On Saturday 22 September the Labour Party assembles in Liverpool for its annual conference. On Sunday 23 September, 12 noon, the People’s Vote March for the Many will form up outside St George’s Hall and march to the Pier Head. Their demand: that the Labour conference should discuss and vote on motions for a new referendum to sort out the mess that is Brexit.
It’s crunch time. Britain is circling the drain, and will shortly pass the point of no return where we can’t stop going down the plughole and into the very nasty cesspit of ‘no deal Brexit’.
Theresa May’s Chequers plan, that last pathetic attempt to get a ‘have your cake and eat it’ Brexit, has been killed twice, first by David Davis/Boris Johnson and then by Michel Barnier, although it staggers on as a zombie. Theresa May’s only real remaining hope now is the so-called ‘blind Brexit’: a dodgy deal a few pages long which keeps the lorries moving at Dover on 30 March, but which kicks forward most of the details of future arrangements.
The problem with such a blind Brexit deal is that if we accept it, then when after we leave the EU on 29 March and become in EU terms a ‘third country’, they will take us to the cleaners. Meanwhile, Donald Trump and every other country in the World Trade Organisation, is waiting in the wings to take us to the cleaners too. We will discover the hard way that in this world, when you don’t have a strategically secure economy – and Britain doesn’t – you get kicked around.
So British MPs won’t accept a blind Brexit, and the risk will be that the EU will close down the negotiations and start focusing on its own preparations for Britain crashing out with no deal.
Bank of England governor Mark Carney has told Theresa May’s cabinet that a no deal Brexit could be as crippling as the 2008 financial crisis. As Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism points out, “Carney is wrong: a crash-out would be worse… The UK government will be utterly overwhelmed. It will face real economy problems it is not remotely equipped to handle, and worse, for which it is making hardly any preparation, and will also be hit with stress to its banking system and a probable banking crisis.”
In these circumstances, any hopes any of us might have for making the North of England a better place, with a stronger, fairer, greener economy; an independent media; rescued public services; revived neighbourhoods, villages and town centres; all underpinned by genuinely democratic civic society – we can forget them. That’s why Northern Umbrella has suspended working on these things to focus exclusively on stopping the Brexit madness.
We do have a way out. It’s called withdrawing our Article 50 notification and remaining in the EU. Best for Britain calls it the big red button to stop Brexit. The only way to make that step democratic is to hold a new referendum.
Although a new referendum will be welcomed by the many Leave voters across the North who have now changed their mind and want to Remain, it will be viewed with suspicion by those who voted for Brexit as a signal that they wanted real change.
It will therefore be paramount that the new Remain campaign shows how Remain will come with a guarantee of a better North. It will be disastrous to offer nothing except going back to 23 June 2016. This task was explored in depth at Leeds for Europe’s fantastic, inspiring conference on 8 September. The job was summed up perfectly in the event’s title: The Great Northern Stop Brexit Conference – Creating A Vision of a New Britain Without Brexit. (See report here.)
Decision time: Corbyn – in for Britain?
The new, mass-membership Labour party can and should be at the forefront of creating and delivering this new North. Labour now has 540,000 members who are overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit.
‘Lexit’ (left wing Brexit) is stone dead. Although there are principled theoretical positions on the left of Labour against the EU, it has now been demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that in practice we cannot retrieve the British egg from the EU omelette without immense damage, and that Brexit would only put power in the hands of the global billionaire class and their extreme right wing “nationalist international”.
A crucial development over the summer has been that mainstream pro-Corbyn, anti-Brexit Labour party members have finally got out of the shadow of grotesques like Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, who have put using Brexit as a weapon in their dirty war to recapture control of the Labour party above the actual job of stopping Brexit. Not unreasonably, given the siege Corbyn has been under from these truly horrible people, Corbyn supporters have been shy of causing a big fuss over Brexit. But, thankfully, this has all now changed.
Over the summer, Another Europe is Possible has been going all over the country with their Left Against Brexit tour. Over 100 constituency Labour parties have passed motions in favour of a referendum, and Labour members now feel they can say what they think about Brexit, without their position being twisted by Blairites to be used in their vendetta against Corbyn.
Meanwhile, Best for Britain’s polling has shown that the tide has turned against Brexit in the North, with a huge swing in opinion among Leave voters who live in Northern cities and towns – traditional Labour areas.
And now, in a real game-changer, the trades unions have come out for a referendum. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady made the case in a very straightforward and relatable way. Polls show that members of Unite, GMB and Unison now want a referendum by a margin of 2 to 1.
Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy on Brexit to date has been to try to keep his head down whilst the Tories tear themselves apart over it. The line has been: the Tories are buggering up the Brexit negotiations; give us a general election and let us come into power and do a better job. Not unreasonable – Brexit was not Labour’s idea, the Brexit vote result was not Labour’s fault, but many working people, not least in the North of England, voted for it. Keir Starmer’s tests for Theresa May’s Brexit deal (including David Davis’s own promise of Brexit offering “the exact same benefits of EU membership”) were good and clever.
But that strategy has now run out of road. Time’s up. There is no longer enough time to have a general election, elect a Corbyn government, and restart negotiations with the EU. All there is time for now is a referendum on whatever sorry exit deal Theresa May comes back from Brussels with.
So, the Labour annual party conference in Liverpool is the perfect time for Corbyn to announce his support for an updated new policy, demanding a referendum, and unite the Labour movement around it. It is the perfect chance, but it is also the last chance. In Liverpool, it’s Brexit crunch time.
Labour and the new North – part of the solution, but also part of the problem
Let us not kid ourselves that when it comes to the problem of renewing the North of England, today’s Labour party in the North is on its own the solution. It is certainly part of the solution, but not all of it.
Because so many Labour MPs in the North are very much part of the problem: their support for the unreformed Westminster Labour-Tory duopoly system of single member seats, the majority of which are safe and barely contested at elections. Similarly, the support of the Labour establishment for the democratic disgrace of the first past the post system for local council elections, and no elections for regional bodies at all. The best thing Scotland ever did was break the stranglehold of ‘first past the post’ on its politics.
We need democratic reform – as the Sheffield Green Party’s Natalie Bennett said at the Great North Stop Brexit Conference, we need to make the North an actual democracy, because currently, it isn’t. Some good Labour MPs, such as the Yorkshire MP Jon Trickett, get this and are moving on it. Too many others aren’t – and that includes Corbynistas. But that’s a debate for another day, and another post on Northern Umbrella.
The key thing to do now is to unite the North against Brexit, and recognise that to do that, we need the Labour party on board. Please join the march in Liverpool on Sunday 23 September.
This is what a successful speech outside St George’s Hall looks like. Show ’em how it’s done, Bill.