Labour's Brexit strategy is not the 'fudge' the media describe it to be and is the most sensible approach given the circumstances, argues Mike Wayne
For months now, the media narrative, ably supported by his political opponents inside and outside the Labour Party, has been that Corbyn’s position on Brexit is a ‘fudge’. For Sophie Ridge, interviewing Corbyn recently on Sky, his position made her head ‘hurt’. It was not though Corbyn’s mental contortions that were strangling her synapses. Rather the problem is that compromise does not fit neatly into the binary choice which the media narrative now insists is the only thing that can offer ‘leadership’ and ‘clarity’.
Corbyn’s position is, very honourably, a compromise between the need to satisfy democratic politics as expressed in the majority decision of the 2016 Referendum result and the need to minimise economic damage in changing our embedded relationship with the EU. Single market access, a customs union and protection for workers, consumers and the environment is not going to please everyone on both sides of the argument, but in a reasonable world, it would – if it could get a fair hearing - be something a majority could live with and allow politics to move on to more pressing issues. Corbyn is also right that our relationship to the EU is (at the present time) a second order issue, or ought to be, unless we continue to bake in a division that could last generations.
It is neither honest leadership or clarity to pretend that this issue can be cleanly won in a winner-takes-all contest by Leavers or Remainers. What Remainers like Tony Blair, Tom Waston, Jo Swinson, and the liberal commentariat will not acknowledge, is that if they are able to overturn the Leave vote without even trying to put a leave deal to the public, then a Johnson-Faragist axis of right-wing populism nourishing a grievance against the elites who frustrated a democratic vote, will be cemented into the body politics for years.
Nor is it honest leadership or clarity to pretend that a no-deal rupture with the EU will be the basis for a surge in optimism and energy – to take two key vacuous buzzwords from the lexicon of the Johnson government – that will compensate for the significant hit to the economy (and the Good Friday Agreement) in the event of no-deal. The money that would flow into the UK would only do so on the basis of slashing and burning rights and protections as a Johnson government constructs a zone of de-regulated opportunities for capital off the European mainland.
The nationalist conservatives on one side and the centrist coalition of conservativism and liberalism stretching from the Conservative Party, through the Lib Dems and deep into the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party on the other, represent two broadly different cultural and political projects for the continuation of ruling class rule. Their internal argument is the most severe intra-class crisis in decades. But what about the left-wing ‘Lexit’ position?
Left-wing critics of Europe such as Wolfgang Streeck certainly have a strong case that this is a supranational form of neoliberal governance designed to protect capital and advance its interests while protecting it from democratic pressures exerted at national level. There is little doubt that this is indeed the project and the direction of travel. But the analysis does not lead automatically to a necessary tactical conclusion in the current UK context. A break with the EU that took the UK definitively outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, might win back national sovereignty from supranational governance structures but only to lose it in the course of striking bilateral trade deals with powerful economies such as America or China.
The argument that the EU would prevent a radical, transforming Labour government from achieving an ambitious programme of wealth redistribution needs to be tested in practice to see if a complete break is a goal worth pursuing and for it to be demonstrated to a sceptical public – in London and Scotland for example - that this is indeed the case. While the EU has compromised national sovereignty in other EU countries (e.g. Greece and Italy) this has not been the experience of Britain. It is difficult to win the argument that the EU represents a threat to securing greater equality when 99% of what has gone wrong with this country is down to domestic government policy, which has for decades now, been even more neoliberal than the EU.
Labour are currently arguing that either a no-deal or a Tory-bad deal should go back to the people with Remain as an option on the ballot paper. This position is perfectly clear – whether you agree with it or not – but the media continue to scream ‘fudge’. Many in Labour (including the membership) want Corbyn to go further and become fully Remain. In effect this means Labour abandoning even trying to get a compromise deal and simply restaging the Referendum, hoping to get a Remain result. The chances are that without a compromise deal on offer, this snub to the first Referendum would produce another Leave victory and do massive political damage to Labour in the process.
The strategy is cack-handed even if its goal was merely to cancel the Leave vote, as it is amongst the Corbyn supporters of Momentum. But for others closer to the status quo, the call to go full-Remain is designed to further undermine Corbyn. For some ‘progressives’ (hello the Guardian) a Corbyn government is a more terrible prospect than even a triumphant Johnson administration pursuing a frenzied project of neoliberalism that will make Thatcherism in the 1980s look like the proverbial tea-party.
Mike Wayne is Professor in Media, Brunel University, London.
Author of: England’s Discontents: Political Cultures and National Identities Pluto Press 2018