By Sacha Ismail
As the UK-EU negotiations on Brexit begin, the political landscape in Britain is in flux.
The general election result has been widely interpreted as a riposte to the Tories’ push for a hard Brexit. Now senior Tory critics of a hard Brexit, and indeed of Brexit per se, are becoming bolder. Some, for instance Broxtowe MP Anna Soubry (who unfortunately clung on to her seat by 800 votes), even advocate the maintenance of free movement from the EU. More senior Tories have hinted at that too, with Chancellor Philip Hammond arguing that “When the British people voted last June, they did not vote to become poorer or less secure”.
This is not surprising given both the election result and the fact that almost certainly a majority of the capitalist class is not very happy about having an important part of their labour supply shut off.
Meanwhile polls suggest public opinion is shifting. A new YouGov/Times poll says that 58pc of people believe that trading with the EU is a higher priority than controlling EU immigration. More voters also now believe Britain was wrong to vote to leave than right: 45 to 44pc. A Survation poll found that 55pc favoured a “soft Brexit” with the UK remaining in the EU single market and customs union, while only 35pc favoured a “hard Brexit” where it leaves. Survation also found that 48pc favour a referendum on the final Brexit deal, while only 43pc are opposed!
All this is despite a lack of leadership from the Labour Party – and makes Labour’s stance even more objectionable.
On many issues Labour criticises the Tories from the left, ie from a more anti-Brexit position. It points out that the Tories want to use Brexit as an opportunity to light a bonfire of workers’ rights, environmental regulations and the like. It has denounced the government’s concessions on the right of EU citizens to stay in Britain as “too little” – because as Another Europe is Possible and numerous migrants’ rights groups have explained, the offer is hedged round with all kinds of very bad limits – “too late” – because it should have been done a year ago, when Labour proposed it, instead of using Europeans in Britain as bargaining chips. More generally, however, the party’s position is not exactly clear.
With one, decisive exception: senior Labour spokespeople are pretty clear that they support an end to free movement of people/labour from the EU. In other words, the position they have tied themselves to is practically speaking to the right of that taken by the Soubrys.
Labour’s muddled but nationalist-leaning stance on Brexit has no doubt been given encouragement by the Stalinist types in Jeremy Corbyn’s office who think that leaving the EU is a win for “fighting the monopolies” or whatever. But its origin is with the Labour right.
As late as November 2016, Corbyn told the Sunday Mirror that Labour would vote in Parliament against triggering “Article 50” unless the government agreed to a “Brexit bottom line” that included staying in the single market – and thus accepting continued free movement. Then deputy leader Tom Watson, who combines right-wing, Stalinist and pseudo pro-working class as well as purely opportunist strands in his politics, intervened to say that Labour would put down amendments but vote for Article 50 regardless. Corbyn went quiet and then, it seemed, deferred to Watson and the bulk of the Labour right. (More on this here.)
Better to ignore, Jeremy…
Even after that, Corbyn did not publicly endorse the ending free movement until well into 2017, and then he did it in such an unclear and hesitating way it looked very much like he was unhappy about it. Yet this endorsement of a big restriction on immigration, one energetically demanded by the nationalist right, became Labour’s policy in the election.
The positioning worked, in that Labour was successful at winning Remain voters while not suffering the haemorrhage of Leave voters at one point predicted. But the contradictions still lie in wait – and in any case, whatever the tactical considerations about eg Article 50, the abandonment of free movement is wrong.
The leadership of the organised Labour left, Momentum in particular, has played a poor and even harmful role. During the months before and even after the referendum when Corbyn was holding the line on free movement, Momentum never once stated its support for this principle, let alone campaigning to back Corbyn up. This was despite Momentum committees repeatedly taking a stand in favour of free movement, most recently in December 2016, when the National Committee passed a motion on this with only a few votes against.
This is related to democracy in Momentum. Not long after the referendum, Momentum’s top leader Jon Lansman made it clear that he favoured the left advocating an end to free movement. Did he stay quiet on the Momentum National Committee because he thought that position would lead to a breach with some of his allies who are more enthusiastic about defending migrants’ rights? Whatever the backroom manoeuvring was, Momentum never carried its democratic mandate on this, even while that was in line with what Corbyn was defending.
Labour Party members or their representatives have not been given a chance to vote on these issues. At last year’s Labour Party conference, no motions were submitted advocating an end to free movement – but motions were submitted opposing it, including from the national Young Labour committee and CLPs including Norwich South, Clive Lewis’ constituency. These resolution originated with socialist activists on the left of Momentum. Unfortunately the subject area they were part of was not prioritised for debate – the Labour right successfully counterposed the issue of refugee rights (which they seemed less keen on during the Blair years!) to having a discussion on free movement.
The bulk of Labour members are very likely in favour of defending (and extending) free movement, and certainly the vast majority of left-wing activists are. Yet this has not been allowed to find expression in the hierarchy or public position of the party. Even supporters of the hard right Progress group, which is making such a big deal about its role in fighting a hard Brexit, lace their pronouncements with reassurances that it will be possible to retain close ties to the EU while also limiting immigration.
The circumstances outside the labour movement suggest that if the labour movement stands up and begins to fight it can push things in a better direction. If it does not, then it will very likely be complicit in an avoidable shift to the right on this decisive issue, not to mention a lot of human suffering. It is time to stop the retreat – starting on the left. Labour and trade union activists should unapologetically argue:
1. That leaving the single market will make workers in Britain “poorer and less secure”. We should oppose it. Like it or not, remaining in the single market means accepting free movement of labour from the EU.
2. That, in any case, people coming to Britain is not a problem. The labour movement should reject the right-wing idea that it is, and champion unity of all workers to win better conditions and rights for all.
We need a real campaign to make these arguments, move Labour’s position and finally make the labour movement an unambiguously positive factor in the shifting patterns of the UK-EU negotiations. Labour supporters of freedom of movement must organise.
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• See also ‘Labour has quietly shifted right on immigration, with troubling consequences’ by Michael Chessum in the New Statesman