So, as far as Jeremy Corbyn is concerned, when it comes to Brexit – ‘look, this debate is now over. We’ve done it, the party has now made its decision, and that’s it; and that’s what we’re going to campaign on.” (As quoted in The Guardian) As for his decision to support a general election in the shadow cabinet meeting – “it was my decision. On my own. I made that decision. And they gulped, and said, Yes Jeremy.”
So how do we as socialists reconcile the Labour Party’s support for Brexit, which is reactionary, and its radical social democratic programme?
Firstly by recognising that they cannot be reconciled, that ‘friendly relations’ – employing one dictionary definition – cannot be established between the two projects: they are incompatible and one will have to give. They are inconsistent and the contradictions between them will lead to one, or perhaps both, being ditched. Anyone believing that a Labour Brexit is part and parcel of a radical social democratic programme is therefore mistaken.
Brexit will disrupt the insertion of the British economy into its biggest trading partner, which is its main market and theatre of operation; main supplier of additional skilled and unskilled labour power; intermediate goods that enable production to be sited in Britain; and the main route through which it inserts itself into the economies of the rest of the world – through agreements and deals which it has, as part of the EU, negotiated with the United States, Japan, South America etc. etc.
Disruption means loss of markets and economies of scale in production; reduced capital accumulation leading to lower economic growth, and loss of necessary labour power both skilled and unskilled without which some current production will cease, shrink, or grow more slowly. The loss of these markets means that the reduction of existing and potential production will also reduce incomes and employment and the capacity of the state to syphon off revenues to finance its services. It will reduce its capacity to provide welfare payments and to redistribute incomes, which are sold as central to Labour’s declared project of reducing inequality, insecurity and poverty.
The idea that a transformation of ownership of utilities and other companies from private capital to state ownership will compensate for these effects ignores the reality that state production will be affected just as much by the loss of skilled and unskilled labour, loss of markets and economies of scale etc. as private capital. State ownership does not by itself create new markets that have just been shut off or reduced, or provide the labour power that is necessary for the current British economy to operate efficiently and grow.
This is all obvious from even cursory examination of media coverage of Brexit’s effects, today reporting potential damage to the tourist industry, but previously in relation to international research and university teaching, to EU staff in the NHS, the whole car industry, aircraft production, financial services and seasonal workers in agriculture, and many others. When asked this morning on Radio 4 whether any sort of Brexit could be better for the NHS, the Labour spokesman evaded the question – ‘the people had voted for it so they were going to be given the opportunity to get it’, was the gist of his reply. As if it was not obvious what the honest answer had to be.
So, left supporters of Brexit treat it as a separate issue from every other, all of which can be made amenable to the actions of the British State. The entirely un-socialist view, that the state should and could have such power to banish all the problems created, could only come from one that believes –
1, capitalist state ownership is somehow socialist;
2, the state can suspend or abolish capitalism through its ownership, and do so in a relatively small country within a much larger and more powerful capitalist world;
3, the division of workers by nationalism and racism can be ended by providing answers that include shutting out foreign workers as if they were part of the problem, rather than their existence in Britain seen as an opportunity for unity that can banish nationalism and xenophobia, and
4, it is possible to ignore the failure of such experiments across the world that have distorted and tarnished the understanding and reputation of socialism.
On top of all this, it describes the socialist alternative – based on an international approach to workers solving their problems – as a question of ‘culture wars.’
Whenever Costas Lapavitsas, a left supporter of Brexit, spoke at a meeting in Belfast I told him that he had come to the wrong country if he wanted to parade the British State as the answer; and I cited internment, Bloody Sunday, murder and torture as all products of the state that we are required to believe can alone deliver progress. Brexit threatens to further divide workers in Ireland with a harder border while its left supporters complain that the EU is responsible.
Meanwhile it threatens to divide in Britain as Britain has divided Ireland. We can see this in many ways and not just in speculation that Scottish nationalism will be strengthened. We see it from the speeches of Brexit supporters claiming that the only way to prevent violence is to support Brexit; that the only way to respect the memory of an MP murdered by a nationalist fanatic is to carry through the policy he killed her for; to describing opposition to the nationalist and reactionary policy of Brexit as a question of ‘culture’, just as in Ireland opposition to sectarianism is declared to be opposition to Protestant ‘culture’. A culture composed of sectarian demonstrations and burning bonfires upon which Catholic, foreign, gay and any vaguely progressive flag or symbol is burned.
Perhaps it could be claimed that Corbyn’s Labour Party might reconcile its social democratic agenda with Brexit because it doesn’t actually support it? Except no one believes this, and not just because of Corbyn’s own presumed Brexit views. No one, that is, except the most ardent Brexit supporters of both right and left for whom the dangers and damage of Brexit are actually its attraction – the separation and isolation, the attempt to turn the clock back, and the illusions in the special role and place of Britain in the world.
From ‘respecting the referendum result’, to seeking how it might support a Theresa May deal, to seeking to negotiate its own deal, to refusing to accept the view of the majority of its own members, everything the Corbyn leadership has done has facilitated a policy of letting Brexit happen. All on the spurious grounds that it can be dispensed with as an issue, Labour can ‘bring people together’ around its agenda and continue with the lie that Brexit is not a part of it.
A second defence is that Labour’s Brexit is not a Tory Brexit, but one that protects jobs and living standards through a customs union and adherence to workers and environmental standards, while striking one’s own trade deals and having a say in future EU deals. In other words, a deal that shares the illusions of the Tories, before they actually had to negotiate the first step of withdrawal.
It should not need to be said – the EU will not allow Britain the benefits of membership without being a member and paying for it as every other member of the EU does. So yes, new customs arrangements can be agreed, as can regulatory alignment, and even alignment with future regulation; but you will have to pay for these arrangements and you will have no say in them or any other deal that the EU negotiates with other countries that you will have to accept. If the EU is so irrevocably rotten why do you want to leave if you will have to pay for accepting its rules without having any say in their formation?
Perhaps you think you can strike your own deals and improve your own protections of workers’ rights? But you can improve workers’ rights now, if you want. If this creates a threat that British companies will leave to avoid these new regulations, why don’t you stay in the EU and fight for them to be adopted across the continent? Would this not give you a strategy to unite workers across Europe and challenge the EU as it currently functions, as opposed to kidding yourself you can just walk away from it? Perhaps you think you cannot succeed in this, because changes require unanimity within the EU? But this means your single voice at the very least is an obstacle to a race to the bottom – Brexit on the other hand threatens an unrestricted, Trump-led sprint downwards to the bottom of the barrel.
Perhaps Labour thinks its own deals with other countries will be better. But what sort of level of workers’ and environmental regulation does it think much bigger countries and trading blocs, such as the US, China and India, will demand for any deals? Will the EU accept unrestricted trade with a Britain that has agreed that goods can enter Britain from these countries that do not conform with the trade deals that the EU itself has agreed with them? A relatively small country like Britain may be forced to accept the EU’s regulations or everyone else’s. What it won’t be able to do is enforce any of its own standards, especially if they were to be higher.
What you have left is a dystopian vision of an isolated and backward Britain dominated by the state that will be declared a socialist paradise by the enemies of socialism and by the defenders of its Stalinist inspiration so discredited in the last century.
Forward to part 2