Punished for Brexit muddle
In, out or what? Eddie Ford is still unsure about Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Europe
Labour’s poor by-election results in Richmond Park and Sleaford should serve as a wake-up call. In the event of an early general election, which stills looks extremely likely, the party would be decimated - Jeremy Corbyn will not be riding to Downing Street on a white horse.
Many commentators have pointed out that both by-elections were essentially verdicts on Brexit. Richmond represented a revolt against Brexit, having voted 72% in favour of ‘remain’ during the referendum - whilst Sleaford and North Hykeham in Lincolnshire was a protest vote for exit and against the slowness of Theresa May’s march or crawl out of the European Union: get on with it. Quite predictably, the issue of Europe was not resolved by the referendum - far from it. June 23 merely opened up a new chapter, or running sore, which will not go away for a very long time.
This is particularly bad news for Labour. Yes, sure, the Tories are still divided over the issue. Do they want a hard Brexit, as a posturing May would have us believe, or instead full access to the single market? If you want full access, then you will have to accept free movement of labour - the European Union will not budge on this issue, as it is a foundation stone of the entire project. This also means, by definition, that the UK will continue paying into the EU fund - as recently admitted by David Davis, the possibly misnamed secretary of state for Brexit, who said the UK should “consider” making a contribution in order to get the “best deal for goods and services to the European market”.1 In which case, why bother leaving the EU? All of the hassle with none of the convenience.
But all this does not detract from the simple fact that Labour is snookered by the Brexit question, and partly as a consequence of this shedding votes in all directions. Hence the UK Independence Party, which does not seem to have much of a long-term future, is nevertheless able to put forward a clear message: we want hard Brexit now, no shilly-shallying around or double-speak from Theresa May - Ukip leaflets in Sleaford relentlessly painted the Tories as “Brexit backsliders”. Then we have the Liberal Democrats, who seem to be experiencing a slight revival in their fortunes - they unabashedly want to remain within the EU, whether through a parliamentary rebellion (thanks to the supreme court) or a second referendum.
As for Labour, its electoral prospects look bleak, barring some global economic meltdown or other such crisis. As this paper has argued many times, the left - both inside and outside the Labour Party - needs to prepare itself for an historic Labour defeat.
But you have to ask a more fundamental question: what exactly is the Labour Party’s position on Europe - in, out or .... heaven offend, a United Socialist States of Europe? Frankly, you will be hard-pressed to get a Labour Party answer. On the one hand, Labour goes along with May’s slogan of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and will not oppose the triggering of article 50 or “frustrate the will of the British people”. On the other hand, we hear that the party wants to retain full access to the single market and customs union - whilst others, like Diane Abbott and possibly Jeremy Corbyn, say they believe in the free movement of people. In which case, lending support to the Brexit process is a total contradiction - you cannot have your cake and eat it, even if some people seem to think you can.2
With a degree of merit, Labour MPs are beginning to complain that the party is alienating all sides of the referendum debate by appearing to defend freedom of movement whilst simultaneously promising to push through Brexit next year - something has to give. Croydon North MP Steve Reed is concerned that Labour “risks becoming the party of the 0% if we manage to upset both remainers and leavers by equivocating our position”. Similarly downbeat, David Winnick, the MP for Walsall North, declared that the by-election results were “appalling” and explicitly blamed Corbyn’s leadership. Unless the line or leadership changes, he said, there will be an “electoral disaster”. Jess Phillips, chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, admitted that Labour is struggling to articulate its stance on Brexit: “When people are putting a cross in a box, clarity is everything,” she said, and so Labour “needs to have a very clear position and for everybody to be saying the same thing”, but “at the moment that is not the case”. You can say that again.
Alas, there is no sign of clarity from the Labour leadership - quite the opposite. Remember Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit ‘red lines’ back in November? The Labour leader appeared to tell the Sunday Mirror (November 6) that he would block article 50 if Labour’s demands are not met, which meant continued access to the single market, no watering down of EU workplace rights, guarantees on safeguarding consumers and the environment, and a promise that Britain will pick up the tab for any EU capital investment lost as a result of Brexit. He also distinctly suggested, rather suicidally, that May would be ‘forced’ into an early election if she failed to accede to these demands - telling the newspaper, with a slight air of unreality, that the party was “ready for it”.
Corbyn was immediately accused of unpatriotically sabotaging the interests of the British people. Needless to say, his line was immediately ‘clarified’ by the Labour right, with deputy leader Tom Watson insisting that it was “very, very clear” that Labour would approve the Brexit process when it came to a parliamentary vote. Meanwhile, Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, could not emphasise enough that the party will not “frustrate the process” of leaving the EU, accepting that the government has a “mandate” post-June 23, but arguing it “must put its plan” before parliament, as “we can’t have a vote in a vacuum”. Of course, last week, Labour backed May’s supposed Brexit timetable (albeit with the government agreeing to publish a “plan” before triggering article 50). In other words, Labour voted in a vacuum.
Of course, Labour has now boxed itself into a corner by giving the green light to the Tory government’s Brexit “plan”. Yet it had campaigned for a ‘remain’ vote during the referendum, making its position confused and inconsistent. But if Labour were to change tack, with the likes of John McDonnell damping down their enthusiasm for the “enormous opportunities” presented by Brexit, it would further alienate its traditional base in the north of England and elsewhere.
So we have to ask again - what does the Labour leadership actually think about the EU and Brexit? Well, Ed Miliband, for one, thinks that “tough choices” and a “very difficult trade-off” have to be made. Centrally, argues Miliband, safeguarding the economy should be the number-one priority rather than obsessing over an “undeliverable promise” to cut immigration to the tens of thousands a year - which in the real world surely means staying inside the single market and customs union (soft Brexit).
And there are increasing calls for Labour to crack down on immigration from inside the party. Carwyn Jones, first minister of Wales, told TheGuardian (December 8) that the Labour leader’s support for free movement will alienate supporters outside London - he maintained that Corbyn’s immigration policy is “very London-centric” and “cosmopolitan”, but that is “not the way people see it outside London”. Labour has to be “very careful that we don’t drive our supporters into the arms of Ukip”, according to Jones, by being too vociferous in defence of free movement or ‘excessively’ pro-migration.
Regrettably, many others are starting to push this ‘nativist’ line, such as Clive Lewis, the shadow business secretary, and Andy ‘android’ Burnham - the latter seeking to become mayor of Greater Manchester. Lewis, whilst repeating the mantra of keeping full access to the single market, thinks that the free movement of people across the EU “hasn’t worked” for millions of Britons - who have been “been undercut” and “feel insecure”. Whist the “focus” should not be on cutting immigration or setting up “artificial” targets, Labour will only be able to win over disgruntled voters - and win elections - if it “can champion English nationalism”, said the MP of Grenadian origin, as well as “promising economic reforms”. Of course, like Owen Jones or Billy Bragg, Lewis wants an “inclusive, civic, outward-looking, open, tolerant” nationalism - as opposed to an “inward-looking, negative English nationalism”, which will “alienate” the Scots, Irish and Welsh.
Burnham, if anything, seemed to go one step further. Last week he told the House of Commons that the free movement of people within the EU is “undermining the cohesion” of the UK and risks “the safety of our streets” - and he is “no longer prepared to be complicit in that”.3 Indeed, intoned our mayoral hopeful, there is “nothing socialist about open borders” - free movement has been “defeated at the ballot box and is no longer an option”. The people of Manchester are “welcoming” and “generous”, Burnham went on, not “xenophobic” and “racist” - but they “also want fairness” and do “have a problem with people taking them for granted” - everyone knows that “unlimited, unfunded, unskilled migration … damages their own living standards”. Rather, he told Sky News, there should be a system that is “more linked to people coming to fill a specific job in the labour market rather than speculative free movement”. Not entirely without justification, Kenneth Clarke remarked that Burnham is “sounding a bit like a paler version of Nigel Farage”.
In response to such comments, a Corbyn spokesman repeated that it is “not our objective to reduce the numbers” with regards to immigration and - correctly - Diane Abbott told TheGuardian that Labour needed to “hold the line” in defence of free movement, as the Conservatives pushed for tighter controls during EU negotiations.
Another question communists have to ask is: if you campaigned for a ‘remain’ vote in the referendum, as Labour did, why on earth do you change your policy just because you lost the vote? This makes no moral or logical sense. For example, this writer is a socialist who wants a socialist Europe - yet in elections most people do not vote for socialism or a socialist Europe. Do I therefore, Burnham-style, abandon my socialism on the basis that the people have spoken by electing a Conservative government? The very idea is absurd.
Under a system of representative democracy, what you should do is clearly set out your principles and aims - then fight to win people over to this programme because it is true - not a list of pious promises that can be discarded tomorrow, but rather the only way to advance working class strength and eventually working class rule. But that, of course, is the whole problem with referenda and plebiscitary democracy in general - you cannot reduce complex matters to a simple ‘yes/no’ answer. If you ask people why they voted ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ you will get dozens of different and competing answers: only a properly developed programme can supply viable answers and a vision of a new society.
You also have to ask not only why Labour is abandoning its previous position, which it is effectively doing by backing May’s Brexit timetable, but why Jeremy Corbyn adopted a ‘remain’ position in the first place? As a lifelong Bennite opponent of the EU “bosses’ club”, this came as a surprise to many. The only conclusion you can reasonably come to is that Corbyn’s volte-face was dictated by a concern for ‘party unity’ - ie, an unwillingness to upset the right - not political principle or programme. If so, it has been a complete failure even on those dubious terms - unity is about the last word you would use to characterise a Labour Party in a permanent state of simmering civil war (even if the right appears to have abandoned its coup efforts this side of a general election).
Presently, all we get from Labour is fudge and wishful thinking - you can have full access to the single market and still ‘take back control’ over immigration. Sorry, you cannot - it is a delusion. Make your mind up. The more intelligent members of the Blairite right at least have some sort of strategy. After unexpectedly losing the referendum, they have regrouped and are finally getting their act together - with ex-dear leader Tony teaming up with John Major to warn about the dangers of hard Brexit. They are against triggering article 50 and are looking for their opportunity to call for a second referendum too.
Before June 23 there was much speculation, including in the pages of this publication, about how newly elected president Hillary Clinton would tell prime minister Boris Johnson to dump this Brexit nonsense - how you do it is up to you, but make sure it gets done. The reality will obviously be a lot more complicated, as you cannot easily imagine president Trump telling prime minister May the same thing - after all, this is the man who described his election victory as “Brexit plus, plus, plus”. But, having said that, you can readily conceive of the capitalist class - and the political establishment as a whole - campaigning for a second referendum after convincing the British people that Brexit is impossibly complex and too risky. If you did an opinion poll today there could well be a small minority in favour of ‘remain’ - and that could increase if we see a continuation of stagnant living standards, which seems very likely.