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Labour shouldn’t back a vote on Brexit – it would play into the hands of the far right

Only the radical left has the solutions for taking society forward after Brexit

Jonathon Shafi
Thursday 27 September 2018 17:14 BST
Labour votes to keep open the option of second Brexit referendum

There is no reset button. Perhaps this is the most important thing to understand about the developing political crisis. Especially as we are only in the opening phases of a protracted crisis of the institutions that run western capitalism. The wheels of the next economic crash are already turning. The social forces that are now at play – reflected in the deepening polarisation and a host of radical insurgencies – cannot be reordered into the pre-2008 financial crisis state of affairs.

Nor can time be turned back on the question of Brexit. We should be clear that those campaigning for another referendum do not want a ballot on the terms of the Brexit deal. They want to overturn the 2016 result.

Many progressives support this, understandably. Brexit has been dominated by the radical right. Nigel Farage, Arron Banks and their acolytes ran a shameful campaign that targeted immigrants and weaponised decades of demonisation propagated by the right-wing press.

But it is wrong to believe that attempting to overturn the Brexit vote is the best way to confront racism and the far right in the UK. This is to simplify what was actually a more complex vote that needs to be unpacked. Warwick University conducted a study which showed that while immigration was a central motivation to vote Leave, this was also tied into social and class questions.

Crumbling services, an NHS in meltdown, lack of housing: these are the touchstone issues that have intertwined with anti-immigration sentiment. But it is within this vector that the left can develop forms of unity that can expose and undercut the far right, and at the same time focus the blame for economic despair and lowering living standards where it belongs: neoliberal capitalism. No surprise then that Boris Johnson has gone from Brexit to burqas.

Throwing another EU referendum on top of this derails the potential to develop such popular unity beyond Brexit. This is all the more unforgivable given that Labour is under the leadership of the left and Jeremy Corbyn. Should a rerun take place, it will recast lines of division in communities and workplaces on the basis of Brexit instead. But this time there is an added problem.

Not only will Farage and co evade the increasingly evident obstacles of establishing an Empire 2.0 Brexit, they will be able to say that the political class has conspired to erase the votes of millions of people who are already deeply alienated from the political system. Brexit is not going at all well for the Moggites and the Faragists. It has not restored national unity, and it is running up against the parameters of being a post-imperial power.

They are now realising that their Brexit cannot deliver the political, social and economic ambitions sought by the radical right. The project doesn’t work. A second referendum is therefore a lifeline for Farage: he will be back with a bang, even if a second referendum should deliver a Remain vote, which could precipitate a mass far right with an electoral base.

Jeremy Corbyn addresses Labour Party conference

Many of those calling for a new referendum are not seeking a democratic mandate to hold one. This would set a dangerous precedent. It would mean referendums could be held without an established popular mandate. There are numerous examples of how this can be exploited by elites. Unlike in Scotland, where there exists a mandate for another independence referendum, no such basis exists on the question of Brexit.

Some are steering the left into the same camp as the Blairites, the corporations and the banks. This claim is protested. But what counts is the public consciousness. The left has an opportunity to define itself against the centre, rather than to be its unwitting foot soldiers.

What matters is to develop an independent position. Not just in the case of Brexit, but in all facets of the ongoing flux. In this case, that means opposing the neoliberal European Union – including the Thatcherite single market – and fighting to unite people against the far right with a programme that can transform the economy and lift millions out of poverty.

It means championing anti-globalisation from the left, by decentralising control and infusing democracy into communities, workplaces and the economy writ large. “Take back control” is a powerful message in this precarious age. The left has the chance to seize the initiative. In his speech at Labour conference, John McDonnell outlined a vision of a democratic society, and of taking on elite vested interests, underpinned with an internationalist call to arms on climate change and the unjust nature of the global economy.

All of that will be fatally undermined if Labour turns into a “Stop Brexit” party. That is the route back for the failed liberal centre. It perpetuates the conflict between the centre and the radical right, when it is the radical left – carved out – that has the solutions for taking society forward.

The EU is going to become institutionally more authoritarian, and will appease the far right which is on the march across Europe, at the same time as intensifying austerity as the next recession hits. It is time for an alternative. One only the left can deliver. Here and across Europe.

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