Labour’s call for a post-Brexit “transition period”, during which the UK would remain in the Single Market, has been presented as a clear-headed alternative to the government’s “constructive ambiguity”. Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer described it as “a credible solution to one of the most important issues facing Britain’s exit from the EU”.
Brexit negotiations have revealed the lack of any coherent plan on the part of Tory Brexiteers, while Labour’s proposal would leave the economy without a “cliff edge” to tumble over on 30 March 2019. They would also preserve the current EU freedom of movement, something that we should welcome as a matter of principle. However, political principle has little to do with this latest revision of Labour’s policy.
Instead, it rests on a shrewd estimation of the balance of forces, in Parliament and within the Labour party. The immediate objective, justifiably enough, is to maximise Tory divisions. Brexit Secretary David Davis has conceded the possibility of a “transitional” phase; but Tory hard-Brexiteers see in that the beginnings of a so-called “soft” Brexit, or even no Brexit at all. So far, however, these would-be rebels have found only 40 MPs willing to sign a letter opposing it.
Starmer calculates that with a majority of Tory mps in favour of a transition, many will see the practical advantages of remaining in the Single Market for as long as possible. The government’s position, however, is to leave both immediately. The fragility of Theresa May’s Commons majority therefore means the real possibility of a government defeat.
On the Labour side, this is not so much a change of policy as a development of the position in June’s election manifesto, which promised that a Labour government would if necessary “negotiate transitional arrangements to avoid a ‘cliff edge’ for the economy”.
The manifesto also said that Labour’s negotiating priorities would have “a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market” because these are “essential for maintaining industries, jobs and businesses in Britain”.
However, Labour’s position retains the central flaw in the manifesto, that “Labour accepts the referendum result”. Why? If leaving the EU was the wrong policy before the referendum, then it is still wrong. Of course, Labour cannot ignore the referendum result, any more than it can ignore the election result. But that is not a reason for a change of strategic policy, any more than the election result means we should stop opposing Tory policies overall.
In fact the new position, like the old one, is a fudge between the minority of Labour mps and voters who support Brexit and the majority who are against it. Even in the manifesto, every phrase that accepts leaving the EU was counter-balanced by another wishing to maintain its benefits. So Labour “accepts the referendum result”, while putting “jobs and the economy first”, even though Brexit is a threat to both.
In any case, remaining in the Single Market while leaving the EU would mean accepting all of the conditions of EU membership, but without the right to a vote on EU policy, like Norway and Iceland today. This would make Brexit completely pointless, except perhaps to some masochists for “national sovereignty”.
To keep Labour’s pro-Brexit minority happy, Starmer said that the transitional phase would be “time-limited”, suggesting a maximum of four years, a very long time in politics indeed. But he then qualified that by adding that it would be “as short as possible but as long as necessary”, like the proverbial piece of string.
Despite his claim that this is a “credible solution”, Starmer and his rivals know perfectly well that his “transitional phase” could not possibly work. In his own words it “would not provide a durable or acceptable long-term settlement for Britain or the EU”. His hope is that this compromise could however hold for long enough to force the Tories into a defeat in the Commons, followed by an early election.
That in itself is something that all socialists should want to see. But if Labour were able to extend its recent advances, win an election and form a government, then this compromise would unravel pretty quickly.
The Labour leadership should face down Labour’s pro-Brexit minority and campaign openly against Brexit, not because it is bad for “business” but because it is bad for the working class in Britain and in Europe. We need to persuade the minority of the working class and Labour voters who supported Leave that they were deceived: above all in blaming EU migrant workers for low wages, housing shortages and a failing National Health Service.
By offering socialist solutions to these problems, “fully funded” by taxing the billionaires, Labour could undermine the hostility to foreigners, encouraged by the right-wing media, and unite working people to bring about real social change.
Labour should instead seek a democratic mandate to rescind the Article 50 proposal to leave the EU. It should raise the minimum wage to a real living wage and employ inspectors to enforce it and prevent employers from exploiting both British and foreign labour. And it should launch a campaign alongside the socialist movement across Europe against the EU’s undemocratic structures, the European Central Bank’s austerity policy and for a Socialist United States of Europe