The decision of the High Court that the government must allow Parliament a say in the issue of Brexit is a bombshell with wide, and perhaps even unforeseen, effects. It could lead to a general election next year which in turn will widen even further the endemic splits within the Tory Party. As shown by the resignation of Tory MP Stephen Phillips over the government’s handling of Brexit and of Zac Goldsmith over the third runway at Heathrow, these splits are already of Grand Canyon proportions!
Moreover, if it appears that the will of the people has been overturned by three unelected judges, and then confirmed by the Supreme Court, that could lead to mass opposition on the streets – which the far right and Ukip will seek to capitalise on. In Ireland in 2008 the population voted against the Lisbon Treaty of the European Union – only to be sent back to the polls just 16 months later for the ruling class to get the result they wanted! The Lisbon Treaty itself was only created to get around the rejection three years earlier of the EU Constitution by referenda in France and the Netherlands.
However Britain now is not in the same situation as these countries were then. There has been a build-up of massive discontent and such a move would result in mass resistance. The referendum result was not just about the EU but was an expression of mass revulsion at the social conditions that have developed in Britain. There is brewing mass discontent powered by worsening conditions of life for huge swathes of people who are only managing to keep their heads above water by accumulating even more debt. The total household debt in the UK now tops £1.5 trillion.
This court case has illustrated the sheer hypocrisy of all wings of the ruling class. The Daily Mail poses as the defender of the people with its headline drawn from Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, ‘Enemy of the People,’ referring to the three judges.
The so-called ‘liberal’ press has outdone itself from the opposite perspective, rushing to defend the ‘independence’ of the judiciary. The Observer denounced the Mail and Telegraph: “Castigating the judges and by extension, anybody who has the effrontery to agree with them, is exactly what the hard Tory Brexiters and their accomplices in the lie factories of Fleet Street have resorted to with a venom, vindictiveness and vituperation remarkable even by their standards.”
The truth of the matter is that the judiciary is not independent – it is drawn largely from the rich and powerful, linked to the capitalist class. Any striking worker who has been threatened with an injunction knows this. The ‘independent’ judiciary jailed the Tolpuddle Martyrs and many of those – including 34 of our own members – who fought against and refused to pay the unfair Poll Tax.
Theresa May has appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn the decision. But if the decision stands, what are its implications? First of all, it will mean a battle in the House of Commons and the House of Lords aimed against a ‘hard Brexit’ – opposition to withdrawal from the single market and to limits on immigration etc. The majority of MPs supported a Remain vote. If the House of Lords were to help to overturn Brexit, it could lead to a mood in favour of the abolition of that undemocratic body.
May, with her slim majority, could be forced to try to engineer an early general election. This would be welcomed by the Blairites who are, as we have pointed out, ‘counterrevolutionary defeatists’. They would hope for a Labour Party defeat to then use against Jeremy Corbyn in a third coup.
As part of their campaign, those who welcomed the judges’ decision will once more argue the ‘progressiveness’ of the EU. Incredibly, this is backed up by the Trade Union Congress which goes along with playing up the EU for allegedly defending trade union rights. In reality, most workers’ rights – for example equal pay for women – did not begin from EU legislation but through workers’ struggles here in Britain. What’s more, even when advances were introduced by the EU, the bosses have found ways around them – for example by cutting full time jobs to get around the maximum 48-hour week enshrined in the Working Time Directive.
The EU remains a neoliberal project which at heart means more privatisations, worsening conditions such as through the gig economy, falling pay, etc. Only the actions of the working class itself, through trade unions, is able to achieve lasting reforms of better conditions and wages. In fact a left Jeremy Corbyn-led government implementing measures in the interests of the working class, like the nationalisation of the railways, would quickly come into conflict with the institutions and legislation of the EU.
Jeremy Corbyn has said that only on the basis of workers’ rights and conditions being defended will he allow Article 50 to go through. It is good that he has emphasised defending workers’ rights, but it is a mistake to give the impression that he would consider blocking Brexit by voting down Article 50. Tom Watson has flatly contradicted him, and this statement could be used to undermine Corbyn. It is also a mistake for Corbyn to include access to the single market in his demands for Brexit, if by that he means acceptance of its neoliberal rules.
Jeremy Corbyn’s position related to Brexit has to be linked to policies and action like those that have brought him victory in two leadership elections. This includes rent control, council house building, a £10 an hour minimum wage, an end to zero-hour contracts. It must also be linked to a radical socialist programme, including the nationalisation of basic industries.
Without this, the Corbyn movement will be powerless, especially in the teeth of a new economic crisis, which is on the horizon. This has been shown in Greece where Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras – elected on a more radical programme than Corbyn has advanced – is moving further and further to the right.
Jeremy Corbyn is correct to say that Labour would welcome a general election and to ignore the sceptics, like Kevin Maguire of the Mirror, who say Labour will be defeated. On the contrary, the Tories are hopelessly divided and these divisions could become even wider. The Labour Party could win with an anti-austerity, socialist programme.
The question of a general election is still in the balance. Originally Theresa May was determined to last it out until 2020. And there are complications, such as needing the agreement of Parliament to have an early general election. But nevertheless she could have no choice if Brexit is dragged out and subsequently watered down by Parliament and there is a growing revolt among working people.
The whole labour movement has to be prepared. Labour must fight on an independent class position in all situations. It is therefore scandalous that in Richmond Park even those supposedly behind Corbyn, like Clive Lewis, said that Labour should not contest the byelection brought about by Zac Goldsmith resigning from the Tories. An independent working class and socialist position is vital for the Labour Party to triumph in the challenges it faces.