The United Kingdom is set to face fresh elections on December 12, the second round of polls triggered by the fallout of the Brexit referendum in 2016. This is also the third election to be held in just over four years. In the years since the Brexit referendum, the British polity has severely been fractured on the modalities of the deal to leave the European Union. Two prime ministers have resigned and both the Conservative and Labour parties have seen grave divisions on the issue.
The latest elections were called after prime minister Boris Johnson failed to win parliamentary approval for his version of Brexit and was functioning without a parliamentary majority. Shortly before the polls were called, Peoples Dispatch (PD) spoke to Martin Hall, from the Leave-Fight-Transform (LeFT) campaign on a radical view of Brexit and the path ahead. The LeFT Campaign is a new grassroots network of socialists, trade unionists and community activists, committed to democracy, internationalism and socialism. The group has been working to make sure that the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum is implemented in order to provide a platform for a transformative government.
Peoples Dispatch (PD): According to the LeFT campaign, why should there be Brexit, and in what ways should it take place? What sort of a Brexit would be beneficial for the common people of Britain?
Martin Hall (MH): Brexit is vital for a radical, transformative government. The EU is the only state-like institution in the world that has capitalism written into it at a treaty-level. The right of capital to establish itself wherever it likes is institutionalized within its framework. It is a barrier to socialism and even to a return to social democracy. Brexit is a way to revitalize popular democracy and sovereignty from an internationalist perspective, and can be an example for the working classes across Europe. However, it needs to be shaped by the left, to state the obvious. The vote to leave the EU was a symptom of a deeper malaise, which is the slow, crushing breakdown of neo-liberal capitalism. For thirty years, prior to the Brexit vote, neo-liberal orthodoxy reigned supreme – and it resulted in declining real wages, attacks on workers’ rights, the gutting and commodification of public services and the hollowing out of democracy at every level. These tendencies were exacerbated after 2008, with the imposition of brutal austerity measures and the proliferation of precarious work, homelessness and food banks. The veneer of ‘rights’ handed down by the EU in which, of course, Britain acted as the vanguard, has provided no protection against these developments. .
PD: In your opinion, what ought to take place in the UK, a Brexit with a ‘fair’ deal or a no-deal Brexit? What will be the consequences?
MH: Brexit must be tied to the campaign for a radical and transformative Labour government. This would require a clean break with the EU institutions. As there is no support within the Labour Party for a no-deal Brexit, this means that the labor movement will have to try and cohere around whatever deal Labour presents in the future. The point is to get a left version of Brexit pushed by the Labour leadership out into the labor movement and beyond. Ideally, this would have happened from 2016, but it did not, so we are where we are. The consequence of the current policy will be a second referendum, which will unleash vile, reactionary forces, more so than what we witnessed in 2016. LeFT are not in favor of a second referendum. However, as a counterpoint, if it does take place, then there will be a ‘left’ version of the Brexit on the table, and that is incredibly important. Voting to leave the EU in that referendum will therefore be a vote for a left government’s version of Brexit, which has the potential to change the material and perceived character of what Brexit is. Though to repeat, we would rather not have a second referendum if it results in a vote to remain within the EU. The first referendum result should be implemented. It is also worth remembering that at the time of the first referendum, people were not asked for a particular version of Brexit, but whether they wished to leave or remain.
PD: With respect to the European Parliamentary elections of 2019, on the one hand, sections in Britain, including the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), campaigned to boycott the polls on the ground that the majority of the people of Britain had already opted to move out of the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum. In the elections, the Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farrage, emerged as the largest contingent to Brussels, displacing the Conservatives and Labour. What are the reasons for this and the characteristics of such a mandate? What will be its implications?
MH: There were a number of responses on the left to these elections, which no leave voices on the left wanted. One was indeed the boycott organised by the CPB; others held their noses and voted for Labour, often for candidates who were very pro-remain. I think the mandate of the Brexit Party from the EU elections is pretty thin. The turn-out was merely 36.9%, with the number of people voting just over half of that during the 2016 referendum. The results seemed to suggest that ‘ultras’ on both sides of the Brexit debate turned out proportionately more than the rest of the population. The Lib Dem swing, wherever it occurred, may be attributed to the Tories not voting as much, rather than being seen as any genuine uptick in the Lib Dems’ fortunes. The Brexit Party clearly got a lot of votes from disaffected Tories and not a small amount from pro-Brexit sections within Labour as well, particularly in traditional Labour strongholds outside the big cities. There is a lack of understanding among sections of the Labour movement regarding the Brexit Party, which has received some working class votes as well. This was picked up at the Trade Councils’ annual conference.
However, the context for these elections was marred by confusion over several issues. It wasn’t clear if the elections were taking place until late in the day and only a few people voted. Among them, a significant section voted for candidates to represent them in an institution they wish to leave. In short, neither can we predict the outcome of the general election, nor read a great deal into the Brexit Party’s success. They managed only a little over 5 million votes, so in crude terms, about 30% of the ‘leave’ vote from 2016. This suggests that voting to leave does not equal voting for a right populist party.