In the end Boris Johnson’s Brexit ‘do or die’ bluster was just that. Rather than be blamed for a no-deal crash-out on 31 October, after MPs voted on ‘super Saturday’ not to approve his withdrawal treaty until it had completed its legislative journey – and be open, therefore, to amendment – Johnson sullenly applied to the European Union for an extension to the Brexit deadline.
And so, at the time of writing (October 22), all possible outcomes to the protracted negotiations to agree a withdrawal treaty between Britain and the remaining EU27 member states are still in play. This was supposed to be the easy part of Brexit, before talks begin on the future relationship including a trade deal.
Johnson’s withdrawal treaty could still scrape through parliament. An eventual no-deal crash-out is also not excluded: particularly if the so-called ‘one nation’ Tories, the Liberal Democrats and Blairite Labour MPs continue to balk at bringing down Johnson – because that opens up the possibility of a Corbyn-led government – before the new Brexit deadline.
There is no neat solution at hand for the capitalists and their political representatives to deal with the seismic consequences of the June 2016 vote to leave the EU bosses’ club. There are still many Brexit battles to come, for which the labour and trade union movement must be prepared.
Dumping the DUP
The workers’ movement should unequivocally reject Johnson’s withdrawal agreement proposals from its own class standpoint.
Ninety-five per cent of the deal is the same as the 585-page withdrawal treaty and the accompanying political declaration on future relations agreed by Theresa May and the EU27 last year, which was subsequently defeated three times in parliament. But there are some significant differences.
Most substantial is the status of Northern Ireland. Under May’s proposals the whole of the UK would have remained in a customs union with the EU unless and until alternative arrangements could have been made in a new trade deal to avoid the establishment of a customs border on the island of Ireland, the much talked-of ‘backstop’.
There was, in reality, no prospect of capitalist politicians reaching an agreement that could recognise the national, religious and cultural differences – and the economic needs of the working class across Ireland – while not threatening workers’ unity. But Johnson’s proposal to ‘solve’ the issue by effectively leaving Northern Ireland within the EU’s economic jurisdiction will dangerously escalate sectarian tensions, spilling over into Britain too as in the past.
For this reason alone the workers’ movement can give no support to Johnson’s deal.
Less than a year after telling the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) conference that he would oppose a Northern Ireland-only backstop – with a regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea – Johnson is now proposing just such an arrangement.
There will be checks at what he called “points of entry” into Northern Ireland at which, according to the official text, if EU officials “request the authorities of the UK to carry out control measures in individual cases”, they will have to comply.
Forty-eight of the 64 pages of the new Ireland protocol are just lists of EU regulations that will continue to apply only in Northern Ireland. Tariffs, and potentially different VAT rates, will be paid on goods crossing from Britain, with a mechanism to claim them back if the goods remain within Northern Ireland.
Johnson’s solemn promise to the DUP was indeed so much small change – trade in goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland is about £4 billion a year, and between Britain and Northern Ireland £11 billion – compared to the bigger goal of taking mainland Britain out of the EU customs union.
A Trump-deal Brexit
The other major change to Theresa May’s deal was to move commitments in the legally-binding withdrawal treaty to maintain a ‘level playing field’ with the EU into the non-binding political declaration on future relations. These refer to EU rules and regulations, including those on workers’ rights and environmental standards, which May’s deal had kept as a legal baseline below which UK standards could not fall.
Alongside the abandonment of the Northern Ireland backstop and the change in the political declaration from the “close economic partnership” envisaged in May’s deal, to a looser, more basic free trade agreement, Johnson is signalling a turn to an even more deregulated British capitalism.
The EU itself is an agreement between the different national capitalist classes of Europe to create the largest possible common regulatory economic area for European multinational corporations to maximise their profits with the least possible obstacles.
But, just as Karl Marx explained how in the development of capitalism in each nation state, big capital – under the “cry for equality of competition” – used factory legislation on wages and working hours as a tool to crush smaller rivals who could not afford such measures, so EU negotiations have sometimes produced environmental regulations and social provisions that improve workers’ conditions.
These are now in Johnson’s sights, provoking German chancellor Angela Merkel to warn of post-Brexit Britain as ‘Singapore-on-the-Thames’, a low-tax, low-regulation “potential competitor” to the EU. “In addition” – although substantially more puny she might have added – “to China and the USA”.
But the working-class movement cannot have a policy of relying on the accidental by-products of the struggle of one grouping of capitalists against another to defend its interests, including legal protections.
The EU is a bosses’ club, institutionalising arrangements between the capitalist classes of its member states to exploit the working class on a continental scale. The workers’ movement should oppose it, not by backing Johnson’s deal but with policies of its own.
Once again, the referendum question
Asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show in September whether it was possible to be better off out of the EU, Jeremy Corbyn replied that, obviously, it “depends on the agreement you have with the EU outside”.
One thing that Johnson’s deal has shown is that it is possible to change the withdrawal agreement. Reopening negotiations on the basis of opposition to all those EU rules that go against the interests of the working class, like those on state aid, market liberalisation of public services, or the austerity-driving European fiscal compact – and appealing to workers across Europe for support – would transform the Brexit talks.
Corbyn’s policy is to negotiate for a Brexit deal which includes “a new customs union with the EU; a close single market relationship; and guarantees of workers’ rights and environmental protections”, as he wrote in a Guardian article (18 September). This, he went on, would form the basis of a “credible leave alternative” which would be put to a confirmatory referendum against the option of remaining in the EU.
In contrast to the Blairite remainers agitating for a referendum before a general election – with the effective aim of reversing the 2016 result – in which Johnson’s deal is the leave option, Corbyn’s approach at least has a chance to appeal to workers across the Brexit divide.
Referendums, it is true, are not the ‘normal’ method of struggle of the workers’ movement, compared to collective action like demonstrations, strikes and occupations, or a working-class party participating in an election. Counterposed to the possibility of a workers’ party taking governmental power, a referendum could be used to divert the working class.
But there is not a workers’ party vying for power in Britain at this point.
Jeremy Corbyn’s continued leadership of the Labour Party in the face of the Blairite saboteurs means that the potential remains for it to be transformed into a mass workers’ party with a socialist programme. That potential, however, is still far from being realised, ideologically or organisationally, and not least in the continued domination of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) by the Blairites.
Even if the result of an early general election is a Labour majority, Corbyn would effectively be at the head of a minority government, this time with the capitalist opposition organising against him involving a substantial part of his ‘own side’ in the PLP. He will only be able to move forward on implementing his policies by mobilising the working class in his support.
In those circumstances, if Corbyn was able to negotiate a pro-worker Brexit deal, a confirmatory referendum in which he headed a campaign for his deal could be used by the workers’ movement to organise its forces and, at the same time, inflict a blow on the ruling class and its Blairite agents.
By putting rejection of the EU’s austerity demands to a referendum in July 2015, the Syriza government in Greece rallied nearly a million extra votes compared to the numbers that had voted for it in January that year.
That was a 35% increase – against a ferocious campaign by the ruling class to accept EU diktats. The problem was not the principle of whether to organise a referendum but the fact that, having called on the Greek masses to resist, the Alexis Tsipras leadership of Syriza then abjectly capitulated!
Ultimately, there was no force with sufficient weight in the working class with a clear socialist programme, and the will to carry it out, to take the necessary, decisive measures against capitalism in Greece, like capital controls and nationalisation of the banks, while appealing to the European working class for support.
This is the key lesson from the experience of the Greek referendum for a possible Corbyn-led government, not the fact that a referendum was held.
Volatility the new normal
The need to organise around bold socialist policies is also the lesson to be learnt for the forthcoming general election, whenever it is held.
Opinion polls currently show an average 34% score for the Tories. This is down on the 43% share they won in the 2017 general election but could still be sufficient for a narrow majority for Johnson, or another hung parliament.
In 2017, of course, May lost a 21-point lead, but has the continuing ideological fog of Brexit ruled out a repeat?
This is certainly the view of much of the establishment media commentariat.
Responding to Corbyn’s Labour Party conference speech that a Johnson Brexit is really “about a small right-wing group who are trying to hijack the referendum result to rip up our rights and protections to shift even more power and wealth to those at the top”, Tony Blair’s former speechwriter, Philip Collins, commented that Corbyn was trying to “recast Brexit, which is a question of identity, in the language of class”. But these “traditional terms”, Collins went on, “left v right, class v class… are precisely the distinctions that Brexit is breaking”. (The Times, 25 September)
On the other hand the super-rich have not been so sanguine about the class war being over – the number with ‘non-dom’ tax status has fallen by 13% in the past year, with fear of a Corbyn-led government a major contributory factor in their exit from the UK, according to tax lawyers.
What is indisputable, however, is that stable party loyalties are no more. The latest British Election Study, a series first published in 1964, found its greatest ever levels of electoral volatility, with 49% of voters over the three elections of 2010, 2015 and 2017 not voting for the same party each time.
The authors contrasted this with the 1960s, when “maybe 85 to 90 per cent of people would vote the same way between elections, more or less whatever happened in politics”.
The stability then was a product of the long post-war boom which was able to sustain significant concessions to the working class. That era is long gone.
Even if Johnson’s withdrawal agreement gets through parliament there will be new Brexit battles to come as the transition-phase negotiations begin with the EU – against a backdrop in which all the institutions and instruments that the capitalists have relied on historically to maintain their rule have been deeply undermined.
The vacuum can be filled by the working-class movement, but only with a clear socialist programme.