Keir Starmer Keir Starmer. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Labour’s policy reversal threatens to undo the gains of the past two years, argues Martin Hall

Keir Starmer’s recent announcement in The Guardian that the Labour Party would seek a transitional deal with the EU that maintains a time-limited version of the status quo has been greeted with delight in some quarters. It is instructive that he should make this public in the paper that most represents the liberal establishment Remain position; also, of course, the paper that has perhaps made the most anti-left interventions since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party. The position now being taken by the Labour Party is now the desired one of the City of London, the Bank of England, the Treasury and the CBI. 

Specifically, Starmer has stated that Labour will seek to remain in the Single Market and Customs’ Union for between two and four years after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, with an option to remain permanently if agreement cannot be reached to give the UK a special deal on immigration and free movement. This is to replace the People’s Brexit being trumpeted by the leadership, which was to seek a deal giving access to the Single Market, without being in it and therefore bound by its competition laws.

Where the party is now is not the position of Remain and reform advocated last summer by, among others, Another Europe is Possible and the Labour leadership. It is much closer to the position of Cameron, Osborne and the neoliberal wing of the Labour Party and has managed to take a position which suggests immigration is a problem but continued membership of the Single Market is not. This prompts the following questions: 

Why has Labour gone down this path? What does it mean for the left leadership and the movement in general? What is to be done? 

There are a variety of reasons why Labour has taken this decision. There is one approach to electoral logic that argues that this provides clear differentiation from the Tories’ position, will therefore be a vote winner, and, in doing so, presents the government with a series of problems. There are a number of issues with this: firstly, the General Election in June made it clear that Labour’s previous position served to create a coalition of Remain and Leave voters, however uneasy; secondly, there is now a real danger that Leave voters who returned to the party, or indeed voted Labour for the first time, could now be tempted away again.

Just as Theresa May and the Tories made the mistake of thinking Brexit was the principal issue in June, now Labour is in danger of underestimating its importance, particularly in Leave-voting constituencies; thirdly, this has actually served to allow the proponents of a ‘softer’ Brexit in the cabinet to advance and make alliances with ministers who have been advocating a ‘harder’ Brexit, as seen in an article in today’s Financial Times, which suggests that the government will also go for a transitional deal. As is often the case, the first party of capital has responded quickly and got its ducks in a row. 

We have to see this as a victory for the neoliberal wing of the party. At the commencement of parliament, Chuka Umunna tabled an amendment to get Labour to do the very thing it has now done. It was a failure, as Umunna knew it would be, and only served to get a number of shadow ministers sacked and to create further division in the immediate aftermath of an excellent election result. He then formed a cross-party group to push for this, with the likes of the Remain-supporting Tory, Anna Soubry.

As well as the lobbying from the strongly pro-EU section of the Labour Party, it would appear that there has been a misreading of the election result as a vote for a softer Brexit, a strange analysis in the context of both principal parties standing on platforms that advocated leaving the Single Market and the Customs’ Union, and which saw both of them get their largest votes for many years, while the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats did badly. Moreover, the Ashcroft poll conducted on the 9th of June made it clear that both for Labour voters and overall, Brexit was not in the top three reasons for how people voted. The only group that gave Brexit as their principal motivating factor was Conservative voters. 

However, perhaps the principal reason, as argued by Kevin Ovenden in the Morning Star on Monday, is the pressure upon Labour to act as a government in waiting in the wake of the Tories’ weak position and in doing so, to defer to establishment positions. What he refers to as the ‘pressure for the party to deradicalise’ and to become a ‘conventional party of opposition’ and to recentre to its historical position as the second party of capital has been a huge factor in this decision.

We need to see this move within the prism of European politics, where the Pasokifiction of centre left parties has been widespread. The exception to this has been Corbyn’s Labour. Why is this? Because, the shifting of the party to the left in the last two years has allowed for a broad coalition of the radical and centre left to coalesce within a mainstream political party. Anything that arrests this is a terrible mistake, and a capitulation to forces that have been attempting to oust Corbyn since 2015.

Ever since the General Election there have been voices arguing that the way to expand upon that success is via a normalising of the radical aspects of the Labour manifesto. Furthermore, it is potentially a step towards ignoring the referendum result. Any throwing out of democracy by the left is always to be condemned, whichever way people voted in last summer’s referendum.

Also, in the last few days we have seen an article in The Jewish Chronicle arguing for a change in the party’s position on Palestine. While it may not be passed as conference, it is part of a resurgent anti-Corbyn bloc within the Labour Party and can therefore be seen in tandem with the new Brexit policy. All the anti-left forces in the party are emboldened by these moves. 

To turn to our second question, Corbyn is weakened by this. It is an abandonment of the manifesto. It puts a stop on the momentum gained in the summer. Of course, the nationalisation programme is now under threat, due to the competition laws within the EU that force public companies to bid for tender within a private model. There was a contradiction in the manifesto which this decision only amplifies; even EEA membership would leave a Corbyn government in the position of having to abide by anti-worker legislation.

We have a weak Tory government clinging to power with the help of the DUP and an opportunity to argue strongly for a different economic model that can safeguard people from the ravages of neoliberalism.

That cannot be done in the Single Market. A People’s Brexit, or Lexit, is the opportunity to create a rupture and set a good example for others to follow. We always knew that the uneasy coalition created on the left by the previous policy could not last and would go one way or the other, which is why in a recent article I argued for pushing for an independent Lexit from the EU that did not get mired in the binary of Single Market or Tory free trade.

Ever since the 1980s and the majority of the Labour Party’s acceptance of Jacques Delors’ vision of a ‘social Europe’ the European question has mostly sat dormant on the mainstream left. People believed that it was the Tories’ problem: an internecine bun fight on the right. Last summer’s result put paid to that. Initially, Corbyn’s position seemed to affect an uneasy marriage, which has now dissolved, and in the wrong direction for the anti-capitalist left. 

So what is to be done? Firstly, some good news. The resignation of Kezia Dugdale, Labour’s leader in Scotland, has provided Corbyn with a majority on the NEC due to the acting leader’s support, at least in the short term, as discussed here. This ought to help for a while in guarding against any further moves to the right. The Labour Movement must call for a reinstatement of the previous policy, with a view to making the case for the benefits gained from leaving the Single Market and Customs’ Union, with escape from the latter creating the ground for an ethical trade policy in the future.

The radical left must work with the trade unions that support a full break from the EU to mobilise on the street and in the workplace, in a continued push for an end to austerity, which can only be fully accomplished outside of the principal economic bloc that enshrines austerity measures within contemporary capitalism. We must continue to make the case for the benefits of Lexit. Richard Tuck from Harvard University has written an article for the London School of Economics’ website that strongly argues for the benefits of Brexit. He ends with these words: 

Without Brexit the Labour Party will revert to its role of providing an alternative managerial class for late-stage capitalism, and the enthusiasm of its new-found supporters will wither away or find new and more troubling outlets. This is exactly what the Tory Remainers would like to see happen, and the Labour leadership ought not to fall into their trap. The Labour Party needs to keep its nerve. 

The leadership is on a knife edge due to this decision, with the gains of the last two years under threat. All pressure must be brought to bear to ensure the reversal of this decision and the continued movement leftwards.

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