The Labour Leadership and Brexit
By Peter Kennedy
Tory bigwigs may be forgiven for thanking their lucky stars, when reflecting on just how politically inept their own PM has to be before the Labour leadership gets off its haunches to seize the political initiative? Indeed, the very same line of thinking has been the expressed commonsense of the national press over recent months; who regularly line up to brand the Labour leadership as a ‘backfiring’ ‘six bullet point Brexit-fixated ‘pantomime act’.
Of course, they would say that wouldn't they!
However, there is some substance to their scathing appraisals of the Labour leadership’s approach to Brexit. Take the Leadership’s 6 tests - to maintain, strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU; the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union; the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities; defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom; protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime; and deliver for all regions and nations of the UK (1). The simple point to make here is that these ‘tests’ have never ever been met within the existing EU relationship, which is seen as the ‘silk purse’ to the ‘sows ear’ that many take Brexit to be.
Brexit and class
Even from a capitalist class perspective (which has dominated the debate), the Labour Leadership has blown hot and cold on the single market (whether to join it or not or pay for it or not, if it will accept free movement or ‘managed migration’); over the meaning of ‘a’ customs union (how it might differ from ‘the’ customs union); whether it has or has not ruled out another referendum (either in opposition or in Government, should they win an election).
From the perspective of the left, the more serious point surely is that the Labour Party continues to look passively on, instead of developing a socialist alternative policy programme though which the issue of Brexit and Remain could be anchored. The shadow cabinet seem intent on sitting on their collective hands, rubbing up their side of the ‘front bench’, merely hoping (fingers crossed) to form the next Government on the back of the fallout from Tories Brexit-propelled implosions.
Of course, the final outcome of Brexit will have dramatic economic and social implications. Shackled to the narrow machinations of Westminster fixations, the Labour Party is likely to be damaged by whatever happens. Whether the Leadership attempts to form a national cross-party alliance to wangle more from the EU, or to win support for another referendum, it is currently caught in the headlights of a Brexit response abstracted from social class, which will be treated by large swathes of the working class as little different to the Tories, with the consequence that the Leadership’s own aspirations to win power would be both flawed and seriously weakened.
Moreover, the narrow – capitalist eye view - fixation on Brexit plays into the hands of those in the Labour Party potty trained to ‘deliver top down governance’ by virtue of their apparent superior understanding of what people want and how much of it is good for them. This bird’s eye view of Brexit (and democratic accountability), devoid of social moorings in social class relations that shape the economy and polity, can only weaken the left leaning leadership, pulling it further away from the broader movement that gave it renewed political oxygen.
What can be done?
Against this, the Labour leadership needs to recognize that it has less control over what that final outcome of Brexit will be and more control over its own socialist policy through which Brexit can be made sense of. The obvious solution has to be to use Brexit - the social and economic shake up it implies across Europe – to call for a radical reform of capitalism across the UK-EU divide.
Labour has far more control over developing and popularizing a policy programme that puts people first, than it does Brexit. Any discussion about Brexit should be framed within such a programme. A people first policy programme would need to detail and promote, as priority number one, how the present austerity driven trajectory for education, health, welfare, housing and employment, would be halted, reversed and transformed by a Labour Government willing to use the levers of state power to instigate radical change and place these levers at the disposal of people.
Such a programme is the necessary front on which the Labour Party should take up the struggle over the form, or should it come to it, the fate of Brexit. Labour can grasp the moment by highlighting how one or other Brexit option either facilitates or places a political and economic road block to the people first programme it has set its course to deliver.
However, Labour cannot hope to execute the latter unless it advances a policy programme that puts people first in the UK as part of a wider push across Europe too. Brexit – the business and bureaucracy of re-arranging the UK-EU relationship - abstracted from class, divides the working class in the UK from the working class in Europe, by making it appear they are in a dogfight for survival. Into this vacuum enters the old binary ‘left solution’ of national social renewal, now presented as socialist Brexit versus capitalist club Europe. Erasing the political cul-de-sac of national socialist renewal is the pivot on which real socialist policies can be advanced and requires explicit attention to developing cross Europe alliances with the wider Labour movements and the left.
To some the latter is ‘idealistic’, ‘not on the horizon’, ‘a move too far’, without any base in the realities of the Labour Party and movement. The answer to such protestations is clear: without it, Brexit or Remain represent an elite political sport wholly concerned with what it means for capitalists and ensuring political stagnation for the working class: rejection of it - as too difficult and idealistic - would be a signifier that the Labour Party is a vehicle for the defense of an ailing capitalist society and, as such, a road block to rather than bulwark for socialist advance (- if not now, when?).
(1) Labour List, 2017, ‘Keir Starmer: Labour has six tests for Brexit – if they’re not met we won’t back the final deal in parliament’, 27th March, https://labourlist.org/2017/03/keir-starmer-labour-has-six-tests-for-brexit-if-theyre-not-met-we-wont-back-the-final-deal-in-parliament/