The Brexit process is in chaos after a series of votes concludes with the government asking the EU for a three-month extension; Jeremy Corbyn calls for an election to let people decide on their future — Paul Jay and Costas Lapavitsas
PAUL JAY: What the heck is going on in the United Kingdom? I spent a few hours today watching Parliament as they voted, and voted, and voted, on various amendments of a government resolution to put off the Brexit coming, looming hard Brexit nobody seems to want, but seems to continue to loom. The Parliament was kind of in chaos. Britain does not seem to know where to go. Prime Minister Elizabeth May is voted down on proposal after proposal; in fact, the only proposal she could get through Parliament today was to try to go back to the EU and postpone the Brexit. Here’s a little taste of what it sounded like; Jeremy Corbyn talking about the Labour motion. Go ahead and roll the clip, please.
SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Order. Order. The ayes to the right, 412. The nays to the left, 202.
The ayes to the right, 412. The nays to the left, 202. So the ayes have it. The ayes have it.
JEREMY CORBYN: Mr. Speaker, I reiterate our conviction that a deal can be agreed based on our alternative plan that can command support across the House. And I also–and I also reiterate our support for a public vote, not as a political–not–Mr. Speaker–not as political point scoring, but as a realistic option to break the deadlock. The whole purpose, Mr. Speaker, the whole purpose ought to be to protect communities that are stressed and worried. Those people are worried about the future of their jobs and their industries. Our job is to try to meet the concerns of the people who sent us here in the first place.
PAUL JAY: That is my–the beginning is my favorite part. Order, order. I can’t do it quite the way he did it. But that’s, in fact, exactly what the United Kingdom does not have now. The political process seems anything but ordered.
Now joining us to try to make some sense of what happened today and what’s going on with this whole Brexit mess is Costas Lapavitsas. Costas is professor of economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He’s also the author of the book The Left Case Against the EU. Thanks, Costas, for joining us today.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Thank you for inviting me, Paul.
PAUL JAY: So, you were down outside Parliament today, and you’ve been following all this. So give us a bit of an update, where we’re at in the process, if one can call it that. And then the bigger question I have is how did the British elites, it seems to me, so lose control of all of this? When James Cameron, the prime minister–I don’t know, what is it, two years ago?–when they launched the referendum, they, one, they thought they’d win. And the British elites, I don’t think they wanted to unleash such chaos. So start with what happened today, and then let’s get into the bigger picture.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: OK. It is very easy to get confused about the shenanigans in British Parliament. The series of amendments, votes, and so on, and you lose track of what’s happening. So just to simplify and to give the gist of what has taken place the last three days, because there’ve beenthree consecutive days of voting, what has happened is this. On the first day, Parliament has decided that it does not want to support the deal that Theresa May has negotiated with the European Union. So that’s the first thing. That’s out, as far as Parliament’s concerned.
Second thing the Parliament decided the next day is that it does not want under any circumstances to end up with an exit from the European Union without a deal. A no-deal Brexit. That’s out, as far as Parliament is concerned. And what then it decided today, in view of what it had decided in the previous two days, is logical. Today it decided that it wishes to ask for an extension of the Brexit period, because of course the clock is ticking. On the 29th of March, the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union under current arrangements, because that’s what the law of the land says.
So today Parliament has asked for an extension. How long that extension will be we will see. It’s not firmed up yet. We will see.
PAUL JAY: Didn’t the resolution that passed call for essentially a three month extension?
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Essentially that.
PAUL JAY: But the EU has to agree to this. That’s the other question.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Sure. And there is room for play, room for maneuver on the part of the government. And that’s what I can tell you is the next step. Because although Parliament has voted to reject Theresa May’s deal, that’s what we got this series of votes, actually, the deal is still on the table. In truth the deal is still on the table. And what is being in play at the moment is a complex game of maneuvering and so on whereby the Prime Minister Theresa may is attempting to blackmail the hard right of her own party to make them support the deal, even at the 11th hour. So there’s every chance that her deal will be put in front of the Parliament again in the next few days, as we are approaching the 11th hour, as I said, as we’re approaching the 29th, and the clock is ticking. She might ask for an extension such that it will put enormous pressure on her own right wing, which has been the hardest of the Brexiters, and forced them to back a deal, because if they don’t there might be any Brexit at all.
PAUL JAY: Now, there are supposed to be European parliamentary elections. And in theory, if Britain is still in the EU, they should be running for these elections. I mean-
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: That’s exactly what Theresa May wants to blackmail her right with, her right wing with. Because if they go for a long extension, which the Tory party, especially the right wing, does not want, then Britain will have to field European elections. They will get into the process of months of negotiations, and so on. Then it might be possible that there will be a general election or another referendum, or complications through Britain taking part in the Euro elections. That’s not what the extreme, the far right of the Tory party wants. And so Theresa May is blackmailing them. That’s basically what’s happening. She’s basically telling them if you don’t back me, even in the next few days, there might not be any Brexit at all.
PAUL JAY: There’s a lot of fracture lines in this struggle. Sections of the working class, sections of the British elites, want to stay in Europe. And vice versa, sections of the elites want to get out, and sections of the working class want to get out. When you get to how the Labour Party sees Brexit and how May and the right wing of the Conservative Party see Brexit, what’s the substance of the difference of what these two visions of Brexit are?
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: OK. Now, these are the real questions for those who want to approach the issues from the perspective of political economy, from the perspective of socialist, radical politics. You see, it is very easy to get lost through the shenanigans of Parliament. It’s very easy to get lost in the day-to-day politicking that is now taking place in Parliament, which, incidentally, shows the demise of democracy in the UK. I’ll come back to that.
Now, when we look at the social forces involved in this, things become clearer. One thing that has become the obvious to all involved in this process is that the main centers of power in this country, economic power, in the first instance; in other words, the City of London, the financial interest; but also big industrial and commercial capital, particularly big industrial commercial capital with extensive expert interests. Those core elements of British capital, the British ruling class, do not want Brexit under any circumstances. They are forced, therefore, to remain.
I say this because a lot of people on the left are hopelessly confused on this. The City of London detests Brexit. It doesn’t want it. Big business, corporations and so on, don’t want Brexit, by and large. The main ones. They’ve made it very clear. They’ve wheeled out Japanese investors, as well; Japanese big businesses, U.S. big businesses, to say the same thing in this country, and so on. They’ve made it very clear that Brexit is not for them. They’re very happy in the European Union. You should have no doubt at all about it. That’s really the first important element in this.
Now, the problem is, the political expression of the British ruling class, the historic political expression of the British ruling class, the Tory Party, in other words, is split. The problem, then, is political. It’s not social or economic. It’s not as if there is a strong section of the British ruling class, a dynamic section that wants out of the European Union because it wants to capture global markets. And so these are fantasies.
The problem is political. There is a section of the Tory Party, on the far right of the Tory Party, which-
PAUL JAY: Let me just add, quite allied, if I understand correctly, with Trump-type politics. Even some of the same players are involved.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Exactly. Quite close to Trump-type politics. But obviously with British peculiarities. This is Britain. This is a European country. Britain is much more like the rest of Europe than it is with the United States, I should say. It’s a European country, still. Nonetheless, there is a section of the Tory Party, elements of which are very close to Trump, it’s true. That section of the Tory party doesn’t speak for any particularly well-organized section of the capitalist class. Certainly no well-organized economic interest, though there are some economic interests that support them. It’s not that. It is political. These people are very concerned about national sovereignty, and the way in which national sovereignty projects itself in Britain and the European Union. And they want to recapture national sovereignty the way they understand it.
Politics is the main issue. And that section of the Tory Party has not been prepared to compromise in the slightest, and they’ve been prepared to oppose the main centers of economic and social power among the European [inaudible].
PAUL JAY: And in that way, again, it’s very similar to the United States, because in the referendum campaign it was all xenophobic, racist. The kind of language was very Trumpian language. So that section of that political stratum–it must have its own odd billionaire involved the same way Trump does rallying the far right of the of the working class.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Well, let’s come to the working class in a minute. But some of these people have got rich people. Some of this political section of the Tory Party have got rich people behind them, of course. Some of them have got big interest themselves. But I repeat, that is not the core of the British ruling class. It’s a complete misapprehension. The centers of power in the British ruling class want the European Union. They’ve told us many, many times.
So basically this is what has taken place on the side of the ruling class. The split, the political split in teh ruling class is really what is important. It’s precisely because of this split that the referendum has gone the way it has gone. Because when the question of Europe was posed to the British people in 2016, it became a point on which all the frustrations, anger, disillusionment, general disaffection with neoliberal politics and neoliberal policies of the last four decades could concentrate. And these were, this was particularly obvious in the large concentrations of working class people in the country. But not only. Also in the South; key areas and so on. There is no doubt about it. The poor and the working class, especially the traditional working class in this country, voted for Brexit. And they voted for Brexit because they realised that the main centers of power wanted remain. They wanted the European Union. And if they wanted the European Union, the others did not.
It became one of these issues over which class anger coming from below could focus on and express itself. And it was able to express itself nationally because of the split in the Tory Party. If the Tory Party was united, the anger of the poor, the working class, and so on, would never have been able to express itself. We’ve seen this time and again in Europe. What made Britain different is this split at the top, the split in the Tory Party.
So the anger of the working class and of the poor could manifest itself nationally. Obviously not all of the working class thinks the same. Obviously not. That’s never been the case. But there is no doubt at all about it. Study after study has shown it. The poor, the marginal workers of this country, want change. Don’t let anyone tell you that this has changed. The proportions have not changed. If you go to the working class areas of the North, in particular, or other urban centers, people want Brexit. They want Brexit, still. Now, some of them have formulated that in terms of anger against immigrants, with some racist elements, and so on. Of course. The working class doesn’t find its own ideology off the shelf. It has to be organically developed through it. And that is part of what the left ought to do. And that’s whert we come to the left expression of political opinion this country. The Labour Party, and the left more generally, in this country in Europe.
The left so far has failed abysmally on the question of Europe. And part of the reason for the predominance of right-wing views among working people, to a certain extent, in this country and elsewhere, is the failure of the left. The left suffers from–I don’t know how to call it. Europeanism. It’s a kind of disease. It’s a new disease that has affected the European left, and it affects particularly the grey cells of the brain. Because if you’ve got it, you seem to abandon all kinds of political economy. You seem to think in moralizing terms, and to think in terms of ultimate goods and fantasies about what should happen in the world or shouldn’t happen in the world.
The left has failed to analyze things in class terms, and has failed to give people a class handle for their anger, and to direct it where it should go. In that context, confusion has prevailed.
PAUL JAY: So explain what Corbyn’s view of Brexit is, and how does it differ from May’s?
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Let me come to–specifically to the Labour Party. Because I see that the left has been confused. And that holds very clearly for the left on the continent, [inaudible] European left. In some ways the British left is more and less confused than the European left. What’s happening on the Labour Party among Labour Party supporters is astounding. Because some of the most traditional electoral bases of the Labour Party, the working class and the poor, want Brexit, as I’ve indicated. That’s very, very clear, in area after area, city after city.
PAUL JAY: Let me ask a quick question. Given that it might be a hard Brexit or something like it, and all of the stories of how that’s going to disrupt the British economy and various other things, that hasn’t changed the mood of people about it?
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: People who say that don’t know the British well enough. Or the British working class well enough. It hasn’t really significantly affected proportions. Obviously we don’t know and we will not know until and unless some other vote or some other general measure of what they think, ballot measure. But every indication up to now shows that the line runs along the same path, pretty much. The same proportion, 50/50. Pretty much.
So some of the traditional strongest supporters of the Labour Party, the areas in which, which are naturally labor, want Brexit. But the membership of the Labour Party, especially in recent years, does no longer comprise primarily working class people. And the poor. Significant numbers of middle class people have entered the Labour Party.
PAUL JAY: Let me interject for a second, because the terminology is different in the United States. Somehow in the United States ‘middle class’ means the kind of people with a job, and the poorer people without a job, where everywhere else in the world more or less ‘middle class’ means not working class; more professionals and this sort of thing. Go ahead.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: That’s what I mean by middle class. Yeah, I use the term in the–deploy the term in the British or European usage.
PAUL JAY: The reason for the difference–because in the United States there’s only a middle class, because there’s actually not a class society at all. So there’s a middle class; of course there’s not really an upper or lower. And it’s all nonsense. But at any rate, go ahead.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Yeah, of course. I understand that about the U.S., but I’m using it the British way. So basically, in my judgment, the membership of the Labour Party, a lot of the people who are active in it, come from what I called the middle class just a few minutes ago, by which I mean layers which have got more professional type of employment; comparatively better conditions; better housing; better education; that kind of thing. That’s where sort of the membership of the Labour Party comes from, and they are strongly for remain. These people are strongly for remain.
So you’ve got a massive problem within the Labour Party whereby large numbers of its elected working class, poor, are solidy for leave, and its membership is solidly for remain. The problem becomes even more pronounced because some of the leaders of the Labour Party comes from the Blair years, and those Blairites who used to run the Labour Party for many, many years, are also ardent Europeanists. Ardent Europeanists.
PAUL JAY: Let me just for a second, for our North American audience, for Blair you can think more like Bill Clinton-type politics, or Barack Obama, to some extent. But essentially worse.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Worse, actually.
PAUL JAY: Worse. Yeah, worse. Yeah. You’re right. Because Blair, amongst other things, supported George Bush in the Iraq war, and such. So yeah, worse.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Blair is actually a byword for dishonesty and perfidy in politics in this country and elsewhere. So there is still a body of Blairites in the Labour Party, especially in the parliamentary Labour party, the members of Parliament. And they’ve got very strong positions of leadership in the Labour Party. But of course, two, three years ago Jeremy Corbyn was elected to the leadership, and that is proper left. That is proper left, and that understands that the European Union is not the progressive project. The European Union is not an anticapitalist project. They also understand that if you want to do things that will change Britain and attract British capitalism and neoliberalism, you’ve got to take on the European Union. They understand that.
But the reality they’re faced with in terms of their membership, in terms of their electorate, in terms of their members of Parliament, is very, very difficult. So they’d be navigating a minefield. What has been happening in the Labour Party is that the leadership has been navigating a minefield. A veritable minefield.
That perhaps would help your audience understand the complexity of the responses.
PAUL JAY: So let me go–again, let me ask, in terms of the very substance of what Corbyn in the opening of this segment is talking about, the Labour vision of Brexit, what–put some meat on the bones. How do they see Brexit taking place, and how does differ from the Tories? And from the right wing of the Tories?
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Now we come to the, in a sense, analytical and intellectual problems of the left as a whole faces with Brexit and the European Union. Incidentally, one thing you’ve got to remember is that historically the British left, and I mean the organized left within the Labour Party but also the left outside the Labour Party, historically the British left has been probably the most euroskeptic left in Europe. I’ve lived in this country for 40 years. I well remember when I came here all that time ago the Labour Party had a very strong contingent of people who talked in the most disparaging terms of the European Union as a capitalist club that was going to do nothing good for workers, and it’s inevitably going to be proven right. However, the Labour Party has lost track of that. And that is that this characteristic all pretty much the whole of the European left.
So in that respect, it is characteristic of the European left, which has been afflicted by Europeans. And as I’ve mentioned to you, the issue here is-
PAUL JAY: Can I just quickly add for people again in our audience, when you’re saying European–the disease of afflicted, of Europeanism, if I’m understanding that, is where European finance capital operates far more collaboratively to dictate to, discipline, all of the countries of the European to, essentially, for the betterment of this pool of European capital. More collaboratively and less competitively.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: When you’re saying that you’ve got a view of the European Union implicit in this. And you’re thinking the European Union, essentially, is a governments club, as it is a set of institutions created by big business and the capitalist elites of Europe to further their own interests in complex and sophisticated ways. And I would agree with that. That’s exactly what the European Union needs. The conclusion I would draw from it and the conclusion that a lot of people on the left used to draw from it is of course the European Union is not a good thing for workers, and it’s not a good thing on the left. It’s not a left wing project. It’s actually a capitalist project.
And therefore the left, especially the left that is radical, socialist, and wants to change things, which is what the left has historically been, the left ought to be critical and rejectionist towards the European Union. To me all of this has long been obvious. You know, it’s a question of the degree to which you reject the European Union, and how you do it.
PAUL JAY: OK. The counter to that, I guess, would be yeah, but what if the Brexit is led by the far right, and the left is so weak that you’re going to wind up with a very far right controlled Brexit, and maybe in those conditions it’s not so good?
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Lots of people come up with it. I’ve got two answers. The first is that what actually happens after Brexit, or if Brexit be comes a reality, will depend in good measure on what the left will itself do to make Brexit a reality, and the ideas the left is putting on the table. If the left doesn’t put ideas on the table about the left Brexit, which I think is the only sensible Brexit, and some of us have been doing that systematically in the last few months, if the left doesn’t do that, they can hardly complain.
PAUL JAY: Well, is the Labour Party doing that?
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Some people within the Labour Party are.
PAUL JAY: No, I mean Corbyn. Is Corbyn’s vision of Brexit a left vision?
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Corbyn is trapped in what I just mentioned to you. Corbyn’s going to have an equation to solve in the Labour Party which is impossible, practically, to solve. He’s been navigating a minefield.
It’s obvious that Corbyn doesn’t really–he would prefer a kind of Brexit. But his party doesn’t. And he’s got a terrible problem, because every time he attempts to put these ideas across, his MPs, members of Parliament, rebel. And he’s got problems from his party membership, which is actually more and more–has become more and more pro-Europe. They’ve created a complete fantasy of what Europe is and they’ve latched themselves onto that.
So to come back to what you said about the right wing Brexit. The first point is the left should put on the table its own ideas about the left Brexit, which is the only Brexit that can make sense. The second point I want to make in this is yeah, I recognize a right wing Brexit, a Tory Brexit, could get problems for working people. But just imagine what a Tory remain will be like. Just imagine what it would be for this country to remain in the European Union, in other words for Brexit to fail, and still you have a right wing government. That possibly would be the worst outcome for Britain, because it would indicate to people that democracy counts for nothing; you can vote on referenda, you can take positions. It counts nothing. Your vote may be negated. And in the end you will end up with the Tories, right wing people, still managing the economy, still managing political lives, and within the European Union. It will tell people that this totality of capitalist institutions in Europe, which basically sets the terms for the economy and society in Europe, is not changed.
PAUL JAY: OK, let’s take a bit–let’s end it here, and then we’ll do another segment right away and continue this conversation. Because I mean, this is a big topic, obviously, and leads us into the internal struggles in the Labour Party, and flesh that out. Because right now that’s also on fire. That crisis with various people leaving the party, and accusations of anti-Semitism. As you say, Corbyn is navigating a lot of mines in this minefield. So stay with us. Watch for part two of this interview with Costas Lapavitsas on the mess of Brexit. Please join us again on The Real News Network.