Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Labour Digs A Bigger Hole

Why can't Labour just say they have made a thoroughly botched job of Brexit over the last three years, and start putting forward a principled and defensible position? Instead, they keep trying to perform logical gymnastics to square their positions, which simply comes over as being dishonest, and incompetent. Yesterday, on Politics Live, I watched Emily Thornberry give one of the most miserable performances I can remember seeing, and another Labour politician earlier in the day, on Adam Boulton gave another that was not far behind it. 

Labour's position, for the last three years, on Brexit, has been appalling, because it started from the thoroughly wretched position that Labour was committed to “respecting” the thoroughly reactionary decision, from the 2016 referendum, to withdraw from the EU. There was no principled basis on which Labour had to commit to giving any such “respect”, any more than Labour has to agree to “respect” any other previous decision with which it disagrees, having then won an election on the basis of a commitment to overturn it. From that thoroughly unprincipled position, all of Labour's subsequent problems have flowed. It has continually been faced with being duplicitous, and trying to square circles. 

That problem was compounded by the fact that Corbyn himself, and his Stalinist advisors, along with a group of right-wing nationalist MP's, in Leave voting seats, actually favoured pushing ahead with Brexit, even though the vast majority of Labour members and Labour voters support staying in the EU. The 2017 General Election result was achieved on the back of this duplicity, through which Labour developed its so called strategy of constructive ambiguity. On the one hand, Labour committed to “respecting” the referendum result, but retained the support of its large Remain supporting base, and won over some Remain supporting Liberal and Green voters, by emphasising that it would oppose a hard Brexit, and would, if elected, itself negotiate a soft Brexit, the terms of which were themselves vague, but which were gradually firmed up to mean some form of remaining inside the single market and customs union, with the fantasy idea tagged on, that this would include the right to negotiate separate trade deals, to have a seat at the table, and other such nonsense. 

In reality, the large coalition of forces that Labour assembled in the 2017 General Election, always saw it as, first, the only credible means of preventing a right-wing Tory government committed to a hard Brexit being elected, and, second, as the only means, thereby, in which the whole prospect of Brexit could be taken off the table, as Labour inevitably had to move away from its fantasy soft Brexit, to scrapping Brexit altogether. But, as time went on, it became clear that, despite the position of the Labour membership and voter base hardening, in opposition to Brexit, the Corbyn leadership was actually moving in the opposite direction, presenting its vote in 2017, as the basis for continuing with its fantasy Brexit proposals. In 2017, when the party membership became restive over that trajectory, and sought to firm up the party's Brexit position, the party leadership bureaucratically kept the discussion off the conference agenda. When, in 2018, a repeat of that was made impossible, and the agenda was flooded with motions calling for a firmer anti-Brexit position, the party leadership, used the trades unions to water down those motions into a composite that strung out the procedure for adopting a clear anti-Brexit stance. 

The composite called for Labour to stick by its Six Tests in opposing any Tory Brexit agreement, which essentially meant opposing any practical Brexit deal. It committed Labour to then demanding a General Election, if no deal could be agreed, and finally committed Labour to backing the demand for another referendum, if it was not possible to get a General Election, and insisted that the option to Remain in the EU must be on any such ballot. The leadership even obfuscated over this last point, for a time, and, even when they accepted it, did not give wholehearted commitment to campaign for a Remain vote, were such a referendum to occur. 

The consequence was obvious. Large numbers of voters that had swung behind Labour in 2017, began to drift away, faced with the reality of the party leadership's continued support for Brexit. By the time, the 2019 local elections, and the EU Parliament elections, took place, dissatisfaction with Labour's stance was such that it collapsed to fourth and fifth places, reduced to poll figures barely in double digit percentages, and with even 60% of Labour members voting for other parties. It was obvious that Labour had to commit much more clearly to the prospect of Remaining in the EU. 

Labour's position was first to demand a General Election, and only if that was denied to back demands for another referendum. Those that accepted this compromise, rather than demanding Labour immediately back the calls for another referendum did so, because they believed that there was no way that Labour could force a General Election, and no reason that Theresa May would call one. But, the demand for another referendum was itself really just a cipher. It was code, for the degree of Labour's commitment to actually opposing Brexit itself. It was an index of the degree to which Corbyn and the Labour leadership would move from their position of constructive ambiguity to one of demanding a referendum so as to stop Brexit. 

As such, it was itself always a stupid strategy. It was an unprincipled position to take. If Labour, and particularly the Left, demanded such a referendum, what would they do if that referendum came out once again for Brexit? What indeed, if it more explicitly backed a No Deal Brexit, and opened the door to even more ultra-nationalism, backing even more right-wing stances on immigration, opposition to free movement and so on? Would Labour, and the Left then commit themselves to implementing those democratic, but reactionary decisions? The Liberals, and Blair-rights, who backed the idea of another referendum, and promoted it over the demand for a General Election, did so for their own specific reasons. A General Election is clear, it means fighting behind the Corbyn leadership, and fighting for the progressive social-democratic policies that Corbyn's Labour has put forward. It would have the inevitable result, if successful, of putting Corbyn in Downing Street. Not only the Liberals, who had been enabled to experience a resurrection, due to Labour's Brexit stance, but also the Blair-rights, had no desire for a General Election that would ensconce Corbyn in Downing Street. 

The campaign for a referendum, rather than a General Election, was a means, thereby, of avoiding that potentiality, and simultaneously of bypassing Corbyn himself, who continued to avoid committing to opposing Brexit, and to perpetuating the line that Labour was committed to negotiating its own fantasy Jobs First Brexit. That ensured that votes and support ebbed away from Labour, and left the field of mobilising the anti-Brexit, and thereby essentially anti-Tory, forces wide open to the Blair-rights and Liberals, whilst Corbyn and his supporters abandoned the field of battle. 

In truth, those that claimed that a General Election was not likely, and the Tories had no reason to call one, were wrong, as I pointed out last Christmas. With Labour's support ebbing away and the anti-Brexit vote increasingly divided in three or four directions, there was every reason for Theresa May to have done, in February, what Boris Johnson is doing now. That is to swing sharp right, consolidate the Brexit vote behind a Managed No Deal option, and win a sizeable working majority on the basis of a Tory/Brexiteer core vote strategy. But, May turned out to be a terrible politician. The election I predicted should happen in February, has simply been deferred by 8-9 months. 

The reason that the Blair-rights, and sections of the Left rallied behind the second referendum option was, quite simply, a lack of principle on their part, and a collapse into opportunism and short-termist wishful thinking. They were not prepared to say, openly, that the Brexit decision was reactionary, and that they would oppose it. They tied themselves up with democratic primitivism, blinded by the idea that the referendum was a democratic vote, and its decision could only be overturned by another referendum. It is nonsense. The whole basis of democracy is that those that lose votes are free to continue to argue for their ideas, and to try to overturn the previous decision. Labour could never proceed on the basis of committing itself to implementing a reactionary decision, and the only way of ensuring that is to fight a General Election, not to conduct a referendum. If Labour stood in a General Election, on a programme committing it to scrapping Brexit, it would either be elected or it would not. Either way it would not have to implement a reactionary decision. 

Marx said that the struggle for Socialism involves winning the battle of democracy. What that means is that we set out our programme clearly and we fight for support for it. We do not seek to proceed on the basis of some one-off, temporary vote, that might arise for peculiar conditions, or because the workers might be confused about what we mean, or vote for us for some other reasons. It means that we proceed only on the basis of having obtained the sustained, conscious backing of the large majority of society for our programme, and the ability that provides for its implementation. It certainly does not mean that socialists act opportunistically, to become simply followers of public opinion. 

Labour's position was first to demand a General Election. But, now, Johnson is offering them a General Election, and Labour is refusing to agree to it. In fact, they would have been placed in the same situation had May done, in February, what I thought it was inevitable she would do, and similarly called a General Election, on the basis of a promise to implement a Managed No Deal Brexit. Labour's real problem, as far as such a General Election is concerned, then as now, is that if Labour goes into that election promising itself to implement some kind of Brexit, or even to waste time negotiating its fantasy “Jobs First Brexit”, it will haemorrhage votes to the Liberals, Greens, Plaid and SNP. That split vote would not only mean that Labour was decimated, but that none of these other parties could win either, letting the Tories in with a workable majority. 

This is the problem Labour now faces, which is the real reason it does not want to currently vote for a General Election, which it knows it would lose badly. Labour has moved its position at a glacial pace away from the pro-Brexit position it has held previously. It had to do so or die. But, it is still trying to square its current and evolving position with its past and existing position. Its position has moved so slowly that events have simply overtaken it. For months it refused to take up the position of calling for another referendum as a cypher for an anti-Brexit stance, insisting that it wanted a General Election. Eventually, it adopts the stance of calling for another referendum, but just at the point that Johnson offers them a General Election! 

In order to try to square its position, and preserve the idea that its position had simply evolved, in line with the conference decision, it still insists that it would hold a referendum, only after having wasted time itself trying to negotiate its own fantasy Jobs First Brexit. Last week, on Question Time, Emily Thornberry was put in the ridiculous position, therefore, of saying that Labour, if elected, would negotiate its Jobs First Deal. Of course, it would not, because the idea that its possible to be in the Customs Union, Single Market etc., whilst being outside the EU, negotiating your own trade deals, having a seat at the table in formulating tariffs, rules and regulations and so on, is ridiculous. If it were possible to negotiate such a deal, where its advantageous to be outside the EU, not only would British citizens vote for such a deal, but, shortly after, every other country would leave the EU, demanding similar privileges! 

Labour could not negotiate any such deal to be able to put to voters to begin with. But, Labour itself recognises that any deal it could actually negotiate with the EU would be worse than remaining inside the EU. That is why Thornberry said on QT, that having negotiated such a deal, Labour would put it, and Remain on a referendum ballot, and would then argue for Remain. This is bizarre in the extreme. If you know in advance that any deal you are going to negotiate is worse than Remain, why waste time and money, negotiating it? Labour should simply say, we were wrong to ever have said we would respect the referendum result, because whatever the result, Brexit is reactionary, and we will not implement it. 

Following Thornberry's statement on QT, the ludicrous nature of this position was quickly exposed. Rather than accepting that it was ludicrous, Labour then dug a bigger hole in trying to rationalise it. John McDonnell, on Andrew Marr, tried to explain it by saying that what it meant was that, because Labour is committed to holding another referendum, the voters would have to have two options to choose from, and so what it actually meant was putting forward Theresa May's deal, as against Remain. Well thanks to Labour's right-wing MP's like Stephen Kinnock and Caroline Flint, May's terrible deal might actually get voted on in parliament and approved without the voters getting to vote on it in a referendum! 

Then, yesterday, asked on Politics Live, why Labour would want to put Theresa May's deal on a ballot as against Remain, when Labour has consistently opposed that deal, which has been voted down three times in parliament, Thornberry performed further gymnastics, saying that it would not be just May's deal, but May's deal as amended in the talks held between the government and Labour prior to May standing down. So, this is presented as simply giving the voters an option between that deal and Remain, with Labour arguing for Remain. But, that is still a bizarre and nonsensical position. If you think that the best option is Remain, why cling to the idea of holding a referendum at all? The only point in Labour's position as set out in the composite, for arguing for another referendum was if you could not get a General Election. But, if you get a General Election, prior to a referendum, there is no need for a referendum. You simply stand in the election on the platform that Brexit is reactionary, and you will scrap it, and revoke Article 50

That is also why Labour's stance of now refusing to accept Johnson's offer of a General Election is also bizarre. If there is a General Election, and Labour stands on a programme of revoking Article 50, if it wins, it can simply scrap Brexit. If as Labour claims it fears, Johnson postpones the election until after October 31st, Labour simply says in advance that it will pass retrospective legislation revoking Article 50, and enters now into talks with the EU to that effect, so that the EU could stop the clock on Article 50, until after the election. If, on the other hand, Johnson stands in the General Election on a programme of a No Deal Brexit, and wins, then Labour has no argument. Johnson will have a mandate, and will have to implement a No Deal Brexit, and take responsibility for the catastrophe that follows. 

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