Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Labour's Move Is Much Too Little Much Too Late

So, it looks like the Labour Shadow Cabinet are eventually going to shift position leftwards on Brexit, towards a more progressive, internationalist position, and away from the current reactionary nationalist, pro-Brexit stance. But, it is much too little, much too late. 

If reports are to be believed, and reality has often turned out to be different when voiced by Corbyn, from what has been previously reported, then Labour is to move its position to calling for a second referendum on any Brexit Deal, and to argue for a Remain vote in any such referendum. That is sort of a step forward, in that it suggests a move away from the current reactionary, nationalist, pro-Brexit stance. However, another part of the new proposals is that if there is a General Election – which seems likely, shortly after Boris Johnson is appointed Tory Leader – Labour will campaign on the basis that, if it wins that election, it will itself continue to pursue a Brexit stance, attempting to negotiate its own fantasy Brexit, which it would then put to a further referendum. That is one step forward two steps back. 

Any small benefit Labour might have obtained in trying to hold on to its rapidly deserting voter base, which massively supports Remain, is more than negated by its commitment to continue to argue for the idea of a fantasy “Jobs First Brexit”. There is no chance that the EU is going to reopen negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement at this stage. The EU 27 have become increasingly annoyed at what they see as perfidious Albion once again carrying out its historical role of acting as a destabilising force in Europe. The EU undoubtedly does not want a No Deal Brexit, but nor does it want a continuation of the uncertainty that endless Brexit negotiations imply. The EU would undoubtedly suffer some immediate discomfort from a No Deal Brexit at the end of October, but nothing like the chaos it would impose on Britain, and the immediate discomfort the EU might suffer, has already been largely mitigated by EU preparations for No Deal over the last couple of years. Besides, any discomfort from a No Deal, is an acceptable cost, for the EU, compared to the alternative, which would be to undermine its own single market. 

In the end, if it comes to a fight between Britain and the EU, the EU, whose economy is 7 times that of the UK, will win hands down. They will swallow Britain for breakfast. The EU country that will be most immediately affected by a No Deal will be Ireland. But, Ireland can be supported by the EU during that period. Moreover, if Ireland is badly affected, just imagine what a total catastrophe that will mean for Northern Ireland, as the EU is forced to erect a hard border between the North and the Republic, as the inevitable outcome of a No Deal situation. The chances of that leading to a border poll, and reunification of Ireland then become that much greater, which would itself resolve many of the issues that a No Deal situation raises for Ireland. 

The only way the EU would reopen negotiations over Brexit with a Labour government, would be on the basis that Labour scrapped all of the Tory red lines, and committed itself to remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union, which means also accepting the role of the ECJ, paying into the budget and so on. The trouble is that to negotiate such an agreement would take many more months. At the very least, it would mean that Britain would have to seek an extension of around a year or two years, whilst negotiations essentially started from scratch. Its more likely that the EU would insist that Britain revoke Article 50. That is even more likely, because the truth is that Labour's fantasy Brexit proposals are not that different to the actual Withdrawal Agreement that May has negotiated. May's Withdrawal Agreement, because of the Irish Backstop, essentially means dropping all of her red lines, because the only way the backstop does not come into play, is if Britain were to negotiate continued membership of the Single Market and Customs Union. 

The problem there has always been that both the Tories and Labour have wanted to have all the benefits of being in the Single Market and Customs Union without any of the costs and responsibilities. Both have wanted to retain the ability to negotiate independent trade deals, and to determine customs duties. That is simply not possible, because it undermines the very basis of the single market and customs union. The idea that the EU is going to allow the UK to have a seat at the table at any of these bodies, whilst not being in the EU is a fantasy. 

So, a Labour government can no more negotiate a Brexit deal that meets its Six Tests than can the Tories. Labour could negotiate to be in the Single Market and Customs Union, and take on all of the costs and responsibilities that entails, but without having any say in determining the rules and regulations, which is precisely what membership of the EU provides. So, the obvious question then would be, why not also just remain in the EU? 

For Labour voters, more than 70% of whom strongly back Remain, there is no point in voting Labour on the basis of such a confused, and still essentially pro-Brexit position. And imagine trying to explain it on the doorstep! At best, it would mean that there would be another year or two years of indecision, at the end of which Labour would not have been able to have negotiated its fantasy Jobs First Brexit. What then? Having failed in that endeavour, would Labour then put it back to a referendum, and campaign for a vote to Remain, on the basis that its own negotiations had predictably failed? On the current basis, it would make far more sense for such voters to back the Liberals, in England, and SNP in Scotland, so as to better ensure that Brexit is defeated. 

Even if you take the most favourable polls for Labour, the vote share amongst Labour, Tories, Brexit Party and Liberals gives them all a fairly even split. The worst have Labour languishing in fourth place. The dynamic is also clearly with the Liberals, as well as with the SNP, Plaid and the Greens. In Scotland and Wales, where the SNP and Plaid votes are concentrated, the effect will be to enable them to make massive gains at Labour's expense. In England, with an even split of the votes, a party such as the Liberals that could poll even just 26-28% in every constituency could win a landslide, due to the first past the post voting system, because theoretically, it would mean that the other parties vote share could be divided 24% each, meaning none of them would be the largest party in any constituency, even if only a few hundred votes behind the Liberals in any seat. With the Liberals on a roll, and now forming electoral alliances with the Greens and Nationalists to stop Brexit, that is even more likely. 

If Johnson does the obvious thing, and unites the Tories behind a No Deal strategy, that he will no doubt dress up as a Managed No Deal, to be negotiated with the EU, he will seize back all of the votes that have gone to the Brexit Party, nearly all of whom are Tory voters. On the basis of current polls that would give the Tories as much as 45-47%, though its likely that the Brexit Party would keep some votes, reducing the Tory vote share by that amount. Even so, if the Tories were to poll around 35%, that would be enough to win a landslide if the other parties remain divided. The only way to stop a Tory victory under those conditions would be if the other parties united around a stop Brexit ticket. At the moment, that seems unlikely, and so, as with the European elections, it would more likely turn out that in England, anti-Brexit voters would back the Liberals, whilst in Scotland they would back the SNP, and Plaid in Wales. Either way, it means that Labour would be decimated. 

Labour could stop the Tories if it came out itself as the main opposition to Brexit, and did so clearly, and convincingly. Then it could pull its own votes back that have gone to the Liberals, Greens, and Plaid, and possibly some of those that have gone to the SNP.  It should not be a question of if, but of why Labour has not already been fulfilling that function, of mobilising opposition to Brexit and to the Tories on a progressive internationalist stance. Its current halfhearted move is nowhere near adequate to achieve that. Even the belated commitment to a second referendum is weak, and politically stupid. It raises all the questions about what will be on the ballot. But, if Labour hopes to form the government, why argue for a referendum that could result in another vote to Leave that a Labour government would then have to implement? That would be like a socialist shop steward arguing for a ballot on whether all black workers in a factory should be sacked so as to give jobs to white workers, and committing themselves to implementing the result, no matter how reactionary it is! 

Rather than arguing for a second referendum, Labour should be openly saying that Brexit is a reactionary policy, no matter how many people might vote for it, and that a principled Labour government would never implement it. Labour should be campaigning to stop Brexit, and to revoking Article 50. It should say openly, we want a General Election, and if elected we will revoke Article 50, and get on with the real job of working with workers and socialists across the continent to transform society in a progressive direction, based on internationalism and solidarity, not nationalism and division, that can only result in a race to the bottom. 

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