Who gets the Brexit backlash?

This is the $64 thousand question? When the Tory government stops spinning and starts negotiating there is going to be a whole lot of disappointed people. They want a bespoke trade deal that gives them pretty much what Britain gets now with few, or none, of the constraints. Good luck with that. Labour’s position is as clear as mud. Corbyn is still defending ‘free movement’ as if the referendum was still on; some of his colleagues want membership of the single market others ‘access’ to it, with different people saying different things about immigration. Both parties stand to get it in the neck from leavers and remainers but on present showing Labour could come off worst.

What can Labour say? They can’t make membership of the single market their bottom line for the negotiations.  No one is going to go for that if it comes with all the familiar costs and conditions and none of the benefits of EU membership. Messing about with a commitment to membership of the single market coupled with unrealistic negotiating ‘demands’ on free movement won’t wash either. Labour might argue for membership of the single market simply because it does the least economic damage alongside a commitment to rejoining the EU at some point in the future, but this would be tricky, vulnerable to the charge of betrayal from leavers and remainers. It would provide no convincing platform for the general election that will follow on the heels of the negotiations.

The focus on the single market is a mistake in any case because it continues to treat the EU as an economic question. It isn’t, it is a political one. The EU is a failing experiment precisely because it put economic mechanisms like the Euro and the single market before political ones like democratic involvement and a sense of social and political ownership. Remainers thought the economy would swing it but it didn’t. It was ‘national control’ on immigration, the budget, and the law that carried the day. The ground for internationalism must be better prepared, and that requires a quite different reform of the EU than envisaged by Cameron.

My less than fully confident conclusion is that Labour should do what oppositions are entitled to do and hold the government to account by exposing the consequences of any of the choices that the government makes. Membership of the single market (plus conditions) will be a betrayal of those who voted leave (and a slap in the face for remainers); Labour’s job is to show what the country has lost. In the same way, if World Trade Organisation trading rules are adopted after Article 50 exit has run its course, or a cobbled-together ‘transitional’ arrangement put in place, Labour’s job is to show what the country has lost.

Labour should say that, like the electorate,  they are having to make the best of a bad job. The party supported remain and is fully entitled to expose the consequences of Tory irresponsibility. In the meantime Labour should set out some ideas about the reform of Europe: the reform of the Euro, devolution of responsibility (subsidiarity), the development of a European politics, against austerity and for a democratic economy. If there is an answering echo from Europe the issue of membership might be raised once more.

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