Tuesday 29 December 2020

The Labour Politics of Backing the Brexit Deal

The Commons returns on Wednesday to ratify or reject Boris Johnson's Brexit deal. The SNP have said they're voting against because it's a bad deal, albeit forgetting their suggestions of any deal being better than no deal of a couple of weeks ago. Still, they have a pro-EU base to satisfy and refusing to go along with the Tories gives the independence cause more wedge, as if it was needed. Their u-turn isn't a matter of unprincipled politics, it's entirely conditioned by their political project. Perhaps we should keep this in mind considering matters in England and Wales. Take the Liberal Democrats, for instance. The so-called party of remain were never going to vote for Johnson's deal because without the EU what exactly is the party for? It's probably fair to say they've never been as irrelevant at any point during the last 50 years, and voting with the government would doom them to further marginality.

How about the two main parties? The majority of Tories are in Johnson's pocket as far as the vote is concerned, and not only thanks to his penchant for kicking out dissidents when the crunch crunches. The European Research Group and their absurd "star chamber" were always going to find reasons to back the deal it's the nearest to their fever dream of building a tax haven off the north west coast of Europe. Even if one abides by a formal definition of sovereignty (as opposed to specifying its content), Olympic-standard mental gymnastics are required to square the internal customs border in the Irish Sea with the circle of indivisible state authority. Still, "Kaiser" Bill Cash and his bobtail collective of lawyers with nothing better to do concluded Johnson's deal "preserves the UK’s sovereignty as a matter of law and fully respects the norms of international sovereign-to-sovereign treaties." Any outstanding issues, they said, could be dealt with by "robust government". And so, anyone pining for a last ditch backbench revolt to scupper Johnson's plans are reminded, once again, there's no such thing as a Tory rebel.

Someone who might have hoped for ERG defiance is Keir Starmer. With no deal definitely off the table, the argument in favour of voting for the deal to avoid crashing out of the transition period, one trotted out by shadow cabinet members in recent days, is a load of rubbish. Not forgetting that even if it fell, Johnson could, and in this instance undoubtedly would, invoke the royal prerogative and ratify it without the Commons' acquiescence. Let's put this shilly shallying aside and get down to brass tacks. Labour's conversion to leave is much like the SNP's and Liberal Democrats' attachments to remain: it's in the party's interests. The calculation is a simple one. Having gone to the country on the second referendum prospectus, a policy Keir did more than anyone to get the party to adopt, the rejection of Labour by many formerly loyal voters demands a response to win them back. The first step along this road is dissociating the party and, importantly, his leadership from remainism - which is as good as an apology.

Does this course not come with political downsides? As this blog has argued before, because the Jeremy Corbyn leadership did not move decisively after the 2017 election to hegemonise a soft Brexit in the party, the way was left open for the so-called People's Vote to (successfully) drive a wedge between the pro-EU members and the leadership. After the disaster of the EU elections and the complete disintegration of the party's base, the party had no choice but to adopt the second referendum to keep its new core vote on board, and even then it was not enough with about a million Labour voters switching to the LibDems. Surely by supporting Johnson's deal, caveats and all, Keir is putting the continued support of remain-minded voters at risk? This is certainly the reading favoured by rebellious shadcab members and rank-and-file PLP'ers representing heavily remain seats.

This reading, I think, overestimates the resilience of Brexity remainism now as an issue and its salience into the future. With Coronavirus raging out of control, the economic depression, the post-pandemic rebuilding and everything else we can look forward to in the early 2020s, Brexit, its fall out, and disputes and bickering over the finer points of the trade deal go back to being issues for the nerds and boring Tory backbenchers. Labour deciding to back the government's deal in 2020 is not going to figure in 2024. It simply isn't. This said, doesn't the same then apply to leave voters Labour lost too? Perhaps not. Keir wants to settle the Brexit stuff now so, like in 2017 when Labour said it accepted the referendum result, he gains permission to be listened to from a whole swathe of leavers. And as 2021 is when he relaunches his leadership with a putative "vision" speech, which we've caught brief glimpses of, he hopes this will encourage them to look at Labour afresh and begin rebuilding a relationship of trust.

It could work. There is less of a likelihood of Keir alienating Labour's core support by voting for the deal than continual attacks on the left. And besides, it also depends on how Labour approaches the issue in the Commons. If Keir tries framing it as an issue to get out of the way so politics can focus on the management of the pandemic, this pricks the balloons of Johnson and his hideous backbenchers who are relishing the opportunity for grandstanding. The politics of looking statesmanly and authoritative, as we have seen, is central to "Starmerism", and could provide an opportunity for a favourable contrast.

Lastly, there is something the left should take from Labour's move. Too many of us became cheerleaders for the remain movement following the referendum. It would be a miserable mistake and a passport to more defeat if comrades simply decide their slogans and strategies for the next few years are going to focus on rejoining the EU. If the very establishment Keir Starmer can arrive at this conclusion, it's high time socialist politics did as well.

Image Credit


Brian said...

The problem is that as Starmer has decided to align himself with this deal by voting for it, rather than abstaining (it would still get through), he will not be able to dissociate himself & the Labour Party from all the negative results that will inevitably result from this disastrous piece of legislation. He will be seen as much to blame for the downsides as the Tories. At least if he abstained he would be able to lay any blame squarely at the feet of the Tories and there will be blame, when the downsides of Brexit make themselves felt.

gastrogeorge said...

The problem is, though, that I don't think Brexit is going anywhere far away. IIUC, the deal is quite cleverly pitched. OK there is more admin, but there is no problem with the level playing field and standards in the immediate future. But the UK can now legislate to change those standards. This would provoke the grievance clauses of the deal. So essentially the Tories can turn this on at will, as required by electoral demands. And the whole deal has a 4-year break point. Just in time for the next election. I don't think the beef is going away.

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

The day after the referendum I said that what we had to do was accept the result and move towards a consensus on what the best terms for leaving would be to bring the country back together. Sadly for a variety of reasons that never happened. This deal is the sad remnant of any dream of salvaging something. Realistically, Starmer can either vote for it, or abstain. He can't vote against it. Abstaining looks weak to those he wants to win back, and doesn't pacify those who want the single market and freedom of movement, so it is probably pointless. Voting for it, however, does mean that any problems cannot be disowned. So it could come back to bite. Its a lose-lose situation. Personally I think it would be more honest to abstain, and say it's your deal, and while better than none, we don't think it is worth supporting. But, politically, it is marginally less risky to go with it, probably.

Alan Story said...


Most interesting political question for Wednesday? How many Labour MPs will defy Starmer’s three line whip on the crappy anti-working people Brexit bill and abstain?

So far: Clive Lewis, John McDonnell, Ben Bradshaw and Nadia Whittome.

PS Nice to know all of them are pro-proportional representation.

Phil said...

For interest - an interview with Keir Starmer about Brexit and things in tomorrow's Graun here.

Blissex said...

«The day after the referendum I said that what we had to do was accept the result and move towards a consensus on what the best terms for leaving would be to bring the country back together. Sadly for a variety of reasons that never happened.»

And that was the logic of Corbyn' statement that exit had become inevitable and his proposed compromised of "Norway" exit that worked very well to keep the party and the electoral base united in 2017. The arguments for fully endorsing the ERG hard exit by our blogger seem to be quite wrong because:

* The political project they portend is not the recovery of the disaffected ex-Labour "Leavers", because those were quite satisfied with "Norway". The project is to get rid of "leftist" Labour voters and members to attract hard-exit tory "Leavers", and to switch to policies that appeal to hard-exit tory "Leavers", the first of which of course is hard-exit. In the imagination of the tory/whig entrysts "Paris is worth a mass", that is "Winning in 2024 thanks to tory hard-"Leaver" votes is worth endorsing tory policies including hard exit", but that is a delusion.

* The salience of brexit will continue for the next decades, as the Conservatives will certainly keep the issue alive for their advantage, and anyhow negotiations with the EU on many aspects will continue; and regardless the effects of brexit, mostly disappointment rather than catastrophe, will be felt most in the year before 2024.

* After the referendum the choice was about the type of exit, soft, hard, "walk away", and contrasting hard-exit with "walk away" exit is wrong; Labour should vote against hard-exit by saying they would only vote a soft-exit agreement, and any consequence of proposing hard-exit would be on the Conservatives who chose it.

Of course the problem with the last point is that soft-exit was Corbyn's policy, and Starmer cannot choose that, as it was him who has consistently opposed it first by advocating for "2nd ref", and then switching to full endorsement of hard-exit,

Blissex said...

«At least if he abstained he would be able to lay any blame squarely at the feet of the Tories»

He would be able to do that only if Labour voted against after having campaigned for soft-exit, abstention is complicity. There are two main cases for 2024:

* Hard brexit is a success (rather unlikely), and regardless of how Labour votes the Conservatives reap the electoral benefits.

* Brexit is a disappointment or a failure (more much likely), and then Labour if had campaigned for soft-exit and voted against hard-exit would be able to tell voters "now throw the Conservatives out and give us a majority to switch to soft-exit", but it cannot do that if it votes for hard exit or abstains now.

Blissex said...

I just laughed out loud for their sheer insanity some passages from arch-blairite Liam Byrne's impassioned defense of Keir Starmer's loud committment to hard-exit:


How will abstaining on the deal persuade working-class voters to come home to Labour? Abstention is not a qualification for high office when it looks like indecision. And indecision on one of the greatest national questions in our history will not persuade the good people of the 124 seats we need to win to form a government to vote for us. We would risk last year’s swing away from us becoming a permanent switch.

This about Keir Starmer, the arch-abstainer as well as arch-brexiter :-).

Last December’s crushing rout was delivered to us in part because voters wanted to ‘get Brexit done’. Most painfully, our working-class base collapsed because, having voted for Brexit by a margin of 64% to 34%, they concluded (in the stunning verdict of the Labour Together post-mortem) that “Labour no longer represented people like them”. [...] It’s true that we could try to sit back, carp from the side lines and then, when things go wrong, tell everyone who’ll listen that ‘we told you so’. But anyone who thinks there will be a prize at the next election for the cleverer-than-thou hasn’t been on enough doorsteps in ‘Red Wall’ seats like the eight we lost across the West Midlands.

This is shameless as it was the "cleverer-than-thou" Starmer policy of "2nd ref" that made the “working-class base [...] voted for Brexit by a margin of 64% to 34%” think that “Labour no longer represented people like them”. Are these people going to forget that it was Starmer that pushed them off Labour before he turned hard-exiter? Are these people going to forget that it was Corbyn who accepted the referendum result and Johnson who actually delivered it?

Alan Story said...

Caroline Lucas voting against


Blissex said...

«an interview with Keir Starmer about Brexit and thingsx

That interview has this entertaining claim:

«Starmer said he could not envisage Europe or Brexit playing any part in the election campaign of 2024 – or featuring on any Labour MPs’ election leaflets [...] “If we are still arguing in 2024 abut what has gone in these past four years, we’re facing the wrong way as far as I’m concerned.”»

But if brexit in 2024 won't matter, why does is matter so much in 2020 that New, New Labour should vote to endorse the Conservative hard-exit? That should matter only if in 2024 Keir Starmer wants to take credit with tory voters for his loud support for hard-exit.

«Caroline Lucas voting against »

Given that the ERG and pretty much all the Conservatives are voting for hard-exit, that is just pointless, but at least it is out of conviction, not posturing, like Keir Starmer's loud support for the Conservatives goal of hard-exit.

If Labour had maintained the principled position of supporting a "Norway" style exit, and voted against hard-exit because of that, things would be quite different.

Suppose Labour had not switched to "2nd ref": the 2019 election result would have been very different, and the Conservatives would probably have to rely on Labour votes in the Commons, and therefore would not have gone straight for hard-exit, enabled and supported by Keir Starmer.

Blissex said...

As another side note, Keir Starmer's "principled" support for Conservative hard-exit has a side effect: it is a loud "F*ck off!" to most potential New, New Labour voters in Scotland (and northern Ireland, but it does not matter).

That makes sense only if Keir Starmer is sure that by 2024 Scotland will have become independent or on its way, so there are zero chances of New, New Labour Westminster seats from Scotland, and the only option for New, New Labour is to appeal to english nationalist, authoritarian voters from the red wall and the shires. That would also explain his strongly unionist message to Scotland: that makes sense if he has given up on Scotland and the unionist message is actually meant to appeal to conservative english voters.

Good luck with all that :-).

theOnlySanePersonOnPlanetEarth said...

People talk about the ‘downsides’ of this as if the downsides affect the UK, or that is where the primary downside resides.

No Britain is rich enough to have left the EU and negotiate its own trade deals. The Brexiters are correct that German car makers will insist on a deal, as it is in their interests.

The problem with brexit isn’t the affect it has on Britain or its army of tabloid addled salt of the earth honest to goodness sociopathic morons but the affect that will be felt in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania etc. The EU provides a certain level of redistribution and with a major contributor leaving that will affect the contributions.

The British have basically said, we don’t want to pay for those unwashed lazy Eastern Europeans.

The long term affects will hopefully come back to bite the British firmly on the ass.

Blissex said...

«The British have basically said, we don’t want to pay for those unwashed lazy Eastern Europeans.»

As many brexiters conveniently forget when they blame the EU for Greece, it was the UK representatives who vetoed any help to Greece using EU funds, and the other EU members had to create new treaties and organizations outside the Eu ones to work around the veto. The USA did not provide a single cent either.

«The long term affects will hopefully come back to bite the British firmly on the ass.»

I am contemplating the prospects about to happen in a few hours: as the EU has exited the union with the UK, it has no longer been subject to the interference of faceless, irresponsible London mandarins and politicos, and will be able to use its new sovereignty and independence from Westminster to develop further and better.
As a further step the EU has managed to achieve their negotiating goal to have their cake and eat it, by winning unlimited free exports of EU products to the UK, without having to allow free imports of services from the UK, or having to pay any cash or other concession to the UK.

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

Speaking as someone of East European heritage, albeit washed and no lazier than the average Brit, I am amazed by "theOnlySane..."'s comment. If you mean that now those Bulgarians, Poles, Romanians, Czechs etc can no longer come and work in the UK, or at least, not so easily, then yes it will affect them. But given the need for their labour, then either a solution to allow them to come as before, or a new source of willing (cheap) workers, will be required. So it will affect us too. Although this may take a few years to become apparent as we'll need that to restore "normality" after Covid. If we ever do.

Dipper said...

Everything in life, literally everything, is a deal. A trade with a price. Those Principles of yours? They are for signalling purposes only.

Shame the UK is leaving Erasmus? Well, should have offered a better deal. Shame we aren't in the Single market, defence organisation, whatever? Offer a better deal.

You would like more Immigration? What are the terms of the deal you are offering? You want to rejoin the EU. What are the terms begin offered?

Want my vote? Make an offer that is attractive to me and my family.

theOnlySanePersonOnPlanetEarth said...

Dr Zoltan, when I said lazy and unwashed I was merely reflecting the brexit mindset.

It is not my opinion!

It may affect us eventually, but my point is that the left speak of its affects only in terms of its affects on British people, when in my view that is the wrong way to look at it. These people claim they are internationalists right?

It is a bit like looking at the break up of slavery and concluding, you know those slave owners will now be able to become capitalists and make much higher profits!

BCFG said...

Dipshit, who is the we you are on about and who is making this deal?

Certainly not me. I have fuck all say in the deal whatever way it goes and that goes for the rest of my family. It also goes for almost everyone who voted for Brexit. And those that didn't vote for Brexit, what about them, what about their deal? Why can't they remain in Europe given they accepted the deal? Maybe we should split the country up into the deal and no deal zone and allow thos in the deal zone to remian in the EU and those outside can live in their white fantasy world.

I suppose sending money to a Nigerian prince is a deal, even though it was a con all along and the fucker was lying!