Jonas Liston explores the shift of Corbyn’s Labour away from social-democratic policies in the wake of Brexit, here reproduced with permission from his own site.
Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has publicly spearheaded a repositioning of the party’s policy regarding Britain’s departure from the European Union. In what can only be described as a U-turn, this shift contains within it the worst of both worlds. As Starmer lays out in The Guardian, Labour now commits itself to remaining “in a customs union with the EU and within the single market” for a “transitional period” over the next two years. The Shadow Brexit Secretary also manages to provide little detail regarding Labour’s approach to Freedom of Movement (FoM), with the exception of recognising “the need for more effective management of migration”. This is an intervention which prides itself on allaying business concerns and appealing to political maturity. The uncertainty looming over the British economy demands of the official opposition an answer that poses solutions to the problems of a devalued pound, declining investment, sluggish growth and low productivity. The trouble with Labour’s policy shift is that it isn’t geared toward providing even social-democratic solutions to the difficulties of Brexit. What it is concerned about are the dilemmas confronting a political party with a real chance of managing the capitalist state. It is in this spirit that Labour has reversed its European policy and put much of its policies at risk when it could be maintaining and elaborating radical, class-based solutions to the challenges posed by Brexit.
This change in tack flies in the face not just of the result of the European Union referendum, but also that of Labour’s breakthrough achievement in the 2017 general election. Jeremy Corbyn’s party stormed a general election on the basis of redefining the terrain of the national-political debate and not allowing itself to be constrained by the terms upon which conventional politics is traditionally fought. It did this by articulating a genuinely social-democratic alternative which straddled the remain-leave divide that was thought to be so entrenched and so irreparable that it would result in Labour’s implosion. Defying all expectations, Corbyn’s Labour forced the Conservative Party into relying on the Democratic Unionist Party to form a coalition government whilst simultaneously abandoning much of their policy pledges.
Although it remains to be seen whether Starmer’s announcement will inhibit Labour’s ability to sustain an even greater breakthrough the next time around, what is clear is that Labour hasn’t entirely processed the defining lesson of June’s election result. It has instead allowed itself to be held hostage to the interventions of its detractors.
Whilst many progressives celebrate Labour’s Brexit shift as a step in the right direction, its policy remains more ambiguous and lacking than ever. Surely, given Labour’s phenomenal electoral success, a more ambitious and radical policy toward Brexit could be advocated?
It has often been asserted that a principle reason for continued membership of the European Single Market is a defence of FoM as one of its four freedoms. Labour’s shift on Brexit shatters this idea. Despite the welcome emergence of a recent Labour Campaign for Free Movement, the overwhelming pressure exerted upon the Labour leadership is for tighter immigration controls. Between the argument peddled by sections of the trade union bureaucracy that migrants drive down wages and the urge by many Labour MPs to triangulate anti-migrant politics, pro-FoM interventions find little purchase. As it exists, Labour’s migration policy avoids a field of ideological struggle that can be won, forsaking traditional notions of anti-racist principle and class solidarity which MPs like Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn have long prided themselves on.
Labour could nonetheless defend FoM. Or more imaginatively, it could elaborate an independent migration policy bound neither by the visions of Westminster nor by Brussels. One entirely consistent with a social-democratic growth strategy reliant upon a “far more egalitarian labour market policy” which seeks to suppress “labour segregation” and racialised & gendered exploitation. One which commits to the abolition of detention centres such as Yarlswood and accepts a far larger sum of refugees than any previous British government has allowed itself to.
In the absence of Labour adopting such policies, socialists and anti-racists have to develop their own tools and organisations with which to shift the apparent “common-sense”. Occupations, mass demonstrations, fusing pro-migrant politics with industrial struggle, social media campaigns and passing motions in trade union branches & Constituency Labour Parties are all ways in which an alternative lever can be exercised to secure migrant rights, stem reaction and put pressure on the Labour leadership to adopt better pro-migrant policies. Labour’s electoral performance was a repudiation of reaction yet large parts of its Left don’t fully comprehend this. It is vital that anti-racists inside and outside the Labour Party take this lesson and fight to reverse the ongoing push-back against migrant rights.
In contemporary politics, what a political actor could do, and what they should do, are conventionally portrayed as distinct, sometimes even incompatible. Where Labour’s ambiguous position in relation to FoM leaves much to be desired, the reversal of its position in relation to the European Single Market goes one further and runs the risk of restricting its already hard fought-over political aims. As if a social-democratic agenda in Britain didn’t face enough obstacles, Corbyn’s Labour have just signed up to one more in the legal and institutional parameters the European Single Market places on policies which infringe upon maximum market competition.
For example, often progressive commentators claim that the European Union is neutral on questions of public ownership. They raise French President Emmanuel Macron nationalizing the STX France shipyard as an example, but this misses the point. In the STX France instance, its temporary nationalisation is a redundant example for the simple reason that all military infrastructure is exempt from EU competitive law. There has to be an honest evaluation which transcends a face value accounting though. Nationalised rail companies don’t necessarily equate the integrated, democratically agreed public utilities Labour has outlined in its manifesto. On the contrary, rail companies like the Dutch Nederlandse Spoorwegen might be state-owned but they are done so in a manner which not only gives primacy to profitability but is also wholly congruent with, and in the spirit of facilitating a rigidly constructed competitive environment such as that cultivated in the European Single Market. Similarly, when the German regional government of Nord-Rine Westphalia breached EU competition law by awarding a contract to the national rail operator Deutsche Bahn, it was legally challenged by Dutch rail company Abellio and overruled by EU law. As Jonathan White and Alex Gordon write of this case and the context in which it is situated, “single market rules bequeath a vicious circle of market liberalisation, privatisation and corporate monopoly” and European capital exerts an inordinate amount of judicial, structural and economic power when that circle is disrupted.
Such scenarios extend way beyond the remit of Labour’s nationalisation ambitions. These rules would also apply to the creation of a National Investment Bank in its mission to sustain strategic, long-term investment, put constraints on the flexibility & power of the City of London, and invigorate regional & national economic redevelopment. This raises a question for a social-democratic government signed up to European Single Market rules: with what methods and through what mechanisms will it be capable of circumventing the rules and implementing its policies?
One pragmatic answer might be that Labour ride out the transitional period to avoid the seemingly catastrophic consequences of Brexit and delay its manifesto pledges. Undoubtedly, the case for temporary economic respite through remaining in the single market and the customs union will be strengthened by the threat of rising inflation, a falling pound and jobs being lost. In that context though, Corbynism should not refrain from apportioning the blame to the business class who created this crisis. Socialists should seek to raise the energies of the mass of people by providing them with the arguments, resources and political support necessary to defend their jobs, living standards and rights. In this scenario, a Corbyn-led government must embark upon a far more radical and aggressive encroachment on the rights of British capital. Adopting the course of action laid out by Starmer displays a willingness to compromise with the basic norms of neo-liberal economics. It would make any later policy reversals extremely difficult to achieve, setting a left Labour government on a very conventional political path and thus demoralising the aspirations and hopes of its social base.
Alternatively however, there is the case for remaining in the European Single Market and relying upon social mobilisation as a form of leverage with which to challenge any obstacles posed by the EU. Although it is crucial that leverage needs exerting in order that Labour’s programme be enforced, just relying on that necessity to avoid departure from the European Single Market dodges the looming question of strategy. There is the opportunity now in British politics for the radical left to rupture from the overriding direction of British capital over the past thirty years. It could do so with the express aim of abandoning neoliberalism, shifting the balance of power in society in favour of workers, and improving the majority’s standards of living. Committing to even temporary membership of the European Single Market doesn’t just complicate that ambition, it also sends a signal that Labour is a party that wants to play by the rules.
Just imagine the delight on the faces of financiers, businessmen and civil servants when their cries for a Labour government to commit to fiscal conservatism finds allies not just within a Parliamentary Labour Party aiming to frustrate such a government, but rather a Corbyn leadership which is tied to the market imperatives of the European Single Market. Why add one more weapon to the arsenals of the elites and the powerful? Even with the recognition that struggle and organisation from below will have to play a pivotal role in the event of a Labour government, why add the challenge represented by Europe to the already all-encompassing power flowing throughout British capital and its institutions?
In the end, this isn’t just an unnecessary gamble for Labour to make, it also throws large parts of its programme into jeopardy.
Since Corbyn whipped Labour MPs into voting to trigger Article 50, much ink has been spilled over the Labour leadership’s supposed commonality with Theresa May’s vision of Brexit. Given the marked differences in their policies, this is as patently ridiculous now as it was then. For all of the project’s faults and insufficiencies, Corbynism represented – and represents – the most marked, economically progressive rebuke to May’s once sought after “bargain basement tax-haven” vision for Brexit. The irony being that now, Labour’s Brexit policy doesn’t just find common currency with its own rebel backbenchers, it also finds a sordid friend in the Conservative MP and current Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond.
Hammond’s position as the member of the Conservative cabinet most vocally committed to continued fiscal consolidation, the austerian agenda and ultimately, business interest has found some momentary companionship in a Labour leadership it thought most unlikely. This shift isn’t irreversible nor does it in any way sound anything approaching a death knell for Corbynism. What it does do however, is give capital more breathing-room, more options for consideration and ultimately more leverage in the event of a Corbyn-led government, all while its preferred party of government is failing to pursue its interests.
This repositioning is a step backwards for socialists. It is a step forward for many of those who sought to topple Jeremy Corbyn in June 2016. It is a step forward for those who have satisfied themselves with television interviews, radio appearances and Guardian opinion pieces attacking the Corbyn leadership. It is an advance for a political methodology which by now should be threadbare, struggling to breathe and on its last legs. Ultimately, it is a victory for British Macronism.
Whether this rapprochement with the political establishment continues without challenge by those not beholden to cynicism remains to be seen. If it is left unchallenged, the prospects for realising the programme of a Corbyn-led Labour government could be more precarious than imagined.