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Brexit Has Divided the Left in the UK and Overshadowed Social Justice

Brexit has divided the left over issues that once united it, such as jobs, benefits and housing.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Fox Valley Shopping Park on September 13, 2019, in Sheffield, England.

With the election of Boris Johnson as the leader of the Conservative Party in Britain, the Brexit crisis has come to a head. Johnson has suspended Parliament and is threatening to withdraw Britain from the European Union without a deal.

David Renton is a British barrister, historian and longstanding socialist activist. He has written numerous books, including his most recent one with Haymarket titled, The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right. In this interview, Renton discusses the politics of Brexit and the rise of the new right in the United Kingdom. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Ashley Smith: The Brexit crisis has taken dramatic new turns under Boris Johnson. What are the latest developments?

David Renton: There are two. First, Boris Johnson decided to suspend, or as it’s technically called, “prorogue” Parliament. So, Parliament will not be back in session until the 14th of October.

Johnson threatened to expel Conservative members of Parliament who voted against him; when they did, he was left without a majority. He wants to get a Brexit deal through but doesn’t have the votes to pass it. So, he’s trying to keep them out of the building until as close to the decision day on October 31 as possible

Second, the Court of Session in Scotland ruled that Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament is unlawful. They saw private emails and cabinet minutes in which Johnson and his allies made it clear they intended to deny Parliament the right to deliberate over Brexit. This demonstrates a clear hostility toward tradition, constitutional norms and basic democracy.

Courts in England and Northern Ireland, however, have upheld Johnson’s decision, ruling it was within his rights as prime minister. Now the Supreme Court will have to decide whether to uphold the proroguing or declare it a violation of the rule of law. A struggle is taking place for control between the rival institutions of the British state.

Johnson’s decision provoked a furious response from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party as well as demonstrations outside Parliament. What did Labour do, and what were the protests like?

Labour denounced Johnson and his suspension of Parliament. One of the things you need to understand is that in Britain — unlike United States — the executive is not directly elected but acquires its legitimacy only second-hand, through its majority in the Commons.

The Labour Party said that Johnson, who had no majority in Parliament and therefore no right to rule as prime minister, was trying to overrule the democratically elected parliament.

With the opposition working together more closely than at any time since the Brexit referendum in 2016, 20,000 people protested in front of Parliament. There were two broad groups in the demonstrations. One was supporters of the liberal Democrats, the equivalent of the establishment in the [U.S.’s] Democratic Party. They wanted to agitate simply against Brexit and for remaining in the European Union (EU).

The other group was Corbyn supporters. They attacked Johnson for carrying out a coup to prevent Labour from taking down the Tories (the Conservative Party) and securing a majority in Parliament. The two groups were not there for the same reasons and were not united.

You could hear the difference between the two groups in the reception that the various speakers were given: Some were cheered, some were listened to in awkward silence. I don’t remember a demonstration of that size where the political character was as undecided. But, as the battle has become a legal one in the courts, the protests have died down.

Why has the Conservative Party opted for Brexit when so much of British capital is opposed to it?

Well, we should be clear that the Conservative Party did not initially support Brexit; it was not its plan A. When then-Prime Minister David Cameron held the referendum three years ago, he campaigned for “remain” and assumed that position would win. After “leave” won, the party has been a prisoner of events to some extent — improvising, looking for an answer.

In the process, a right-wing faction of the party has captured its leadership; they were not there six months ago, let alone three years ago. Its transformation has been stunning. For example, when Johnson won its leadership and became prime minister, he conducted an unprecedented cabinet reshuffle. Usually, when we have a reshuffle, the prime minister removes and replaces only a handful of people; Johnson purged three-quarters of the cabinet. This is only the most recent of several turnovers that have profoundly changed the politics and program of the Tories as it embraced Brexit and its right-wing politics.

The important point is that there is no one-to-one relationship between a class, its party and that party’s political program. People in a party fight over different programs for their class.

As I argue in The New Authoritarians, we have witnessed in many countries a convergence between traditional conservatives in capitalist parties and the far right outside them around policies of Islamophobia and the racialization of welfare.

In Britain, this is what’s happened to the Conservative Party. The faction represented by Boris Johnson is serious about the capitalist class dominating society, and they think Brexit is the best way to do it. Brexit was not the preferred option of most industrial capital, and most big business would still prefer the softest exit possible.

But Johnson is backed by some finance capitalists, and the sorts of global plutocrats that own, for example, our newspapers. They aren’t a majority of the business class, but they are a large enough minority to rule. [Johnson] has the mandate of the referendum, and even though he no longer has a majority in Parliament, he will continue to push for Brexit unless and until there is a new election and he loses it.

How has Johnson and this new right won electoral support in Britain?

They’ve used Brexit, xenophobia and Islamophobia as false solutions to real problems in society and have succeeded in creating a real electoral bloc. The majority of people who voted for Brexit were relatively rich: Brexit won in the wealthier areas of Britain, in seats that always vote Conservative.

The right also won a minority of the working class who were dependent on social welfare benefits and who had suffered severe cuts after the Great Recession. The right convinced them that they could protect their benefits by restricting immigration, and in particular, Muslim immigration.

For example, the official Leave camp’s main leaflet said that unless you vote for Brexit, the U.K. will be in the European Union with Turkey, a Muslim country. Turkey isn’t a member of the EU and won’t be any time soon, but the Leave camp claimed that millions of Muslims would come to Britain with their Muslim culture and take away British workers’ benefits. It even had arrows pointing from Turkey to Britain to make the threat of Muslim migration explicit.

The new authoritarian right is doing the same thing in every country. Increasingly, they are collaborating internationally in pursuing this program. That’s why Trump and others have supported Johnson’s authoritarian drive to push through Brexit. They see it as a way to pull politics further to the right throughout the world.

Brexit has provoked a crisis not only in the Conservative Party, but also in Labour. How have Corbyn and Labour positioned themselves on the question? What traps does the Party face?

The Labour Party strategy on Brexit has gone through two stages. Up until the European elections earlier this year, its basic approach was to say, “Let’s not talk about Brexit, let’s make politics about everything else. If we take a hard position either for or against leaving the EU, then we will lose people who might otherwise vote for Labour. We must prevent politics being reduced to Brexit.”

That approach did relatively well in the 2017 general election, but it did exceptionally badly in this year’s European election. It was not attractive to either side of the Brexit debate; it alienated both leave and remain voters. The more Brexit became the central question of British politics, the less it seemed that Labour had anything to say.

Since Johnson has prorogued Parliament, the Labour Party shifted their position to a soft remain stance. That, combined with their opposition to Johnson’s authoritarian way of ruling, has increased their popularity. While the Tories are ahead in the polls, their lead is down in some polls to 3 or 5 percent, which is narrow enough for Labour to head into an election with some possibility of winning.

But Labour faces traps in becoming a party committed to the remain camp. While this improves its standing with remain voters, it risks losing the support of the leave camp and permanently losing the support of a group of voters who had previously been Labour identifiers.

Labour fell into a similar trap in Scotland during the [2014] independence referendum. It faced an insurgent movement for independence, but the party opposed it and defended the existing order. In the process, it lost its entire working-class base to the Scottish National Party. The politics of Scottish independence and Brexit are not the same, but it would be a mistake if Labour felt like a party of the bad old ways rather than a party of change.

Labour faces other classic traps that have waylaid social democratic parties in the past. It could get caught in forming a government of national unity with parties to its right. Even if Corbyn wins a Labour majority — which seems unlikely — he would face real challenges in implementing his program. Only a small minority of Labour Parliament members are unambiguously on his side and will be forced to accommodate the party’s centrist wing.

This raises one of the points that you make in your book — that it’s not possible to stop the rise of the new right through the establishment parties and their status quo program. Why?

The right won the Brexit referendum, in part, by winning over a section of the working class suffering under neoliberalism and austerity. They offered a reactionary answer — stopping immigration — to problems such as the dramatic reduction of benefits since 2008.

You can’t win those voters back defending the status quo that’s ruining their lives, lowering their living standards and cutting their benefits. If you say to them: “Brexit, or a no-deal Brexit, would cut your living standards by 5 percent,” their answer will be: “I’ve lost more than 5 percent already.” That’s what the remain campaign said back in 2016, and that’s why it lost.

Instead you have to present a radical alternative to both the establishment parties’ neoliberalism and the right’s nationalist bigotry. You have to say, “We are absolutely committed to increasing your benefits, increasing your standard of living, and we will do that every year without fail.” And you have to challenge the racism, which the right uses to deflect blame from the system onto its victims.

Doing both is the only way you can defeat the new authoritarians. Corbyn’s Labour Party managed to do this at least for a while. He had real answers to real problems facing the working class; he challenged police racism, called attention to the housing crisis and campaigned for jobs. That’s why Labour did so well in the 2017 election.

But since Brexit has become the center of British politics, it has pushed those questions to the side and made it much harder for Corbyn and his allies in the Labour Party to put forward those social democratic answers. Even worse, he’s compromised on questions of migration. As a result, he looks less convincing than he did a couple of years ago.

Finally, Brexit has confounded the radical left, splitting it between remain and leave, and made it unable to put forth a viable alternative in the crisis. Why is this the case and what should the left do now?

We should start with honesty about the state of the [U.K.’s] far left. It’s very different than the left in the U.S., which is relatively united against Trump, whatever strategic differences various currents have about the Democratic Party. The left has helped build a broad united resistance to Trump’s racism, sexism and immigrant bashing.

The situation in Britain on the left is different. We are in the midst of a culture war over Brexit, and instead of uniting the left, that conflict has split the left down the middle, with equal numbers for leave and for remain. Each side assesses the issue in diametrically opposed ways.

Socialists who tactically opposed Brexit see leave supporters making concession to the right. Many of those who supported a left exit downplayed the xenophobia and Islamophobia that surrounded the referendum, and others have done far worse.

For example, some former members of the Communist Party have become full-time workers for the right, laundering money from right-wing millionaires into fake “socialist” or “trade union” campaigns for leave. There are even former Trotskyists running as candidates for far-right parties. It’s shameful to watch them playing up their previous histories on the left.

Conversely, socialists who supported leave in order to oppose the neoliberal takeover of EU look askance at the left in the remain camp. They point out how left remainers fail to criticize the EU’s undemocratic nature, its commitment to neoliberalism and austerity and its complicity in the drowning of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean.

Left remainers will make these criticisms, but privately — only among friends. They fail to campaign around them; they have very little sense of how to make the EU reform.

Such deep disagreements on the far left has made it very difficult to unite it on almost anything. This division will not be overcome through programs, but in action on the street. We saw modest but real reasons for hope when almost the whole far left supported the protests in opposition to Johnson’s proroguing Parliament.

With that immediate struggle dying down, there are some other battles where a new unity could be built. It could develop around campaigns in defense of our friends and neighbors who are facing the risk of deportation in the event of Brexit. It’s up to the left to defend them — to protest against the Home Office; to occupy the airports.

You can also see glimmers of hope in the climate justice movement, which is developing into a powerful and exciting struggle. It began with school student strikes, developed into Extinction Rebellion, and now our trade union federation, the Trades Union Congress, has called for 30-minute actions in all the organized workplaces across the country for the September 20 climate strike. Unity on the left and the forging of a new political alternative to the left of Labour will only come through such struggles.

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