What's going on with Labour's Brexitshambles?

What's going on with Labour's Brexitshambles?
Comment: Corbyn has finally declared a policy on Brexit, but whether it's the beginning of a unified opposition to a disastrous Conservative government remains to be seen, writes James Brownsell.
9 min read
27 Sep, 2018
Jeremy Corbyn addresses delegates on day four of the Labour Party conference [Getty]
Britain, it would appear, is falling apart at the seams.

The Conservative government teeters on the brink of collapse, riven with divisions, rife with Islamophobia, propped up by an abjectly illiberal formerly paramilitary-supporting party from Northern Ireland and apparently incapable of negotiating its way out of a damp paper bag.

We are six months away from crashing out of the European Union with no deal, with an overwhelming consensus among economic analysts that this would be, in simple terms, A Very Bad Thing.

And that's without even considering the imposition of a border between Northern Ireland (Britain) and the Republic of Ireland (the EU) and the likely breakdown of peace on the island of Ireland.

With such a fragile government in Westminster, it might be reasonable to expect a resurgent opposition party offering a fresh and dynamic vision on the biggest issue of the day.

So where on earth is Labour on Brexit? Nowhere, that's where.

Corbyn's hypocrisy dilemma

In the 10 years since the collapse of the global banking system, Britain has been failed by the acceleration of "austerity politics" - the ideology of privatisation-at-all-costs shrouded in living-within-our-means condescension.

Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown may have suggested it, but let us make no mistake, this is a fundamentally Conservative dogma which has led to a widening gap between poor and rich - "the have-nots and the have-yachts" to borrow a phrase - and this has had real-world consequences.

Those on the left found themselves without strong leadership arguing the merits of staying in the EU

Social welfare spending has been slashed. The construction of social housing is down 90 percent. Children with mental health difficulties now have to be near-suicidal before they can see a psychologist. Nearly 90 people with disabilities die every month after being ruled "fit to work" and having their benefits stopped.

This offers only the briefest of glimpses into the state of Britain in the run-up to the Brexit vote. It was the dominance of austerity politics which dammed the flow of the British economy and, like pond scum taking over a stagnant lake, populist charlatans soon began to spread across the country with a toxic narrative, scapegoating migrants and poisoning the national debate.

But it wasn't just the far right who opposed Britain's continued membership of the EU.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, is a long-time Eurosceptic.

In the 1975 referendum, he voted against Britain remaining in the European Economic Community. He subsequently opposed the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 and the 2008 Lisbon Treaty. For decades, he has argued that the direction in which collective European politics has been travelling undermines the socialist objectives of a potential left-wing Labour government in the UK.

An ardent campaigner for workers' rights, which were gradually stripped by European legislation, Corbyn realised it would be hypocritical of him, once elected leader of the party, to campaign vociferously for continued membership of the European Union.

Brexit, therefore, held a degree of cross-party appeal. There was no strong unified partisan opposition among the largest parties in Britain. While many were no doubt galvanised to the polls by the unapologetically racist lies of the far right, those on the left found themselves without strong leadership arguing the merits of staying in the EU.

This is the dilemma in which Labour continues to find itself.

The party is attempting to offer a radical vision of a future British economy: The decentralised re-nationalisation of water companies and train franchises, executive pay capped at 20 times that of the company's lowest earner, and forcing corporations to give up to 10 percent of their shares to their workers - so employees have a greater say in how the business is run and receive financial dividends when business is good.

But while all these issues are important, the biggest issue of the day in Britain remains Brexit - and the party cannot seem to find a consistent voice, let alone a vision. Part of this is because of the Labour movement's democratic nature. Leaders such as Corbyn want to empower the membership to make the big policy decisions and charge the leadership with carrying them out.

The party has six options - all of them either bad or impossible to fulfil

This is great in theory, but confounds modern media messaging - and when you're trying to perform as an effective opposition to the worst-performing government in living memory, you need to be able to communicate to the public at large.

What options does Labour have?

The party has six options - all of them either bad or impossible to fulfil.

One: The party could follow Corbyn's traditional opposition to the EU and throw its weight fully behind a "no-deal" Brexit. This would be disastrous not only in terms of electoral politics but for the nation as a whole. Market crash, job losses, security breakdown, rioting and who knows what else?

Two: It could push to ignore the Brexit referendum, revoke the Article 50 notification and remain a member state of the EU. This option is simply impossible within a six-month timeframe. That said, it could possibly be achieved if there were new general elections (which is unlikely) and Labour campaigned on an unambiguous "remain" platform (which is even less likely).

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If it won a hypothetical election on those grounds, it could claim a democratic mandate, especially if the victory was resounding (probably the least likely of all), to revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU.

This is hard to imagine with Corbyn as leader, given he would face accusations of hypocrisy from all sides.

Three: It could back Brexit, but call for Article 50 to be put on hold for a set period - three years, for example - while the details (such as the Irish border) are actually thrashed out and appropriate infrastructure (such as customs checkpoints at Dover and Folkestone to process traffic from the EU) are built.

This would probably be the most sensible option to both respect "the will of the people" in the referendum and to ensure there is some form of economic and social policy in place. 

A sensible Conservative government would have done this instead of rashly triggering Article 50 in the first place. But with sensible voices in parliament drowned out by the raving and rabid right wing and their friends in the media, any call to put Article 50 on hold will be deemed a bid to undermine the Brexit project and delay it until it can be cancelled. It is, therefore, unlikely.

Four: Labour could support the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum and push for the best possible exit deal achievable. It should be noted that the EU has no real incentive to offer Britain anything in an exit deal - a "no deal" Brexit might inconvenience EU member states, but European leaders would rather have that than risk other nations seeing a favourable UK exit deal as a motivation to abandon the European project altogether.

Labour has put forward six criteria for an "acceptable" deal: (i) a "fair" migration system, (ii) retaining a collaborative relationship with the EU, (iii) protecting national security, (iv) delivering for all nations and regions of the UK, (v) protecting workers' rights, and (vi) ensuring the benefits currently enjoyed within the single market.

It follows to ask: What if Labour chooses this route, and an acceptable deal is not forthcoming?

There are four possibilities - options one, two and three above, which are all probably non-starters, and this one coming up now.

Five: Push for a second referendum. This has come to be known in UK media circles as a "people's vote" - as if the first one somehow exclusively polled cats. A second referendum is also impossible within six months. A referendum requires primary legislation to pass through parliament, as well as the question on the paper to be agreed by all parties.

There was no strong unified partisan opposition among the largest parties in Britain

The only way it could happen is if parliament voted to hold a second referendum, and include in that bill an automatic suspension of Article 50 until after the referendum is held.

But there's no guarantee that a second referendum would have a different result to the first. In my gut, I feel it would be a significant swing to Remain, but my gut told me Remain would also win the 2016 vote. Let's not forget, it was a referendum which got us into this mess in the first place; a second one might not help.

And that's all based on everyone agreeing on what a second referendum question should be.

"Should the UK remain a member state of the EU? Yes/No"; "Should the UK leave the EU under the terms of the agreement negotiated by the government? Yes, leave under those terms/No, remain in the EU"; "Should the UK leave the EU under the terms of the agreement negotiated by the government? Yes, leave under those terms/No, leave with no deal"; or some other option?

Six: Do absolutely nothing, watch the Conservatives make a total mess of the country and hope the electorate is forgiving enough to vote Labour in the next general election anyway.

Corbyn's fudgy plan

For two years, the Labour Party has been dancing between the last three options, but as Jeremy Corbyn closed the party's Liverpool conference on Wednesday, it looked like he might have finally established something close to solid ground on which to stand.   

Corbyn called for "a Brexit that protects jobs and trade", promising "determined opposition to one that does not". Note - that is distinctly not opposition to Brexit as a whole.

"Labour respects the decision of the British people in the referendum," he said. "But no-one can respect the conduct of the government since."

In the most popular line of his hour-long speech, he said Conservative anti-regulation arch-Brexiteers were "uniting the politics of the 1950s with the economics of the 19th century, daydreaming of a Britannia that rules the waves and waives the rules".

Corbyn said the party would oppose the government's proposals and oppose a "no-deal" Brexit. If Theresa May's Conservatives failed to get an agreement with EU members that met all of Labour's criteria (plot twist: they won't), Labour would push for fresh elections and seize power and control of EU negotiations.

Yet, we have been offered no roadmap of how Labour would get such a deal - though it's no secret that the Conservatives' callous, threatening approach to negotiations so far has built massive resentment on the EU side, and it's possible European leaders would welcome a new face at the table.

The policy is still a fudge - of course - but at least it's something approaching coherence. Labour will have disappointed many of its members and supporters by taking this week to clarify it is indeed a pro-Brexit party.

The coming days and weeks will show whether Corbyn has done enough to persuade the rest of the country that the party is poised to deliver on its promises.   

A policy has been declared, at long last. It is time for the party's leadership and backbenchers to put aside their dithering and squabbles and finally provide a unified opposition to this calamitous Conservative government.

In or out of Europe, it's time to save Britain.

James Brownsell is the Managing Editor of The New Arab.

Follow him on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell

A version of this article was first published by Al Jazeera English

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.