Labour should grasp the Brexit nettle

Photo: Andy Miah

Just when you think the crisis of the Tory party has reached rock bottom it gets worse, argues Alan Davies. Claims of ‘unity’ by Theresa May after her ‘keynote’ Mansion House Brexit speech on Friday March 2 had stopped by Sunday when Michael Heseltine had dismissed it as just more ‘phrases, generalisations and platitudes’.

He told the Observer, that all it has done is to move us further down the cherry-picking road when the EU has said, ‘sorry there is no cherry picking’. He added: “Why is it that after 18 months since the referendum we have not got any closer with these issues? The answer is simple: because no one has got any answer about how to do it.”

He accepted that May is in a difficult position because, he said, right wing Tory MPs were holding a “a knife to her throat”.

The only way forward, he said, was for the issues to be put back to parliament, and then to an election or referendum. ‘The downsides are becoming more evident as time passes. We have had a serious devaluation of the currency. We have turned ourselves from the fastest growing to the slowest growing economy in Europe and we have made a complete Horlicks of the Irish border. I am totally with the view of Tony Blair and John Major that this matter has got to go back to parliament and possibly to a referendum or a general election.’

By Wednesday, May’s Mansion House speech, along with her entire Brexit strategy (for want of a better word) was comprehensively rejected by European Council President Donald Tusk ‘as an attempt by Britain to secure double cherry picking’. A pick and mix approach, which does indeed sum up May’s strategy, he said was out of the question.

He noted that Britain had made it clear that it will be leaving both the single market and the customs union and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Under these circumstances, he warned Britain cannot have the ‘rights of Norway’—which is in the single market—with only the ‘obligations of Canada’—which is outside but has a free trade deal.

The only option this leaves, he said, is to negotiate a free trade agreement with Britain, and this will not include financial services: i.e. the City of London—a major red line of the May government. Such an agreement, he said, ‘will not make trade between the UK and European Union (EU) frictionless or smoother’. In fact, ‘It will make it more complicated and costly than today for all of us. This is the essence of Brexit.’

He could also have added that this situation makes a solution to the matter of the border between the north of Ireland and the EU unresolvable.

This this makes the Labour approach to all this very important—and it has in my view been moving on the right direction. Jeremy Corbyn recently made clear that Labour’s approach is unfettered access to the single market: which he has defined as staying with a customs union with the EU—a new customs union with easy access to Britain for migrants not the existing one with open access.

I think it is time for Labour to go further and call for continued membership of the existing customs union and the single market. They are rightly prepared to accept this during a transitional period but should now call for it on an ongoing basis.

But there is a bigger question posed as well—which is the matter of a second Brexit referendum on the terms of the final deal. It has been right, given the strong support for Brexit amongst Labour voters to avoid calling for this up till now, but with the EU laying down its terms in the way it has, we are entering into uncharted waters as far as the future of the Brexit process is concerned. If public opinion shifts decisively against Brexit as political realities present themselves, Labour should be prepared to go with it and call for a second referendum. It should also call for a general election, of course, but even then the matter of whether to have a second referendum in the Labour manifesto will be a major consideration.

The character of the referendum we have had—which was in a reactionary right-wing xenophobic framework— is continuing to determine the character of the Brexit process itself. It is a project of the Tory hard right and is being shaped by the politics of the Tory hard right.

According to a new survey by the local government network of local authority leaders and chief executives, 61% believed Brexit would have a negative or very negative economic impact in their regions and only12% of the 185 respondents believed it would have a positive effect. This shows the potential of Brexit to hit the Tories in May’s local elections under conditions where Labour is in any case set to make major gains.

Public opinion on Brexit is already shifting significantly as well. According to the ICM survey, conducted for the Guardian at the end of January, voters support the idea of holding a second EU referendum by a 16-point margin. 47% of people would favour having a final say on Brexit once the terms of the UK’s departure are known, while 34% oppose reopening the question. It is true that the number of people saying that they would vote differently was smaller than that but it still showed a majority for remain.

Tory rebels continue to work with Labour MPs on amendments to the withdrawal bill which would result in a damaging defeat and there are gathering signs it will. Meanwhile David Davis has made it clear that the ‘meaningful vote’ at the end of the process will have no effect on the final outcome.

Corbyn and McDonnell are absolutely right as to where Brexit is going. It is leading towards Britain as a “race to the bottom” economy, offering a low wage deregulated entity off the northern shores of the European Union regulated by WTO tariffs rules and regulations. This is something that becomes even more dangerous since Trump announced his trade war on the rest of the world.

Even with this staring us in the face, the radical left in the shape of the SWP and Socialist Party remain committed to the Brexit process however damaging the outcome is going to be. They run a commentary on the twists and turns of the May government in its tussle with the EU without proposing any alternative to the disaster we are facing.

Alex Callinicos accuses Jeremy Corbyn of bending towards right-wing remain campaigners under conditions where the only way this disastrous situation could be resolved is for an incoming Labour government to put an end to the whole thing—which is hopefully the direction Jeremy Corbyn is moving. The SP calls on Corbyn to seize opportunity and ‘fight for pro-worker, internationalist Brexit’—which stands a great chance of success with Theresa May, David Davis, and Liam Fox in charge of negotiations. Corbyn is already calling for a Brexit to defend jobs.

The Morning Star argues that remaining in either the single market or the customs union is incompatible with Labour’s radical plans for economic and industrial regeneration. What is actually the biggest threat to Labour’s plans is for Labour to come to office under conditions where Britain has just crashed out of the EU onto WTO rules and tariffs.

Faced with this situation a new referendum for or against the final deal is entirely justified. No one voted for the scenario we are facing and if Labour gets the chance to scupper the whole project by means of a second referendum it should be prepared to do so.

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