This blogpost was written on Sunday May 5th, 2019
Back in the day in the 1980s, whenever Labour lost an election to Mrs Thatcher’s Tories, the cry would go up from the usual suspects on Labour’s left that the reason the party had lost out, yet again, was because it was not “left wing” or “socialist” enough. It was just too “centrist”. Which is why people voted for Thatcherism instead. If only the raw, red meat of real socialism was on offer, Labour would sweep to victory.
It must have been me, as I never got the logic of the argument that because Labour was not socialist enough people voted for “right wing” policies instead. But then I never had that unique Marxist insight into the hidden dialectics of history, which readers of New Left Review and Living Marxism did, which is probably why I suffered from “false consciousness”.
These remembrances of time past came to mind as I watched reactions on Friday last to the results of England’s local elections as they came in. Bear in mind that not all of England voted on Thursday last, nor did Wales or Scotland.
On the day, the Conservatives lost over 1,300 seats, from a starting position of just over 8,000. Labour, which had expected to make significant gains, was also down by 81. The winners were the Liberal Democrats with plus 695, the Greens up by 194 and “others”, who picked up 662 seats.
The projected national share of the vote, calculated by elections analyst Prof John Curtice for the BBC, put both major parties neck-and-neck on 28% of the vote – both down from 35% a year ago. If that result were replicated in a general election, it would result in another hung parliament.
Prof Curtice said the results demonstrated that Labour had been hit just as hard by the Brexit car crash over the past 12 months as the bitterly divided Tory party. “The opposition is in no way demonstrating an ability to profit from the government’s misfortunes,” he said.
To put matters in historical perspective, Séamus Nevin has pointed out that:
“…in 1955 the Tories won a general election where their share of the vote was ~50%, with Labour on 46%. The two main parties, with memberships in their millions, had between them won 96% of the vote. Only 8 seats out of the 620+ were won by non-Con-Lab candidates.”
Clearly, the big loser on the night was the staunchly pro-Brexit Tories. The “we can do a better Brexit deal than them” Labour leadership also suffered. The clear winners were “stop Brexit” Liberal Democrats and the Greens.
Now, the Tories are locked in the Brexit death-spiral with no way out for them. Their aged, party membership of around 100,00 would like the UK to walk out of the EU tomorrow with “no-deal”, reasserting “English greatness”. Their leader, Theresa May, who was heckled by a party activist as she began to address the Welsh Conservative conference on Friday, said the voters were giving a “simple message” to the Conservatives and Labour: “Just get on and deliver Brexit.” Never mind that the numbers suggest the opposite, Mrs May still believes that Brexit means Brexit and that means her version of Brexit.
But on the other side of the aisle, the vast bulk of the Labour Party membership, as opposed to the Corbyn leadership, are against Brexit and would prefer the UK to remain in the EU. At the very least, they want a second referendum on the terms of any Brexit deal.
To any outsider, it seems obvious that the path forward for Labour is to back calls for a second, “confirmatory” referendum.
“We voted for Brexit, without knowing what it would really mean. Fair enough. We voted to trigger Article 50 and gave the EU two years’ notice of our leaving. A lot has happened since then and a lot of new information has come to light. Here’s how we might leave the EU and what that will involve and what it will cost. Now, all things considered, should we still press ahead and leave or should we consider staying”.
Personally, I can’t see how a second referendum framed in that way disrespects democracy. But then, I have to confess, I have never had much time for the “sacred will of the people” argument, believing as I do that the “people” have no “will” as such.
There is just a majority on a particular day for a particular course of action that may prove, subsequently, to be unrealistic. If that’s the case, what’s the problem with thinking again? We do it all the time in life. What may have seemed like a good idea at the time turns out to be hopelessly wrong the more we dig into it. In such circumstances, only the unhinged continue to plough ahead, to “just get it done”.
But the obvious path forward for Labour is not obvious to Corbyn. In the wake of Thursday’s results he said:
“I think it means there’s a huge impetus on every MP, and they’ve all got that message, whether they themselves are leave or remain – or the people across the country – that an arrangement has to be made, a deal has to be done. Parliament has to resolve this issue – I think that is very, very clear.”
As we wrote in last week’s blog:
“Jeremy would very much like to get to Brexit because he has always thought that Brexit was a great place where he would be free to do what he wanted. All his life he has wanted to go to Brexit, and whenever he got the chance he always voted to go there. For him the road to Brexit was the Yellowbrick Road of politics. Ever since he was young he believed in the Wizard of Brexit. Brexit was a much better place than neo-liberal, imperialist Brussels.”
So, it seems that Corbyn is determined to push ahead and try to negotiate a Brexit deal with May. Given the results of Thursday, they are both anxious to avoid the European Parliament elections on May 23rd next. If those elections go ahead, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party looks like picking up about 30% of the vote as Leavers desert the Tories, while Remainers are likely to vote Liberal Democrat, Green, or the for the new group, Change UK.
According to the Sunday Times (£) May will, in the coming week,
“…outline plans for a comprehensive but temporary customs arrangement with the EU lasting until the next general election …her negotiating team will agree that Britain will also align with a wider range of EU single market regulations on goods. Finally, they will enshrine in law that the UK will mirror all EU legislation on workers’ rights.”
Whether the Tory and Labour negotiators can find common ground and put a deal together I have no idea. But I am fairly certain that if a deal is constructed it will have very little chance of getting through the Commons and will split both the Conservative and Labour Parties.
On Thursday night, the Labour front-bencher and close Corbyn ally, Barry Gardner, said on TV to James Cleverly: ‘You, as a Brexit Minister, should understand… We are in there, trying to bail you guys out.’
There was an immediate stream of comments from Labour MPs saying “no we’re not” – and that’s putting it politely. Gardiner was immediately branded “Barry Bailout”, and it was not a term of endearment. Labour MP’s do not want to help May to get Brexit “over the line”.
As the political commentator Ian Dunt writes:
Labour won’t just share the blame for what’s about to happen. It’ll be worse than that. Labour will own it. So many Tories oppose a customs union that a majority of the governing party are likely to vote against, meaning that if it passes it’ll need more Labour votes than Tory votes. May won’t just be binding Corbyn’s hands to Brexit, she will be passing him the disgusting muck-encrusted chalice in its entirety.
So, we could find ourselves in a situation where the government and the leadership of the Labour Party agree a backroom deal but fail to get it through the Commons. May is already in the dying days of her leadership. A botched deal would do Corbyn little good.
But even if any such deal did make it through the Commons it would still have to be discussed with the European Union. It is not within the UK’s gift to unilaterally decide on the terms under which it will leave the EU.
The EU has repeatedly made it clear that it will not reopen the legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement covering the UK’s financial obligations, citizens’ rights and the Irish border issue (the “backstop”). However, it is prepared to redraft the non-binding Political Declaration which outlines the options for the future relationship between the UK and the EU.
But the options outlined in the Political Declaration will only be negotiated in detail between the UK and the EU after the UK has left and become a “third country”. So, what the two Westminster parties are now discussing cannot be described in any way as a “deal”. It is nothing more than a UK consensus on what should be on the table for discussions with EU in the future, with absolutely no guarantee of the EU agreeing to UK proposals.
Now, if the Sunday Times is correct, and if I were the EU I would conclude that what is being discussed is an attempt by the UK to negotiate to stay within the customs union and single market for goods, but not services, but without having to accept the principle of free movement.
May is monomaniacal in her desire to end free movement and Corbyn sees ending free movement as what Labour voters in the Midlands and North of England want. It is highly unlikely that the EU will give the UK such a “cake and eat it” deal.
Questions will also be raised within the UK about this obsession by politicians who know little about business with a deal focused on goods at the expense of services. While the UK imports more goods from the EU than it exports, it has a significant surplus with the EU when it comes to services. Any form of Brexit which does not retain single market access for services will deliver a major hit to the UK economy.
In any event, in economies driven by global value chains, it is impossible to separate goods and services. For example, how many “services” are built into a state-of-the-art auto?
As Jonathan Portes notes:
“(The) Deal would largely protect manufacturing, but result in big new barriers to UK services trade and reduced immigration. We estimated the economic impact would be a reduction in GDP of 1.9 to 5.5%: (link: https://ukandeu.ac.uk/new-research) [a fiscal hit of up to £36 bn per year]”
Then there is the question of process and procedure.
As every old-fashioned labour negotiator knows, how you organise the negotiating process has a very big impact on the outcome. Given the way the EU structured the Brexit process to date, this is a lesson the UK should have well learnt by now. So, let’s assume that the government and Labour come to an agreement. Further assume that it passed through the Commons. How then does the deal work?
Certainly, the UK can enshrine anything it wants in domestic law, such as a commitment to “dynamically align” with the EU on workers’ rights and environmental standards. What it can’t do is to say that this commitment will not be unpicked by a future government. Isn’t that the essence of UK “parliamentary sovereignty”? That any future House of Commons can do what a majority wishes to do?
As soon as the UK accepts the Withdrawal Agreement it moves into the “transition arrangement”, which runs to the end of 2020, but can be extended to the end of 2022. During the transition the UK will act as a de facto member of the EU, applying all EU laws, including any laws that may be adopted in the meantime. However, the UK will have no say in EU decision making during this time. So, nothing changes during transition.
It is during transition that the detail of the UK’s future relationship is to be negotiated. Who will do the negotiating? Of course, it will be the UK government, but who will be the prime minister, as May has said she will step down as soon as parliament votes to accept the Withdrawal Agreement? A hardline Brexiteer? What guarantees would Labour have that such a future prime minister would stick to the Lab/Con deal? There can be no such guarantee.
Even if the future prime minister was a “moderate” Tory, what guarantee could Labour have that they would seek to convince the EU to buy into the Lab/Con deal? Again, they can have no such guarantee that would stand up. Once the Withdrawal Agreement is through the Commons then the Labour Party is back on the sidelines.
So, here’s the thing. Labour and the Conservative government, deadly political and ideological rivals, negotiate a “deal” between themselves which Labour then entrusts the government to negotiate on their joint behalf with the EU.
Labour does so while not knowing who the new Tory leader will be. Probably a hard-Brexiteer. While the Tory government will be negotiating with the EU Labour will be doing all it can to wreck the government.
You couldn’t make this stuff up. The nightmare on Brexit St continues.