THE HAPLESS Theresa May has delivered yet another dud speech on Britain’s stalled negotiations with the European Union. In what Guardian commentator John Grace describes as a “dingy annexe of Santa Maria Novella in Florence”, there was no glittering Renaissance For the Tory leader. Her speech, delivered in the bizarre setting of the city on the Arno, to an audience made up nearly entirely of Brits, failed to present Britain’s bid to exit the EU as any thing but an economic disaster.
The first significant response was the Moody’s rating agency downgrading Britain, saying it is "no longer confident that the UK government will be able to secure a replacement free trade agreement with the EU which substantially mitigates the negative economic impact of Brexit."
The only substance to her proposals was a plea to the Europeans to “give us another two years membership” (without a vote) whilst the Tory Party tries to figure out which course it wants to take. Does it really want “Crasher” Johnson’s alternative of Britain as a tax-and-regulation-free destination for US and Chinese capital; a course which would open us to a series of hurricanes from the neoliberal world market presided over by the WTO? Or does it want “Creeper” Hammond’s half-in-half-out solution which might just allow investors and bankers to move their funds at will but entangle ordinary workers in a thicket of quotas, visas and work permits.
Boris Johnson’s Daily Telegraph article was plainly designed to check, if not checkmate, any substantive move by May towards Philip Hammond’s position, beyond the two-year delay, that everyone realises is “kicking the can down the road.” Totally unable to stand up to him, for fear of a resignation crisis and open warfare in her party just before its Conference, she “compromised” – giving us a prime example of a rotten compromise, i.e. one that actually satisfies neither side and will break down spectacularly the moment any weight is put on it.
This dire situation for the Tories naturally provokes a certain sense of schadenfreude amongst Labour supporters. But before dining out on it we should ponder the fact that the positions of Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer and the PLP are hardly any more consistent. The difference is mainly that the Tories are in government and responsible for trying to negotiate the extrication of Britain from a bewildering array of trading, regulatory, legal and labour relations built up over 45 years.
Moreover the Tories – normally the chosen party of the City and high finance, and of modern high-tech industrial capital – are a party that also relies necessarily on the votes of the reactionary middle classes and non-class conscious workers. These are mobilised by the venomously chauvinist and racist ‘popular press’ owned by a tiny handful of billionaire tax dodgers – epitomised by the Murdochs – to vote Tory. But in 2016 they exhorted these voters to inflict Brexit against the wishes of the great majority of the ruling class.
Now Theresa May has to square this circle – to protect the interests of the City whilst assuaging the false consciousness of her party’s voting base, who think that Polish builders and Portuguese nurses and carers are the ones to blame for their rundown smaller Northern and Midlands cities, by “taking control of our borders.”
Jeremy Corbyn is right when he says that the Tory government might well collapse at the first reversal on an issue of confidence in parliament, or that May could suffer a revolt by the crash-out brigade. So we need to be ready for a general election. But this readiness is a matter not just of frenzied old-style canvassing, or Momentum new style-mobilising in the key marginals – important as these are.
First we need to arm ourselves with the right polices.
Labour too would find itself faced with much the same dilemma as the Tories – the dilemmas posed by the Brexit vote itself. This is the impossibility of leaving the EU without also leaving the single market and free trade area plus the human catastrophe of an outflow of European workers – doctors, care workers, technicians, and yes building workers, that British employers could not replace.
The background to all this is the steady slide of public opinion against leaving the EU at all, now nearly the same majority as favoured Brexit 18 months ago. Maybe some leftists and Labour MPs think Jeremy and John’s stance is a very clever manoeuvre – a holding position till we see which way the wind is blowing in terms of public opinion and the policy that Britain’s bosses, if not the reactionary press lords, approve of.
In fact such a position is both wrong in principle – to achieve one’s objectives by conning working class voters – and in practice too, because a likely further recession or the intransigence of our bosses’ and bankers’ ‘partners’ (in fact rivals) in Berlin and Paris, would rip Labour’s negotiating position apart. It would please neither ‘Remoaners’ like the Guardian and Tony Blair nor the Brexit fanatics. Moreover it could create a dire economic situation that rips John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s rather modest expansionary reform package to shreds.
The only principled and practical stance is to say Labour was right to call for a No vote to leaving the EU, with its inevitable corollary of losing access to the single market and ending free movement of British and continental workers. It was right to vote in the Commons against the Great Repeal Bill and it will continue to vote against all the processes, not only because this includes giving government the power to remove legislation favourable to Britain’s workers, but because it recognises that returning to an isolated UK dependent on the goodwill of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress, Xi Jinping or Narendra Modi, is a giant step backward for British workers.
For all the chauvinist bellowing of the Express the Mail, the Sun etc. life will teach the pragmatic British that leaving the EU was a reactionary utopia. It should say that Labour will stand in the election on a programme of reversing and ending the ridiculous tangle the Tories got us into and instead fight to re-enter the EU and campaign to change the reactionary aspects of EU law in combination with the our fellow workers in Europe.
In addition, as Corbyn has promised, Labour will pass legislation preventing British bosses from underpaying EU workers, giving them totally equal conditions to their British equivalents, and launching a massive economic and democratic rejuvenation programme for run-down old industrial areas that heavily voted for Brexit.
As the confusion and decline that even the prospect of Brexit brings, a party which has dared to tell the truth all along will reap the benefits in hugely increased public support and the Brexit criminals and opportunists will stand in the dock of public scorn.
But surely, the “pragmatic” Remainers in Labour will say, if Jeremy and John did this a number of Labour MPs (most of them virulent anti-Corbyn right wingers except for Denis Skinner) could will split away and ruin Labour’s chances of election victory? Apart from this being far from certain it would in any case be a consummation devoutly to be wished as far as people like Frank Field, Kate Hoey and John Mann are concerned. But, more important than that, it is better to know where we stand rather than have these people blackmail a Corbyn government.
Last but not least, another major criticism of Labour’s position on Brexit is that it has not been discussed or debated democratically in the branches, the affiliated unions, and at a Labour Conference. The shadow cabinet members and indeed all the MPs can of course be important participants in the debate in their own constituencies. Such a debate was possible over the past eighteen months and indeed is still possible today. To the snarling dogs of the yellow press we should reply “this is what democracy looks like”. And the people would believe us.