How bad is the Labour Party’s Brexit policy?

Britain’s main opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn delivers a speech on the final day of the Labour Party Conference in Brighton on September 27, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS (Photo credit should read DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

When I read in a blog that the Labour Party may support Brexit in any second referendum I could scarcely believe it. Could anyone be that misguided?  Such a course of action would be an act of political suicide – a betrayal of its previous Remain position and the vast majority of its members, voters and millions of other potential supporters who opposed Brexit and have looked to Labour as an alternative to the Tories.

When I looked at the interview, the gormless Labour spokesman obviously said more than he wanted, but the interpretation of what he had said wasn’t denied, and the unfortunate fact is that it is as consistent with the party’s actions since the referendum as any other.

Even to think of such an eventuality for a second brings to mind so many ways in which it makes no sense at all, so much so that it is difficult to credit that it would even be considered – unless you were an unreconstructed Blairite hoping to discredit Jeremy Corbyn, and looking for one popular policy to champion opposition to the leadership.

Were such a position to be taken, the majority of Labour voters would vote against its party while the majority of Labour activists would either not campaign or more likely campaign against it. The Labour Party would find itself scrambling for the votes of Leavers who were committed Tories, UKIPers or backward workers who don’t normally vote or have voted Labour but are still wedded to the most reactionary prejudices despite their tribal loyalty.

It would be the culmination of a Brexit policy of non-opposition to the most inept Tory Government for decades, from what on paper is the most radical leadership of the Party for decades, if not ever.

But how else can we describe the quick reversal of opposition to Brexit after the referendum, or the policy that looks very like the one May has been forced into, or the moaning that if only she had worked with Labour a consensus approach to implementing Brexit could have been achieved?  All capped off in the past few weeks by a section of the Tories themselves raising a vote of no confidence in their leader – before the official opposition – and doing more to weaken the leadership and the Government than any of the secret and bizarre parliamentary manoeuvres promised by Labour.

So what on earth could be used to justify such an approach?  Luckily (?) I have just read an apologia for Labour’s strategy that attempts to provide some justification for it.

The attempt is trapped within what Marxists have called parliamentary cretinism and consists of a number of diversions that take us away from the main issue, including the claim that before anything else can be done the absolute priority is defeating Theresa May’s deal and no deal.  While it correctly characterises Brexit as harmful to working class interests it gracelessly slides into arguing that a hard Brexit is the real problem.

It claims that continuing to oppose Brexit after the referendum would be “seriously damaging electorally’, straight after acknowledging the overwhelming support of Labour members and voters for Remain.  Like every apology for capitulation to Leave’s essentially reactionary constituency not a thought is given to the dangers involved in betraying Remain supporters – they are just congratulated on their discipline.

Instead we are informed we must wait until some Leavers change their minds, forced by the course of events and the failure of the Tories, before Labour can show leadership by openly opposing Brexit as well.  That Labour itself might help to change minds or have their predictions of inevitable Brexit failure confirmed, so gaining support and confidence from voters, is not proposed.

Not surprisingly, since the Labour policy of a good Brexit, like that of the Tories, also claims Brexit can be delivered with all the benefits, including frictionless trade, even though this claim has now been comprehensively debunked.  Nothing that has happened since the referendum can be seen to support any of the promises made for Brexit.  Yet rather than run with the tide of events, the Party has followed incoherently behind, having all its claims rubbished through the repeated humiliation of the Tories.

The argument in defence of the Labour leadership approach points to polls showing the unpopularity of Theresa May’s deal as validation of its strategy.  The sacrifice of principle involved in failing to oppose the attack on workers’ interests, which the article says is the great guiding principle of Corbyn’s approach to Brexit, is forgotten, while there is no recognition of the effect of Tory failure on voters’ confidence that Labour’s Brexit deal would be any more likely to succeed.

Despite reference to the recognition by Corbyn himself that Brexit is the most important issue facing the House of Commons in the 35 years he has been in it, the argument is put that the most important issue is the formation of a Corbyn led Government itself, with “a Jeremy Corbyn led government after a Brexit . . . better for the working class than no Brexit but with a non-Corbyn led Labour Party.”

This is presented as the issue “in the clearest terms” when in fact the alternatives are put in order to cloud the essential choice facing the Party.  It is an argument that says that what makes a Corbyn Government important is not what it does but simply that it exists.

But Brexit will undermine the grounds for a Corbyn Government through weakening the economy and reducing the scope for reversing austerity.  The article recognises the harmful effects of Brexit but this is more or less ignored when it comes to supporting the policy of a ‘good’ Labour Brexit.

These criticisms are even before we take into account more fundamental issues – such as why Corbyn thinks the British state is so uniquely capable of progressive reform that it must separate from the rest of the EU, while the other states that form the rest of it are condemned to languish under austerity. What does this say for any professed belief in workers’ unity.  Or are British workers also uniquely incapable of uniting with those in other countries to advance common interests?

Apart from capitulation to the Leave position following the referendum (are the rest of us supposed to do this too?), the most obvious problem with Labour’s position is its idea that any Brexit deal could be good for British workers.  If this was true why did it not support Brexit in the first place?  If not, why support it now?

The problem of course is the same as that facing Theresa May’s proposed deal – that hoping to retain all the benefits of EU membership while incurring no costs is simply unobtainable, and robs anyone saying it of credibility.  The idea peddled by nostalgic-for-the-Empire Leavers that the EU would bow down to the demands of Great Britain have been quashed and it doesn’t really matter who asks. In fact, if the EU is governed solely be neoliberal bureaucrats there is more reason assume they would be kinder to Theresa May than to Jeremy Corbyn.

The article states that:

“It is not crucial at all whether Britain is inside or outside the political structures of the EU – that is whether Britain is formally a member of the EU. What is important is that the British economy has the best access to the EU market (as without that it cannot find a large enough market for efficient production), that it has the best access to imported inputs for its own industries (as in a modern economy supply chains are international in scope) etc. Without these, in present conditions, whole industries, such as cars, would be devastated, with huge loss of jobs, while the plunge in the exchange rate of the pound that would follow would be highly inflationary and reduce real wages. All these economic effects would be seriously damaging to working class living standards. Therefore, what is important is access to the economic structures of the EU – the Customs Union, the Single Market etc. That is why Labour’s six tests for any deal with the EU all focus on the economy.”

We are invited to accept that political membership of the EU doesn’t matter. Yet we are also told to accept that the Labour deal will have the “exact same benefits” as membership; that it will pass its six tests, which include defending rights and protections and preventing a race to the bottom, while protecting national security and ensuring “fair management of migration”.

The Party policy therefore has its own variety of have cake and eat it, so that it wants to exit the political arrangements but still have “a British say in future trade deals’ (according to Jeremy Corbyn).  It seems innocent of any idea that the EU will take further economic and political steps that will seek to strengthen its project and affect Britain, which will have no say in the shape of this development.  Because this “is not crucial at all”.

John McDonnell has said of the EU that ‘They’ve seen this deal isn’t going to work, so therefore other opportunities will have to be explored. And they want the best optimum solution that will protect the European economy overall, just as we wish to protect the UK economy.”

But, as has been explained again and again, the EU is prepared to suffer some economic losses due to Brexit because it would potentially face much greater losses if other nationalist parties sought similar loss-free exits from the Union.  Of course the losses suffered by Britain will be much greater, that is why the EU can accept a no deal in a way that Britain cannot, but then this is true, and an inevitable consequence, of Brexit in any shape or form.  Clever parliamentary games by the Labour Party can change nothing fundamental about this.

The article excuses its sacrifice of principle and its acknowledgement of the harmful effects of Brexit by stating that:

“There are some issues on which a position must be taken regardless of the state of public opinion – war, the death penalty, sexism, racism. But Brexit is not one of these issues – Labour is rightly taking into account not only the objective impact of Brexit but public opinion and cannot vote, and no one proposes, to implement Remain if it is clear public opinion supports Leave.”

But no one has ever said, just as this author does, that they are sacrificing all their principles, just the ones – like opposing Brexit – that aren’t really supposed to be principles at all.  “Seriously damaging to working class living standards” is not apparently a principle that the new leadership of the Labour Party should fight for “regardless of public opinion”.  And the thought that public opinion could be won to what is becoming more and more obvious is apparently not worth thinking about either.

This stumbling and incoherent policy on Brexit does not bode well for those investing hope in the new Labour leadership, but it is good that the rank and file are now pushing for a stronger anti-Brexit policy.  They should continue with this and consider why it has been necessary. Why has the leadership itself not led on this?  What is it about the leadership’s perspective on how a society of equals could be created that it excludes committing to a European resistance to austerity and an international unity of workers?

Labour Party members should recognise this need to push and continue to push, until it has a leadership that not only follows the views of the membership, but also leads members in the struggle.

It is sincerely to be hoped that the views expressed on the Andrew Marr show do not become policy. If they do, the Labour Party will be cutting its own throat.

11 thoughts on “How bad is the Labour Party’s Brexit policy?

  1. I read now that the SWP have had a volte face, and are now recognising that Brexit will be disastrous for the working-class and labour movement, and are changing their stance to be anti-Brexit. There will, of course, be no self-criticism, or assessment of how they got this so wrong in the first place.

    • Yes, I noticed that on a Facebook post but I thought it was an article in ISJ by an ex-member and a different article on Brexit in the Journal by Callinicos. Significant nevertheless that it was printed in the first place.

      I have printed both out and have half-promised myself to do a post on it but have so much other stuff I have to read this may be delayed, (perhaps indefinitely). I’ll read it anyway and see if it prompts me to write.

      Given that the pressures and the argument in Ireland are so much stronger against Brexit in Ireland than in Britain I would be surprised if the Irish organisation doesn’t wise up as well.

      As you say, I will also be surprised if they are able to identify both the nature of the error and where it has come from, but it would be good if they did. Even admitting you get one thing wrong opens you up to accepting you might have gotten other things wrong as well. And once you do that the argument for a more democratic and less sect-like organisation becomes harder to resist.

      • I’d be also interested in your take on how SF comes out of all this, given they are the only party in N. Ireland supporting May’s deal.

      • Sinn Fein has said that it supports remaining in the EU but, as usual, has been talking out of both sides of its mouth by saying that Theresa May’s deal is “the least worst option” and thus supporting it. For example it refused to oppose it in the vote in the Dail in Dublin. Its major concern, as is the case with all nationalists in Ireland, is the avoidance of a hard border, and this deal seems to deliver on this, even if it only punts the issue down the road.

        Among certain sections of Northern Ireland society the deal is seen as something of a godsend, offering foreign capital the ideal offering of easy access to both the EU and UK markets. It has therefore received the backing of the business lobby. A flavour of the OTT response of Northern nationalism is the remark by a leading journalist in the local nationalist daily, ‘The irish News’, which said that if she succeeded May would go down as the greatest British Prime Minister since Winston Churchill.

        In the South the EU is very popular and there is concern that the Irish State and economy will suffer most among EU members from a hard Brexit, with only Britain coming off worse. The Irish Government has therefore been keen to keep the rest of the EU on-side in sticking to the back-stop and now it has it all parties are very much in favour of the deal. Since Sinn Fein is angling to get into coalition government it does not want to be too exposed by pushing any other agenda, except that is, to make lots of noise about the need for a border referendum if there is no deal. To push continuing opposition to Brexit would also only expose it to further ridicule in relation to its refusal to take seats in Westminster. This is the residual shibboleth of the Republican Movement having ditched every other principle it had, which actually boiled down to one – Brits out by force of arms.

        The remaining ‘true’ republicans maintain their opposition to the EU and support Brexit, with the EU being viewed as another barrier to real independence. Their disregard for its reactionary consequences – most clear in Britain – demonstrates only the obvious point that they are nationalists and their claims to be socialist is hollow. The interests of the British working class for instance is not on their radar.

        Given the potential outcomes I don’t see Sinn Fein suffering unduly from any of them. If May’s deal goes through it will have the ‘soft’ border it wants, although how exactly soft it will be and how long this might last are outside its control. If there is no deal it will claim it did its best to support May’s deal and will then go into campaigning mode for a new referendum and placing demands on the Government of the Irish State to do something.

        In this respect it would gain from the general view, which is not wrong as far as it goes, that Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely, but this is so only to the extent that the chaos and economic damage from a no deal will expose the DUP and unionism generally, demoralise unionists and provide more weight to the argument that people would be better off in a united Ireland. None of this will be enough to lead to a majority vote in favour of one and the chaos and damage meanwhile will have other costs to workers in Ireland and Britain and put up other obstacles to the fight for socialism on both islands.

      • Thanks for that response. I wrote recently that if there is no deal, or a deal in which Britain is not tied into the single market – the Customs Union is really irrelevant in this respect – then the EU would be forced to erect a border, despite what is being said currently, because otherwise it would lead to the disintegration of the single market, and thereby EU itself. Moreover, Britain would have to impose border controls to police its No Free Movement, policy, as anyone would be able to utilise the Common Travel Area to get into Britain across the NI border.

        In the event of a No Deal, the demand for a Border Poll would be inevitable, a prospect Corbyn no doubt does not object to. But, under these conditions it might lead to the North being reunited with the South, in the face of bitter opposition from a sizeable proportion of Unionists, who would launch their own military campaign along the border, and given the reactionary forcces that Brexit has unleashed in Britain, they would undoubtedly get backing on the mainland from various fascistic, ultra-nationalistic and terroristic elements.

  2. There can now be no doubt. As I have Just Written, Corbyn himself has now, in the Guardian committed Labour to pushing ahead with the reactionary policy of Brexit if a snap General Election or referendum were called.

    It shows that Corbyn has clearly been captured by the reactionary Stalinist forces of the Morning Star and Socialist Action with which he has surrounded himself. It shows that the party rank and file need now to recall Corbyn, and replace him with someone committed to socialist internationalism, rather than Stalinist economic nationalism. It shows also why its necessary to push ahead with the further democratisation of the party, so as to get rid of all those dead wood MP’s that do not represent the party membership.

  3. Spot on. The reality is that the policy of Corbyn, promoted to him by his Stalinist/Socialist Action advisors, is essentially no different to that of May. Its why, at Labour Conference he appealed to May to reach out her hands across the floor to the Labour Front Bench for a common approach to the EU. Corbyn’s position is hostile to that of 90% of party members, and about 75% of Labour voters, so he has had to adopt the position he presents in public, because as his brother Piers has said, it is a question of “party management”. He could hardly keep up his main selling point, if he openly stood out against such a solid phalanx of opinion in the rank and file of the party.

    And, the only way May can get her deal through parliament is with Labour support. The DUP will oppose it, the Moggies will oppose it, and so even if she scares some Tory Remainers into backing it, along with a handful of spineless Labour MP’s, and Brexiteers such as the Ulster Unionist Kate Hoey who masquerades as a Labour MP, she would not get a majority. Her current ridiculous bluff about being prepared to push through a No Deal, and the waste of £2 billion of public money to pursue that bluff, is designed to peel away those waverers, but won’t be enough.

    The financial speculators know that May will not push through No Deal, which is why the markets have not crashed, and the Pound has actually risen. If May were to push through a No Deal, her own bluff shows why it would destroy the Tory Party. If things really did – and they would – get so bad that food disappeared from supermarkets, ports became choked for months, medicines ran out, electricity supplies, and gas supplies imported via North Sea connectors, ran out, and the military had to be brought out, then the kind of protests the Brextremists ridiculously predict if they lost another referendum, would be as nothing compared to the civil unrest that would ensue. The irony would be that many of those engaged in that civil unrest, in looting shops and so on, would be those very same supporters of Brexit that the Brextremists look to for support, who would wail, “Why did no one warn us this would happen?”

    Under those conditions the Tories would be destroyed as a party. Already some of their number are saying they will split if May continues down the current route. If May did continue down this route, the markets would quickly begin to sell-off, and the Pound would collapse, preventing May from continuing. They would have to pass emergency legislation before March 29th to extend or even revoke Article 50. Even under those conditions they would be fatally wounded. But, so would Corbyn and any Labour politician that has not distanced themselves from Brexit. It would open the door to a return of the Blair-rights, who until now, appeared to have no road back to regaining control of the party.

    Of course, as some have said, it could be reminiscent of 1914, and the dynamics take over driving May towards a No Deal, even though she knows it will be disaster. Her only hope appears to be that as that disaster approaches, Corbyn will save her, and swing Labour behind her policy to stop No Deal. That would destroy Corbyn, and the Left of the party for the foreseeable future. It would be comparable with the betrayal of Ramsay McDonald in 1931. But, those kinds of nationalist lash-ups are not unknown, in “the national interest”, and Corbyn’s agenda is driven by those nationalist rather than class politics, a continuation of the old Stalinist policy of the People’s Front. Alternatively, as May continues to undermine bourgeois democracy, in a manner reminiscent of Trump, or Erdogan et al, and with the idea of troops on the streets already being floated, alongside the police preparations for effectively an introduction of martial law to stop civil unrest, it could mean that Britain is heading towards a period of Bonapartism.

    But, do we really think that the dominant sections of the ruling-class want to go down that road, and all of the risks and impediments that come with it, compared to its preferred method of rule via parliamentary democracy, and for the implementation of a Brexit policy that itself damages their interests? I don’t think so.

    Which is why the most likely outcome is that No Deal is off the agenda, and unable to get her deal through parliament, May is forced to either call a General Election to obtain a majority, or more likely to hand over the problem for labour to clear up, and take the blame for, or else to call another referendum, in which nothing will be spared in ensuring that Leave lose by a substantial majority.

  4. One thing that must be worrying to the labour leadership is the presence of Tony Blair and his probable majority support within the elected Labour MPs and maybe local councillors. Turning on British news television is like listening to a continuous sermon A.Campbell and the feeling arises that the bulk of the unhappy media class long for the good old days of New Labour. As I said earlier, Corbyn is doing what nearly all social democrats try to do, find a middle way between opposed choices that are not to his liking . His political strategy is just to wait and see what the Conservatives do next. I would hazard a guess he probably feels that if he opts for Remain, the followers of Blair will be emboldened within Labour.

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