Brexit to be made in the open. If the UK had a left government, which clashed with the EU as it tried to enact nationalisations, state aid and reforms to the labour market, that government should defy the Lisbon and Maastricht treaties. That’s Lexit. The problem is, it is not on the agenda.

The actual Brexit project is being driven by neo-imperial fantasists like Johnson and Rees-Mogg, and the social forces supporting Brexit are almost entirely reactionary. The deal May is trying to do will not facilitate a left wing-Brexit. Nor will any deal Labour wants to do. A permanent customs union and “participation in the single market” would be a less damaging outcome than May’s deal. But there is nothing intrinsically left-wing about it.

Lexit, in short, is as much a fantasy as hard Brexit. And in the two years since the referendum, political reality has come to reflect this. The polls show that voters who want Brexit have aligned themselves with the Tories. People who are against it say they will vote Labour, SNP, Plaid, Green or Lib Dem. Like it or not, we have the same incipient culture war here as in the US – and the only way to fight it is the way newbie Congress members Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are doing: with confidence in your own values and in defiance of the prejudices of racist clowns.

The Labour membership sense this. That is why the biggest moment of enthusiasm at last September’s party conference came when shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer assured the membership the party would fight for a second referendum, with Remain on the ballot paper, if an early general election could not be secured. Labour’s active membership are yearning to fight for what they believe in.

But Corbyn’s office is facing rival pressures. Some MPs believe they will lose their seats if the party fails to deliver Brexit. A few classic deadheads in the PLP are storming around claiming, against all evidence, that “the working class wants Brexit”.

But polls from a variety of sources suggest this wing of Labour is wrong. If Labour is seen to back Brexit, one senior union source believes, there is evidence it would lose four seats in Scotland to the SNP and up to 14 seats in south-east England where its voters would defect to the Greens and Lib Dems. In return, it would win a grand total of no extra seats in the Leave-supporting areas.

So there is a significant disagreement within Labour about the way forward. That’s only a bad thing if, like Godels in the Morning Star, you don’t believe in party democracy. The way to solve this is democratic debate and, though we’ve already had one in Liverpool, since the facts have changed, and strong views are being expressed on both sides, the answer is even more democracy.

That’s why the call for an emergency half-day conference is sensible. I think Labour could win either an election or a second referendum with a Remain-reform programme. The polling evidence supports that. But I want to hear from long-standing activists in the English regions and in Scotland and Wales about what the risks are. I want to hear from the industrial sections and regional activists of the major unions, not just what their full-time officers have been reading in the Morning Star.

Let’s understand what is at stake. The cynical view is that pro-Remain voters have nowhere to go but Labour, and nothing will be lost if a few thousand old Blairite members and councillors clear off with Chuka Umunna when he forms his new party. People who believe this also tend to believe, irrationally, that all the polls are wrong, or “being manipulated” to dupe Labour into supporting Remain on false evidence.

I think these assumptions are dangerous. If a new centrist party were formed it would not only get a media fanfare from the BBC and Sky but could appeal to the hundreds of thousands of people who have signed up to the People’s Vote campaign. Its chances of success would be massively amplified if Labour’s leadership became visibly detached from the political sentiments and values of its active left-wing members.

So would the chances of a new centrist leadership challenge against Jeremy Corbyn himself. The Brown and Blairite wings of the PLP, who understand this, are said to be cock-a-hoop in the corridors of parliament.

The way out is for the PLP to study the polling and listen the party members. After the referendum, Labour had a moral duty to try to make Brexit work, but if no form of Brexit can satisfy the actual Brexiteers, then it’s not Labour’s job to do the impossible.

Labour has promised a no-confidence vote “immediately” after May’s deal falls. The entire labour movement should be mobilised to back this on the streets. But if we can’t topple May’s government, the way forward is to fight for a second referendum in which Labour should vote Remain.

If it takes an emergency conference to give the PLP enough confidence to do this, let’s have one. If the NEC doesn’t have time to organise it, maybe a few CLPs and trade unions could organise an advisory conference in the interim. Momentum, whose members displayed clear majority support for a second referendum when polled, should help make it happen.

Tens of thousands of activists mobilised behind Corbyn because he represented a new way of doing politics. If they'd wanted to work with a bunch of musty old bureaucrats quoting Lenin and manoeuvring against the membership, they'd have joined the Communist Party of Britain, not Labour. Thousands of us in the rank and file know, both by experience and from the history books, that British Stalinism has the unerring ability to destroy every political project it touches. We are determined that will not happen this time.

For certain, once Brexit fails, there will then be a backlash. A bunch of hi-vis wearing scabs, thugs, misogynists and fascists will take to the streets in support of pinstriped toffs like Rees-Mogg and Farage. It is the classic “alliance of elite and mob” from which a serious far-right force might emerge. I think, faced with that, Lenin would have known which side to be on.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His bestselling book Postcapitalism has been translated into 16 languages. His play Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere was televised on BBC Two in 2017.