Photo: Shabbir Lakha Photo: Shabbir Lakha

Labour should stick with its People’s Brexit strategy argues John Rees, but it has to make it much clearer what this means in practice

To say that there is a lack of clarity about the Brexit debate is one of the great understatements of the hour. This is an outline of a few general frames of reference for that debate and an attempt to highlight why Labour should stick with its People’s Brexit strategy:

1Free trade and protectionism have been debated as long as capitalism has existed. They are not absolutes and have in practice always been combined in various proportions depending on the needs of the capitalist class at any given time. The British East India Company of the 17th century was the classic free trade company. But it was nationalised when it got into trouble and then privatised when profitable again.

2Free trade tends to be favoured by rising capitalist powers with growing industrial capacity trying to break into markets previously partially closed to them by existing trade patterns. So, British capitalism in its Victorian heyday, US capitalism from the late 19th century, and Chinese capitalism today all favour, or claimed to favour, free trade. Declining capitalist states or capitalist states in particular moments of crisis favour protectionist measures or exclusivist trade blocs: the British ‘imperial preference’ system attempted at the end of Empire, the protectionist policies adopted globally in the 1930s, US trade deals like NAFTA, and the European Union are examples.

3Trade is only the primary form of capitalism in its early mercantile period when the great trading companies (Merchant Venturers, Providence Island Company, East India Company etc., etc) made profit from buying cheap abroad and selling dear on the domestic market. In developed capitalism production for profit is the motor, whilst trade is a semi-autonomous function of production. This is why Capital I deals with production, and exchange, circulation, and trade are only dealt with in Capital II and III. Put commonsensically, you can only trade what you have produced. No production, no trade. Mercantile capitalism worked by robbing what ‘new worlds’ in either the east or the west produced (including human labour, i.e. slavery) and selling it at home and elsewhere. Mature capitalism depends on its productive base. Trade of course plays an important role in opening or closing markets, but the failure of British capitalism is crucially to do with under-investment.

4The EU is a trade bloc meant to favour its member capitalist countries to the disadvantage of the rest of the world. It was formed at a particular moment of crisis for western European capital when, at its post WWII nadir, it was threatened by the eastern bloc and by competition from US capitalism in the west.

5Like practically every other global capitalist institution in the post war period the EU has transformed itself with the onset of the neo-liberal era in the 1980s. While always designed as a capitalist club, the EU has gone from something moulded in the old welfare state consensus image into a mechanism for promoting neo-liberal economic deregulation, hence the balanced budgets, opening of state industries to competitive tendering etc. etc.

6This has been accompanied, with the accession of East European states since 1989, by a marked political shift to the right since the EU now contains governments with openly far-right and anti-semitic parties in them. This shift to the right has been accepted by and is mirrored in the core EU countries.

7The UK establishment has always had a divided attitude to the EU because its economy was more internationalised as a result of Empire than its European counterparts. And so, in the immediate post WWII period it tended to rely on the US military umbrella to protect its interests abroad.

8But as trade swung to the EU, the UK establishment in its core components became more favourable to the EU, joining the EEC in the 1970s. The US found the UK a useful base for EU operations. But tensions persisted.

9The line up in the UK establishment is now that the major corporations, the CBI, the Bank of England, The Economist and the Financial Times, a majority of MPs, the majority of the Trade Union bureaucracy are pro-EU. Some of the smaller capitalists, the populist press, the far right, and a substantial section of the working class are anti-EU. So are a minority of the TU bureaucracy and almost all the far-left organisations.

10The basis of a People’s Brexit campaign can be constructed, but it will have to deal with the reality of the Brexit vote. This means developing a series of demands which block the Tory strategy. Not to do this risks losing touch with the 70 percent of Labour constituencies that voted Brexit. If the Brexit vote were reversed the prospect of a resurgent populist right, now at an historic low point in its organisational forces, would be very real.

11No People’s Brexit is possible by simply re-adopting the rules of the EU single market or Customs Union. Equally any other trade deal, with the US or anyone else, should not be agreed if it does not provide capital regulation, customer protection or has labour standards below those of the EU.

12Labour should make its positions clear on this. These points, many of which would be electorally popular and all of which would provide essential guarantees for working people, should be part of a more precise formulation of Labour’s position:

  • A new economic settlement that works for the many.
  • No deregulatory bonfire – we must build on the human and workers’ rights we currently enjoy and on environmental, food and health, and safety standards.
  • All existing EU legislation that protects the environment, consumers rights, and workers conditions should remain part of UK law. We demand better than the EU not worse than the EU.
  • We reject any trade agreement which reproduces the EU requirement for comparative tendering for public services which favours privatisation by allowing corporations to ‘over-bid’ for contracts.
  • Equality of employment, wages, conditions and trade union membership. It will be illegal for any employer to offer differential contracts to domestic and migrant labour. The continuation of free movement within a newly regulated British labour market which stops exploitation and has in place a minimum wage of at least £10 per hour.
  • Ensure that EU funding to our regions and our infrastructure is replaced on at least a pound for pound basis.
  • We reject a Fortress Britain as a replacement to Fortress Europe. Refugees are welcome here. An open country which welcomes people from across our globe – no retreat into narrow nationalism.
  • The privatisation or subcontracting of any part of the NHS must be specifically excluded from any future trade deal.
  • No TTIP on steroids – new trade deals opened to democratic scrutiny and which include food standards, human and workers’ rights and environmental protections.
  • We reject a foreign policy based either on a special relationship with Donald Trump’s US, or on the establishment of a European army as recently agreed by the EU states. Our foreign policy should be based on peace, non-intervention, nuclear disarmament, and international solidarity.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.