Socialists differ in opinion on how we best tackle the issue of Brexit as a movement. In the second of our series of articles on Brexit, trade unionist Sarah Collins offers a strategic analysis of the road ahead….
The ‘common sense’ position advocated by many of a centre/left persuasion is that Brexit is a con, which was voted for by naïve and silly people. It’s a sentiment prevalent among liberals, trade unionists and people involved in migrant solidarity work or campaigning for equality. They share a prevailing hope that someone other than Jacob Rees-Mogg will come along and demonstrate real leadership on the question. In other words, what’s needed is a genuine British parliamentary hero to come in and sort the whole mess out. Until then, there’s nothing better to do than bury our collective our righteous heads in the sand and hope it all shakes out in the wash.
But this view isn’t a genuine strategy for dealing with Brexit. Many other pieces on Conter (and other media outlets) will go into more depth on the rights and wrongs of Brexit, and what its unintended consequences or potential bonuses might be, but I intend to look solely at what a left wing strategy, centred around the labour movement, for Brexit in its current form might look like.
The Brexit process is entirely untested and speculative. There are various reasons to hold a second referendum on the subject, not least because many of the figures who shaped and led the official Leave campaign went AWOL for four days, subsequently admitted they’d massaged funding figures, lied to the public and had no defined plan for leaving the EU. For them, the whole process was a political game – there was no intention for it to be anything more than a short-term manoeuvre for power within the establishment.
Neither establishment figures in favour of Remain nor establishment figures in favour of Leave really thought Brexit would happen, so we are left with what Neil Davidson aptly described yesterday as a ‘policy-exit’ from the EU. In other words, those negotiating Brexit hope that not a lot will change post-Brexit.
There are a few options open to the left in this scenario. The first is we argue for remaining by calling Brexit a constitutional crisis, mount a campaign that declares the referendum voidable, and essentially force a second vote. This wouldn’t be unlike the EU’s attempts to force the Irish public to vote again on the Lisbon Treaty until they arrived at the desired outcome. We could call for more impact assessments and go down a very legalistic avenue of amendments and European Court of Justice (ECJ) challenges.
The second option is we get behind calls to remain in the single market and campaign alongside the Scottish government for the country (or at least Scotland) to remain. The third option is to concede that Brexit is happening and not on a left wing prospectus. We accept that it will be costly, there will be many pitfalls and any politician or political party will be in a weak position demanding anything from the EU in the exit deal.
All of these positions, or a mixture, are legitimate. But what’s important is we continue to strive for our overarching objectives, holding to our labour movement values throughout the process. It’s important not to look at Brexit as a specific policy outcome but as a background or context to our continuing strategic priorities regardless.
We have the capacity to bring together resources from across the labour market to identify what we need and want from a post-Brexit society, and we can produce a coherent and workable strategy to achieve this. An active, living and breathing movement spearheading this project would foster a level of political class consciousness sorely lacking in Scottish society since the independence referendum.
Brexit is being negotiated by a weak Tory government and an EU institution scrambling to hold on to power, so the left is unsurprisingly concerned about the fallout. What will it mean for EU citizens living and working in the UK? How will we fill the jobs they may vacate? How will we regulate working visas? How will we fund infrastructure and academic projects? And how do we ensure we (as a people, not as a nation) continue to maintain a relationship with other peoples?
Without understanding the processes and impacts to some degree, many people will simply not engage with Brexit, how important it is and the opportunities it might afford us. Many companies may leave the country due to Brexit, but we’re in a position to predict this, share this information with workers and prepare them for what will happen next.
Instead of burying our heads in the sand, we need to face these fears by doing the following: pull together information on EU budgets that will be lost e.g. education, enterprise, infrastructure etc; report on what Brexit could mean for progressive legislation/case law around human rights, workers’ rights, health and safety legislation, trade agreements and environmental targets; and host public meetings with EU academics, both Leave and Remain voters, trade unionists and migrants on topics such as the single market and what this will mean for capital and labour.
There’s much we can do to inspire hope, too. We need to dispel the myth that all EU law is more progressive than British law (for one example, under UK legislation we have higher minimum holiday entitlement than under the EU directive). We need to be clear that progressive legislation and rights enshrined in EU law have been implemented by a benevolent parliament as opposed to by campaigns fought and won by collectives of workers.
We should build on the idea of enforcement of rights and democratic control of our institutions. That includes nationalisation and ending procurement rules, which allow public money to be thrown at profit making companies like Carillion. We should pressure the Scottish Government to “govern as if in the early days of a new society” – that would include speeding up reviews and working groups set on building a Scottish national investment bank, a public infrastructure company, a publicly owned energy firm and so on.
Let’s continue to expand our practical solidarity for migrants and ensure that community-led initiative on language, culture sharing and unconscious bias training are part of all anti-racism work. And let’s discuss alternatives. For example, if we no longer have right of recourse to the ECJ, then we should have other adjudicators in Scotland and the UK. These should be drawn from a wider pool of judges and should allow cases to be heard in sufficient time. Other models of working (e.g. democratic workers’ cooperatives) may become more common place.
By ensuring we have an organic and palpable political movement, we – the working class and labour movement – can ensure our values of solidarity and collectivism are the principle factors taken into account if and when Brexit happens. Our current work in terms of ensuring funding for public services, winning wage rises for working people and keeping up with the changing labour market are all ongoing with or without Brexit.
Equipping workers with the tools to democratise their workplace in key industries, sectors and regions is vital to ensuring an inclusive post-Brexit society. Whatever campaign the wider left seeks to instigate or get involved in, we must ensure we’re placing responsibility for action in the hands of working class people. Why? Because whatever happens, there’s no silver bullet for radically changing society other than us.