It used to be the case that the British Labour Party conference was interesting and important, because it involved real debate and some chance that the left could win victories. Then Kinnock and Blair deprived it of this significance and crushed party democracy, such as it was. The mass media, if I recall correctly, was not much concerned by this.
Now, the Labour Party conference is relevant again, it is interesting and important, the left can make advances and democracy has made some sort of return, and the mass media is concerned.
Unfortunately, this being the Labour Party, we are also going back to the bad old days when union bureaucrats would frustrate this democracy, cobbling together back-room deals that mollified the right in the party while taming the left. So, the overwhelming desire for open selection of MPs, that they should have themselves put up for endorsement by the people who get them elected – the party members, was prevented from being voted on and passed.
Democracy in the Party has always been imperfect like this, but it is easy to forget that democracy in the unions is probably worse in many cases, and democracy in the left groups definitely worse. If even Momentum was as democratic as the Party it seeks to democratise the left would be far stronger, and more democratic.
A similar thing happened to the views of the membership on Brexit. The vast majority oppose it and want another referendum to reverse it. The leadership of the Party have attempted to frustrate this movement. In doing so, their views hark back to the most reactionary nationalist ideas about socialism which used to revolve around import controls to protect British jobs; nationalisation, with emphasis on NATIONalisation; and opposition to the EEC.
Of course, they claim to be internationalists, but their internationalism is of a very restricted kind. It’s more a sort of solidarity of left nationalisms, just like ‘national liberation’ movements support each other in their desire to set up separate, and nominally independent, states. They are suspicious and opposed to a unity that swears loyalty, not to its own nation and state, but to the unity of its class regardless of nationality.
No one is claiming that the vast majority of the members of the Labour Party subscribe to Marxist ideas about international workers’ unity, but they do realise the disastrous consequences of capitalist separation from the EU and the reactionary nationalist politics behind it.
So, it is on this basis that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has thwarted the desire to have a second referendum and has held the ground against coming out squarely against Brexit. It has nevertheless been forced to have the debate, when it was able to prevent one last year, revealing that the current mangled and incoherent policy has a use by date that is rapidly running out.
Labour policy is open and clear – it is not seeking to reverse Brexit but to deliver a good Brexit. One that defends jobs and living standards as well as maintaining regulations which support workers’ rights and protect the environment.
Tory ineptitude, in-fighting, mad-as-a-hatter ideas about a free market nirvana, and normal anti-Tory antipathy have not been enough to divert Labour members from recognising that the leadership’s position is wrong.
In many statements this policy seems to suffer from the same level of ignorance as the Tories. Its repetition of the importance of a customs union ignores the much more vital role of the Single Market. The former will not remove the need for a ‘hard’ border in Ireland while it won’t prevent huge trade frictions for Britain. In its illusion that some sort of progressive Brexit is possible its position is actually worse than the Tories.
Its six tests cannot possibly be met by any deal, including any deal the Labour leadership could possibly negotiate itself. It wants a deal “to deliver the ‘exact same benefits’ as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union.” But the EU has made it absolutely clear, repeatedly, that Britain will inevitably be worse off because of Brexit. It even admits that the EU itself will suffer.
Pressure from within the Party and the logic of the evolving process have compelled Jeremy Corbyn, in his conference leader’s speech, to state clearly that the Party is set to vote against any deal Theresa May comes up with, and will also oppose no deal. So perhaps it might be said that the mass membership opposed to Brexit, and the leadership in favour of going ahead with it in some form, are going to arrive at the same destination by different routes. Both roads seemingly leading to opposition to Brexit.
Unfortunately, there are some problems with such a view. Firstly, if no deal is agreed or approved by Parliament there will be a no deal exit, unless the EU itself postpones this eventuality itself, through some sort of extension, or fudge that allows the transition period to kick in. But in this case the problem is postponed not avoided. Such a scenario is a cross-your-fingers-and-toes wish that the ‘better prepared for a no deal’ EU is not yet prepared enough. Simply running out of time is not unthinkable.
And what if time did run out and Theresa May claimed that it was the Labour Party which scuppered her deal and was now responsible for a no deal outcome? How would Labour deal with that if the EU said ‘times up – you’re out!’
Undoubtedly the Tories have made such a hash of things that they would continue to shoulder much of the blame, and deservedly so. A no deal situation would have arisen where they had continued to push a plan that the EU had repeatedly said was unacceptable. The Labour Party would then also have to rely on continued lack of scrutiny of its own proposals., which otherwise might reveal that they would not be accepted either.
But if the Tories were backed down to agree a deal that the EU would accept, even for a transition period, the Labour Party might find itself in strange company voting against it. Failing to prevent the deal going through in this situation might be the least of its possible failures.
If it succeeded in voting down such a deal it would be much harder for the Labour Party to pin the blame for no deal on the Tories, and their own proposals would come under greater scrutiny, revealing the reality that their criteria cannot be delivered by any potential Brexit deal. There would be no reason why both the Tories and EU would not jointly blame the Labour Party for the subsequent disaster.
Secondly, even if all went well and a general election was held, which Labour won, it would quickly become clear that it could not deliver a Brexit deal which would pass its own tests. In other words, it would also have to deliver no deal or deliver something that would be inferior to EU membership. Both would antagonise its Remain members and supporters, and also antagonise those voters who continued to support Brexit.
Of course, these voters are deluding themselves in believing that Brexit could deliver anything that was any good. But who would have fed them this illusion and who would now be responsible for failing to deliver on it? It would not just be the Tories. Now it would also be the Labour Party, the Party who had promised that a good Brexit was possible and had failed to deliver it.
If the Labour Party also backed down and agreed a deal that was acceptable to the EU this would be something on the lines of EEA membership or Canada-style free trade agreement. The latter would rather quickly demonstrate how much inferior to EU membership this is for British capitalism, but would still require an extensive period of negotiations where British weakness would be exposed. The former would require perhaps even greater negotiations, not just with the EU but with other EFTA countries. The former leaves Britain’s role in the world hanging and unresolved and the second is not a long-term solution for anyone, for it would leave Britain as a rule taker in a small club instead of one of the leaders of the large club it had just left.
However, long before any of this became obvious, it would be clear that the Labour Party had not won over the majority of the fans of Brexit through delivering it, but would instead be savaged by them for having sold Brexit out, for having delivered Brexit in name only, a betrayal of Brexit, of all the benefits to the British people that were possible and that had been promised. And again, we would be back to the question – who was it that promised a good Brexit?
Labour leaders such as John McDonnell have embarrassed themselves and the movement they lead by proclaiming fears that Brexit cannot be stopped because it would provoke a violent reaction from the hard right. But since there isn’t going to be a good Brexit some sort of reaction like this is almost inevitable. In this case, one delivered via a Labour Party promising that their Brexit would be so different would be a real promise broken, and would provoke an even more violent reaction from the hard-right.
There is of course a way to avoid these scenarios, but this requires being honest with workers and stating that Brexit is a disaster that must be opposed. That if the Labour Party was elected it would reverse the decision or, at the very least, would hold another referendum to do so. Otherwise Labour, having bought Brexit, would then own it, including all the shit that would come with it.
It would have no argument to put to Brexit supporters who would say that it had failed to deliver on its promises, and it would have nothing to say to its own supporters who would have opposed it.
Jeremy Corbyn may think his current approach to Brexit is politically shrewd, but reality is currently crushing Tory Brexit dreams and it will just as surely do the same to Labour.
The members and supporters of the Party should continue their opposition to Brexit and argue a socialist alternative. The stronger such a movement becomes the clearer it will be that the current Labour policy is not only wrong from a principled point of view but ruinous to its future.
Ironically, it might only be the referendum that it is trying to avoid that might save the Party leadership, since it would be compelled to oppose Brexit and once again argue for Remain.