Wouldn’t start from here

A quick question about Brexit (what else?).

Keir Starmer, 27/3/2017:

The biggest danger currently facing British businesses, jobs and living standards is the chance of the Prime Minister exiting the EU without a deal. This is the worst of all possible outcomes … Failure to meet the tests I have set out today will of course affect how Labour votes in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister should be under no illusion that Labour will not support a deal that fails to reflect core British values and the six tests I have set out today.

The six tests:

1. Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?

2. Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” (D. Davis) as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?

3. Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?

4. Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?

5. Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?

6. Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?

Jeremy Corbyn, 6/12/2018:

This dreadful deal must be defeated … We are working with MPs and parties across the House of Commons not only to ensure it is rejected, but also to prevent any possibility of a no-deal outcome [emphasis added]. But its defeat cannot be taken for granted. In an effort to drag Tory MPs back onside, May is claiming that defeat for her deal means no deal or no Brexit, because there is no viable alternative. That is false. Labour’s alternative plan would unlock the negotiations for our future relationship with the EU …

A new, comprehensive customs union with the EU, with a British say in future trade deals, would strengthen our manufacturing sector and give us a solid base for industrial renewal … [and] remove the threat of different parts of the UK being subject to separate regulations. Second, a new and strong relationship with the single market that gives us frictionless trade, and the freedom to rebuild our economy and expand our public services … makes far more sense than the prime minister’s dismal deal. Lastly, we want to see guarantees that existing EU rights at work, environmental standards and consumer protections will become a benchmark to build on – not fall behind and undercut other countries at our people’s expense.

Starmer, 19/12/2018:

Even if the Government did choose to push ahead with a no deal [sic], I’m convinced that Parliament would stand in its way. The overwhelming majority of members in this House would not countenance a no-deal Brexit. … We have a Government that is now actively pursuing a policy that’s not supported by the Cabinet, not supported by Parliament and not supported by the country. It is reckless and irresponsible, it’s an indictment of a wasted year, even now I’d urge the Government to take no deal off the table and find a sensible way forward.

Corbyn, 21/12/2018:

I think we should vote down this deal; we should then go back to the EU with a discussion about a customs union.

Corbyn, 2/1/2019:

What we will do is vote against having no deal, we’ll vote against Theresa May’s deal; at that point she should go back to Brussels and say this is not acceptable to Britain and renegotiate a customs union

That’s the background. Here’s the question: how does Corbyn’s Labour Party, on the basis of its current commitments, deliver Brexit?

To answer that question, we need to review what those commitments are. The Labour leadership has made it clear that they believe in honouring the referendum result: that it was correct to trigger Article 50 in response to the vote, and that the government shouldn’t unilaterally call a halt to the process. To be more precise, they don’t believe that pressuring the government to revoke the Article 50 notification would be an appropriate or correct political strategy. This isn’t actually controversial: the democratic legitimacy of the 2016 referendum is accepted pretty much across the board – even the People’s Vote campaign is calling for a second vote (as the name implies), not for the first one to be overturned from above. So it’s odd that Labour’s insistence on not revoking Article 50 unilaterally, a position that hardly anybody is challenging, has been met with such dismay from the Remain camp, including those calling for a second vote – one of whose merits is precisely that it could supply the democratic legitimacy that a unilateral revocation of Article 50 would lack.

Nevertheless, dismay – or worse – has been the dominant tone. On the basis of this and little else, it’s been repeatedly alleged (argument 1) that there is no difference between Labour’s position on Brexit and the Tories’. When it became clear that Labour would vote against May’s deal on the Withdrawal Agreement, some assumed that this meant that Labour was in favour of leaving without a deal and speculated (argument 2) about the leadership’s covert attraction to ‘disaster socialism‘. When Labour’s leadership expressed equally firm opposition to May’s deal and leaving the EU without a deal, most centrist Remainers switched to criticising Labour on completely different grounds (argument 3): instead of sharing Tory policies and wanting to end the free movement of goods and people, or cynically wanting to crash the economy for socialism, Labour’s leadership were now supposed to be naive fools who didn’t really know what they wanted or what was achievable. Hence the curious insistence we’ve heard from many that May’s deal is the absolute last word, the only deal possible, the very best deal any British government could conceivably achieve – a judgment which sits oddly with the fact that Labour’s idea of a ‘good’ deal is radically different from Theresa May’s, and considerably less difficult for the existing structures of the EU to accommodate. Pressed on this point, centrists tend either to double down on the ‘naivety’ argument or switch to argument 1, maintaining – despite a dearth of supporting evidence – that ending freedom of movement is just as fundamental to Labour’s position on Brexit as it is to May’s. Subsequently, the centrist position has been complicated still further by those critics who have discovered (argument 4) that Labour’s leadership is actually demanding freedoms – on state aid, on ‘social dumping’ – which the UK has or could have as a member of the EU, meaning that Labour is unrealistically demanding the impossible while also absent-mindedly demanding things that are already available.

All this – like the dismayed reaction to Labour stating outright that they intend to honour the referendum result – is odd. Labour have been successively labelled as UKIP-lite Brexit enthusiasts, as Leninist coup plotters, as unworldly idealists demanding far too much and – now – as misinformed ideologues demanding far too little. These portrayals can’t all be accurate, and it doesn’t seem very likely that any of them are. Indeed, instead of reading these critiques as telling us something about Labour, we can ask what this scattershot approach tells us about the people criticising Labour. The people who claimed that Labour were intent on a clean break with the Single Market and customs union, or that Corbyn and McDonnell (usually in cahoots with Seumas Milne) were plotting to reap the whirlwind of a no-deal Brexit: has any of them expressed relief on discovering that Labour’s policy actually rules out both of these outcomes? If that’s happened, I haven’t seen it. Rather, the impression is that any Brexit-labelled stick will do: all right, so maybe Labour aren’t enabling Brexit out of commitment to cutting immigration, or as a cynical Leninist ploy; they’re enabling Brexit because they’ve got a wildly over-optimistic view of what’s possible outside the EU – or a wildly over-pessimistic view of what’s possible inside it – or possibly both – and anyway, whatever it is it’s just as bad. This in turn doesn’t do a lot to dispel the unworthy suspicion that centrist Remainers are less concerned with Brexit than with removing Corbyn and McDonnell.

Having said all of which, if Labour were enabling Brexit – for whatever reason – that would clearly be problematic, even if it would be an order of magnitude less important than the Conservative Party’s contribution to the process. (At the time of writing there are 317 Conservative and 10 DUP MPs, in a House where an effective majority is 322 (650 MPs including the Speaker and 7 absent Sinn Fein MPs). So May’s government could be stopped in its tracks if six Conservative MPs voted with a united Opposition. If half the effort Remainers have devoted to bigging up “Tory rebels” was devoted to pressurising those people to actually rebel…!)

So: is Labour enabling Brexit? This brings us back to the question I posed earlier: how does Corbyn’s Labour Party, on the basis of its current commitments, deliver Brexit? As we’ve seen, Labour is committed – on grounds of democratic principle – to letting the Brexit process run its course, rather than derailing it by unilateral executive action. Beyond that, Labour is committed

  • to apply Starmer’s six tests to any deal
  • to oppose any deal which fails those tests, and
  • to oppose leaving the EU without a deal

Corbyn’s (at first blush slightly alarming) talk of Theresa May going back to Brussels to “renegotiate a customs union” should be seen in this light: the only customs union which would be acceptable to Labour, in terms of the six tests, would be one which maintained EU labour law, made no distinction between Britain and Northern Ireland, and delivered (in a phrase which David Davis surely regrets coining) the “exact same benefits” that Britain currently enjoys within the EU. It is hard to imagine – on this point I agree with the centrist critics – that the EU27 would ever countenance such a relationship with a state that had left the EU; a ‘six tests’ Brexit is, surely, vanishingly unlikely. However, any other deal would be opposed by Labour, on the basis of its existing commitments. Leaving without a deal would also be opposed by the party, again on the basis of its existing commitments.

In short, Labour policy has developed to the point where Labour can simultaneously maintain that we should see Brexit through and set criteria which rule out any possible Brexit – all of this while making demands, in the name of Brexit, which can be met within the EU. Labour’s current commitments can be summed up as follows:

  1. Honour the referendum
  2. No to a no-deal exit
  3. No to any deal that fails the six tests
  4. The UK should push harder on state aid and on low-wage immigration than it currently does

This, frankly, does not add up to leaving the EU at all. The assumption that Labour are enabling Brexit only makes sense if we assume that they are going to abandon one or both of policies 2 and 3, while replacing #4 with some red-meat Lexitry. To misquote Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Why? Why would they do that now?

This post is partly about Labour’s Brexit policy and partly about how (if I’m right) it’s been misunderstood – which also means looking at why it’s been misunderstood. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Labour’s position has evolved in the way that its critics’ attacks on it would suggest – it’s not very plausible, given that the ‘six tests’ were set out in March 2017, but let’s go with it. Let’s suppose, in other words, that Labour’s position – or at least its public messaging – was originally “we want to leave so that we can make Britain great again”; that it then changed to “we want to leave, even though it will be bad for Britain, so that we can build socialism in the ruins”; and that it is now “we want to leave so that we can gain something that we already have, and we insist on leaving on terms equivalent to staying a member, so that leaving isn’t bad for Britain”. I can understand Remainers fulminating at the first two of these – I’d only debate the extent to which they were ever really a description of Labour policy. What I don’t understand is the way that people – in many cases, the same people – are fulminating at the third, which is Labour policy. Yes, of course it’s possible that Corbyn, Starmer, old uncle Barry Gardiner and all are idiots who don’t know what they’re doing – but if we assume that that isn’t the case, isn’t there another explanation? Doesn’t this look exactly like the kind of negotiating position you’d have if you were preparing to reverse course?

Looking at it from the other end of the process, it’s generally accepted now that the result of the 2016 referendum gave the then government a mandate to set the Article 50 process in motion, and that the referendum, qua referendum, can’t simply be ignored or set aside. What I think isn’t sufficiently appreciated is what follows from that, if you’re a potential party of government (and not a single-issue campaign – or a party of permanent opposition). Path-dependency plays a huge role. If Brexit is happening, that must mean that when we have a Labour government, Brexit is happening under Labour. If Brexit is happening under Labour, that must mean that Brexit fits in with the rest of Labour’s policies – that it’s in some sense a Labour Brexit. If the party’s committed to a Labour Brexit, that must mean that we know what one of those is – what kind of Brexit would be good for Labour and good for Britain. And if the answer’s ‘none’, there is no way the party can possibly admit it – not without going back on its endorsement of the referendum as a democratic process and all the commitments it’s made since the referendum. Heading towards March 29th denouncing the existing deal and demanding the impossible is probably as close to endorsing Remain as Labour – under any imaginable leader – can get, given the starting-point in 2016. (Which is to say, given that the Labour Party didn’t denounce the referendum and lead a campaign of abstention. I don’t recall anyone, in any party, taking that position, although I’d be fascinated to hear if anybody knows better.)

Why has there been so little acknowledgment of the last couple of points – and so much insistence that Corbyn is entirely free to make Labour policy, and is just doing a very bad job of it? It’s a question of empathy, I think, or the lack of it. I blame the atmosphere of permanent crisis that’s prevailed on the centre-left since September 2015 – a sense that we could get on with politics as usual, if only those people could be got out of the way. It’s been described as Corbyn Derangement Syndrome, and a surprising range of people have been affected by it. Empathetic understanding, of course, is the first casualty: why would you waste time asking yourself how the world looks from Corbyn’s desk, when all you can think about is how much you want him out of it? (Probably never at his desk, anyway. Probably out meeting Palestinians. Or down at his allotment)

Two final points. The idea that Labour in office would abandon policies which they have been developing since before the 2017 election, and which they are currently reiterating at every opportunity, seems to me like a strong claim requiring strong evidence. I don’t know why others find it so much more plausible; indeed, one reason for writing this post was to try and persuade at least some people to rethink that position. I wonder if one underlying assumption is that Labour’s ideologues are currently making policy in a vacuum, and will fold like a cheap suit as soon as they experience the reality of negotiating with the EU27. To anyone holding this assumption, I offer Keir Starmer’s comments from the 19th December debate quoted earlier:

I have had more conversations with people in Brussels than probably most people in this House about the question – the very important question – of what the position would be if the red lines that the Prime Minister laid down were different. The EU’s position in private is confidential. Its position in public has been repeated over and again. It has said that if the red lines had been different, a different negotiation could have happened.

“The EU’s position in private is confidential.” If that’s a bluff it’s a good one.

Lastly, the importance of what I’ve labelled policy position 1 – honouring the referendum – cannot, I think, be overstated. If we are to be saved from the pointless, gratuitous disaster of leaving the EU, at some point a lot of people are going to be disappointed – and democracies don’t flourish with millions of disappointed citizens. Simply throwing the switch on Article 50 – which we now know the British government can do at any time – would be the worst option, sending the clearest possible message that the political establishment knows best and doesn’t trust the people. A second referendum would in theory avoid this, but in practice I worry that intelligent and influential people would be working hard to create precisely this impression or something close to it, for instance by amplifying an association that’s already apparent between Remain and a comfortable middle class. Labour’s policy is to mould Brexit in the light of Labour’s goals for the country, and then, in effect, push it till it breaks: by the time a decision is made – by the government or the people – to Remain, it should be obvious to everyone that Labour has taken the referendum result seriously and tried to make it work. This approach has a good chance – perhaps the best chance of any – of squaring the Remain circle, enabling Britain to stay in the EU while minimising the depth and breadth of Brexiter disappointment.

I may, of course, be wrong. Starmer may be bluffing; Barry Gardiner may not know what he’s talking about; Corbyn’s long-term scepticism about European integration may have hardened into an outright Lexit position, which (for reasons best known to himself) he is currently only expressing in terms compatible with EU membership. Let’s just hope that we get to find out.

PS You’ll either know why this is here or you won’t. If you don’t, play it and find out.

6 Comments

  1. Posted 7 January 2019 at 12:19 | Permalink | Reply

    There is a really huge technical issue that affects all of this stuff: if you want to implement the policy as it stands, you need to negotiate a future relationship with the EU. And if you want to negotiate a future, non-EU relationship, you need to leave the EU. And if you want to do that you’ve got to pass the withdrawal agreement so you can open talks on the future relationship. If you want to avoid no-deal, you’ve got to either revoke A50 or pass a withdrawal agreement.

    Really, the future relationship is what we’re arguing about but the argument is being fought out over the withdrawal agreement, which has the consequence that nobody can actually be satisfied. Only the two extremes – unilateral revocation and no-deal – can actually get their way through arguing over the withdrawal agreement; all the other options depend on the WA as a precondition. The precondition of any compromise is the WA, and the thing about compromise is that all the parties to a compromise get less than they would have liked. Everyone involved would like someone else to take the responsibility for giving up either extreme option.

    In a real sense, Labour (and the whole remain spectrum) has already compromised by taking flat-out, executive revocation off the table. If there was a meaningful negotiating process happening, seeing as the other lot haven’t reciprocated by giving up on no deal, it might make sense to bring it back as leverage to get them to do so. But I don’t think there is; there isn’t even consensus on what we are negotiating over or with who.

  2. Mary Branscombe
    Posted 8 January 2019 at 01:37 | Permalink | Reply

    And how do those negotiations get done before the default no deal at the end of March?

  3. bert
    Posted 8 January 2019 at 14:16 | Permalink | Reply

    Hope you’re right, Phil.
    Your reading is much better for my blood pressure than what’s been on offer from eg Stephen Bush recently.
    There’s an unstated premise in your post that Labour’s Brexit position follows a straight line and a coherent strategy. At conference though we saw something I don’t think we’ve seen before: an important shift secured not by the words in a speech but by the standing ovation those words prompted in response. I don’t know how you’d factor in the behaviour of the Straight Left tendency inside the leaders office during the referendum campaign but I’d gently suggest that to make sense of Labour’s position factional infighting may have had more of a role than you’ve given credit for here.
    Best wishes and, again, I really hope you’re right.

  4. Guano
    Posted 9 January 2019 at 15:26 | Permalink | Reply

    I will be controversial and say that Labour should have opposed triggering Article 50 before there was a proper parliamentary inquiry about what different ways there were of Leaving, what the trade-offs were between different objectives, what the constraints were. Theresa May should not have been felt to devise her own red-lines, and she should not have been given the freedom to waste most of two years before trying to bounce parliament into accepting an option where a great deal is still undecided and which hardly anybody likes (but for different reasons).

  5. Guano
    Posted 11 January 2019 at 23:04 | Permalink | Reply

    Phil – I am interested in knowing more about why you think it was right for Labour to support the triggering of Article 50 when they did. In my view, Parliament could only have had some leverage over May’s actions if they had made her fight for the right to trigger Article 50 and force her to define a realistic definition of Brexit.

  6. Guano
    Posted 12 January 2019 at 10:09 | Permalink | Reply

    Phil: – you pose the following conundrum on Twitter

    a) Brexit is a terrible idea; it wouldn’t benefit anyone (or any political party)
    b) a referendum is a big deal; overruling a referendum result is a very bad look for a government (or party)

    I agree that it is a conundrum but, in my view, it would be less of a conundrum if there had been a step before triggering Article 50 in which parliament had tried to define what possible values of “Brexit” there are. It would be focused on politicians, who would have to have taken some steps away from their belief in a “best of all worlds Brexit”. There are risks now of doing it through another referendum campaign which puts the onus on the voter to take those steps and to try to get them to admit that they were wrong before.

    (It should, of course, have been done before triggering a referendum but surely the problem was clear in early 2017.)

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