Why socialists should oppose the single market

There has been much talk of a post-Brexit “transition period” , that prioritises the UK staying in the single market. Seb Cooke puts the view that this could both strengthen capital and weaken the left.

Delegates at the 2016 EU Single Market Conference | Photo courtesy of Flickr/EU2016 NL

The argument surrounding the so-called Brexit “divorce bill” may seem fairly inconsequential, but it does tell us something about the potential shape of the UK’s exit from the EU.

A figure is yet to be reached, but the two sides could settle on something around £50 billion, which would be based on the UK’s outstanding financial commitments to EU budgets.

A scenario that certainly seems likely, according to those in the know, is that a deal could be reached whereby the money was paid into the EU during a transition period. The reason such a deal is yet to be announced is, apparently, that the UK government wants the details of this transition to be agreed before it has to sell such a deal domestically.

Instead of being paid upfront before exit, the amount would be spread out over an unspecified period. This period would be called a “transition” but would, in effect, be as if Britain were still in the EU, as most aspects of the relationship would stay the same. The divorce bill would be paid, then, as if it were normal contributions going into EU budgets.

At the end of this period the UK would either leave or, some hope, continue in this sort of relationship with the EU for much longer. With a general election in 2022 (provided the current government survives that long, which it may or may not do), the issue of EU membership could be a major feature of the vote in five years.

This scenario would certainly be the one most favourable to the British ruling class. In his excellent article on Brexit, the reporter Faisal Islam writes that big business is putting huge pressure on the government to secure a transition deal now. This has been the reason for the change of mood among Tory Brexiters who have moved closer to the softer position of the Chancellor, Philip Hammond.

For business, a transition arrangement would not only diffuse the awkward tensions between the UK and the EU but, more importantly, would extend the economic arrangement which has been extremely beneficial to them thus far. Specifically, retention of single market membership is held as a top priority for UK capital and its political representatives.

You only have to look at the various figures who have spoken out in favour of this sort of arrangement over the summer.

On the one hand there have been the likes of Chukka Umuna, George Osborne and the bosses of Toyota.

But there have also been similar calls from Frances O’Grady of the TUC and others on the left who have had considerable success in convincing the Labour leadership to adopt a business-friendly position.

When you consider this, it becomes clear that the prize on offer for the ruling class is not just economic, it is also deeply political and ideological. By retaining membership of the single market in this way – a transition period formed via a political consensus between left and right – the class divisions which opened up during the election will suddenly be cast as secondary. British capital will instead see its requirements and demands held up as the most pressing political priority for any UK government.

Crucially for the elite, such a manoeuvre has the power to disrupt political conflict in this country, as it would give primacy to the strategic needs of British capitalism above all else. In doing so, it could also soften some of the anti-capitalist sentiment we saw at the election by overriding it with a sense of national purpose, in unity with the interests of big business. What is good for Jaguar Land Rover, we’re told, must also be good for everyone else. Class conflict is replaced by one class’s submission to the needs of the other.

In this context, the left wing demands of the election (not just those in the Labour manifesto, but also those of the millions who mobilised around Corbyn), are more easily put on hold or side-lined in favour of safeguarding the interests of British capitalists (who, as we are constantly told, we depend upon for our livelihood). A consensus is formed not simply around the notion of single market membership, but, more importantly, around the need to maintain the strength and power of businesses in the FTSE100 and beyond.

In its damaged state, the British ruling class is not about to openly attack the left, which gave it such a shock at the election, or to stoke conflict by launching fresh offensives on the working class. Instead, it takes a more intelligent approach by aiming to reduce class conflict as a whole. The ruling class does this without making any real concessions, relying on the compliance of its enemies to shore up its own ideological footing. The notion of a common-sense, pragmatic approach that avoids disrupting the system becomes the ruling class’s greatest weapon against an insurgent left.

The urgency of Corbynism is lessened as capitalist logic asserts itself as the unrivalled hegemonic force in society, despite a series of recent knocks.

This strategy is therefore perfectly sensible to the ruling class and to all its political proponents. This includes Theresa May, whose slowness in edging towards such an arrangement is solely due to her own political weakness and fragility.

This idea of a lengthy transition period under terms dictated by capital is not something the left can support. If we do, then we threaten to undermine the gains made at the election, which saw socialist ideas being taken up by millions of people. Instead of radicalising further and winning more people to such ideas the left would be taking a step back as a growing ideological force on the biggest issues, and succumbing to the notion that the needs of capital are prime, and must be protected.

This naturally weakens class struggle even at its most basic level, because it reinforces the idea that capitalism is the only workable system available, and that to damage it amounts to an act of self-harm.

A worker at, say McDonald’s, who was considering going on strike, could only see the prevalent arguments in favour of the single market as reinforcing bosses’ assertions that strikes, for example, are bad for the workforce on account of being bad for business.

This dynamic is repeated at a more general level. The growing ideological confrontation with the capitalist class that we have witnessed is scaled back in favour of a shared desire to for the smooth functioning of free-market capitalism. This bolsters the notion that things can’t change quickly, or even can’t change fundamentally at all.

Those who have always spouted this notion (the likes of Lord Adonis and Tony Blair) are given fresh purpose, as their basic model of liberal capitalism is held up as the solution. Corbyn – a lifelong radical and socialist who has always fought for an alternative – is inevitably weakened.

Paradoxically, this development can take place simultaneously with a worsening of conditions that makes the need for radical socialist change increasingly clear. Poverty gets worse, billionaires increase in number, more people die fleeing war, and economic devastation and environmental catastrophe assure greater death and destruction.

We are living in a moment when socialist ideas can take hold, and we saw proof of that at the election. When millions voted for Labour under Corbyn, they did so with the wrath of UK capital breathing down on them. Despite repeated warnings that a programme of social democratic reform would bring chaos which threatened us all, nearly 13 million people still voted for it. And they didn’t vote for that change to happen in five years, they wanted it to begin the day after they walked out of the polling station.

Following the election, we are seeing a welcome move towards more industrial action with big unions announcing major ballots. Time will tell if this turns into real strikes, but the argument required to make this happen must be based on a rejection of the kind of logic which underpins the single market.

It will be far harder for the left to build on this political moment if we have joined hands with some of our worst enemies to sign up for another five years of the capitalist horror show continuing.

The same goes for the issue of immigration (which cannot be fully explored here). If we allow our demands around immigration to be defined by what works for capital – which, in this context, is a system of prioritised migration within the EU that is dependent upon the barbarity that enforces the EU’s external borders – then we have little chance of winning the argument for more open borders in the long term.

In short, if we don’t have the vision to overhaul the system now then we become, to steal a phrase by Kevin Doogan, little more than left wing harmonies in the neoliberal chorus.


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