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No return to the failed ‘centrist’ policies of warmed-over neoliberalism

IN THE heady days that followed David Cameron’s ill-fated referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, it rapidly became clear that Britain stood on the brink of epochal political change.

For trade unionists demanding an end to public spending cuts and wage freezes, the Brexit vote let the genie of popular revolt out of the neoliberal bottle.

Trades council delegates meeting this weekend to debate and discuss the issues facing trade unionists in 2018 should be confident and filled with hope that Britain stands ready to sweep away Tory austerity, anti-trade union laws and foodbanks and replace them with a Labour government that will renationalise mail, rail and energy companies, invest in public services and the NHS.

But these policies are only possible and achievable because of the British electorate’s historic vote to leave the EU.

As has frequently been pointed out in the pages of the Morning Star and increasingly by academics such as Thomas Fazi, Joe Guinan and Costas Lapatvistas, the prerequisite for a Corbyn-led Labour government to end austerity is for Britain to leave the EU, which has bound its member states to accept austerity as a constitutional requirement through its Stability and Growth Pact.

Equally, Labour policies of renationalisation of key sectors of the British economy could not be carried out as long as Britain remains a member of the EU or is tied to the rules of the EU single market.

Within hours of the surprise referendum result in 2016, a Tory prime minister had resigned and the Tory Party men in grey coats were busy installing Theresa May on the basis of her reputation as “a safe pair of hands,” incredible as it seems to recall today.

Within days of her coronation as Britain’s new unelected Tory PM, the Maybot had sacked George Osborne — architect of Tory austerity — and made vacuous pronouncements of wage rises for low-paid workers, an end to austerity and of course that “Brexit means Brexit.”

The reaction of the Parliamentary Labour Party to the referendum result — the largest democratic vote in British history — was even more striking.

Within weeks a so-called “chicken coup” unleashed co-ordinated resignations by shadow cabinet members from “soft left” to “centrist” right.

What they all had in common was a total incomprehension that over 17 million British voters were demanding change and could contemplate Britain’s future outside the EU.

Jeremy Corbyn’s subsequent triumph over the stillborn candidacy of his self-styled “centre-left” challenger Owen Smith (remember him?) confirmed that Labour Party members have no desire to return to the failed “centrist” policies of warmed-over neoliberalism.

Corbyn’s inspirational leadership at the 2017 general election won Labour 13.9 million votes, the largest share of the popular vote since 1945. 

These votes were inspired not just by the decency and strength of the man who leads Labour, but by the programme that Labour offered For the Many, Not the Few.

Yet the humiliating collapse of the centrist challenge of 2016 led by Smith is being repeated farcically and insidiously today by a hotchpotch of avowedly left-wing campaigners, who risk fatally undermining Labour’s programme for public ownership and investment through their pro-EU obsessions.

By calling for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn to either agree to hold a second referendum on the terms of Brexit (best of three perhaps?) or to align with pro-EU rightwingers in Progress and Labour First in openly reversing the democratic verdict of Britain’s referendum on EU membership, they are advocating a course of action that is electorally damaging and politically harmful.

Keeping Britain inside the EU, the single market and the customs union would place handcuffs on Corbyn and McDonnell’s programme for a radical redistribution of power and wealth on Britain in favour of the working class — which is why Chukka Umuna, Alison McGovern and Alastair Campbell all call for it so loudly.

Trade unionists who understand better than most the need for real change in Britain must not give succour to the latest incarnation of the chicken coup.

British voters voted to leave the EU. It will be up to a Labour government with the support of the whole trade union and labour movement to show how it can be done.

Alex Gordon is former president of the RMT.

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