Angela Merkel at a special summit of EU leaders to mark the 60th anniversary of the bloc's founding Treaty of Rome on March 25, 2017. Burzykowski Damian/Newspix/Prss Association. All rights reserved. Theresa May's call for a snap election received overwhelming endorsement from parliament by 522 to 13, whereas the Scottish SNP abstained. It is now expected that parliament will end all business in early May in the run up to the ballot of 8 June. Why did May call an early election since her argument all along has been that the "country needs stability" and that new elections would take place as normal in 2020?
May was appointed PM in the wake of the Brexit referendum of 23 June 2016, after the country, albeit narrowly, voted to leave the EU. Commentators argue that she needed an electoral mandate to strengthen her position and image as PM. Also, her surprise move, the argument goes, was caused by a shrewd power calculus, the most important factors being the disarray in the Labour Party; the need for May to strengthen her grip on her own party and government undermining Europhile influence while boosting her parliamentary majority (currently only at 17 seats whereas polls show a Tory lead as high as 21%); and, thereby ‘strengthening the external position of the country in the Brexit negotiations’ that May herself triggered on 29 March. These arguments do not go to the bone of British, European and global politics.
Despite the fact that the ruling party élites of both major parties took a strategic decision to respect the people's verdict of 23 June 2016, the establishment and business elites are still deeply divided over the question of EU membership. More than 44 percent of UK exports are bound for the EU and the euro-currency swaps taking place daily in the City of London are counted in trillions of euros. More euros may be circulating on a daily basis in London's financial district than in the entire Euro-zone between its 340 million consumers.
This is one of the reasons why the Labour Party argues that a ‘hard Brexit’ must be avoided at all costs and threatens to block any deal that fails to maintain access to the single European market while guaranteeing free movement of people. These two points, apparently, are the only substantive differences between Labour and the Tories on the question of Britain's EU membership.
Yet, this is what Labour says, not what Germany says. And Germany, as Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform put it, would not allow Britain a soft exit, especially if Angela Merkel lost the forthcoming election in September 2017. Germany will not bend the rules of the union for the sake of Britain at the moment when she is asking everybody in Europe to respect those rules, including France. Some countries, such as Greece, are experiencing massive austerity bondage precisely because the rules cannot be broken. Thus, it is unlikely that Brexit will last more than two years as advocated by Anthony Barnett. For the same reason, the strategy advocated by Sunny Hundal according to which "Labour must weaponise hard Brexit for any chance of defeating the Tories" is not going to succeed. Labour can try, but I doubt it will succeed. It is Berlin that sets out the rules on the Brexit timetable, not London, unless the Germans get some arm-twisting from Trump at some point down the line. Again, this is unlikely given the importance of Germany, both economically and geo-politically.
The referendum matters more than the forthcoming election, in what way?
The Labour Party of Corbyn-McDonnell managed to recruit and mobilise a remarkable number of members in a short period of time and Momentum has played a crucial role. But this enthusiasm has not extended to society. At present, polls give Labour an unimpressive 25%. This, I argue, is not because of the Bennite, Euro-sceptic past of the new Labour leadership, or the Blairite opposition within Labour. Quite the reverse: it has to do with the abandonment of Benn's positions on the EU, and as a consequence, with the strategy the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership pursued in the run-up to the referendum.
Tony Benn famously said that those who govern us should be constantly asked five questions: What powers have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you? The new Labour leadership has failed the single most important test in the referendum of June last year as it neglected to align itself with British society from which it draws its power and to which it should be accountable. Lukewarm support for the ‘Remain’ campaign of the Tories was a blatant mistake. The vote of British society has beaten up both the major parties.
We should not forget that soon after Corbyn was elected leader, the Labour Party, despite its serious internal problems, was neck and neck with the Tories in the opinion polls. True, the British people would be reluctant to cast their vote in favour of a divided party whose leadership is forced to strike one compromise after another in order to maintain a certain unity. However, the point I am making here is of a different variety: I argue that the Labour Party last year missed a golden opportunity to put forth a social democratic, pro-labour and pro-migration agenda against Germany's ordoliberal Europe of austerity and authoritarianism. Instead, it preferred to align itself with the Tory leadership and embrace a ‘Remain’ campaign against British society, arguing that the EU can change from within. This wrong strategy comes at a high cost, not just for Labour, but for the country as a whole.
Had Labour had a clear social democratic position on why Britain should leave the ordoliberal EU and fight for another, social democratic EU for the benefit of both the British and the Europeans, then this would have had the following benefits for the Labour Party, Britain and Europe:
1) It would have regained the initiative from the Tories, increasing massively its electoral support; the Tories would have split and become a political irrelevance;
2) It would have had the extended social support required to effect, once in office, radical policy changes in the banking and financial sectors re-directing their activity to productive investment, taking them away from speculative arbitrage and greedy profiteering;
3) Likewise, and due to wide popular support, once in office, it would be in a position to place under public democratic control key economic sectors and services (e.g. Royal Mail, education, railways);
4) It would have been possible and realistic to construct a united left platform with the Scottish SNP and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland aimed at working together for a social democratic Britain and Europe; this would have brought to an end all nationalisms at home while acting as a lighthouse for European societies, where xenophobic and racist parties are thriving from Athens to Paris and from Budapest to Amsterdam and Vienna. It would have been Labour Britain's sovereign decision to regulate migration from Europe and elsewhere. No need to have it as a negotiation issue with the EU.
5) It would have also been possible, once in government, to freeze Britain's military adventures abroad, de-couple from Trump's militarism and work within the UN and the OSCE for a peaceful international order in the framework of an independent British foreign policy (now both Russia and the EU humiliate and pour scorn on Boris Johnson's Britain as an irrelevance without an independent voice in foreign affairs);
Having said this, the Labour Party in 2016 would have had the chance to initiate for the Left in Britain, Europe and the world what Margaret Thatcher started politically in 1979 for the neo-liberal Right (although one may argue that the first neo-liberal governance programme was initiated by the authoritarian government of Pinochet in Chile, a government that the chief ideologue of neo-liberalism, Friedrich Hayek, supported openly).
It would have had great chances to succeed, not least because of the structural socio-economic trend towards de-globalization. At the very moment the parliament will be suspending its work for the ballot of 8 June, the most important bill to be discussed will be that concerning blocking foreign capital acquiring British assets. In other words, the parliament is discussing de-globalization measures. And so does Trump, and this is what he discussed with May. Labour's wrong strategy in the run-up to the referendum of 23 June 2016 is the yardstick for its electoral defeat in the forthcoming election.
The break-up of the United Kingdom
True, from now till June 8, political time condensed is long enough to turn things upside down.
For example, the Lib-Dems, who are reborn by claiming a consistent pro-European profile, may score spectacularly well, especially if they merge with the Blairite wing of the Labour Party and The New Europeans, an initiative pioneered by former Labour MP for London-Wimbledon, Roger Casale.
Gina Miller, now mounting a tactical voting campaign against "hard Brexit".Victoria Jones/Press Association. All rights reserved. Also, Gina Miller, a campaigner whose legal challenge forced the government to seek parliamentary approval for EU's exit article 50, is putting together a new campaign for tactical voting against "hard Brexit" and this may add to sapping the massive Tory lead in the polls.
Importantly, local elections in the country take place on May 4 and we may see a good return for the Lib Dems and Labour. But as I argued above, Labour has a wrong strategy because it suffers from an erroneous reading of the structural tendency towards de-globalization and from a protracted bureaucratic battle inside the parliamentary Labour Party, which extends to Westminster institutions, networks and lobbies, forcing its leadership into unnecessary compromises which carry a high political cost.
In this respect, I consider both parties responsible for the nationalistic division and break-up of the country, not to mention the bureaucratic walls already raised for EU citizens in the UK. I hope, by the way, to be proved completely wrong and that the unity of the country emerges triumphant as more resilient than this brief analysis suggests.