A double coup is unfolding in Britain. The vote to leave the EU has confounded the ruling circles, the monopoly media, the right-wing Labour clique, big business, the banks, the City of London, the military-industrial power nexus, the foreign policy establishment, and the NATO, intelligence and security praetorian guard. The US lock on Europe, exercised through Britain’s membership of the EU, is threatened.
This is not an existential crisis for British capitalism but it is a serious setback for the most powerful section of the bourgeoisie, with a crisis in both Conservative and Labour parties.
Cameron and Osborne, the two principal representatives of the haut-bourgeoisie in government, are finished. But Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, who opportunistically placed himself at the head of the Brexit campaign—although his personal position was for a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU—has been defenestrated by his ostensible ally, the justice secretary, Michael Gove, who, in turn, is now eclipsed by the home secretary, Teresa May.
Britain's ruling class is struggling to reorient itself around a multi- faceted strategy to subvert the decision of 23 June. Delaying the negotiations, a media-inspired street manifestation of Remain forces, attempts to freeze the status quo until October, manoeuvres to create a demand for a second referendum and a torrent of “constitutional” advice that the pro-EU majority of MPs should subvert the referendum result have created a feverish political climate.
Jeremy Corbyn, the embattled leader of the Labour Party, who muted his long-standing criticisms of the EU in the interests of preserving an appearance of party unity, has unequivocally demanded that the referendum result be respected and the article 50 treaty provisions for Britain to leave the EU be implemented.
He is right that the Tories, whoever leads them, cannot be trusted to negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Corbyn and the left-wing, anti-war and trade union forces that brought him to the leadership of the Labour Party face a coup by the parliamentary party majority and the Blairite apparatchiks in the party structures.
A Labour government elected on policies that strike at the heart of the bipartisan neo-liberal project would be an unreliable reserve for capitalist continuity. Blair himself put it clearly: he would rather see Labour defeated than victorious with Corbyn’s policies.
However, although still dangerous, the carefully calibrated coup has stalled. Instead of resigning in the face of a staged series of front-bench resignations Corbyn immediately sacked the coup frontman, Hilary Benn.
The shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle, was lined up to trigger a leadership election. But faced with a storm of opposition—with 60,000 people joining Labour in the ensuing week, in their overwhelming majority pleaded to back Corbyn—a rash of street demonstrations in support of Corbyn, the swift appointment of new shadow cabinet members, and a firm stand by the leaders of the main trade unions in defence of the party’s democracy, the coup plotters have lost the initiative.
Their problem is that they lack political credibility. Eagle herself voted for the Iraq war and failed to oppose the welfare reforms at the centre of the Tories’ austerity programme.
On austerity and on the EU issue the parliamentary party have lost touch with Labour’s working-class constituency, with millions lost to abstention, the nationalist and Green parties, and UKIP.
The Labour right’s chosen strategy in the referendum—replicating the disastrous cross-party alliance in the Scottish referendum—isolated Labour further from working-class voters. A clear left alternative under the rubric Lexit was advanced by sections of the left, including the Communist Party and unions representing train drivers, rail, shipping and transport workers, bakers and food workers, but the TUC and the leaders of the biggest unions called for a vote to remain in the EU.
Corbyn and his allies in the party promoted, with limited success and minimal media coverage, an EU reform package that lashed together reformist and ultra-left illusions about the potential to transform EU structures. As a consequence the referendum campaign was a toxic discourse around reactionary themes. Even in this unpromising environment most people voted to leave based on sovereignty grounds, with the conflicting issues around immigration in second place.
The attempts by the Labour Remainers to shift responsibility for the failure of their strategy onto Corbyn are backed by a powerful media campaign that has had some success in mobilising sections of the middle class and urban and cosmopolitan strata.
Changing the balance of forces and consolidating the new Labour leadership is critical between now and the next general election. A resurgence of industrial and popular action against austerity, privatisation, nuclear rearmament and war would help the prospects of victory. This, in turn, would make possible an exit from the EU based around progressive policies.
The situation is complex, with sections of progressive opinion disoriented. Apart from confusion in the labour movement, the mobilisation of youth is skewed towards student and petit-bourgeois strata, with the great majority of working-class young people uninvolved and not voting. An attempt to promote a second Scottish referendum would inevitably pose EU membership based on neo-liberal economics, austerity and privatisation against a progressive federalism.
The tide of xenophobia and racism stimulated by both sides of the referendum campaign demands a response based on safeguarding the rights of migrant workers, legal protection and trade union action to maintain pay levels, tax and welfare benefits and protections for refugees.
Central to this is the defence of workers’ rights and opposition to the European Court of Justice rulings banning trade union and government action to enforce equal terms and conditions for migrant workers.
Defeating the Blairite coup and consolidating the new direction Labour has taken, establishing united action around an anti-austerity agenda, confronting racist ideas and tendencies in the working class, asserting the principles of popular sovereignty around the democratic mandate to leave the EU and grounding the unity of the labour movement around a progressive government programme would change the balance of class forces in Britain.
■ Nick Wright is the media head of the Communist Party of Britain.