Labour, Europe, Redemption (part 1): Beyond constructive ambiguity

The fork in the road

Like many who voted twice for the half-formed vision of a new political culture which Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have a feel for, Jeremy and I are approaching a fork in the road.

One arrow on the signpost at the fork says Brexit-on-Regret, and I happen to know there’s another fork a bit further down which swings off and away from Brexit altogether. I am ok to go that way with Jeremy, even though I know it’s rough and may lead to punctures.

The other signpost says Brexit-by-Stupid, with a further plate below saying “No immigrants this way”. If he chooses that way, I’m not going with him. My dad was a keen rider, and he wouldn’t have gone that way either.

Enough of the strained metaphor.

For those of us on the Left who are struggling with the current direction Labour appears to be taking in respect of Brexit, I suggest there are three areas of action needed.

Understanding and challenging Lexit

The first of these areas of action is to challenge the renewed post-election surge of the so-called Lexiteers. Primarily, this needs to be a challenge to their myth-making about what Britain will be able to achieve outside the Single Market and about how, conversely, Single Market membership would supposedly stop a Labour government enacting a socialist economic strategy.

I will not spend long here on the precise nature of these myths. They have been ably dealt with elsewhere, and depend to a great extent on a selective reading and oversimplication of EU law on both State Aid and procurement. As Will Davies has noted pithily, on the back of proper academic scrutiny of the legislation and its application:

The interesting thing about the rules is not what they ban but what they still permit, which is worth examining.

The short version is that the key Lexit economic arguments, by which it seeks to distinguish itself from the mainstream Brexit argument about sovereignty, do not hold water. They ignore the fact that the rules have, for the most part (certainly not entirely) been interpreted in such a way that both State Aid and procurement can be used, for precisely the kind of social purpose Labour embraces) with little problem.

The Lexiteers also prefer to ignore, in favour of unsubstantiated claims about the underlying neoliberal agenda of the EU, the real reasons for the development of these key Single Market rules around State Aid and procurement. These reasons are laudable: the stifling of cronyism and corruption between government and favoured firms, and economic convergence between EU states. Again, the EU is not without fault here, but economic convergence between states has been the main driver has been the main driver, not neoliberal ideology. Convergence between the poorest regions of Europe and the richest is, after all, the explicit reason for the existence of European Structural Funds which are, of themselves, a form of State Aid, and (contrary to myth) administered by nation states themselves, not by any Brussels bureaucracy.

More broadly, the fears raised by key Lexiteers, and other left Eurosceptics now drawn towards Lexit, that the EU was intent of outlawing Keynesian approaches to national economic management, have turned out to be unfounded, though it is certainly true that the EU did not help itself with the hasty introduction of the post-crisis Fiscal Compact and the accompanying ‘six-pack’ legislation, and the careful row-back from the more extreme of those provisions has been interesting to watch (in reality, the Fiscal Compact was more about Merkel and Sarkozy’s domestic positioning as tough on public debt than any properly thought through attempt to make the Eurozone more convergent over time).

Overall, then, the Lexit argument is weak, depending on a casual narrative about some kind of secret neoliberal agenda, which is belied by both the history and current operational model of the EU, which may not be a socialist dream, but which does not impede socialist action.

But the substance of the Lexit argument is not as important here as what the very making the argument actually does to Labour’s wider positioning on Brexit; the Lexit position has not had any significant cut through to the wider public, and very few people would be able to distinguish the Lexit argument for taking back control of the commanding heights of the economy from the mainstream Brexit argument for a more general ‘taking back control’ of borders, our courts and all the other vague nonsenses with which that campaign was stuffed.

Lexit is important, and dangerous, for this reason.

The economic argument of Lexit is gaining ground within some sections of the Labour party, including the leader’s office, because it allows Labour to avoid the ‘immigration question’.

The Lexiteers provide an alternative argument in favour of hard Brexit — the Lexit model cannot operate within the Single Market — and this allows Labour to come out in favour of the end of freedom of movement. (The accompanying argument about exploitation of migrant labour, and the apparently deliberate conflation of issues around free of movement of workers issue and around the Posted Workers Directive also help here, but they are not central.)

This is convenient, because it allows Labour to respond to the so-called “legitimate concerns” of the working class core vote which deserted it in the general election in places like Mansfield. I n the short term, the Lexit argument becomes electoral gold dust, and you can see why it would be attractive to a Labour leadership which would otherwise be stuck between the rock of being seen to ignore the “legitimate concerns” of its traditional vote and the hard place of being seen to u-turn on a lifetime of pro-immigrant politics.

The Lexiteers, then, serve a purpose of which they are, I think, probably unaware. There is nothing to suggest that they do not sincerely believe in their own arguments, however inadequate they are. Indeed, it is likely that some around the Labour leadership, and Jeremy himself, have actually come to believe that alignment in outcome of Lexit thinking and giving in to populist-inspired sentiment about immigration is coincidental, and that they really have nothing to beat themselves up about.

The Lexit position allows essentially good people, like Jeremy, to salve any guilt feelings they may have about being a tacit but real contributor to anti-immigrant sentiment.

And for the time being, they may be right, tactically if not ethically. We are not yet at the fork in the road, and we will only reach the fork in the road very quickly if Labour gains power and is forced towards a choice between soft and hard Brexit (although below I suggest a third, quite distinct route).

For the time being, and perhaps understandably, Labour’s “constructively ambiguous” position, as it has been called, just about works, and the differing accounts from within the shadow cabinet of where Labour stands on the Single Market may even be a clever ruse by Labour to stop itself being pinned down.

Nevertheless, the time will come soon enough when Labour either has to back a Tory hard Brexit, using a different rationale for towards the same disastrous outcome or, even worse, decide whether it votes against a Hammondesque softer Brexit because that closes the door on the mythologized pursuit of its socialism-in-one-country. The latter may be less of an immediate disaster for the country (though any Brexit is a relative disaster, but it will rip away much of its new electoral support, and damage Labour in a way which in turn damages the country by allowing free rein to the Tories to drive the UK down the tax haven route).

For these reasons alone, it is vital that pro-EU Labour people challenge the growing, though currently still quite small, popularity of the Lexit position. As noted, this should be primarily be by challenge to the selective economic argument, but it also needs to be refined enough a challenge that it helps Labour people attracted to Lexit, on the basis that it helps them avoid the ‘immigration question’ to think again.

But, related to this, there is a more fundamental reason to challenge the Lexiteers now. This is that the ‘immigration question’ — a shorthand on which I will expand below — has to be answered at some point, and that that point is now.

The paradox of Brexit is that, while any version of it is going to be harmful to the material conditions of the people Labour was set up to represent, the very process of going through it does offer up an opportunity for a wider public coming-to-terms with why Brexit came about at all.

It is Labour’s role, as a party potentially fit to govern well in the 21st century, to facilitate that coming-to-terms. It’s Labour’s job, I suggest, to set out a clear case as to why the now accepted wisdom that Brexit was caused by political alienation and a desire to “take back control” is only a part of the story, or rather the history. It’s Labour’s job to guide the English people (and I refer only to England deliberately) not just through the material crisis of Brexit, but through a process of national renewal that makes us fit to take our place In 21st century Europe.

I come back to this on part 2. Suffice to say at this point is that Lexit, in addition to being wrong as an economic position, will act to stifle that necessary process of renewal-in-hard times. The starting point, therefore, for a successful 21st century Labour party, is in challenging Lexit internally within the party, and seeing it off.

A pro-EU strategy in opposition: the power of devolution

But before moving on to the bigger challenge for Labour — how to help develop a mature England, redeemed from its past and ready to cope with and contribuye to the 21st century as a grown-up country — there is another shorter term task to accompany the necessary Lexit challenge. Indeed, it follows from the Lexit challenge.

As set out above, what the Lexit argument does is to offer the Labour leadership a way round its current electoral difficulty of having two quite different sources of votes — a traditional working class vote draw towards Brexit, and a newer middle-class vote repulsed by it.

Removing Lexit as a viable option, for the reasons set out above, does not of itself help Labour through that impasse. Indeed, it makes it harder.

So we need an alternative which allows Labour to keep both wings of its voter base on board, while not stymieing the bigger debate about how we got here in the first place.

Now, the chances are that Labour will be in opposition throughout the two year period of so-called negotiation, and probably beyond. Labour cannot simply will a general election into being, and there is no obvious reason why the Tory-DUP pact should not survive. Who is prime minister is largely immaterial: the Tory party will not vote for someone as its leader who then refuses to follow the disastrous hard Brexit/No Deal line.

At the moment, as noted, Labour’s position is limited to its “constructive ambiguity”, because it is tactically convenient, and is geared to the potential for an early election. This is not only allowing the Lexiteers to develop their position of strength within Labour (see above); it is also just too lacking in ambition for a party which seeks to portray itself as a government-in-waiting.

So the pro-EU left needs to present an alternative action plan that can be implemented while in opposition.

I have already set out my quite detailed views on what these actions-in-opposition should be, and will not go into technical and legal detail here, but my concrete proposals (which are feeding into a Spring 2018 conference consequent to a council resolution of February) centre on unpicking, then using, the wording in the Labour manifesto about devolution of power in the context of Brexit .

Principally, proposed action focuses on displacing labour movement action from Westminster, where we are not in power, to the cities and towns where we are. It involves a coming together of local government and the new mayoralties (more established in London), to challenging the legitimacy of the government’s Brexit route, and to demand the right for city regions to plough their own furrow with the EU, in a way which dovetails neatly with the EU’s stated aim (it’s in Article 1 of the Lisbon Treaty) of devolving decision-making to points as close to citizens as possible.

The argument will be that central government has shown itself to be incompetent so far in its discussions with the EU over Brexit, and that local government and mayors can no longer stand back and let the unfolding disaster sweep across the communities whose interests they have been elected to represent.

As an outcome from this new strategy, we might expect to see the national Labour leadership standing four-square behind, let us say, a proposal delivered direct to the EU negotiating team by Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram for both Greater Manchester and Merseyside to stay within the Single Market, primarily by accepting continued freedom of movement of workers.

Of course, the knee-jerk reaction to this will be (and indeed it already has been) is that it is pie-in-the-sky thinking, though some of that reaction is based on a simple ignorance of the difference between freedom of members of the EU to be in the UK (not compromised as of yet by Brexit) and the freedom to work in the UK.

The political answer to this is, of course, that while the technicalities of such a devolved deal may be complicated, with certain areas of England remaining outside the Single Market and the need for some kind of agreed in/out certification process for products and services, it’s a hell of a site easier to do this than to set up free-trade agreements.

Of course, any serious move in this direction will provoke media hysteria about Labour’s attempts to undermine the very nature of the nation state, and this attack line should not be underestimated. The broadsheets will soon identify the link between a Labour argument against central government’s automatic authority not just with the nature of federal government in Germany, but also with the inspirations of the likes of Harold Laski, who put forward the philosophical and jurisprudence case for just such a challenge to the nation state’s legitimacy. The tabloids will go for traitor heads on sticks.

But Labour has now shown it can beat the press, and the advantages of a clear third way strategy, with Starmer and his team focused on working with like-minded colleagues in Europe to open the way for this kind of devolved approach, are clear enough.

First, from an internal point of view, it allows for mass membership activity focused on campaigning for the devolved process. As such, this strategy should be much more attractive to a Momentum-supported leadership than the dry economic promises of the Lexiteers, themselves now an unaccountable elite within the party

Second, and at the level of public discourse, the opening up to a now better-informed public of the things that should have been debated first time round can only be healthy for democracy. Challenged by new knowledge about the impacts of hard Brexit on the more immediate economy, and ion concert with a Labour party which has had the gumption to open up this new angle on Brexit, voters in most city-regions will, I suggest, get behind Andy and Steve and Sadiq (though in London the specifics of the French plan to take City business complicate the EU side of the deal), and against the incompetent in Westminster.

Third, and perhaps most important in term of the longer term task of national renewal which I’ll tackle in part 2 of this essay, it promotes the very debate that the Lexit strategy currently attracting the leadership seeks to suppress. Properly convened debate, facilitated in part by local media outlets like the Manchester Evening News, which outstrip the national press for journalistic integrity, can start to tease out what really drove the Brexit vote in the first place.

Labour’s wider task (towards part 2)

What really drove Brexit, I will suggest in part 2, is not the desire to “take back control”, though this clever messaging acted as a very useful way for many Brexit voters to justify their vote to themselves.

What really drove Brexit, I will suggest (in line with Sally Tomlinson and Danny Dorling’s argument) is a deep sense of racial superiority, originating in our colonial history, and from which as a nation we have never been redeemed (or redeemed ourselves)

I will argue, in line with Paul Gilroy’s masterful Postcolonial Melancholia, that England (and by unhappy extension the rest of the UK) will only be able to take its proper, grown-up place in Europe when it has gone through this painful process — a process that Gilroy is courageous enough to suggest will be like the one that faced the German people in the 1950s and 1960’s:

[B]efore the British people can adjust to the horrors of their own modern history and start to build a new national identity from the debris of their broken narcissism, they will have to learn to appreciate the brutalities of colonial rule enacted in their name and to their benefit, to understand the damage it did to their political culture at home and abroad and to consider the extent of their country’s complex investments in the ethnic absolutism that has sustained it. The multi-layered trauma — economic and cultural as well as political and psychological — involved in accepting the loss of empire wold therefore be compounded by a number of additional shocks. Among them are the painful obligations to work through the grim details of imperial and colonial history and to transform paralyzing guilt into a more productive shame that wold be conducive to the building of a multicultural nationality that is no longer phobic about the prospect of exposure to either strangers or otherness (p. 99).

These words, written in the mid-2000’s, have an increased resonance in the Brexit age, and part 2 will explore both our history and how Labour can facilitate a coming-to-terms with it, in a way which avoid the all-too-common pitfall of denying agency to the working class, while being realistic about the structural pressures post-colonial capitalism put on it.

This won’t be a counsel of despair. Paul Gilroy signs off from his book with a message of hope about the prospects of a society grounded in “conviviality”. I prefer the theoretical but empirically Habermasian grounded notion of “communicative power” based on the human instinct to mutual understanding, but in terms of plural, everyday political practice, both notions leads us in the same direction — a direction in which a properly focused Corbynism can help us go.

Of course, there’s a fork in the road coming up. There’s time before we get there, but I’m not going right.

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