As Brexit Britain heads for the rocks what does Corbyn’s Labour stand for?

At the most perilous time for the UK geopolitically since the 1930s, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are flying blindfold into the approaching storm.

Gerry Hassan
16 March 2018
stormy scotland 2.jpg

Image: The Peak of Strife (Sgurr na Stri), John McSporran/Flickr, Creative Commons.

The diminished global status of Britain and our future post-Brexit has been on display in the last few days. The attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia and the possible role of Russian authorities; the visit of the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, and the continued saga of Donald Trump’s unpredictable, erratic Presidency from trade wars to his state visit, all illustrate the challenges a diminished UK will face in the aftermath of Brexit.

Twenty-one months on from the Brexit vote we have no clear plan or detail from the UK Government. Indeed, the kind of Brexit and Britain which the UK Government represents is nothing more than a sketch and vague principles, much to the increasing consternation of the EU and the remaining 27 nation-states.

Brexit is full of contradictions, tensions and paradoxes. Can the fabled Tory Party with its reputation for statecraft really be reduced to its current incompetence and divisions? Decades of Tory appeasement of Euroscepticism culminated in David Cameron’s pledge in 2013 to hold an in/out referendum – a pledge he thought he would never have to deliver. His subsequent failed attempts to secure renegotiated terms of EU membership – echoes of Harold Wilson in 1975 – were followed by the subsequent referendum campaign and Brexit triumph.

Mirroring Tory predicaments on Brexit have been the evasions of the Labour leadership – who in Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have historically been associated with Euroscepticism and anti-EU attitudes. They were went missing in the EU referendum with a position which can only be described as destructive ambiguity – whereby via conscious evasion they contributed to the undermining and defeat of the pro-EU campaign.

Corbyn’s Brexit evasions have seen Labour at points indistinguishable from the Tories – painfully so, at points when the Tories have been on the rocks and Labour has refused to supply the knockout blow. Labour did not advocate membership of the customs union and single market in the 2017 UK election (instead talking of ‘the benefits’ of both, not membership). It aligned itself with the Tory version of Brexit which has emerged since the 2016 referendum.

This position has caused much soul searching in Labour – from Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Stammer to members and voters. 71% of Labour voters currently believe that Brexit is wrong and a mere 21% think it right. Research by Queen Mary University showed that 87% of Labour members support the UK continuing to be a member of the single market - and 85% of the customs union.

A couple of weeks ago Corbyn made a much-trailed speech shifting Labour policy  to support for post-Brexit continued membership of a customs union: a position which gave Labour greater flexibility and the potential for more differentiation from the Tories. Yet, recent polling by YouGov put support for Theresa May’s Brexit position on 35% (41% opposed), while a mere 24`% supported Corbyn’s new stance, compared to 43% opposed.

Corbyn reiterated his Brexit viewpoint at last weekend’s Scottish Labour conference in Dundee – as did the party’s new leader Richard Leonard (its ninth since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999). What caused even more controversy was the party’s attempts to rule out a debate and vote on the single market, despite several resolutions being submitted. Rather a Scottish Labour Executive motion was presented which restated existing policy and which was overwhelmingly passed.

Labour speakers including former Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour MP Ian Murray expressed their opposition, and their concerns about Corbyn’s language on restricting immigration after Brexit. Dugdale said of Labour’s failure to be pro-immigration, “Every day we fail to do that is a day in which Nigel Farage and his kin get up smiling.”

Corbyn, Labour and Brexit Now

Labour’s current Brexit position only makes sense in the context of Corbyn and McDonnell’s long held Euroscepticism. It ignores the position of party voters and members, and where the most damage to the Tories could be inflicted. Kirsty Hughes, Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations, remarks that Corbyn’s “current position is either a genuine ‘cake and eat it’ one where he anticipates getting a range of opt-outs from issues ranging from state aids to free movement.”

The Corbyn leadership has shown in its two and a half years a degree of tactical adroitness and flexibility which has surprised many, supporters and opponents alike. Some left-wing Eurosceptics regard the EU as so compromised by neo-liberalism, free marketism and finance capitalism, that they regard the Corbyn leadership as insufficiently questioning of the entire European project. But the majority of the party stand for a pro-EU stance: one which has gone unheard thanks to the current leadership.

This has consequences for all sorts of progressive politics, the economy and society, says Hughes: “Being in a customs union on its own will help but not fully solve the Irish border problem. It will do nothing to protect the UK’s services sector – only the single market can do that.”

The supposed logic of Corbyn’s Brexit position beyond the tactical is that being free of the EU and its shackles will allow for widespread nationalisation, state subsidies and planning of the economy. Yet, apart from the charge that all of these left aspirations remain generalities without detailed left plans, it is mere conjecture that left transformative policies remain incompatible with membership of the EU.

Corbyn’s left politics are shaped by the 1970s and this is as true of the EU and how he sees the United Kingdom. Anthony Barnett, author of ‘The Lure of Greatness’, takes the view of Corbyn and his left-wing Bennite views that: ‘Corbyn’s Bennism means he can see the democratic potential of Brexit in a way few can. But today even Tony Benn would recognise that this can only be realised within the EU, by unleashing the constitutional revolution Benn was among the first to spell out - such is the UK's economic interweaving with the continent.’

The Lingering Influence of Left Labourism

Pivotal to this is the traditional Labour left position of believing in the British state as an agent of change and the politics of grabbing control of the levers of government and using them to drive through centralising, uniform change. This is because Corbyn and the Labour left for all their posturing are actually supporters of labourism: the idea of a monopoly Labour Party with a minority popular base ramming through change.

This attitude can be seen in how Labour sees other progressive forces to this day. The Guardian columnist and Corbyn advocate Owen Jones made the case for the Green Party becoming an affiliate of the Labour Party in the way the Co-operative Party is. He magnified his mistake of thinking all roads lead to Labour by not recognising that there is no British Green Party and that he was talking about the Green Party of England and Wales. He stated that ‘it would unite the British left under one banner’ within Labour – ignoring the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Scottish Greens; he subsequently noted part of his error changing ‘British’ to ‘English and Welsh’ in the online version.

As Barnett states, while the UK, world economy, capitalism, politics and power have dramatically changed, the Corbyn leadership way of thinking about these things hasn’t: “Some of those around Corbyn, are enamoured of a pre-Bennite top-down ‘British socialism’. This draws directly from the mythology of Labour, labourism and the party’s left-wing version of this: stressing the folklore of 1945, the importance of one party Labour Government, British exceptionalism, and the misapprehension that Labour is a unique, radical party compared to its continental allies.

Underneath this there are even more deep-rooted challenges. Just as Theresa May’s Brexit problems stem from the crisis of ‘the conservative nation’ of Tory Britain, so Corbyn’s manoeuvrings illuminate the tensions and fault lines within was Labour Britain.

The current conundrums facing Theresa May and British Conservatism are amplified by their failure to understand modern Britain and articulate a Tory unionism which grasps the multi-national, multi-cultural dynamic nature of the UK. The Tory lack of sensitivity and political intelligence displayed towards Scotland and Wales over Brexit, as well as their ineptitude in relation to Northern Ireland power-sharing, combines with their unholy alliance with the Democratic Unionists. It portrays a Tory version of the union which isn’t in good shape. This also underlines the extent to which Brexit is about English discontents about the modern world, and a very narrow, intolerant English idea of Britain.

Labour’s predicaments are as profound. While Blair and Brown’s New Labour identified with the global Britain of ‘winners’, and then attempted to take the party’s historic constituencies with it in the North of England, Scotland and Wales, Corbyn’s Labour have gone back to an unreflective version of Britain and Britishness. What age, past, present or future Britain, is Corbyn representing? The lack of clarity, mix of nostalgia and rejection of the recent past means none of this is clear.

These are high-wire political times. The Brexit stakes could not be more dramatic, yet both Conservatives and Labour for differing reasons have chosen to fudge the big strategic choices which face the country. The British political elite comfort themselves that the story of the UK - despite Thatcherism, power imbalances, the banking crash and Brexit - is one of stability and sensibility. Hugo Rifkind writing in The Times this week thinks the UK will prove immune from the Trump-Steve Bannon revolution: “Britain doesn’t warm to political upheaval. Historically speaking, we like things to run a little more smoothly. We behead kings and then think better of it …” This after all has been the ruling class take of Britain down through the ages, and it has served them well, but now in the midst of populist revolts, political discontent and disruption, it looks complacent.

Other forms of denial can be easily identified. For some in the centrist consensual wings of both major parties and the Lib Dems, there is a yearning that we can turn the clock back after Brexit and normal service will be resumed. But that mistakes the underlying reasons which contributed to making Brexit possible which go way beyond the actual issue.

There is no prospect, daunting though this may be, to return to calmer, more predictable times. Brexit was an unleashing of an anger and resentment against the political order and establishment, and so far the Corbyn leadership haven’t shown the courage and conviction to showcase the radical politics they claim to represent. But that is true of the entire British political class and establishment. At the most perilous time for the UK geopolitically since the 1930s the country is flying blindfold into the impending blizzard. Who knows what shape our politics, society and nations of the UK will come out, but it won’t look anything like the past or present.

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