Brexit: What Now?
Brexit: what now? Debating the Issue
Britain is due to leave the European Union in less than a year’s time. That was the decision of the 2016 referendum, and the Labour Party is bound to respect it.
There are injustices and absurdities in the institutions of the EU which no socialist can support. Paul Dacre, longstanding editor of the Eurosceptic Daily Mail, has received £460,000 from the Common Agricultural Policy since 2011. Why? Because he owns a grouse moor in Scotland. This is ridiculous.
These injustices and absurdities have been in existence since the EU’s inception. They did not suddenly emerge in 2016, causing the Tories to call a referendum. That ploy was imagined purely as a way of settling a longstanding dispute within the Conservative Party. The debate in 2016 was dominated by Tories on both sides.
These differences over Europe do not represent a split in the ruling class. Though there was a pro-empire wing of the Tories in the years after the Second World War, such ridiculous fantasies have long since disappeared from the minds of the intelligent strategists of capital. All the same the Tory Party has been tearing itself apart on the issue of EU membership for decades.
One argument for leaving is that the EU is in the process of becoming an undemocratic super-state. The bitter arguments over the migration catastrophe, where the leaders of each nation state try to foist the ‘burden’ of sheltering refugees and migrants on to other countries, show that is far from the case. Nationalism still rules within the EU.
Last Wednesday the EU Withdrawal Bill passed through the House of Commons. The government’s victory was an ugly affair. Labour opposed the Bill. Tory whips insisted that Naz Shah turn up from hospital in her pyjamas, dosed up with morphine and clutching a sick bag in order to vote. Laura Pidcock, 8 months pregnant, was forced to stand for hours. We will not forgive or forget this mistreatment. The Tory opposition led by Dominic Grieve crumbled. Theresa May fed them lying promises and appealed to their party loyalty. They were pathetic.
The Bill will give the government dictatorial powers over the withdrawal negotiations. Their powers have been compared with those of Henry VIII, whose decrees could nullify the will of Parliament. But that was way back in 1539! Disgracefully several Labour MPs including Frank Field and John Mann, defied the Labour whip to vote with the government. They will argue that they were voting for Brexit. But leaving the EU does not necessitate a Tory dictatorship, which is what they were actually supporting.
It is a basic democratic principle that Parliament should have a decisive say on the terms of the deal. The government wants to sell us a pig in a poke.
The Withdrawal Bill deals with the process of exit. What of the actual terms? Incredible as it may seem, NOTHING has been agreed. The Tory government has spent the whole time arguing among themselves instead of negotiating on the real issues.
What should Labour’s attitude to the withdrawal process be? Unfortunately we are not in charge of negotiations. We have to react to the government’s proposals as they come up. Our stance is essentially defensive. Our watchword: what is in the best interests of the working class?
Labour’s attitude to exit from the EU so far has been described as ‘constructive ambiguity’. The reasons for this are clear. Although about two thirds of Labour supporters voted to ‘Remain’, there was a very significant ‘Leave’ majority vote in a number of Labour constituencies, particularly in the Midlands and North. Labour’s leadership is trying to keep both sides on board. Constructive ambiguity seems to have worked so far, but it’s a tricky act to keep up. It’s the political equivalent of riding two horses at once.
What are the issues Labour must take a position on? First is the question of the border with the Irish Republic, the only land border with the EU. If Ireland is to remain a tariff-free part of the EU while Britain (including Northern Ireland) has the right to impose tariffs on goods from Europe then the border will have to be policed. It’s 310 miles long and has 275 crossing points. There are farms in Ireland where cattle can be driven in the same field from the UK to the Republic.
A ‘hard border’, even like that between friendly countries like Canada and the USA necessarily involves armed guards on both sides. It can also mean disruption to trade. The Irish people did not vote for their trade to be disrupted. Ireland lies at the western edge of the EU and most of its trade with Europe passes through Britain. Nobody has come up with an alternate solution to a ‘hard border’, apart from negotiating a customs union with the EU. Within a customs union Britain would have the same structure of tariffs as the EU. No tariffs, no need for a ‘hard border’. The Tories are adamantly opposed to remaining within the customs union. Labour must speak up for the Irish people.
Although the issue of tariffs, taxes on imports, loom large in the discussion, they are not the most important issue for the preservation of jobs. If a tax on imported goods saves a worker’s job (and that’s a big ‘if’) then it’s usually at the expense of someone else’s job. A trade war piling on tariffs can just shrink trade and everyone loses – a ‘beggar my neighbour’ policy.
The disruption to trade posed by borders in modern twenty-first century capitalism without a customs union could be the real job-killer. Airbus is a European consortium. Airbus has warned that, if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal, then there could be a haemorrhage of the sort of skilled jobs Britain desperately needs. Airbus employs 14,000 workers in the UK, including at Broughton where they make the aircraft wings. 100,000 other workers are involved in the supply chain, which has painstakingly put together and controlled electronically. The slightest disruption to this ‘just-in-time’ supply chain could be devastating. Delays would mean Airbus pulling out of Britain. So far no thought whatsoever has been applied to such practical problems by the Tory negotiating team. The clock is ticking.
The BMW owned Mini is another classic globally integrated firm. Owned by Germans the ‘British’ Mini, like other cars produced in the UK, is about 40% made in Britain. The Mini’s crankshaft is actually cast in France. It is then shipped to Birmingham to be drilled and milled. It then moves to Munich to be fitted into the engine. Finally it arrives at Oxford to be assembled with the car. It could later be transported to the continent as an export. All in all, the crankshaft can cover 2,000 miles.
These supply chains are typical of modern capitalism. Profit margins are shaved in the process and the viability of a supply chain is fragile. Building an alternative supply chain on account of disruption can involve an outlay of hundreds of millions of pounds. Dover Port chiefs claim that just a two minute delay at the port could lead to a 17 mile tailback on the M20.
Do the Tories care? There is no sign that they’ve even considered the issue. So far they have got away with cavalier generalities about ‘taking back control’. Labour has the duty to protect every job. If that means accepting some standards set by the EU customs union and within the Single European Market (SEM), so be it.
The SEM is an attempt to impose uniformity in the rules governing EU trade. The idea is that every country should be subject to the same standards so nobody can undercut and ‘cheat’ to gain competitive advantage. The SEM also involves a commitment to unfettered trade and free movement of people. A subterranean argument for Brexit among UKIP and many Tories was that it would enable Britain to control immigration. This was a naked appeal to racism. The LRC stands four square for the free movement of people and against racism.
As to the SEM, there is a wing of the Tory party which wants to use Brexit as an excuse to have a bonfire of regulations and turn Britain into a low wage, low tax haven for capital. We support the preservation and enhancement of all regulations which protect workers’ rights, consumers and the environment, whether they come from the EU or not, because they are in the interests of the working class. If there are no adequate safeguards for workers’ jobs and conditions, a squalid Tory deal should be thrown back in their faces.
It is quite likely that, as the day of exit looms, ignorant and panic-stricken Tory negotiators will capitulate on one issue after another to the European Union on the terms of the deal. Whether this happens will depend on the balance of forces within the Conservative Party, not whether the terms are in the best interests of Britain as a nation. A drift towards a ‘soft Brexit’ or even BINO (Brexit in Name Only) is certainly possible. Inevitably it will be denounced as a betrayal by charlatans like Nigel Farage.
Our concern is with the millions of Labour supporters who voted for Brexit. Many of these come from areas afflicted by deindustrialisation. These working class areas, where people could once look forward to permanent, relatively well-paid jobs, have been devastated by the loss of steady manufacturing work. The future seems to be one of mass unemployment or, at best, temporary and part time jobs with perpetual insecurity as a backdrop. Membership of the EU did not cause deindustrialisation. For millions of working class people in these areas, the Referendum seemed to be an opportunity to reshape their future. It came after almost a decade of stagnant or declining living standards for them after the 2008 Great Recession.
What future can we offer? Labour’s defence of jobs and workers’ rights in the face of the perils of a Tory Brexit is necessary. But it is not enough. We have to offer a secure future for those called ‘the left behinds’. Too often they have been misrepresented by right wing Labour councils and MPs in their areas. That is the face of Labour they see. Labour’s programme for the 2017 election, For the Many, not the Few, represented a huge step forward compared with previous manifestos. However, workers in these depressed areas need a path towards a secure, prosperous future. Labour must do more. Under Jeremy Corbyn we must put forward a concrete programme of jobs and investment, offering a socialist transformation for Britain. Whatever attitude we take on Brexit, that must be Labour’s priority.
Should we support a second referendum? We don’t know yet what terms will be on offer. Certainly the British people should have a decisive vote on the deal. It has been described as the most important decision facing us since the Second World War. It is monstrous that the Tories intend to just spring the outcome of their negotiations upon us without our say-so. Parliament must have a decisive vote on the terms.
Those who support a second referendum do so usually because they are unhappy with the result of the first one. Its supporters in the Labour Party have been mainly the usual critics of Corbyn who will use any stick to beat him with. For that reason their views will be treated with suspicion.
The authorities of the EU are seen to have ignored national referendums in Holland, France, Ireland and Greece in the past. That is one reason why the EU is mistrusted. The demand for a second referendum may well strengthen the resolve of those who voted to ‘Leave’ in the first place. Once again they may see themselves as being ignored!
Marx denounced referendums (plebiscites as they were then called) as the typical trickery of a dictator such as Napoleon III of France. Referendums trivialised the decision-making process and gave the masses an illusion they were really being consulted about their fate. In fact it is impossible to deal with complex issues such as membership of the EU by dividing them into simple ‘Yes/No’ decisions.
People voted to Remain or Leave for myriad different reasons. In addition none of the implications were spelled out. Who mentioned our mentioned our membership of Euratom, our participation in the Galileo Satnav system, or even the problem of the Irish border? Instead we got empty rhetoric from both sides of the Tories in 2016.
There is a danger that the issue of Brexit can split the working class. Certainly the issue is important, and Labour has to get its responses right. In or out of the EU, working people are confronted with the consequences of capitalism. Only a clear programme for the socialist transformation of society can unite us in action.