Jack Conrad (Weekly Worker 28 March 2019) says “the UK is in the grip of a profound constitutional crisis” and “the left must reject referendum as a matter of principle” and instead “we need our own programme and our own tactics”.
The first and last of these three statements are undoubtedly correct. A “profound constitutional crisis” and the need for “our own programme and our own tactics” go together. But the meaty “principle” in the sandwich is surely infected with mad cow disease. Nice bread but crap sandwich.
Let us ignore the constitutional crisis and concentrate on programme and tactics by contrasting three examples – Corbyn-Labour, Labour Party Marxists and a working class democratic programme and tactics.
The Corbyn-Labour Party accepts the 2016 referendum result and is in favour of leaving the EU by securing a customs union and close regulatory alignment. Labour calls for a general election and is prepared to support a second remain referendum. This places Labour in a dangerous position just to the left of the Tories.
The Labour Party Marxists seem to support a British (or UKanian) republic etc. This is like the CPGB programme from ten or twenty years before Cameron’s Brexit referendum. It has little or nothing to say about Brexit except to oppose a second referendum.
A democratic programme supports Northern Ireland and Scotland remaining in the EU and England and Wales leaving the EU but not the single market or customs union. Such a democratic exit recognises the ‘will of the people’ which, despite its obvious flaws, remains valid until working class opinion changes significantly.
A democratic exit is totally opposed to every kind of British Exit whether Tory or Labour. Of course no democrat would try to impose a democratic exit on the people. So this includes the democratic demand for a ratification referendum on any deal.
All this is located in the struggle between ‘reactionaries’ and ‘liberals’ which Jack describes in his article. The reactionaries are opposed to another second referendum because they don’t trust the people and fear voters will betray them. The liberals want a second referendum to overthrow the 2016 vote. This must include a Remain question, otherwise it has no purpose.
The EU is, as Jack describes, a capitalist semi-state with “anti-union laws” and a “constitutional commitment to the market and neo-liberalism” which has imposed “barbaric austerity on Spain, Portugal and Greece” and more. Yet this is not a case for leaving the EU because outside will be worse.
Working class democracy is not neutral between ‘reactionaries’ and ‘liberals’. The future of democracy is in Europe not outside it. We need an independent democratic programme which links our democratic future with the future of European democracy. The starting point is the democratic questions thrown up by the 2016 referendum.
Groucho Marx famously said “these are my principles and if you don’t like them …well, I have others”. Labour Party Marxists generally oppose all referenda on principle. But Jack argues they could call a referendum or participate in voting either for or against any proposition on the ballot paper.
I won’t now go over the argument that referenda are tactical questions not matters of principle. Suffice to say that ‘principles’ cannot distinguish between a ratification referendum and repeating the 2016 referendum with the intention of reversing it.
The liberals are fighting for a second referendum. Working class democrats are opposed to that, not because of some fake ‘principles’ but simply because it is the wrong time and the wrong approach to a divided working class.
With Corbyn talking about a deal with May, working class democrats have to make the democratic case that any dodgy deal must be put to working people for ratification in a referendum, whether a Tory or a Labour deal or a Tory-Labour deal.
The problem with Jack’s ‘no referendum’ principles is that it is incapable of distinguishing between a ratification referendum, like on the Good Friday Agreement, and a second referendum like Scotland’s plans for IndieRef2 or recognising the duplicitous liberals using the former as camouflage for the latter.