Corbyn Clarification Clarified

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell say Labour will negotiate a free trade agreement outside the EU single market. Maybe yes, maybe no say Barry Gardner, shadow secretary for international trade and Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary, the following day. It all depends on the negotiations you see.

Their positions are separated by degrees of unreality. Corbyn and McDonnell envisage a free trade agreement that gives us the equivalent of the single market, Gardner and Starmer think the EU might throw in single market membership as well. And why not? If the EU were going to concede a free trade agreement that gives Britain pretty much what we have now, why let a formality like membership get in the way?

All four are making an ambitious pitch for a bespoke agreement that retains as much “access” to the single market as possible, in-or-out, members or not. None of them are saying what that they will give in return on free movement, EU law and the jurisdiction of EU courts, and contributions to the EU budget. And all might, like Theresa May, say we can’t possibly say anything about that because it would ‘reveal our negotiating hand’.

This is absurd. And undemocratic. The British negotiating position can’t simply be a wish-list. Negotiators can’t return from Brussels after two years of posturing at home to reveal the things they have conceded to reach whatever agreement they manage to come to. There will be consequences if they do. Instead Labour should talk straight to people, at least about the boundaries of possible agreement, and invite public debate as if the public themselves were participants. And that is the point. Not everyone can be around the table but they must be participants.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Corbyn Clarity

I stand corrected already! Labour wants a ‘jobs-first’ Brexit, but one in the form of a bespoke agreement with the EU providing tariff free access outside the single market (Corbyn on Andrew Marr, McDonnell on Peston on Sunday). Well, it is clarity of a kind. It is the same position as the Tories but without the bluster. We say ‘jobs’, they say ‘business’, both mean Britain wants the economic benefits from the EU without the troublesome politics. The wider argument applies. There should be a public debate now about the compromises necessary to secure an agreement. And at some point the issue of renewed membership of the EU should come up as an alternative to the hard Brexit most likely to follow the failure to secure the kind of bespoke agreement that the negotiators would like.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , | Leave a comment

What do we know about Brexit and what should Labour do?

Apologies for a long post. Its that bloomin’ Brexit again! I should state a view from the outset. The starting point is Britain’s place in a world dominated by international corporations and a global financial elite, trade blocs and regional powers. Britain has neither empire, nor commonwealth, nor special relationship with the USA to rely on. It might strike out on an independent socialist path but, given the international context, socialism in one backward country in 1917 probably had rather better prospects. If the present world order falls apart anyway – and it might – Britain would find itself fighting the other cats in the sack as it sinks to the bottom. The inescapable conclusion is that the battle socialists want to fight against capital and for economic democracy should, if possible, be fought in Europe rather than outside.

Having said that, what do we think we know about Brexit?

  • A small majority voted in favour of leaving the EU;
  • ‘Sovereignty’ (democracy within the nation) i.e., politics not the economy, was the key motivator for the leave vote along with immigration, though immigration was often an aspect of the argument about sovereignty;
  • If anything Brexit opinion has hardened so that even remainers say ‘get on with it’. The Lib Dem promise to re-open the question with a referendum didn’t cut any ice with voters;
  • You can’t have the economic benefits of the single market without the political costs of free movement, supremacy of EU law, and contributions to the EU budget unless you get a bespoke deal which lets you have Boris Johnson’s cake and eat it;
  • We are trapped, as we were before the referendum, between the appeal to politics (sovereignty) and economics (the single market);
  • We might buy time by agreeing with the EU a ‘transition’ period e.g., temporary membership of the European Economic Area until a wider, bespoke agreement is reached (or not), but the question of the destination has to be answered.

There will either be a [i] bespoke deal (Labour and the Tories would both like this) that gives the maximum economic benefits with minimal political costs (unlikely), [ii] soft Brexit membership of the single market with all the other conditions of membership that voters rejected, [iii] hard Brexit without a trade agreement and potentially damaging economic consequences. Labour’s first duty would be to spell this out. And, incidentally, expose all the nonsense about ‘not revealing our negotiating hand’. The only people that it is being concealed from is the British public.

Labour wants a ‘soft’, membership-of-the-single-market (jobs-first) Brexit. But, as in the referendum campaign, this reduces the EU question to economics when it was ‘politics wot won it’. They will have to spell out the compromises that would be entailed on free movement, EU law and budget contributions. Compromise in all three areas could win public support but even then, a bespoke deal is unlikely. The simplest form of soft Brexit would be membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) where access to the single market  entails all the main obligations and costs of EU membership with none of the political rights. It would be a ridiculous outcome for an economy the size of the UK to be sharing a peripheral status with Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway on the margins of the continent, carrying the same obligations and significantly less control. You might, at a pinch, defend this if it was a temporary staging post, en route to somewhere else, but not otherwise.

Labour rightly rejects ‘hard Brexit’ but not all forms of soft Brexit are acceptable. What Labour must avoid at all costs is being saddled with responsibility for a soft Brexit that the Tories might now negotiate, running to Labour for shelter from their own eurosceptics.

Above all Labour’s purpose over the next two years should be to pin the responsibility for any deal with Europe on the Tories. If they go for soft Brexit, expose the political costs. If they go for hard Brexit, the economic consequences. If there is a transitional arrangement expose the direction  of travel. Neither Labour nor the public can be certain of anything until the Tories outline their European settlement in two years time. Until then Labour should take no responsibility for what ‘ought’ to be done. The message for the Tories is ‘You got us into this mess, you get us out of it. If you fail, Labour will step in and clear up your mess’.

To try to reopen the question of EU membership now, as the Lib  Dems and Tony Blair did, would be a mistake but two years from now it might well be possible. If it isn’t, and there is no bespoke deal or transitional arrangement in sight, hard Brexit would preferable to ‘soft’ servitude on the margins. Membership of the EU still trumps both.

Meanwhile Labour should set out in a  series of speeches, publications and consultative events the real choices that people are faced with, and try to extend that discussion to Europe through its links with continental socialist parties.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Cross Party Brexit?

Maybe it was a Brexit election after all? From the following day, and with increasing force, people are saying that hard Brexit is now impossible, that there is a parliamentary majority for soft Brexit – essentially membership of the single market and customs union – and that there should be a cross party vehicle of some kind to achieve consensus. Labour should steer clear of it.

First because there is unlikely to be consensus when the politicians have the courage to spell out what soft Brexit means. Even a bespoke deal rather than e.g., access to the single market via membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) will involve big compromises on free movement, EU law and budget contributions and there isn’t much sign of EU flexibility on any of this. Membership of the EEA alongside Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway would bring all the obligations without any of the rights that go with membership.

Second, because it will offer shelter to the Tories who got the country into this mess in the first place and haven’t yet paid the full political price. When the outlines of what they want to achieve, and what they actually achieve, in negotiations with Brussels becomes clear they will be politically vulnerable as never before. Labour should not come riding to their rescue, or take any responsibility whatever for the kind of soft Brexit that a majority of Tories now probably want.

And finally, it will be seen as a parliamentary political stitch up. There will be the usual claptrap about putting the interest of the country before party but it won’t disguise the fact that MPs would be trying to impose an agreement that none of their constituents actually voted for.

Labour should instead take the issues out to the country, explain what a ‘jobs-first’ (soft) Brexit means and ask the people about the kind of compromises the negotiators should make. When politicians talk about not revealing their hand in negotiations the only people being kept in the dark are the people that elected them.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Labour’s Manifesto

Or Labour’s Santa vs. The Tory Scrooge according to Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian. He  thinks Labour largesse will be rejected despite the popularity of the party’s proposals because people still believe Labour crashed the economy in 2008. You might trust a doctor who tells you a glass of red wine is good for you, but reject the same advice from an alcoholic. There is some uncomfortable truth in this but it only reinforces the very austerity trap that Labour is trying to avoid. It is the ultimate catch-22: you only demonstrate virtue in this conversation by cutting everything to ribbons in order to rebuild it.

There is a way out but Labour hasn’t found it. Instead of fiscal responsibility rules and pledges to balance current expenditure and only borrowing to invest, all copied from the Gordon Brown play book, Labour would have to show that the economy is dangerously dysfunctional and must be radically reformed. The first target should be the financial institutions and practices that brought economic ruin, then a radical critique of private sector responsibility for low productivity and lack of investment across industry and services. Instead of trying to restore and repair there should be radical restructuring proposals to address the imbalances between sectors and regions.

But there is nothing like this, nothing even remotely radical. Labour will have a ‘firm ring fence’ between retail and investment banking, not their separation; there is nothing about the financial practices that crashed the economy, but Labour will stop banks closing local branches where people need them! There will be a much needed £250bn for renewing infrastructure and a further £250bn mobilised by a National Investment Bank that will bring in private capital to fill existing gaps in lending by … private banks! Other than additional investment the industrial strategy amounts to encouraging  strategic industries to replicate the model of an Automotive Council staffed almost entirely by CEOs and senior executives. Nothing remotely radical or strategic .

This really is old-fashioned, soft-left, tax-and-spend socialism. Even the proposals on public ownership are driven by the interests of consumers in lower prices. It is also, of course, humane, generous, well-intentioned, and infinitely preferable to the calculated meanness of the Conservatives and I will certainly vote for it. At some other time and place it might even have attracted a good deal more public support than it is likely to get as May rallies the nation against those Europeans. But when the bloodletting begins in the Labour Party after 8th June, the left should not waste any time defending the Manifesto. And if it defends Corbyn, who really does represent the left in the Labour Party, it will have to examine its own politics as well as his.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Mélenchon Uprising

In France, Mélenchon, the candidate of a ‘left movement’ has drawn level with other leading contenders in the first round of the presidential election on Sunday (23rd April). If he goes into the second round with Le Pen Brexit will be a little local difficulty compared with what is in prospect for the EU.

Mélenchon offers reforms a-plenty, and no mincing of words. From reconstituting the republic to green economic planning Mélenchon’s programme overflows with ideas.  He will put a stop to financialisation of the economy (separate retail and investment banking, tax financial transactions, control the movement of capital); create a public bank to finance small and medium size enterprises; introduce sweeping measures to limit exploitative employment contracts (the précariat); set maximum salaries for directors of companies, tax all salaries above e400,000 a year at 100%, and increase the minimum wage while reducing the working week and restoring retirement at 60. And there is more, much more.

Is there any overall ‘shape’ to the program? What does it amount to? What kind of society will the reforms produce? That is much more difficult. I was going to say it was ‘Corbyn on steroids’ because there are a lot of ‘policies’ but it is not clear what they add up to but that is not right. The policies are so much bolder, and there is at least a glimpse of the social model it aims to create. But it is only a glimpse. The core rationale is provided by its environmental commitments and populist nationalism. Of the two, the latter is more striking.

The environmental commitments are serious and far reaching, including a proposed withdrawal from nuclear power, but its defining characteristic is its nationalist perspective. ‘The defence of our industrial sovereignty’ against multinationals and international finance requires the ‘relocalisation’ of production, support for French jobs and French industry in place of free trade treaties, and controls on the free movement of capital and goods. His stance on Europe follows from this. Plan A proposes sweeping renegotiation of existing treaties and the reform of European institutions to end central bank independence, devalue the euro, end free trade treaties and adopt a strategy of ‘protectionist solidarity’. France would unilaterally withdraw from the ‘stability pact’ which drives austerity, but if plan A did not lead to an acceptable result, plan B effectively ends the country’s EU membership.

Olivier Tonneau in the Guardian describes it as a plan to save Europe not destroy it; Mélenchon offers co-operation with all nations on the basis of real equality in setting limits to globalisation and the destructive effects of unrestrained competition. All this is true but there is no mistaking the ‘put France first’ motif. Mélenchon’s ‘L’Avenir en Commun’ has more the feel of an ultimatum than the opening of negotiations.

And for all the references to the public good, and to a socially and environmentally responsible republic, the vision remains one of France reformed rather than an invitation to build a new social model.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Don’t agree an election on June 8th!

How desperate am I, writing this on an unread blog on the morning after Jeremy Corbyn agreed to holding an election on 8th June? If there is a reason for 5-year parliaments it is precisely to stop prime ministers exploiting their position to go to the country when it suits party advantage. Ignore all the macho drivel about ‘being up for it’. Labour is not ready, and it is no shame to say so. Insist on an election when we know the shape of the deal she actually seeks in Brussels. An election now, on current projections, will give her a free hand to do whatever she likes. It really is blank political stupidity to agree an election now.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , | Leave a comment