Brexit-Europe. Photo: Pete Linforth on Pixabay Brexit-Europe. Photo: Pete Linforth on Pixabay

As the UK and the EU announce a trade deal, Martin Hall considers it, and looks back on the most divisive issue to beset the left in a generation

It was always likely to end like this. Despite the teeth gnashing and general level of eschatological language employed by some on the remain side, a deal was always the safest bet.

As argued pithily by Kevin Ovenden, “Boris Johnson is not going to bury a no-deal Brexit under the Covid crisis. He’s going to bury the Covid crisis under a capitalist deal.”

We are a long way though from Johnson’s empty promise of an ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal last December.

Of course, it was only sold so easily due to the level of Brexit fatigue and the vacuum created by Labour’s sliding to a second referendum position.

Johnson’s bluster attempted to hide the fact that there have always been contradictions for the Tories that are tough to resolve.

The trade deal with the US that looked difficult with Trump in the negotiating seat is receding into the distance with the restoration of the ancien régime in the White House.

This is yet another reason why an EU-UK deal has looked increasingly on the cards.

The coalition the Tories put together to win last year’s general election includes voters in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats who are expecting investment in their areas unencumbered by EU state aid rules.

Some of the remainder of that coalition won’t accept anything other than full divergence from the EU under the banner of a return of British sovereignty.

The vast majority of capital wants frictionless trade.

What is in the deal?

From the point of view of capital, notwithstanding extra bureaucracy, the principal gain will be the avoidance of tariffs, quotas and blocks to trade. The anticipation of this deal is why sterling has been boosted in the last couple of days.

Both Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen are painting it as a win. Johnson is claiming it is everything the British public voted for in 2016 and in last year’s general election. It is not.

The EU has kept a significant percentage of its current catch in British waters throughout a proposed transition period of 5 ½ years. This is a major compromise from Johnson, who wanted a much lower figure, from which he’s been moving on a weekly basis.

There is a new arbitration mechanism in place to ensure the ‘level-playing field’ is maintained. This is another compromise, and it’s not clear at this stage if and when it might be triggered. Despite the newspaper lines on EU fears of UK deregulation, the bloc’s principal worry on this matter has always been the use of state aid to destabilise ‘free’ competition. 

This is a principal reason why it has been pleased to be negotiating with Johnson and not Corbyn.

The deal should ensure people and goods (though they’re not all treated the same) can pass relatively unencumbered between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The Irish question is of course only postponed, though. It will return.

Other elements such as freedom of movement were decided prior to today’s announcement.

The deal will not and should not please everyone.

It won’t please the European Research Group, with at least 20 threatening to vote against the government.

It won’t please the Scottish government.

It should not please socialists, regardless of how they voted in 2016. Socialists in the PLP should vote against it. It is not a Brexit in the interests of the working class.

Kier Starmer, on the other hand, having spent the last few years managing Labour’s calamitous slide to remain, and in so doing cutting the legs off the Corbyn project, will whip Labour MPs to vote for it.

The deal will pass.

This brings us on to the question of Counterfire’s position on the EU and Brexit, which has not changed.

The case from the left

Counterfire campaigned to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum and, following the result, argued consistently for a People’s Brexit in the interests of working people.

Forget the use of terms like hard and soft Brexit. They were never our terms, and only entered Brexit discourse after the result, in order to mask what was initially an argument between Single Market membership and Tory free trade.

As stated on this site in 2017, we didn’t have a dog in that race. The radical left case for leave was always predicated upon whose Brexit it was, and it had two aspects to it: one, pertaining to the nature of the EU; two, to the material situation in which the vote took place.

There was and remains an anti-capitalist argument for leaving the EU. There is a left reformist argument for staying in the bloc, which we will return to below, but no anti-capitalist case to be made.

How could there be, given the EU’s enshrining of the rights of capital to go wherever it likes?

This was the basis of our position:

  • The Single Market, with its strictures upon state aid and its enshrining of the rights of capital via freedom of establishment, is anathema to socialism and economic planning and control
  • Free trade is not the priority: instead, massive investment in manufacturing, increased productivity, local procurement in the interests of working people and ethical trade are key
  • Immigration is not the problem: increased trade union membership and higher wages via public investment in the economy will prevent pay and conditions being undercut by imported cheaper labour
  • Our rights are not dependent upon the EU, and neither were they given to us by it. They were won by struggle
  • A radical rupture with the current model of capitalism in order to rebalance capital and labour in favour of the latter can only be achieved outside the EU, which is unreformable, and turning increasingly rightwards

These points seem incontestable on the left, yet nothing has riven the left apart quite so violently as the position we ought to take on the EU.

For some, the position taken on the EU can be seen from within the prism of the defeats of the left from the 1980s onwards. Fundamentally, if you don’t think there’s an alternative to capitalism, you’ll end up thinking globalisation is internationalism.

That underpins the line of groups like Another Europe is Possible and even DiEM25, despite the number of people involved in the latter who see themselves as Marxists.

But the last 5 years in the UK saw the greatest challenge to at least the current model of capitalism, if not capitalism itself, since the turn to the neoliberal model in the 1980s. That is the ground in which this argument took place.

Why then, did the remain position gain such traction among the left? This isn’t the place for a reheating of every argument had in the last 4-5 years, nor for a critique of the People’s Vote campaign and the way it dragged some of the left rightwards, but some comments are needed.

It is hard to separate remain and reform arguments from the reformism which generates them. Having said that, the extent to which the dream of reforming the EU from within functions as a form of defeatism, rooted in a capitalist realism that beset sections of the left in the wake of the end of the Cold War, is remarkable.

Ever since the 1980s and the majority of the Labour Party’s acceptance of Jacques Delors’ vision of a ‘social Europe’ laid out at the 1988 TUC, the European question mostly sat dormant on the mainstream left, with the Labour Party and the trades unions becoming increasingly pro-EU and a section of the Tory right increasingly talking up leaving.

Most people believed that it was the Tories’ problem: an internecine bun fight on the right.

But the EU of 2016 was a long a way from what Delors had laid out nearly 30 years earlier.

While there is no doubt that the UK had been in the vanguard of neoliberalism and the shrinking of social provision that has been taking place since the 1980s, the EU has been happily following suit, in so doing accelerating the continued shifting of power from labour to capital, after the relative gains made by labour during the post-war period.

The calling of the referendum meant a position had to be taken. Moreover, the result, which was the largest democratic exercise in the history of the UK, meant leave had to happen.

Furthermore, the balance of forces argument, in which sections of the left argued that our side didn’t have the numbers to make Brexit ours, didn’t take into account the resurgent left in Labour, and the extent to which the Corbyn project, particularly after the success of the 2017 General Election, had the capacity to shape the debate and argue for a People’s Brexit.

To say that it did not have that capacity is to succumb to liberal arguments that the leave vote was simply driven by nationalism and racism. It wasn’t. It was multi-faceted.

Labour’s failure to do so must be understood from within the prism of its other retreats, and its nature as a broad party with a number of different wings.

But no other retreat was so grievous.

We saw that in the 2019 General Election, in which Labour campaigned with a Brexit position that pleased no one, and in which 52 of the 60 seats it lost had voted leave in 2016, with 6 of the 8 remain seats being in Scotland, where Labour lost ground for a more complex set of reasons.

On the other hand, the 2017 General Election saw Corbyn’s Labour, standing on a People’s Brexit platform, add 3.5 million votes, in its biggest increase between elections since Attlee’s landslide in 1945.

And don’t forget this was in the context of the hollowing out of social democratic parties throughout Europe that had been rife since the start of the decade saw Pasok’s vote shrink from 43.9% in 2009 to 13.2% in May 2012, and finally onto 4.7% in 2015.

That shrinking of the centre has also seen the growth of various forms of right populism, much of which is anti-EU. This has been another reason why the failure of Corbynism has been such a set-back.

The right offered a rupture. Much of the left did not. And here we are.

Before you go

If you liked this article, please consider getting involved. Counterfire is a revolutionary socialist organisation working to build the movements of resistance and socialist ideas. Please join us and help make change happen.