The European Union is crumbling. Photo: Pixabay The European Union is crumbling. Photo: Pixabay

The mask of the EU has slipped; Corbyn must seize this opportunity to make the case for a clean break, argues Martin Hall

An article in The Times this week quoting unnamed senior officials has suggested that the reason for the tough line being taken in Brussels regarding the importance of a ‘level’ playing field post-Brexit is not due to fears over the Tories adopting a slash and burn approach to social and environmental protections, but rather European governments’ fears over what a Corbyn government might do with state subsidies, and what this would mean for the Single Market.

The point is also made that the line over social and environmental standards is being promoted because it is ‘better public relations’. This makes perfect sense, as the EU is aware that the majority of the liberal and centre left see the EU as a safety net against what are considered the unpalatable consequences of neoliberal, free market policies that might be pursued outside of it. The article then suggests a range of measures that might be implemented post-Brexit to stop Britain stealing a march through state investment in manufacturing and a return to public ownership, with the consequent hit that European companies involved in privatising public services and utilities would take. These include tariffs, the fixing of free market policies into any deal, demands for compensation, and the restricting of air traffic.

Also, an amendment was passed in the House of Lords last night which will give the Commons a vote on remaining in the European Economic Area (EEA) – which effectively means staying in the Single Market, bar the common agriculture and fisheries policies – as 80 Labour lords defied the whip and voted for it. Arch remainers Chuka Umunna and Peter Mandelson were quick to commend this decision, while even the staunchly pro-remain The Guardian admitted that Labour’s plans for ‘greater state involvement in the economy’ would be limited by this. The EEA also mandates free movement of labour.

All of this is taking place in the context of last Thursday’s local elections, the results of which suggest the possibility that the mixed messages coming from Labour over Brexit might have been a contributing factor in the Tories’ increased vote in some strongly leave areas. Anecdotally, the word from the doorstep is that some leave voters don’t trust Labour to deliver Brexit.

What might all this mean both for Labour’s Brexit policy in the coming months and for debates on the wider left?

Firstly, it is important to state that any such vote in the Commons would be extremely unlikely to get through, as even if a significant number of Labour remainers defied the whip and voted to remain in the EEA, the Tories would still have a majority, as relatively few of its own MPs would vote against the government.

In terms of the news from Brussels, this aligns with the arguments put forward by the Lexit campaign, and other pro-Leave groups on the left. Such murmurings also suggest that the phoney war might be ending, and that the Labour Party leadership needs to address the elephant in the room with some urgency, namely these contradictions:

It wishes to control the movement of capital, subsidise manufacturing, take utilities back into state ownership and, broadly speaking, affect a paradigm shift in the political landscape. It cannot do this within the EU, or even out of the EU and in the Single Market, or in the EEA. Even remaining in the Customs Union, or seeking a new relationship upon similar lines, while not itself a barrier to state investment, will still leave it allied with the EU in terms of external tariffs.

It has a hugely pro-remain membership that sees the EU as the guarantor of rights, sees the Single Market as a public good, and which propagates the binary between right/Brexit and left/remain.

It has a hardcore of 30+ MPs who wish to stay in at all costs, and who are also the same members who do not lose an opportunity to destabilise Corbyn and the left.

It cannot win a general election if it moves any closer to pro-remain positions, and not just because of what it looks like the local elections are telling us, nor indeed just because every move in that direction is painted as a betrayal by the Tory press, but because 70% of Labour constituencies in England and Wales voted leave.

Many of these contradictions have been parked for some time, and last year’s General Election result, which called for a People’s Brexit but did not entirely set out how that would be accomplished, showed that to be a good tactic at the time. However, Labour’s overall strategy requires something different, and the need to make the case for a radical rupture becomes stronger by the week, as March 2019 draws nearer.

Currently, much of the debate is taking place on the wrong terrain: one which prioritises some sort of trade deal with the EU and which assumes that the protections covered by European Union law must be part of that. Of course, all progressive legislation that was put into British law via European directives should be maintained and strengthened, but this is not dependent on any deal. Furthermore, a deal is not required full stop, as all the variants of this still prioritise free trade. Trade should not be the issue.

What needs to be addressed by a Corbyn government post-Brexit is productivity, industrial strategy and procurement; in short, a jobs-first Brexit, not a market-first one. This must be aligned with controls on the free movement of capital in order to reduce the power of the City of London, in particular finance capital, which the economic model of the UK relies upon much too heavily.

To do this and win the next election, the leadership must do the following:

  • Argue strongly that rights are not bound up with membership of the EU, an orthodox view on the left until the defeats of the 1980s and the subsequent realignment of social democratic positions that took place following Jacques Delors’ social Europe speech in 1988
  • Start to make the case for a clean break with the EU and mount a campaign that explains to remain-supporting Corbynites why its policies require it to be out of the EU. In this the radical left can play a major role. Momentum and its canvassing operation must also throw its weight into the fight. Murmurings from Brussels such as the ones discussed above are a good base from which to set off.
  • It must make the case that free trade with Europe is not the only game in town, that it is not internationalist and that the Customs Union is designed to restrict the development of the global south through the implementation of tariffs, which ensure the hegemony of Europe and which function as contemporary economic imperialism.
  • Strongly make the case that the Single Market, with its strictures upon state aid and its enshrining of the rights of capital, is anathema to socialism and economic planning and control.
  • Make it clear that immigration is not the issue, and in so doing, discuss how increased trade union membership and higher wages via public investment in the economy will prevent pay and conditions being undercut by imported cheaper labour, which the EU has allowed to happen.
  • It must make the point that debates around the ‘national interest’ are a cover for business as usual politics: instead, there is what is in the interest of the majority of people, and what is in the interest of neoliberal capitalism, which has been plunged into crisis by June 2016, in the process giving the left its greatest opportunity of power since the dawn of the neoliberal era, if it has the strength to seize it.

If it does this, it may lose some votes in strongly remain metropolitan areas, though not enough to lose it seats. Moreover, it will gain far more in the most impoverished, pro-leave parts of Britain, where the leave vote was predicated upon a giant ‘no’ to the ravages of neoliberalism, which has seen those communities decimated. In short the Labour Party and the wider left must take control of the debate and move it to ground favourable to it. If this does not happen, the Labour Party will be setting off towards Brexit and the next election in a blindfold, with one hand tied behind its back.