Tendance Coatesy

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New Left Review Tackles Brexit, from ‘anti-systemic’ parties to Corbyn.

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From Brexit Knocks to Corbyn.

Writing after the EU Referendum New Left Review editor Susan Watkins found time to pontificate on the “solipsistic and civilizational” reactions of those who regretted the victory of the Leave camp. She observed, with a cooled head, in tones echoing the French self-appointed speaker for La France périphérique,  Christophe Guilluy, ” the ressentiment of globalization’s losers.” ” Leave voters were markedly more pessimistic about their prospects and those of their children “

Watkins continued, “nearly 70 per cent thought Brexit couldn’t make things any worse.” And yet, she wistfully noted, ” the victory of British (read: English) nationalism has revealed the emptiness of its symbols: Rule Britannia, Mother of Parliaments, Royal Navy, Going It Alone, Dunkirk Spirit—all that has gone. “

Looking to the future, and echoing the words of her partner Tariq Ali, who used the vehicle of Venezuela state media, Telesur to explain that he was ‘Pleased’ Brexit Has Given EU ‘Big Kick’ up ‘Backside'” she concluded,

The Brexit vote doesn’t mean state break-up, yet. Still less the downfall of Brussels. For now, though, it is plain that Blairized Britain has taken a hit, as has the Hayekianized eu. Critics of the neoliberal order have no reason to regret these knocks to it, against which the entire global establishment—Obama to Abe, Merkel to Modi, Juncker to Xi—has inveighed. Which will ultimately prove more important, and what the side-effects of each will be, remains to be seen.

From the Intergalactic Senate Perry Anderson opined in 2017 that,

No other European country has been so dramatically polarised by region, between a bubble-enclosed, high-income metropolis in London and the southeast, and an impoverished, deindustrialised north and northeast where voters felt they had little to lose in voting for Leave (crucially, a more abstract prospect than ditching the euro), whatever happened to the City and foreign investment. Fear counted for less than despair.

…suddenly granted, for once, a real choice in a national referendum, they returned in force to deliver their verdict on the desolations of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

The welcome knocks against the EU were the result of this:

Issues of identity could more readily trump issues of interest than in the rest of the EU. So the normal formula — fear of economic retribution outweighs fear of alien immigration — failed to function, bent out of shape by a combination of economic despair and national amour-propre.

Britain’s example should be followed,

For anti-systemic movements of the left in Europe, the lesson of recent years is clear. If they are not to go on being outpaced by movements of the right, they cannot afford to be less radical in attacking the system, and must be more coherent in their opposition to it. That means facing the probability the EU is now so path-dependent as a neoliberal construction that reform of it is no longer seriously conceivable. It would have to be undone before anything better could be built, either by breaking out of the current EU, or by reconstructing Europe on another foundation, committing Maastricht to the flames. Unless there is a further, deeper economic crisis, there is little likelihood of either.

Yet, as the title of the broad brush indicates, “Why the system will still win.”, so one can be confident that Anderson does not see the prospect of the ‘dual power’ of his 1970s flirtation with the left returning.

In the latest New Left Review a less abstract note is struck by the Deputy Editor of the journal,  Daniel Finn,

Brexit has thrown the whole political field into confusion, and Labour will struggle to achieve a majority in parliament after the next election, even if it emerges as the largest party. The conditions of its likely coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, could include the extinction of any distinctive Corbyn project.

Corbyn, Labour and the Brexit Crisis

Daniel Finn Labour in the Brexit Vice

Finn continues, “All factors seem to point towards ultimate defeat, except one: the fact that Corbynism has already survived against the odds to reach its current position.”

There is an account of the Labour Party’s post-Corbyn successes and difficulties.

Brexit, the Vice in which Labour is squeezed, is introduced:

“While rational fears of what Brexit could mean under Tory leadership fuelled the wider Remain constituency” writes Finn” it was Blairite holdovers like Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell who dominated the leadership of the People’s Vote (pv) campaign, skewing its political orientation.

In the sketch this also stands out, ” Expecting the Remain side to win comfortably, the Labour right thought it safe to use the referendum campaign as a factional weapon, telling sympathetic journalists that Corbyn’s line was really an argument to leave the eu altogether.”

Many would note this detail: New Left Review Editorial Board member Tariq Ali, “Jeremy Corbyn ‘would be campaigning for Brexit if he was not Labour leader’, says long-time ally Tariq Ali.” May 2016).

Finn finally settles down to the famous clasp in which Labour is clamped.

Having admitted its importance he admits that the Labour left has its own internal differences.

…. Corbyn allies like John McDonnell and Diane Abbott favoured a change of strategy as well, along with some of the younger left mps (Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Kate Osamor). Divisions over Brexit cut across the left/right cleavage in the plp: Labour front-benchers such as the party chair Ian Lavery were strongly opposed to a second referendum, and McCluskey argued against a sudden shift towards the hard-Remain camp, but a group of mps that included staunch opponents of Corbyn like Stephen Kinnock and Ruth Smeeth also composed an open letter, denouncing the ‘toxic’ idea of a second referendum as a gift to the nationalist right.

The NLR writer – accurately – summarises a real dilemma,

 In any case, securing a referendum is one thing, winning it is quite another. The Labour leadership is being urged by friend and foe alike to adopt a goal that is neither more desirable nor even more achievable than its previous stance, in the name of avoiding electoral meltdown.

This is differently phrased to his comments in  ‘Jacobin‘ a few months ago (which combines the following with the all too familiar ranting tone of the US’s ‘leading ‘ left voice, this time about Paul Mason’s, ” shop-soiled reactionary agenda .”)

One of the main advantages of a “soft Brexit” deal — whatever its precise details — would be avoiding the need for a second referendum. Most advocates of such a vote have been shockingly complacent about their chances of victory, brushing aside opinion polls that suggest a rerun of the first vote would be too close to call.

Even if Remain won, the campaign would be even more rancorous than the first, and only a landslide result could truly settle the issue.

We may now be drifting towards a second referendum in any case. But Corbyn and Labour were right to try and avoid that outcome.

There has often been a tendency to defend Labour’s position in terms of electoral pragmatism — the need to balance between Remain- and Leave-voting sections of its base. This is perfectly legitimate in its own right: a left-wing government, implementing Labour’s 2017 manifesto or going beyond it, would make far more of a difference to people’s lives than staying in the EU.

But there was a wider political logic behind the party’s stand. The accusations of “sitting on the fence” leveled at the Labour leadership are misguided at best, malicious at worst. The best elements in the party, including Corbyn, recognized it would be a disaster if Leave vs Remain became entrenched as the main dividing line in British politics.

Electing a Labour Government Matters More Than Brexit

The entrenchment is real and has not been wished away by Corbyn or anybody else.

What of his Jacobin claim that, “if the Labour leadership does now pivot towards the second-referendum camp, it should be seen in a realistic light, as a major setback for the Corbyn project…

Finn – rewriting lightly this judgement – concludes this section,

Corbyn’s latest move fell some way short of the unqualified pro-Remain commitment his opponents were seeking. In July 2019, he announced that Labour would campaign to stay in the eu if that was the only alternative to no deal or ‘a Tory deal that does not protect the economy and jobs’; on the other hand, if Labour formed a government before the Brexit deadline and had time to negotiate its own package, it would put that agreement to a popular vote, with Remain as the alternative choice. The new line could be made to work—but whether Corbyn’s inner-party opponents will allow that to happen is a very different question.

‘Falling far short’ may satisfy New Left Review, but not many others, perhaps he means “falling far short” of a major setback…

“Could be made to work”, pure Andersonese, is as clear as mud.

All three of Finn’s possible scenarios for a Labour government,  headlong retreat by conservative resistance”, a “reformist party that actually carries out reforms”, and (the improbable), ” return to the ideas that animated left-wing forces in the 1960s and 70s when they recognized the limitations of social-democratic rule” depend on a response to the issue of Brexit.

But few can escape the observation that the days of feeling satisfied at the “knocks” delivered by the Brexit vote, or calling for “undoing” the EU have passed.

This is surely worth flagging up in the inconclusive concluding sentence,

If Corbyn succeeds in taking power after the next election, he will have made his way past many formidable obstacles, but his greatest challenges will still lie ahead.

From a different part of the left one can outline some of the deeper difficulties that Labour and the left face:

  • This is not a trivial “culture war”. The days when the category of  ‘anti-systemic’ parties had any use obscures the change. The Brexit vote has been followed by the development of national populist current in British politics. From the Johnson-led Tory Party to the Party PLC, of Nigel Farage (following the example of a number of European ‘parties’ from Macron’s  La République En Marche, Italy’s Movimento 5 Stelle, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Rally –   lieu de rassemblement – la France insoumise , a business run from the top), embody currents which call for national sovereignty, free-market economics, and antagonism to the “anti-nation”. The “empty symbols” of Rule Britannia, national “amour propre” not only moblised the Leave vote, they have become the foundations of this politics. A far-right fringe is now actively targeting the “collaborators” who wish to Remain.
  • WIthin the Corbyn camp the continuing influence of a pro-Brexit constituency.  But radical hostility to the “hayekised” EU, and calls to represent the “impoverished” deindustrialised  regions, the ‘left behind’, has not been the basis of a serious economic and social programme. They cannot recreate the labour movement of the 1970s. As the Accelerationist Manifesto pointed out in 2013  ” There can be no return to Fordism. The capitalist “golden era” was premised on the production paradigm of the orderly factory environment, where (male) workers received security and a basic standard of living in return for a lifetime of stultifying boredom and social repression. Such a system relied upon an international hierarchy of colonies, empires, and an underdeveloped periphery; a national hierarchy of racism and sexism; and a rigid family hierarchy of female subjugation. For all the nostalgia many may feel, this regime is both undesirable and practically impossible to return to.”
  • The lingering influence of  ‘sovereigntist’ politics on the British left, one of the principal poles of the pro-Brexit, Lexit, current, creates deeper difficulties. Many of their figures have followed that of its European counterparts.In the absence of a real prospect of “striking real blows at the roots of capitalist power, provoking a crisis within the state machine, and relying upon mass movement” (cited by Finn as the “least likely” of the results of a possible Labour government) they has turned inward. It cannot rely only on the “folk politics of localism” and memory of the “real” working class. Parts of this left has drifted towards a “red brown” cocktail of hostility towards “rootless cosmopolitans”. The leader of probably the biggest post-war left coalition, Respect, George Galloway, is now an open ally of Nigel Farage. Far from being at antipodes to National Populism the Sovereigntist left is in danger of becoming its twin.
  • A left based on transformative democracy has also emerged. As Another Europe is Possible says,”A British exit from the EU would have a seriously detrimental impact on the free movement of people; trade union and human rights; environmental protection; international cooperation; and a host of other vital issues. While, at the very least, the EU is in desperate need of a democratic overhaul, an exit at the current time would boost right wing movements and parties and hurt ordinary people in the UK. European politics has been dominated by neoliberal thinking for far too long – as recent events in Greece brutally demonstrate. But changing this means working to strengthen anti-austerity movements across all of Europe – not walking away. Another Europe is Possible is a campaign for a radical “in” vote. Our campaign will put the case for staying in the EU independently of Cameron and big business, opposing any part of a “renegotiation” that attacks workers’, migrants’ or human rights. We will combine campaigning for an in vote with arguing for an alternative economic model, maintaining European citizens’ rights to live and work across the EU, and for far-reaching democratic reforms of European institutions.
  • This position stands, and is a better guideline for left politics than delight at the EU being given a “kick up the backside” or celebration of ‘anti-systemetic’ parties without any positive emancipatory politics.

Finn is a specialist in Irish politics.

Perhaps he would care to develop – the present article does not –  the theme of how  EU demands for “no room for unilateral exit from the ‘backstop’ designed to prevent a hard border on Irish soil.” have become the centre of the Brexit wars…

Or this:

Written by Andrew Coates

August 20, 2019 at 1:26 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Daniel Finn – “…if Labour formed a government before the Brexit deadline and had time to negotiate its own package, it would put that agreement to a popular vote…”

    How does Mr Finn see Labour forming a Govt before 31 October? If there was a successful vote of no confidence on, let’s say, 4 September and an alternative PM was not found within 14 days, then it is in the power of the current PM (ie Johnson) to decide on a date. Namely, he could call one after 31 Oct *with no extension* so that we still leave the EU, deal or no deal.

    On the other hand, let’s say something magical happens and the SNP, Lib Dems, For Change and One Nation Tories all decide to allow Corbyn to form a minority Government. Labour would not be able to negotiate its “own package” before 31 Oct because part of the deal with the EU to allow the present extension was no re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement. Labour agreed to this in the House of Commons. Changes could probably be made to the (no-binding) Political Declaration but not to the substantive text.

    As it is, I think it is likely we could see a General Election before 31 October but only if Johnson believes he has hoovered up enough of the Brexit Party vote to be sure a good majority against a split Remainer vote. Then he can dump the DUP and probably agree to a Northern Ireland only backstop as the EU offered in the first place.

    John Rogan

    August 20, 2019 at 4:35 pm

  2. Exactly, this puts this kind of speculation in its place,

    “A vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson, followed by a general election in which Labour would offer a second referendum with the option to remain. It would also, somehow, then negotiate a better Brexit deal than the current one, and the EU’s persistent refusal to renegotiate the deal would magically not apply to Corbyn’s new government in the way that it does to Johnson’s.

    And once it had secured this superior deal, it would then campaign against its own deal in a second referendum, in favour of remaining instead.

    Whether you choose to believe this last bit or not is frankly up to you. But, at least for the time being, it would appear to be the truth.”

    Tom Peck: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jeremy-corbyn-brexit-no-deal-boris-johnson-a9070276.html

    Andrew Coates

    August 20, 2019 at 4:43 pm

  3. Not to mention this:

    Andrew Coates

    August 20, 2019 at 5:13 pm

  4. @ John Rogan

    We wouldn’t have time to read the agreement before voting in any case. I am only onto page 10 of May’s 585 page + addendums Withdrawal Agreement.

    Mrs Jones

    August 20, 2019 at 5:51 pm


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