Why Labour’s Brexit policy needs to change

By Malcolm Hunter, Leicester

I do not deny that some of the things that a socialist UK government would want and need to do would bring it into conflict with current EU rules, but the referendum was not fought over this issue. The leave campaign was dominated by reactionary forces, driven by hostility to immigration and to foreigners in general; by nostalgia for a (fortunately) un-recoverable imperial past; and by a desire for a bonfire of workers’ rights and of public & environmental protections.

The choice on offer was between continued membership of an EU that, for all its faults, incorporates many progressive aspects and an isolationist UK, dominated by reactionary forces with a reactionary agenda. Given this I think that the task for socialists was to speak up for progressive values and to strenuously oppose proposals to leave the EU in a context that was only ever going to represent a victory for the most reactionary forces in our society. Unfortunately, although this was undoubtedly the position of most of his supporters, Jeremy Corbyn himself always came over as at best ambivalent and, given the closeness of the result, this probably had a significant effect on the outcome.

Of course the situation has now changed, in two respects. First, the referendum has now taken place and delivered a narrow majority for (some kind of) Brexit. Secondly, while the real choice during the referendum was over whether we wanted to remain in the EU or sign up to a totally reactionary vision and agenda for our society, the debate now is partly about alternative agendas for government. In reality I don’t think that this changes that much, however.

The fact that a future Labour government might at some point come into conflict with EU rules does not alter the many positives about the EU. Things such as the role that it has played in helping to preserve peace throughout most of Europe, over the last 70 years; the opportunities provided by free movement, particularly for young people; the fact that mutually agreed standards in areas such as workers’ and consumers’ rights and environmental protection helps to prevent a race to the bottom; and the greater negotiating power and influence that can be wielded by countries acting together. We should be lauding the benefits of both co-operative action and of starting to break down national boundaries, not helping to reinforce them and reinforcing illusions in the long term viability of going it alone.

This does not mean that a socialist government should allow EU rules to stop it doing what needs doing, but its starting point should be first to try to work with like-minded people in other EU countries, to try to change those rules and, even if it can’t, it should then put the onus on the EU to throw the UK out, for refusing to obey its rules and use this as a further opportunity to build an EU wide movement for change, by appealing to like-minded people in other countries for support against being expelled. The benefits of approaching things in this way is that even if the UK was then eventually forced out, the fight would have done far more to help start the process of building a socialist alternative than simply leaving without a fight would have done.

We ought to be making the case for breaking down national boundaries and working together being good things and, while we should acknowledge the possibility that circumstances might arise in the future, where leaving the EU might be the right thing to do, we should be arguing strongly for a policy of only doing so if we cannot win the changes that we think are needed and only doing so for the right reasons, not those driving current moves to leave.

What about the argument that the decision has already been made and that it would be both undemocratic and politically suicidal to ignore the will of the people? Well, for all the limitations of referendums, as a way of making decisions on complex issues, I don’t think that the result of the EU referendum can legitimately be set aside, without a new mandate from the electorate. Since when has losing a vote meant that you have to abandon your previous views and stop trying to persuade people to change their minds; however and what is undemocratic about giving people the opportunity to change their minds, particularly when it was far from clear what people were actually voting for as an alternative to the EU, when they voted in last year’s referendum.

People were offered a range of visions of the alternative to remaining in the EU and not everyone voting was signing up to the same vision (many of which were never real options anyway), so it seems to me that it would be perfectly legitimate for us to argue that people should have the opportunity to vote again, when what is actually on offer is clearer, particularly since the electorate will have changed with the passage of time and given that there is already evidence that some of those who originally voted leave have since changed their minds, as the implications of Brexit become clearer.

Given this I think that we ought to be demanding a further referendum on whatever comes out of the current negotiations, with the option for people to vote to remain in the EU after all, if they don’t like the alternative on offer. In a general election; however, I think that the only principled thing to do, if the Party were to accept the approach to the EU that I am arguing for, would be to say that, if elected, a Labour government would halt the whole process. This is because it would make no sense for Labour to be negotiating and bringing forward proposals for leaving, if we didn’t believe that leaving was the right thing to do, on any basis. This would not anti-democratic, because if we had campaigned and won on the basis that we would not go ahead with leaving we would have a new mandate.

Of course some people will argue that coming out unequivocally against leaving the EU would be electoral suicide, because it would alienate those voters who backed Brexit and whose support we need.

I won’t deny that Labour’s better than expected performance in the general election was probably helped by a fudged policy, aimed at winning the support of anti-Brexit voters by appearing at least to offer a less extreme version of Brexit (combined with vague hints that there was also still a slight possibility that it might never happen, under a Labour government), while also offering reassurances that Labour would go ahead with Brexit and would do away with free movement, aimed at those anti-immigration Brexit supporters tempted to vote Labour by our manifesto.

I would rather we had sought to win those Brexit voters by a principled defence of the benefits of immigration and free movement, rather than by giving in to those Labour MPs who feel that we have to pander to the anti-immigrant sentiments of many Brexit voters (even though a majority of Labour voters did not vote Brexit, even in most Brexit voting constituencies), but I will concede that this might have been less effective. Even if Labour’s unprincipled and fudged position was the most effective there was available, during the election; however, that doesn’t mean that it will remain so.

Over time it is going to become harder and harder to continue sitting on the fence, as Labour’s claim that we can protect our economy by negotiating the same access to EU markets that we have now, without accepting EU rules, including free movement, will be increasingly exposed as totally unrealistic.

Much of Labour’s better than expected performance was down to its success in mobilizing younger voters, but if Labour doesn’t change its mind on Brexit it is likely to lose many of these voters again.  Fortunately, if Labour does shift its position, to come out clearly against Brexit, the damage that this could do to its chances of winning the votes of Brexit voters is likely to continue to reduce over time, as the real implications of Brexit become more and more apparent.

This will be especially so if Labour can offer convincing alternative solutions to the problems that feed a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment. I believe that radical socialist policies can offer such solutions and the very positive response to our general election manifesto should encourage us to be even bolder in this area. Alongside this, mind you, I think that we also need to be constantly looking for (principled) ways to reassure people about our commitment to defence and security (and to the welfare of our service men and women), since it was perceived weaknesses in this area that made quite a few people reluctant to vote for us, despite liking many of our other policies.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? theclarionmag@gmail.com

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