The decision by the May government to plough on with its preparations for a hard Brexit is certainly injurious to business, but it is even more harmful to the interests of ordinary working people. Let’s list the damage:
- Economic pain: sterling down, lower investment and the prospect of tariffs
- Workers rights: a bonfire of EU-created employment rights can be expected..
- Mass insecurity: for millions of EU residents in the UK and reciprocally for UK citizens in other EU states;
- Locked in: British citizens will have no right to live and work in mainland Europe.
- Scotland: to be taken out of the EU against its will.
- Northern Ireland: the re-imposition of a ‘hard’ border will threaten the peace process;
- Racism and xenophobia: stimulated and legitimised in Britain.
- European Identity: undermined and fractured.
- Pan-European socialism: a united fightback across the continent undermined.
In the first instance Brexit propaganda targeted East European EU citizens in the UK, but behind that veneer lay racist antipathy to anyone not white British. Thus the defining moment in Ukip's campaign was Nigel Farage standing in front of a poster showing long queues of Syrian refugees in Slovenia - an issue nothing to do with Britain’s EU membership. But that did not matter a jot to Farage; the poster was promoting racist fear of ‘the other’, and the message hit home in its intended constituency.
The causes of the current explosion of right-wing populism are various, but one idea needs to be knocked on the head. It is false to claim the existence of high numbers of non-British EU citizens in a locality caused a high Leave vote. It did not. Those areas with the highest number of non-British EU citizens, such as London, Manchester or Bristol, voted Remain. Ukip propaganda was most successful wherever multicultural communities were lacking, not where they existed.
Right-wing populism is the diametric opposite of everything socialists stand for. The Labour Party is not properly the party of British working people; it is the party of workers in Britain, irrespective of race, ethnic background or nationality. Socialists support multicultural and cosmopolitan communities across the UK, and defend the free movement of EU citizens as a basic acquired right. There is no such thing as a Left-wing Brexit because the political reality is that Brexit is a tool of the right to restrict individual freedoms and social solidarity in favour of authoritarian nationalism, xenophobia and ethnic chauvinism.
Labour has responded badly to the referendum result. While the result does give Prime Minister May a mandate to pursue Brexit, it does not bind the Labour Party to anything. If a majority in a referendum had voted for capital punishment, would Labour then support it? Of course not. Labour policy is made by its members, not by national referenda.
Sadly, Labour has backed the triggering Article 50, mostly in a misguided attempt of stave off Ukip’s advance in northern seats. Yet, the more right-wing populism is accommodated, the more acceptable and stronger it becomes. The more Labour capitulates to Ukip’s agenda, the more it betrays the young, and the multicultural and progressive communities in the metropolitan centres across England.
On Labour’s right-wing, politicians have been quick to accommodate themselves to the xenophobic upsurge. Rachel Reeves among others has sung the praise of immigration controls on EU citizens. Andy Burnham, Labour’s candidate for mayor of Manchester, has chided Labour for prioritising access to the internal market over ending free movement. But the left, too, has not disentangled itself entirely from the right-wing populist offensive. John MacDonald has foolishly spoken of Brexit as an “enormous opportunity.” Well it is, but only for the enemies of the left. Jeremy Corbyn, for his part, while courageously defending free movement, has sometimes given the impression that Brexit is a low priority issue.
Labour should echo the Liberal Democrats, Greens and SNP in opposing Brexit. Insofar as Brexit is unstoppable, we should strive to remain in the European Economic Area (the so-called Norway solution), and with that retain free movement. And, if Britain does in the end leave the EU, which seems likely, we should work with the left across Europe for Britain to rejoin.