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Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry are correct on Brexit

Friday 28 June 2019, by Alan Davies

The Corbyn project is in crisis. The EU elections results were a disaster for Labour, brought about by a major failure by the Corbyn leadership. It was an election that Labour could have won and within the terms of the policy agreed by conference last year, but this policy was repeatedly watered down by the front bench.

This is a crisis that is a direct threat to the most important development ever on the left in Britain in modern times; the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, which has opened up a real prospect of a left anti-austerity government at a time when world politics is moving to the right. That prospect is still there but the Labour leadership’s stance on Brexit, the issue that defines politics in Britain at the present time, is going to have to change.

Labour not only saw its vote collapse, but it managed to facilitate both the rise of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and of the semi-dead Lib Dems – putting them centre-stage at a very dangerous period of time. Emily Thornberry was absolutely right when she said on BBC, immediately after the vote, that this was because Labour had refused to be clear on the one thing that people wanted them to be clear on in those elections: i.e. where Labour stood on Brexit.

Labour haemorrhaged votes to the Lib Dems and the Greens because those parties were unequivocally pro-remain and for a second referendum in order to achieve it and Labour was not – even after it had become clear that the Brexit that people were promised in 2016 was not on offer. The combined Lib Dems and Green Party share of the vote increased by more than 10 points. Many of these were disillusioned Labour remainers who defected to these parties in the knowledge that they could let Farage in.

Had Labour placed itself at the head of the growing anti-Brexit movement the result could have been very different. Overall, the European election vote was pro-remain with pro-remain at 40.3%. and hard Brexit at 34.9%. The Brexit party result was no surprise. It is not a new party as Farage claims but UKIP mark 2. UKIP polled 28%in the last EU election and this transferred to Brexit with some additional votes mostly from the Tories.

Although Labour went on to win the Peterborough by-election – which was important in that it denied momentum to the Brexit Party at this point – it did so on a reduced vote and because the Brexit vote was split (equally according to John Curtice) between the Brexit party and the Tories and reflected the same underlying situation. The Labour candidate, Lisa Forbes, who beat the Brexit party by just 683 votes, argued that her campaign had been successful because it had ignored Brexit and concentrated on local issues. This is a seriously wrong analysis that has been widely accepted on the Labour left and in particular by Momentum.

Despite SR’s long held opposition to the EU as a neoliberal, anti-working class project, it has been against Brexit since the referendum was announced by Cameron in 2016. This was because the Brexit on offer was, and still is, a project of the hard right shaped by racism, xenophobia, English nationalism, and nostalgia for Empire. A Brexit that would fuel racism and shift the political situation in Britain, and indeed beyond, sharply to the right. The recent election results have only reinforced that view.

Labour’s position

Labour was right originally to respect the result of the referendum, but wrong to cling to this position when it became clear that was not deliverable without unacceptable damage to society and a hard border in Ireland between Britain and the EU. It then compounded the problem by advocating its own so-called soft Brexit when no such thing existed. The discussions with May went on even after it became clear that she had no intention of shifting an inch and was using them as a ploy to get a further extension.