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Redefining the UK general election: it's time to move beyond Brexit

Britons are set to head to polling stations, but Brexit is still dominating debate. Is it possible to avoid a re-run of the referendum and champion social democracy instead?

John Weeks
26 May 2017
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General Election 2017. Danny Lawson/PA Images. All rights reserved.The Cameron (remember him?) government arranged to hold a referendum on membership in the European Union in June 2016, and the May government scheduled a general election in June 2017. The former caused the latter and the Prime Minister would have voters believe that the latter is overwhelmingly about the former, which it is not.

Making negotiations with the European Union (aka Brexit) the central issue for the June election is key to the political strategy of the Conservative Party. The same holds for the Scottish National Party, whose astute leader is using Scotland’s relationship with Europe as the vehicle by which to revive and re-run the independence referendum that failed in 2014 by 44 to 55%.

Essential to convincing the UK public that the so-called divorce negotiations are the election’s central issue is to portray those negotiations as extremely complex and fraught with economic danger. Given this complexity and associated dangers, the nation requires a strong leader supported by a large parliamentary majority. The Conservative Party, we are repeatedly told, provides the leader we need in these perilous times. Our Prime Minister and her party stand in bold contrast to the bumbling, chaotic Labour Party and its bicycle riding leader.

"Focus on Brexit and leave it to Theresa" relies on the public accepting that negotiations will, in fact, prove complex and laden with peril for the British population.

The credibility of this narrative, “focus on Brexit and leave it to Theresa”, relies on the public accepting what gives it verisimilitude, that negotiations will, in fact, prove complex and laden with peril for the British population. The Labour Party finds itself in the unfortunate dilemma of seeking to refute this narrative while having contributed to the credibility of the “complex and dangerous negotiations” part. 

Like the Conservatives, the anti-Corbyn wing of the party views the European Union first and foremost as a trading and investment group, being especially enthusiastic about the EU’s neoliberal Four Freedoms: “free movement” of goods, capital and workers, plus “freedom” to compete for provision of public services (a comparison with Franklin D Roosevelt’s famous four, freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of expression and freedom of religion, shows the degeneration of politics over the past 75 years).

The Corbyn wing of the party also stresses the complexity of negotiations, emphasising the need to protect employment, civil and human rights as specified in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (explained in this report by Smith & Weeks supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation).

By accepting that Brexit negotiations threaten the future of Britain, the Labour Party is left to defend one of two (or both) positions: 1) important as Brexit may be, other issues are more important (e.g. NHS funding); or 2) Labour would negotiate a better outcome than the May government. The first involves a difficult juggling act to prevent accusations of dodging the issue. The second is reminiscent of Labour’s position on deficit reduction for the 2015 election, accepting its necessity and promising to achieve it in a more equitable manner (cogently explained by Gary Younge).

Brexit lite in 2017 is unlikely to attract voters any more than the austerity lite of the two Eds (Miliband and Balls) did in 2015.  Cameron and Osborne set the deficit trap and the Eds consciously fell into it.

Avoiding the Brexit Trap

The Labour manifesto provides the platform to redefine British politics if it replaces Brexit negotiations as the focus of the election campaign. The practical question is, how does Labour avoid the Brexit trap that May has set so carefully?

The answer is simple, and the deficit trap experience provides the guide. The imperative to eliminate the UK public sector deficit was pure political ideology with no basis in economics, accounting or sound fiscal management. Its political power derived from relentless Tory propaganda during May-August 2010 when the leadership contest neutralised the Labour Party as an effective opposition.

The Labour manifesto provides the platform to redefine British politics if it replaces Brexit negotiations as the focus of the election campaign.

Rather than give credibility to the budget balancing ideology by promising to achieve it more slowly and more equitably, the Eds should have denounced it as nonsense and proposed a rational, progressive fiscal policy in its place (as Gordon Brown did in the first of the three-way debates with Cameron and Clegg).

The equivalent “cut to the chase” approach to Brexit involves clearing away the rhetorical fog: 1) it is in the interest of EU governments and businesses to reach an amicable settlement; 2) the negotiations involve simple, straight-forward steps; and 3) the final settlement can allow for Britain access to the single market and limitations on immigrations.

As I discovered when in April giving evidence to the Committee on the Affairs of the European Union of the Bundestag (discussed here), the German business sector favours a smooth settlement via a “transition agreement”, because of the substantial German trade surplus with the United Kingdom. A UK government could in effect purchase this transition agreement by agreeing to maintain its contribution to the EU budget, which is of paramount importance to Angela Merkel’s governing coalition.

During the election campaign the Labour Party need not go into the details of an agreement. With Theresa May refusing to debate, Jeremy Corbyn and his Brexit minister Keir Starmer could make an optimistic and positive assertion that an agreement mutually beneficial to Britain and the members of the European Union is not merely possible but almost certain when they replace Tory anti-EU rhetoric with respectful and responsible discussion. 

The Tory government marshals rhetoric of Brexit danger to avoid discussing its domestic policy failures. This rhetoric is the mirror image of the government’s pro-EU scare tactics that helped win the vote for the Leavers. It is unfortunate that Britain’s only left of centre newspaper has led the charge on Brexit hysteria. See, for example, the recent article on disaster in British agriculture due to shortages of cheap labour if free migration ends (a problem that could miraculously disappear were farmers to pay fruit and vegetable pickers a decent wage).

It’s about social democracy

The outcome of the voting on 8 June will have an impact on the agreement between the representatives of the British government and the European Union, but not because of the complexities and dangers of the negotiating process. Both a Conservative government and a Labour government would achieve an agreement. However, a Conservative agreement would differ substantially from a Labour agreement.

For the right, Brexit means freeing business to pursue profit with minimal constraints.

For Conservative Leavers, the purpose of Brexit was and is to escape the EU treaty regulations that protect employment rights, guarantee human rights and protect our environment. To state it succinctly, for the right Brexit means freeing business to pursue profit with minimal constraints. Should the Conservatives win with a substantial majority, we can expect re-introduction of the severe more anti-union elements of the Trade Union Act that were discarded last year because they conflicted with EU law.

The Labour Party’s manifesto sets out a social democratic programme for Britain. Hardly radical, it none-the-less decisively alters policy debate. The manifesto endorses progressive taxation in which those with higher incomes pay a larger share. It would replace ineffective regulation with public ownership in sectors where monopoly or collusion undermines competition. Perhaps most important, the manifesto promises adequate funding of social services.

Leaving the European Union is a serious and historic mistake. English and Welsh voters made that mistake last year. This election is not a re-run of the Brexit referendum. Rather, it offers another historic opportunity, for voters in the four nations to choose social democracy for 21st century Britain.

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