Labour must set out its post-Brexit vision firmly, argues Martin Hall
The Tories are the party in government and, as such, have had sole responsibility for delivering Brexit these last two and a half years. Despite that, almost as many column inches in the corporate media have been spent on Labour’s difficulties. One of the reasons for this is the belief – honestly held by some, disingenuously and maliciously propagated by others – that if Corbyn would only strongly support remain, the whole situation could be miraculously remedied. From the other side, there are some left leavers bemoaning what they see as his switch towards a more pro-EU position. However, as strongly argued in the Morning Star last week, the principal aim of the Blair-backed People’s Vote campaign is not to stop Brexit, but to weaken Corbyn and the left, and in so doing push the narrative that he is losing the membership on this subject, despite the fact that 47% support the leadership’s position on Brexit, with only 29% being against. This data was not reported in the vast majority of the corporate media articles pertaining to this poll, which concentrated on the high number of Labour members who would back remain in a second poll, and indeed, the actual blog post accompanying the results does not mention it. You have to click on the tables at the bottom and look at the data to find this out.
The notion that Corbyn not backing a People’s Vote was a major factor in the formation of the Independent Group has been heard this week from its ex-Labour side, and much of the media has been happy to take this at face value, along with, of course, the group’s views on Labour and antisemitism, rather than questioning the extent to which the IG is both an anti-left wrecking operation and an attempt to fill a vacuum that all the polling suggests does not exist; indeed, at Westminster technocratic, managerialist centrists are hugely over-represented, in the context of public opinion.
In this context, it is worth considering the leadership’s strategy regarding Brexit and the tactics employed to achieve that. The strategy has been clear from the outset: to force a general election, get a Labour government, then negotiate a better deal with the EU. This has received the backing of the membership, as evidenced by the motion supporting it that was passed at conference, which also stated that all options, including a second referendum, would remain on the table in the event of a general election not being achieved. It did not commit Labour to going down that path the minute a vote of no confidence in the government failed. Furthermore, multiple votes of no confidence can be called. Indeed, it may well be that left remainers who would like Labour to push for a People’s Vote will actually find it harder to make their case, now that some of the most prominent campaigners for it are shaking hands with Tories behind the Labour front bench. Since the round of votes began last month, what tactics have the leadership used regarding Brexit?
- Most obviously, whipping the PLP to vote down May’s deal
- Refusing to engage in cross-party talks until the government ruled out a no deal Brexit
- Engaging in cross-party talks once the non-binding amendment was passed in the Commons a couple of weeks after the initial vote on the deal
- Agreeing to go to Brussels for talks with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, and Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator
- In general, a policy of constructive ambiguity
Let’s consider these in more detail. The first is clearly correct both tactically and strategically. It commands mass support not only within the party, but the country. May’s deal potentially keeps the UK in the customs union, under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice jurisdiction at least partially; EU laws would need to be adhered to in some areas, and it proposes a close alignment with Single Market rules that could stymie a Corbyn government; there is the issue of the backstop regarding the British border in Ireland. There is no majority for May’s deal or any version of Brexit in name only.
Strategically, it was also right to refuse to get involved in the charade of cross-party talks until no deal was ruled out, as they would not in any way bring a general election closer. The Labour MPs who did, such as Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn – having in some cases criticised the leadership for refusing to do so – left the talks complaining that they were a waste of time…because no deal was not taken off the table. However, parking for the time being any debate regarding whether or not no deal is the best option for a future Corbyn government, it is the case that it commands the biggest support in the country from the various options for leaving currently on the table. Of course, while many of the 28% who support it will not be Labour voters, some will be. Moreover, ruling it out at this stage sends a message to leave voting areas that Labour’s Brexit support is contingent and not total. At a time of increasing Brexit fatigue, and when the message coming from many leave voters is one of incomprehension regarding why the country has not left yet, it is a dangerous tactic.
Furthermore, should Labour force an election and get itself into a position where it is doing the negotiating, it will need the threat of walking away without a deal in its back pocket. The total failure of Syriza in its initial talks regarding debt relief was in no small way down to its refusal to countenance leaving the EMU. If Labour does not have this card, it is difficult to see how it will negotiate a deal that leaves the country free of EU rules regarding the freedom of establishment of capital. The right of capital under the four freedoms to enshrine itself into every nook and cranny of life in the EU is the principal obstacle to nationalisation and greater control over the economy, never mind socialism.
Tactically, engaging in talks once the non-binding amendment on no-deal was passed also made sense, not least in terms of consistency. Since then, Jeremy Corbyn’s open letter to Theresa May has boxed her further into a corner by proposing a deal that appears to be acceptable to the EU, while clearly not being anything approaching that to the Tory Brexit right. It pledges Labour support if conditions are met. The proposal involves a bespoke customs union with the EU and close alignment with the Single Market to ensure frictionless trade, as well as rules regarding workers’ rights being maintained. This position is softer than the one it outlined in its 2017 manifesto, which suggests that it may not be what the leadership wants, and hopefully not what it would attempt to negotiate if and when it is in a position to do so. There is no mention of the exemptions regarding privatisation that were in the manifesto, quite possibly because the tactic is to get at least some EU support at this stage to squeeze the Tories a little bit more. Moreover, if May’s choices become reduced to either Labour’s deal or a general election, she may well go for the latter.
However, once again, this is a dangerous game strategically. What if May does go for Labour’s deal? Yes, she would lose her right wing, who are very likely to resign the whip, but she would get a deal through, and reduce the crisis in the short term. At that point the path to a general election becomes hard to plot, though rumours circulated prior to Corbyn’s letter that a summer election has been dangled in front of Labour in exchange for supporting May’s deal. We also have, and not for the first time, Keir Starmer, Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, taking a different line to Corbyn and suggesting a general election is now off the table, with compromise or a second referendum being the only options. John McDonnell is also edging nearer and nearer to this position now, perhaps in a vain attempt to shore up party unity by appealing to the left’s enemies in and out of the party. The desire of a large section of the PLP to have a second referendum is well-known and does not need to be given further oxygen here. Suffice it to say that there is no majority in parliament for it.
More to the point, a consensus Brexit will put Labour in the position of being seen to have facilitated an even softer Brexit than the one offered by May, losing it votes in droves in many of its heartlands, as well as tying both its hands behind its back in terms of its future industrial policy.
Furthermore, Corbyn’s politics have offered a break with the consensus of Blairism/Cameronism. It cannot now go down a road of consensus under spurious claims of the ‘national interest’, and in so doing leave intact a Tory government still committed to austerity and a failed neoliberal economic model. The Tories are in crisis: why give them a way out?
Regarding the proposed talks in Brussels, this makes sense in terms of giving the impression to the country that Labour can negotiate a better Brexit. However, if the noises from the meeting are that the EU likes Labour’s plan, it moves the likelihood of the Tories going for an election further into the distance as May is more likely to seek Labour support by amending the deal in that direction, which brings into play all the problems outlined above regarding the overall strategy. If the Tories have a deal that cannot command a majority and the EU start suggesting they prefer Labour’s plan, why would May put her deal to the country in an election?
The fifth of the points above refers to perception, as much as concrete reality. Until the recent letter, Labour’s Brexit position had only changed slightly from what was in the manifesto. Still, the direction of travel since June 2017 has not been in the direction favoured by left leavers. Despite the relative alignment with the position that commanded the support of nearly 13 million people less than two years ago, it is very common to hear people – and not just those in the corporate media opposed to the left – saying that Labour’s position isn’t clear. Of course, the creaking coalition of forces in the PLP does not help in this regard, as the party is being pulled in so many different directions. That being said, phrases like ‘close alignment’ with the Single Market do not help, as they are so ambiguous. Voters need to know exactly where such alignment is sought.
In addition to this, its freedom of movement position is poor and does not reflect the leadership’s own views. If the ‘drip drip’ tactic of staggered resignations into the IG continues, aided and abetted by the group’s political allies that remain in the party doing all they can to cause trouble and push Labour rightwards, then it is very likely that further concessions towards an extremely soft Brexit will be made. With the exception of Corbyn’s speech immediately after the initial seven resignations, the noises from the front bench are not good. John McDonnell’s idea of a massive ‘listening exercise’ will simply invite more pressure.
What Labour should be doing is setting out in significantly stronger terms its vision for a post-Brexit Britain, in which an economic strategy of massive investment based on cheap borrowing and a green new deal must be central. Only then can the central driver of the working class leave vote – austerity and the ravages of neoliberal late capitalism – be addressed. It is one thing to press for a general election by forcing the Tories into a corner and intensifying the crisis, and even here there is not overly constructive ambiguity as set out above, but it is another to trust your policies with the electorate by setting them out very clearly. Also, Tory thinking is so far away from what is required on this front, and still in thrall to the idea that socialism is inimical to the ‘British psyche’, that there is every chance that such a position might embolden Theresa May to call an election, provided, of course, that Labour do not shoot themselves in the foot by helping the Tories over the line with an ersatz version of Brexit.