Friday, 30 June 2017

Labour and Brexit: politics bent out of shape

As I have pointed out several time on this blog, Labour’s position on Brexit has been a mess for months now, and this has now come glaringly into focus with yesterday’s Queen’s Speech vote. Corbyn ordered his MPs to abstain on a backbench amendment to stay in the single market and although some rebelled (thus, in the case of frontbenchers, losing their jobs) most followed the whip and the amendment was easily defeated. Of course, it would have been defeated anyway in the absence of a Tory rebellion but that was never in prospect given that Labour’s stance would have made such a rebellion pointless.

During the election campaign Brexit was not discussed in detail by either party. Labour produced a manifesto position which made no sense (to retain the benefits of the single market and customs union without, implicitly at least, being members of either). But there was just enough ambiguity to keep remainers on board and, in any case, they could see a Labour vote as the best way of denying the Tories the majority for their unambiguously hard Brexit plans. This, indeed, was what happened and it opened up just the tiniest possibility for a soft Brexit even if not the abandonment of Brexit altogether.

That possibility still exists, but it has become even tinier as a result of yesterday’s vote. At the core of the problem is the stance of Corbyn (and his allies) towards the EU. His lukewarm support for remain during the 2016 referendum campaign scarcely concealed the well-known truth that he has, since the 1975 referendum, shared the Bennite analysis of the EU as a ‘capitalist club’ and – as we would now say – a vehicle for neo-liberal globalization (the background and consequences of this are well-explained on the interesting Nog’s Musings blog). The problem with this view is that it is one-dimensional, failing to recognize that the EU is, at the same time, a vehicle for the regional regulation and restraint of neo-liberal globalization. Which is what much of the Left in the UK (especially, given the strength of neo-liberalism here) recognized from the 1980s onwards and this, in turn, is reflected in the pro-EU position of most Labour MPs, members and voters.

Emboldened by his better than expected election result, Corbyn now presumably sees the possibility of a future victory which could also enable building ‘socialism in one country’ if unconstrained by EU rules on, in particular, state aid. It is these rules, rather than those on freedom of movement, which are the main basis of Corbyn’s hostility to EU membership or even to soft Brexit. The consequence, then, is that there is now a de facto alliance between Corbyn and the Eurosceptic Tories – amongst whom, of course, we must now include one-time remainer Theresa May – and UKIP. Indeed, during the Maastricht wars of the early 1990s, Corbyn voted with “the bastards” (as John Major called them). Hence it is not the irony it may seem that Nigel Farage tweeted approvingly about Corbyn’s approach to yesterday’s parliamentary vote.

So what now? The next big parliamentary test, as Jolyon Maugham explains in some detail in the New Statesman, will come with the Repeal Bill. With Corbyn and the Tory Eurosceptics allied, all depends on the extent to which pro-Europeans in both the Tory and Labour parties are willing to work together in defiance of their leaderships (along with those from avowedly anti-Brexit parties), as explained in Ian Dunt’s excellent analysis of the current situation. As Dunt says (as have many others, including myself on this blog) there is a parliamentary majority for soft Brexit, and the same is true in the country at large.

Soft Brexit remains the most politically consensual and least economically painful way of enacting Brexit (which is not to deny the fact that simply staying in the EU would be preferable, were it politically possible). In the circumstances we find ourselves it is, as Simon Jenkins argues today, the only sane option, and this has been so since the referendum result. Yet just at the moment when the election outcome means that this sanity is within grasp it remains tantalisingly elusive. The combination of Tory leadership in thrall to its backbench ultra-Brexiters and a Labour leadership that is at odds with its backbench soft Brexiters means that the shape of party politics does not match the shape of public opinion or political pragmatism. With the Article 50 clock ticking, there is very little time left for the two to come into alignment.

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