Wednesday 29 March 2017

What Labour Can Do About Brexit

"These are Labour's six tough conditions!" thunders Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit minister. They've been waved about on this, the day Article 50 was finally triggered. Are they going to give the Prime Minister sleepless nights alongside Scottish independence and alleged electoral fraud? Just what are these conditions the party leadership have set the Prime Minister?

They are:

1. Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?
2. Does it deliver the "exact same benefits as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union?
3. Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?
4. Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?
5. Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?
6. Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?

They're all a bit, well, motherhood and apple pie aren't they? As tests go they're as technocratic and politics-lite as they possibly could be. Who on the government benches could come out against aspirations such as these? Labour are more or less saying to Theresa May that "we want Brexit negotiations to be a success", and that's it. I'm sure she's terrified to the depths of her wretched soul.

Still, one shouldn't be too harsh. While Labour have scored some modest process-related successes in the lead up to today, such as the Commons vote on the eventual deal, there isn't an awful lot Labour can do between now and then. The party is not going to agitate for a second referendum. It's not going to steal the LibDems' thunder by explicitly positioning itself as the party of Remain. And not having enough MPs, combined with abysmal poll ratings, means that our party is in a proper pickle. Some MPs might talk about the "moral pressure" the PLP can bring to bear, but this is wistful nonsense. No amount of Select Committee reports or carefully worded criticisms are going to derail them. The Conservative Party can relax and get on with negotiations because we're paralysed, if not a shambles. Because of our parlous state and a Brexit position that has triangulated irrelevance, sad to say May and the three Brexiteers will probably pay the hard Brexit idiocies of the press and the backbenches more heed than anything we say.

It doesn't have to be like this. Labour can seize the initiative.

Presently, Labour is linked to continental social democratic and labour parties through the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. It also has formal links via the Socialist International (yes, the Second International still leads a twilight existence!) and the circuits of Eurowonkdom, the links of the socialist societies, and the ties between Labour-affiliated unions and the counterparts means it too has strong channels and backchannels of communication. Indeed, this evening in the hour long party leader chats with Andrew Neil, Jeremy Corbyn said the party had been talking to its allied parties to help ensure Britain and the EU get a good deal from negotiations.

This is not good enough.

Instead of sitting passively, instead of two years of moaning and the damaging drip-drip obsessing with who's going to succeed Jeremy and when, instead of being reactive, Labour can assume leadership of the issue. We must use our European links and announce it's going to produce its own plan for Brexit, and it will be doing so by having parallel discussions with other centre left European parties. A shadow Brexit negotiation process, if you like. It allows us hold May to account more effectively than thinking up of ways why x, y, z negotiated position is outrageous, and gives us an alternative plan to go to the British people with.

It's about being an effective opposition. We should also do this because if we don't, it's exactly the sort of thing the LibDems or the Greens would do with their smaller federation of European parties. In our case, it could make a difference by helping us recover our polling and stopping the demoralisation and deflation slowly rippling through the party's ranks, and therefore taking power when the next general election comes round. It certainly beats twiddling our thumbs waiting for the government to screw up.

How about it?


Kriss said...

Liz Kendall was in Berlin last week doing just this - talking to left-wing groups there about working together post-Brexit.

Dave Cohen said...

Ha ha yes nice piece. I would love to see that happen but honestly, in your heart of hearts, can you imagine it? Nothing would please me more. Trouble is the leadership are so wary of Europe, can you see them reaching out to social democratic parties in Europe?

Blissex said...

«It doesn't have to be like this. Labour can seize the initiative.»

Apparently the initiative has been seized instead by the supporters of Boris Johnson, who is being positioned as the "soft brexit, single market, business friendly" alternative as Conservative leader to "hard brexit, no single market, business ignoring" Theresa May:

«Herbert also claimed that a Tory government led by Boris Johnson rather than Theresa May might have pushed for further renegotiations after the referendum and made a “full-blooded Brexit” less likely.»

Sneaky move, hard to imagine without consulting Boris "informally".

Anonymous said...

«Instead of sitting passively, instead of two years of moaning and the damaging drip-drip obsessing with who's going to succeed Jeremy and when, instead of being reactive, Labour can assume leadership of the issue.»

I think that J Corbyn's current strategy is the best: as a famous general said, never interrupt your enemy while they are making a mistake.

There are two possible paths for the next 3 years:

#1 T May delivers hard brexit, blames the EU for it, and house prices in the south don't fall: no matter what J Corbyn does the Conservatives win in 2020.

#2 T May screws up on hard brexit, does not manage to blame the EU, or house prices in the south fall: no matter what J Corbyn does the Conservatives lose in 2020.

The only thing that J Corbyn can do is to seriously, concernedly, affirmatively snipe from the sides making sure that in case #2 voters remember that Labour was not supporting Conservative policy like the Liberals did 2010-2015.

A strong opposition works when there is a hugely controversial issue and voters might be swayed by promises of a different policy. This is not the case for Brexit: there is a large public opinion majority for just letting this government do their thing on Brexit, and check the results in 2020.

Speedy said...

Apart from the political obsessives....

The soft Left middle class vote will go to the Lib Dems, who stand to be the other big story at the next election - internationalism is more important to the bourgeois than the nationalism Labour has aligned itself to.

The working class vote will stay at home or vote Tory - they will never trust Corbyn on immigration. And of course Labour is dead in Scotland.

What you are seeing is an historic shift back to a pre-Labour Tory-Liberal landscape. The future for Labour is as a third party with local loyalties (like the big city administrations) but nationally dead. The centre will become the new Left in a nation thrown into the jaws of neo-liberal economics, which will have the many social gains (from health to workers rights to social services) for breakfast - it is a profound mistake to think this will make people more left wing. It will simply make them more afraid.

Jeremy Corbyn (Parody) said...

First things first. We need to sort out our Tom Watson problem.

John Rogan said...

There is no "Labour Brexit" as distinct from a Tory one. Brexit means Brexit and it will be a Hard Brexit, a Brexit which will see jobs migrating from the UK to EU27.

EU President Donald Tusk said last year, "It's Hard Brexit or No Brexit". Socialist Party President Hollande has called for a Hard Brexit. Macron, the most likely candidate to face Le Pen to be his successor has described himself as a Hard Brexiter.

Martin Schulz, the leader of the German SPD is also in the Hard Brexit camp. He is seen as harder than Merkel.


Because a "Soft Brexit", a "Cake and Eat It Brexit" would encourage the Far Right in Europe for one thing. Also, if you leave a club, don't expect any of the benefits.

It doesn't matter if it is Corbyn, Starmer, Benn or Lewis as Leader - Brexit means Brexit. Brexit means jobs leaving the UK. Banking jobs are already going. Expect more to go soon.

The only way this can be reversed is to stop Brexit. How can that be done? Well, I wish I knew.

David Timoney said...

Politically, your suggestion - that Labour conduct a shadow negotiation with like minds among the EU27 - would be fatal for Labour's future prospects. If it is to re-establish itself as a credible alternative government it has to do so in Parliament, not sidelined in a committee room in Strasbourg. Apart from distracting itself from scrutiny of the government, this would give the media a field day, allowing them to paint the party as more interested in foreigners than the British people.

Labour needs to make the cause of Parliamentary sovereignty its own rather than trying to seize the initiative over an exercise that can only be a relative failure at best. The "good old cause" is the one issue where Labour can hope to build a consensus from the left through the centre. If it is to stand a chance in a 2020 general election, it has to present itself as more inclusive and considerate of the whole nation than the narrow and partisan Tory party. Getting Martin Schulz onside is irrelevant to this.

Starmer's 6 tests are managerialist drivel. What he should have done is focus on process rather than nebulous outcomes. Theresa May has only looked vulnerable (and made concessions) when faced with pressure in the Commons. He should have insisted on a series of separate votes on specific issues (customs, citizen rights etc) rather than an all-in, take-it-or-leave-it vote at the end. A least-worst Brexit is one that commands a majority of popular support, and that can only be achieved through debate and scrutiny, which means re-establishing Parliamentary control over the process.

Anonymous said...

To answer the above, the overwhelming likelihood is that there is no way Brexit can be stopped. People are going to get what they (in their folly) voted for.

The task of the left and "progressives" (if the latter group can spare a few moments from excoriating Labour/Corbyn, anyway) is to make sure that when it does go pear-shaped, those who are angry and disillusioned blame the right people.

Given the power of a handful of media plutocrats, and the transformtion of the BBC in particular into a state (a la Putin, Orban, Erdogan) rather than national broadcaster, even that will be no easy task.

Anonymous said...

A Hard Brexit is likely, not because the Europeans have said so but because Mrs May has said that opting out of free movement of EU nationals is non-negotiable, and thus the UK will have to leave the Single Market. Notionally the UK is going to enter negotiations over its future relations with the EU and its access to the Single Market, but the UK government has no idea what strategy to use to negotiate a high level of access to the Single Market (except make ludicrous threats about withdrawing security cooperation or turn the UK into a tax haven) so the UK will trade on WTO terms (without having made an effort to understand what this means).

It didn't have to be like this. Mrs May could have said that the UK wanted to leave the EU and stay in the Single Market and accept all its rules (including free movement of EU nationals) and the UK would be in a much better position: that could be negotiated in less than two years and the end result would not be as catastrophic as it is going to be. Or Labour could have tried to force Mrs May not to include opting-out of free movement of EU nationals as a non-negotiable demand, and might have succeeded in alliance with moderate Tories. Unfortunately, just after the referendum a large number of Labour MPs made a lot of noise about "the referendum was about immigration" which made it difficult to oppose Mrs May's claim that ending free movement of EU nationals was non-negotiable.

The UK is facing a Hard Brexit. That isn't because of the rest of the EU, but because of choices made by Mrs May and because of Labour's failure to question and challenge those choices. From where I stand it seems that the problem for Labour is that it was unwilling to challenge May about free movement of EU nationals, despite its leader being in favour of free movement. The UK is going to do itself serious damage because some people were persuaded that their problem were due to immigration of people from other EU countries, and Labour did almost nothing to challenge that notion or explain to people that opting out of free movement would mean leaving the Single Market and thus a lot of economic damage.


Lidl_Janus said...

"First things first. We need to sort out our Tom Watson problem."

As the New Statesman points out:

"The Labour leader’s left-wing media cheerleaders have, one by one, given up on him. Charlotte Church, Caitlin ­Moran, Owen Jones, George Monbiot, Zoe Williams: all invested considerable hope in Corbyn, who has not turned out to be the inspirational leader for whom they yearned. Even Simon Fletcher, who masterminded Corbyn’s leadership campaign in the heady summer of 2015, has quietly walked away."

And as Yougov points out, almost any change at the top would be better, regardless of ideological hue.

But sure, Tom Watson's the problem.

asquith said...

David Parry said...


'But sure, Tom Watson's the problem.'

Well, no, Tom Watson's not the problem (or at least he's not the whole problem), but nor is Corbyn. The root of the problem is a lack of effort on the part of the Labour left to replenish its organisational heft, after three decades or more of it being systematically eroded, before electing Corbyn as leader, hence an NEC and PLP that remain chock-full of neoliberals, because there isn't a grassroots movement sufficiently potent to change things in that respect. Simply putting a left-wing leader at the helm and expecting them to change everything was putting the cart before the horse in the most profoundly naive way conceivable*, and having a left-winger try to lead a PLP stuffed with right-wingers was always a disaster waiting to happen.

*It's also predicated upon a very top-down view of leadership, which, given the Labour left's not illegitimate distaste for the control-freakery beloved of Tony Blair and co., is extraordinarily ironic.

Ben Philliskirk said...

David Parry has very accurately described the situation. Back in summer 2015 I presumed that Corbyn was well aware of his limitations as an 'orthodox' party leader and would take immediate steps to democratise the party (as much as he could) and throw it open to membership initiative.

Since then very little has been attempted at an organisational level, the leader and his coterie instead making attempts to compromise with the party's right-wing that have barely been reciprocated, and the more radical section of the membership has been reduced to a support group for an increasingly isolated and ineffectual party leader.

It appears that both wings of the Labour Party are as intellectually and politically bankrupt as each other.