Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Labour's Brexit Stance Now Makes Even Less Sense

Labour's position on Brexit, following last year's referendum, never made any sense.  Following the General Election, it now makes even less sense.

The position of accepting the referendum result was based on a form of democratic primitivism.  But, the idea that because a majority of the electorate voted for what was a reactionary policy, is no reason why a social-democratic party should lie down, play dead and simply adopt that reactionary policy themselves.  The biggest factor of those voting for Brexit, by far, was a xenophobic dislike - and in some cases more than just dislike - for foreigners, and in particular immigrants.  That was shown by the rise in racist attacks that occurred following the referendum result.  Why on Earth would any kind of progressive party, let alone a social-democratic party want to kow-tow to such reactionary sentiments?

Even if we set aside the reactionary xenophobic sentiments of those who were the core support for the Leave vote, the idea that Britain outside the EU, is somehow a better alternative is itself, a reactionary concept that lines up British workers with British capital, as in some way having more in common than do British workers with their EU comrades.  The idea that just because a majority of public opinion, in a one-off vote, at a point in time, voted for Brexit, Labour should adopt that same reactionary policy is nonsensical.  It is the same kind of triangulation, and constant chasing after public opinion that we expect from the Blair-rights, not from Corbyn's Labour.  We should be shaping that public opinion, by a principled advocacy of progressive politics, not tailing it.

And, after all, the referendum result was narrow.  Had 16 and 17 year olds been given the vote, the result would probably have gone the other way.  Moreover, since last year's referendum, 2.5 million young people have registered to vote.  It is largely on the back of their votes that Labour did so well in this election, and deprived the Tories of their majority.  Surveys show that around 75% of these young voters oppose Brexit, indeed one major factor in them registering to vote, and mobilising to oppose the Tories, is the fact that, by failing to do so last year, it allowed the Brexit vote to win.  As I wrote the other day, for Labour now to continue to provide a pale version of the Tories Brexit policy, to present what amounts to little more than a UKIP-lite policy in respect of the free movement of workers, is to betray all of those young workers, and to risk them deserting Labour when the next election comes.

After all, had those 2,5 million young workers been registered and voted last year, the result would have been a significant majority for Remain.  In what way then does it make any sense to persist on the basis of an old vote that no longer represents the current situation?  In 2015, the electorate voted in a majority Tory government.  It wasn't the last word on the matter.  Just two years later, the electorate, largely with the help of these young voters, took the Tories majority away.  So, why is it not reasonable to demand another vote on Brexit?  After all, although Jeremy Corbyn did a large number of meetings during the referendum campaign, the media showed little of it, as they concentrated on the Tory infighting.  But, had Labour organised the kind of campaign just seen, in the election, but putting forward a programme of hope, of campaigning for a workers Europe, then its quite likely that the referendum result would have been quite different.

In the election, it is quite clear that Labour did best not just where there were large numbers of new young voters, but also where there was a strong support for Remain.  The two things in fact go together.  Despite trying to chase after the reactionary Leave voters, Labour won over only about a quarter of former UKIP voters, whereas the Tories won over more than half of them.  The remainder either stuck with UKIP, or went back to being passive as they had been before UKIP gave them a hobby horse to ride.

Just from a practical and tactical point of view it makes no sense for Labour to stick with its UKIP-lite stance to try to win over those UKIP voters, because in doing so it not only commits itself to a reactionary policy, but it also risks losing all of those progressive young voters it has just won, as well as cutting itself off from all those voters who support the SNP, Plaid, the Greens and Liberals, all of whom support Remain.

In fact, the idea of a Progressive Alliance has been suggested by some.  The election showed why it was a nonsensical idea.  Most voters realised what those who put forward the idea of a Progressive Alliance failed to understand.  That is that it was only Labour that had any chance of forming a government.  A vote for the Liberals, or the Greens, or for the nationalist parties, was more than just a wasted vote, it was a vote that split the anti-Tory vote, that denied Labour votes that could have enabled it to win more seats, and potentially to have formed the government.

Labour needs to crush these diversionary parties, by sucking the oxygen from their ideological basis. It has to be Labour that offers the workers of Scotland and Wales a solution to their problems, a solution that requires their unity with English workers not their separation from them.  It has to be Labour that provides the policies required to protect and enhance the environment, not the Greens.  It has to be Labour that shows that it is the defender and proponent of individual rights and freedoms alongside collective rights and freedoms, not the Liberals.

In the last election, these parties went nowhere.  Even the SNP has clearly passed its best before date. But, the idea that any kind of Progressive Alliance could be formed with them is ludicrous given their pro-Remain stance, if Labour continues to oppose free movement of workers - as Dianne Abbot says, one of the most fundamental of workers' individual and collective rights and freedoms - and continues to support Brexit.  The voters who came behind Labour at this election and left these other parties to do so, did so, tactically to oppose a hard Tory Brexit, but that does not mean as the Tories are now claiming that this signifies that 80% of voters supported Brexit!

The contradictions of Brexit, which were never addressed during the appalling referendum campaign are now manifesting themselves, as the Tories have to rely on the votes of the DUP.  Northern Ireland requires a open border with the Irish Republic.  But, the only way of having such an open border is if Britain remains in the Customs Union.  For a country like Britain, with the size of its economy, its dependence on trade into the EU, and so on, it makes no sense at all to be in the Customs Union, and not in the Single Market.  But, to be in both the Customs Union and Single Market, means to be bound by their rules, to have to pay to be a member, and to be bound by the ECJ.  It then makes no sense, not to be inside the EU itself!

The only reason being given for not being in the single market is the requirement for the free movement of workers.  But, Labour as a progressive social-democratic party, indeed even as any kind of progressive democratic party, should be in favour of the free movement of workers whether we are in or out of the single market.  The idea that workers should not be free to move around the globe, to sell their labour-power wherever they can obtain the best price for it is an idea that belongs in the Middle Ages along with all of the other feudal monopolies and restrictions of workers liberty.

Yesterday, Barry Gardiner, on TV argued that Labour is in favour of having all of the same benefits as being inside the Customs Union and Single Market, but without actually being a member!  Yes, I would like to have all the benefits of being in a sports club without having to be a member, or paying any membership fees.  Not surprisingly, there are not many organisations that seek to destroy themselves by offering such advantages to non-members over members!  What Barry was suggesting was nothing different than the policy of "Have cake and eat it" that Bojo was criticised for putting forward only a few months ago.

Its one thing to have as a strategy to embarrass the Tories a policy of holding them to their own stated commitment to negotiate for Britain such unachievable aims, but to then adopt those same unachievable aims yourself, as your policy stance is the height of lunacy.

Labour members should begin to put motions for annual conference to set Labour's policy to be to oppose Brexit with all our might.  The starting point should be to defend the basic right of workers to free movement, to be able to sell their Labour-power where they can obtain the best price for it.  The consequences of Brexit have already been seen in the 96% drop in EU nurses registering to work in the NHS, at a time when the NHS already faces severe shortages, and when a large number of existing EU nurses, have left both the NHS and Britain.

Labour now has the potential for forming a government in the next few months, but its clear already that even the prospect of Brexit is seriously damaging the UK economy.  The Pound is set to sink further, whilst already the decline in the Pound has pushed inflation up to over 3% on RPI, and is set to rise much further.  Whatever the Bank of England does with official interest rates, the cost of borrowing for Britain in capital markets is set to rise.  A Labour government seeking to adopt the kind of programme put forward by Corbyn and his supporters will face an attack by international financiers.  In fact, that is one reason why it would be beneficial for Britain to be in the Eurozone let alone the EU, because whilst the international financiers can attack the Pound, it is much more difficult for them to do that against the Euro.

Either way, any kind of radical Labour programme can only be pushed forward with the support of workers across Europe.  So, this is the worst time that Labour could be considering cutting itself off from those workers via Brexit.  Labour should commit itself to opposing Brexit vigorously, and providing a programme of hope based upon working with workers and socialists across Europe, to forge a Workers Europe.

5 comments:

George Carty said...

1. Norway is not part of the EU customs union, but as a Schengen signatory it has free movement with EU members Sweden and Finland. Is the DUP specifically demanding retention of free trade in goods across the Irish border, not just free movement of people?

2. Isn't Corbyn's apparent pro-Brexit stance (if it is not down to his own Bennite past) not so much about "chasing the UKIP vote" as about ensuring that pro-Brexit working class voters do not unite behind the Tories? It seems to have paid off as most 2015 UKIP voters seem to have returned to their 2010 allegiances. A bigger problem for Labour seems to be that the Tories in 2015 ate much of the Lib Dem vote, and even pro-Remain Tories seem unwilling to defect (which maybe why the Tories recaptured Richmond Park last week, for example).

3. What can Labour do about its Midlands problem?

George Carty said...

Regarding your penultimate paragraph – isn't it impossible for Eurozone members to carry out the kind of Keynesian policies that Corbyn wants to do?

IIRC this is why François Hollande's presidency ended in disaster – he was trapped by the Euro much as Ramsay MacDonald was trapped by the Gold Standard – and why the Front National has won so much support among the French working class. I'm currently in mind to agree with Yanis Varoufakis that the Euro can only work if combined with European fiscal union, which will never be accepted by the mercantilist-minded Germans.

Arguably, one reason why Germany is now the powerhouse of Europe is that it never abolished rent control (as Britain did under Thatcher) meaning that its money was productively invested in industry rather than wasted in pointless bidding wars for prime locations, but don't the British people culturally value very strongly the "right" to own land and pass it down the generations? (Which is why the "dementia tax" was so damaging to the Tories in the recent election of course...)

Boffy said...

George,

The DUP needs free movement of goods and people, because part of its base is among the farmers and small business people who move goods and people across the border several times a day, amounting to billions of pounds/euros of trade. The population of Norway and Northern Ireland is about the same around 7 million, but its inconceivable for Northern Ireland to have a Norway style agreement outside a general UK agreement. For one thing Scotland would demand the same arrangement. Its only practical on the basis of the UK being inside the Customs Union, and British business needs and is demanding that too, because as Labour spokespeople have themselves pointed out, British manufacturing depends on it, as goods pass back and forth into and out of the EU many times before they are a completed product.

Chasing the UKIP vote didn't pay off. Half of the defecting UKIP vote went to the Tories. Only a quarter went to Labour -that's a quarter of the defectors not a quarter of the total UKIP vote! But, the pro-Brexit stance almost certainly cost Labour more votes from Greens, Plaid, SNP, Liberals than it gained from pro-Brexit voters from UKIP.

To regain seats in the Midlands, Labour needs to get rid of the influence of the Blair-rights/soft left. One reason that the media were getting reports from Labour candidates that things were looking bad, is that many of those candidates were half hoping that things turned out badly - even as they hoped to scrape by in their own seat - because that would vindicate their hostility to Corbyn. I have no illusion that those repentant Blair-rights still disagree with the ideological stance of Corbyn. Blair himself after Corbyn was elected Leader, came out to say that even if Corbynism was the way to get a Labour victory, he would still be opposed to it. We need to clear them out, and to have a more unified message.

Its not at all impossible to carry out a progressive social-democratic strategy in Europe, but it requires a struggle to achieve it. It requires similar forces to unite across the EU, which is what the Greeks lacked, and what Hollande never even sought to build. I agree that the Euro requires a fiscal union, which is what I have been arguing for the last seven years, but it requires a federal United States of Europe too. The question is on what basis such a new structure is built.

George Carty said...

Boffy -- "but its inconceivable for Northern Ireland to have a Norway style agreement outside a general UK agreement."

Presumably what you meant here was "but it is inconceivable for Northern Ireland to be in the EU Customs Union, while Great Britain is outside in a Norway-style arrangement", right?

"Chasing the UKIP vote didn't pay off. Half of the defecting UKIP vote went to the Tories. Only a quarter went to Labour -that's a quarter of the defectors not a quarter of the total UKIP vote!"

Does "defectors" here refer only to voters who voted Labour in 2010 but switched UKIP in 2015? Of course most UKIP voters (in toto) would have switched to the Tories if they switched parties at all, as they came from the Tories in the first place!

And when I'm thinking of pro-Brexit voters I'm not just thinking of 2015 UKIP voters, but also of Leave voters who abstained or voted Labour in 2015, but may have voted Tory this year if Labour had been solidly anti-Brexit.

Or is it your opinion that such voters are only weakly pro-Brexit, and that Corbynite economic policies would be enough to keep them loyal even if Labour opposed Brexit outright?

"But, the pro-Brexit stance almost certainly cost Labour more votes from Greens, Plaid, SNP, Liberals than it gained from pro-Brexit voters from UKIP."

Perhaps, but did it lose any significant number of seats due to the progressive vote being split? Most of the seats that Labour needs to capture to win next time voted Leave, and the progressive vote in such seats is already almost entirely united behind Labour. What is needed is to take more votes from the Tories.

Boffy said...

George,

To your first question, yes.

On the UKIP defectors, I'm talking about those who voted UKIP in 2015, but who this time voted Tory, Labour, Liberal or other, or who abstained.

On other Leave voters, John Curtice showed that even in heavily Leave areas, a majority of Labour voters voted Remain. The difference in those areas, like Stoke was the already significant share of the vote held by Tories and UKIP. As Curtice himself said, it made no sense for Labour even in an area like Stoke, to be pro-Brexit, because that was likely to piss of the 50-60% of its own voters who voted Remain, as well as meaning it would have no chance/little chance of picking up Green/Liberal/Plaid/SNP votes in those seats.

And it is definitely my position as I've argued all along that the Labour voters who voted Leave, would overwhelmingly vote Labour even if Labour adopted a strongly anti-Brexit position, provided that Labour offered them a radical social-democratic alternative, as opposed to the Tory-lite offerings of previous elections. In fact, given that it was clear that UKIP is dead, and was dead for this election, that was even more the case, because only a small minority - despite the media hype to the contrary - would switch to the Tories.

I think it depends on the seat. Clearly, it didn't cost us the seat in Kensington, or in Canterbury! Not so sure in Wales, and elsewhere. I think the majority of Greens/Liberals/Plaid had the good sense to realise that only Labour could form a government, and so held their nose to vote Labour despite the pro-Brexit position, in order to oppose the lesser evil of a Tory hard Brexit, and in the hope that Brexit itself could be thrown out down the road, as the implications become clear in the economy, and in the negotiations.