Corbynism and the Remain Movement Need Each Other to Survive

by James McAsh

14 July 2019

Ilovetheeu/Wikimedia Commons

This week it was announced the Labour party will demand that any Tory Brexit deal is put to a second EU referendum, in which Labour will campaign to remain. 

Some on the left have suggested a second referendum before a general election threatens the very existence of the Corbyn project. Their case is often well-argued, but ultimately the opposite is true. The Corbyn project now has an opportunity to rekindle its relationship with one of the biggest social movements in Britain today: the movement against Brexit. In fact, its success relies on it.

A party of social movements.

If Corbynism is about anything, it’s about the transformation of the Labour party into a vehicle of progressive social movements. After all, social change is born of mass mobilisations, not clever people drafting policies in Whitehall. This marks a clear change in Labour’s strategy. Under Tony Blair, the party relied on focus groups and opinion polling to create a shopping list of policies aimed at appealing to the marginal voter. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour now aims to unite major social movements with a radical, progressive agenda. Rather than chasing public opinion, the party is instead endeavoring to work in tandem with the movements that shape it.

Commitment to social movements underpinned the success of Labour’s manifesto at the 2017 general election. Students could fight for free education. Peace campaigners could fight for a just foreign policy. Trade unionists could fight constrictive anti-union laws. And they all did it under the Labour banner.

Remain is a movement.

The remain movement was a key player too. In 2017 the details of Brexit were ambiguous, so the hegemonic position within the remain movement was to fight for the softest Brexit possible. The Labour manifesto promised this, and the movement piled in behind the party, with more remainers voting for Labour than for all other parties combined. In fact, those who came to the party under Corbyn were more anti-Brexit than the party’s supporters were in 2015. With a third of remainers identifying Brexit as the most important issue in the election, Labour’s endorsement of the movement’s position was vital. Put simply, Labour’s success in 2017 was possible thanks to its closeness to the remain movement.

Since then, the relationship between the two has grown distant. The grim reality of Brexit has become clear: the promises of millions for the NHS are long gone, only to be replaced by doomsday predictions of medical shortages and a race to the bottom on tax, labour rights and environmental protections. For the remain movement the question is no longer how to make the best of a bad situation, but how best to make the nightmare end.

But while remainers hardened, Labour did not. Instead it tried to unite its remain and leave supporters behind a policy of ‘constructive ambiguity’. For a while this seemed to work: many remainers ultimately still believed Labour was on its side. But over time, this changed. At the ‘People’s Vote’ march this spring, many asked: “Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?”. Some voices were snide, yes, but for many the tone was sad and confused. 

When the European elections came along, the Greens and Liberal Democrats claimed leadership of the remain movement, much to Labour’s misfortune. The Labour party must now reclaim its rightful place as leader of this movement, rebuilding and expanding its 2017 coalition in the process.

Progressive or neoliberal?

It’s one thing to say the party should ally itself with progressive social movements, but quite another to include the anti-Brexit movement. Isn’t a movement which encompasses the politics of Vince Cable and Michael Heseltine more neoliberal than it is progressive?

No. The politics of a movement are defined by its participants, not their self-appointed leaders. The remain movement is broadly left wing, whatever its leaders and detractors say. After all, it mainly comprises Labour voters from the last general election. And while we must be careful about caricaturing the large and diverse remain and leave camps, it is nonetheless true that remain voters fit more easily within the progressive bloc. They are more likely to oppose US foreign policy, to accept as British the children of immigrants, and to support the movement for women’s rights. These are all left wing values. Criticisms of the EU are of course valid, but we must not pretend that activists who march and organise against Brexit do so because they want to see refugees drown.

What about ‘Lexit’?

As Brexit continues to dominate the political conversation, it has become increasingly difficult to please both sides. Leavers want no deal and remainers want an end to it all. There have been two national elections this year. I spent polling day of the local elections in Stoke-on-Trent, and then fought the European elections in the East Dulwich ward that I represent as a Corbynite councillor. The former was once a base for Ukip; the latter was Liberal Democrat until 2018. These voters disagreed on a lot, but were united in opposition to Labour’s Brexit position.

Labour should of course aspire to appeal to both remainers and leavers. It can do this with a radical and transformative programme for the many. But it is right that its Brexit policy is now firmly on one side.

But why not leave? Could the party not wholeheartedly endorse a clean break from the neoliberal EU and fight for a left wing exit? There is of course an important argument to be had about the merits of Brexit from a left wing perspective. But it is just that: a thought experiment. No movement has rallied around the ‘Lexit’ cause. Brexit is dominated by the right – and a quasi-fascist right at that. The remain movement can mobilise six million to sign a petition and half a million to the streets. Hard right Brexiteers host mass rallies across the country, have commandeered one political party and launched another. Meanwhile, Lexit barely exists beyond Twitter. 

Three years ago it may have been possible to create such a movement. Labour could have articulated a socialist vision for Britain outside the EU. It chose not to. Despite right wing claims that Corbyn is a secret Lexiteer, the Labour leadership has done nothing to promote the cause. Its most leave-friendly position was to emphasise the need to ‘respect the referendum’ and then to argue for one of the softest forms of Brexit possible. Whatever its ideological strengths or weaknesses, Lexit is not a viable political strategy because it has no movement to back it. 

The way forward.

The coming months will not be easy. The left must unite with centrists against hard right Brexiteers whilst also challenging them for ideological leadership of the remain movement. But the Corbyn project and the remain movement need each other to survive – after all, without Labour it will not be possible to deliver another referendum, never mind win it. The announcement this week is a massive step forward, and the left needs to take this opportunity to both defeat Brexit and transform Britain.  


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