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  • Published in Opinion
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Lindsey German analyses Jeremy Corbyn's speech on Brexit, as well as the importance of the UCU strike and the growing movement against the NRA in the US

When George Osborne is one of the first to heap praise on a speech by Jeremy Corbyn, then you have to be worried. The decision by Labour to call for support for a customs union (as opposed to ‘the’ customs union) certainly has its myriad supporters among Labour, including many on the left. It is argued that it will help deal with the problems of the Northern Ireland border, will enable Britain to achieve a good trade deal and that it will wrong-foot the right wing Brexiteers. Most temptingly, it will create an alliance in parliament with pro-Remain Tories which can defeat Theresa May’s government and lead to a possible general election. 

What could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a lot actually. Firstly, the supposed distinction between ‘a’ and ‘the’ customs union is more illusory than real, and in the minds of many Labour MPs should actually lead to the retention of membership of the single market as well. This is the thrust of a letter in the Observer signed by among others Chuka Umunna and Neil Kinnock, although it is a position still rejected by Jeremy Corbyn and by Barry Gardiner on yesterday’s Today programme, but there is a certain logic to it. The Remainers have been campaigning for this or for a second referendum since day one and it is a position that they are deeply committed to. 

To the extent that they manage to get Jeremy to adopt their position, as they have done this week, the stronger they will feel and the more they will push for further concessions. That this is a retreat from Labour’s election campaign or from the leadership’s idea of a People’s Brexit does not worry the Chuka Umunnas or Alistair Campbells at all. They dismiss Leave voters as ignorant and stupid -too stupid to see what they are doing - and appear to write off the whole vote as something that happened outside the metropolitan area and characterised by racism and bigotry. 

It seems incontrovertible to me that if Labour makes too many concessions to the Remain side, it will be seen as ignoring the democratic decision of the referendum, and that will lead to a rebuilding of UKIP or some other far-right formation. 

It also seems to me that most people in Britain are not obsessed with this question. In Westminster, there is a total determination to keep discussing with the aim of effectively reversing the decision, while at the same time sweeping under the carpet everything from Grenfell to privatisation to the NHS crisis. It is on these issues that Labour should focus, not on what kind of trade deals will keep the FT and city of London happy. And we know that all these, and Osborne, are interested only in what works for British capital, always at the expense of British workers. 

As for the idea that there can be a parliamentary defeat for May. Yes, Remain Tories may vote with Labour (although they are doing so on a Tory amendment not a Labour one). That could defeat the government. But it’s a big ‘if’ when it comes from Anna Soubry in my opinion. And even if May is defeated, expect the same Tories to support her in a vote of confidence to stop an election. 

Ever since the election, the right wing in Labour has been desperate to keep forcing Labour’s leadership towards a worse position. They see this latest move as success for them, and it certainly won’t make them any more supportive to Jeremy Corbyn. The danger is it can also reinforce the very strong feeling among working class people that the political elite in Westminster cares nothing for them or their concerns, is totally arrogant and refuses to accept the democratic will, and regards them as incapable of making important decisions. 

And just for the record on the Irish border: there is a clear majority north and south to stay in the EU. The Northern Ireland state was set up by Britain in order to retain a hold on a part of its former colony. The political set up there allows for the dominance of the Unionists, their most recent incarnation being the horrific DUP. They are a poison in British politics. Surely a better place for the left of Labour to be would be fighting for the abolition of that border with its artificial state, rather than for making concessions to the neoliberal EU (who, by the way, are trying their damnedest to impose a hard border). 

Universities: the strike can be a turning point 

The strike by university lecturers in the ‘old’ universities is clearly well supported and militant in many places. Hardly surprising, given the situation in higher education. Work is ever more pressured, casualisation is a grim and increasing reality, and while the Tories have the gall to say they don’t want to interfere in academia, they are doing so through repeated levels of testing, monitoring and number crunching. Amazingly, however, they have allowed the salaries of Vice-chancellors to rise to obscene levels, often decided by those same Vice-chancellors, with little opposition.

Meanwhile, this once relatively cushioned sector is finding itself subject to cuts in jobs, courses, and now pensions. The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) is now arguing for pension reform which would mean a £10k a year cut for many lecturers, their calculations based, by the way, on some very dubious actuarial assessments. 

It seems nearly everyone is against the USS, including the majority of lecturers, students and even Tory ministers who have called for a return to negotiations. This is the thrust of the argument of Sally Hunt last week, and it is, of course, an important one. But plenty of disputes have attracted widespread support only to go down to defeat or miserable compromise.

The lecturers have been called out for a relatively long period of time, with promises of more to come. That means we need solidarity with them, not least from their colleagues in non-USS universities, and from fellow workers in Unison, Unite and other unions. While these are not themselves in dispute with USS, they could be asked to donate, support rallies, have token protests, and write to their own Vice-chancellors. Other UCU members should be levied in support of the strikers and there should be an extension of strike pay to ensure the strikes stay solid. Crucially, there must be attempts to bring hourly paid lecturers into activity and strike action. 

None of this is simple, but it is necessary. There is an onslaught on HE at the moment, which if it succeeds will weaken the union. Winning this strike can be a turning point in defeating this onslaught. It is that important.  

Reasons to be cheerful 

I have been heartened by the wonderful response by young people in the US to the terrible gun attack by a far-right ex-pupil in a Florida school. Amid all the grief, anger, and fear, they have stood up to a bigoted president and the seemingly all-powerful NRA. They have already achieved a major alteration of the US political agenda, and they have shown more principle and integrity than their supposed betters among politicians and commentators. A number of big companies have distanced themselves from the NRA, and this seems to be a bit of a turning of the political tide. It reminds me a bit of some of the 60s protests, and I’m sure this is only the beginning for a lot of those protesting.

Lindsey German

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

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