Can Labour still be my political home?
I first joined the Labour Party more than 20 years ago. It has always been an imperfect vehicle for the practice of politics, but there was no doubt in my head it was my political home. However, in the past few months and particularly in recent weeks I have really started to doubt this.
I have always been on the social democratic, liberal wing of the Labour Party. So there is one obvious reason for my doubts: Jeremy Corbyn. In just a few hours time it looks virtually certain that Corbyn will be reconfirmed as leader of the Labour Party, possibly with an increased mandate from the membership.
This is not the point to revisit the problems with Corbyn’s leadership. I offered my thoughts on this a few weeks ago, and a very thorough set of tweets by Labour member Amanda Steadman goes through the many, many issues.
Ultimately though, it would take more than Jeremy Corbyn to drive me out of the Labour Party. What is far more worrying is the axis of debate that is developing in the party, with the self-proclaimed moderates now vocally pushing a very illiberal line on the form a Brexit deal should take.
This turn of events crystallized this week with the publication of the Fabian pamphlet Facing the Unknown. This contained a number of short essays by prominent Labour MPs on what a “progressive” Brexit might look like. Especially notable are essays by Rachel Reeves and Stephen Kinnock on this topic, where they explicitly state that ending free movement is more important that preserving single market membership. Reeves for example argues that:
Immigration controls and ending free movement has to be a red line post-Brexit — otherwise we will be holding the voters in contempt. Subject to that, we need the greatest possible access that we can get to the single market without free movement (Reeves, 2016: 17).
These priorities are exactly the wrong way around: the UK needs to work for the maximum level of association with the EU that it can achieve, which in practice probably means some form of EEA membership with continued free movement. I would highlight four reasons why this is the best approach and the prescription offered in Facing the Unknown is misguided: the democratic, the economic, the political and the temporal-rational.
- The democratic. As George Osborne pointed out in a speech in Chicago last night, the referendum result is not a mandate for a hard-Brexit. The great American political scientist Robert Dahl (1990) argued that rhetorical claims to mandate made post election were deeply dangerous because they were so easily abused. We are seeing the dangers of such claims right now, as the Eurosceptic right hijack the referendum result to justify their own policy preferences. While there is no doubt that immigration was a very important issue for many people who voted leave and possibly for some who voted remain, it is perfectly legitimate to argue that that the consensus position remains a soft-Brexit, given that 48 per cent voted to retain freedom of movement, and not all leavers were anti-single market, some advocating a Norway-type arrangement.
- The economic. All economic forecasters agree that a hard-Brexit does considerably more damage to the UK economy than the softer alternatives. The IFS recently argued that moving from the single market to WTO rules would lead to a 4 per cent hit on UK GDP. This matters because no or low economic growth is the worst enemy of centre-left parties. Tax revenue is needed to pay for the public services and fairer society we want. The Fabian pamphlet is actually rather good on this topic, talking about the need for a new post-referendum social and economic settlement (no disagreement with that here). The problem is that such laudable goals are incompatible with the damage that leaving the single market would do to the British growth model.
- The political. One of the strongest lessons in Ed Ball’s recently published memoirs is that, in the long term, good economics is the same as good politics. This is why not strongly advocating single market membership is ultimately such a bad idea. Voters will never thank a party that trashes the economy (and this is especially true of Labour’s core constituency, who are at greatest risk in times of economic uncertainty). Labour, spooked by growing support for UKIP in its heartlands, is now in grave danger of making the same mistake as David Cameron did in the last parliament and putting short term political considerations above their own long-term goals and the national good. A narrative has developed that Labour heartlands are strongly pro-Brexit and the party needs to accommodate this. But the actual evidence for such a claim is mixed. While Chris Hanretty has calculated that the majority of Labour seats voted leave, a Lord Ashcroft poll suggests that 63 per cent of Labour voters supported remain (the two claims are, of course, not mutually incompatible). Similarly a YouGov poll in today’s Times finds that half the Labour voters who supported Brexit have now abandoned the party. However, when asked why they no longer support Labour, 71 per cent of this group say Corbyn’s leadership, while 56 per cent believe that the party could not form a competent government as opposed to any specific concerns about Brexit. Furthermore, when asked what type of Brexit they wanted, the preferred option among Labour voters (47 per cent) was to remain close to the European Union rather than endure a hard-Brexit.
- The temporal-rational argument. The final argument draws on game theory. Given the ambiguity of the mandate and the economic uncertainty of the UK’s position, the rational course of action at this point is to go for the most limited, least disruptive change possible even if only as an interim measure (i.e. EEA membership). This is because the various courses of action open to the UK government are asymmetrical in terms of future policy options they open up or close down. By this, I mean it is easier to move further away from EU membership at some point in future than it ever is to return to being closer to the EU. Simply put, it we go for a soft-Brexit now, that does not preclude leaving the single market at some point in the future. If, on the other hand, we go for a hard-Brexit now, it would be much harder to return to single market afterwards. If there is a genuine deep-rooted and long-term desire among the British electorate for the country to further distance itself from the EU, that desire can be expressed through the ballot box and acted on. In short, soft-Brexit keeps our options open and retains the maximum amount of choice for future policy-makers and voters.
The question in my head, as we face the most important set of political and economic decisions that are likely to occur in my lifetime is whether there is a substantial enough home for such arguments in the contemporary Labour Party. There are certainly still voices I can agree with and who talk sense on this issue (for example, the MEP Seb Dance wrote a blog entry yesterday arguing that continued single market membership must be a priority), but they seem increasingly few and far between.
From a personal point of view, this is a moment for reflection, not for rash decisions. So I am going to to wait a while before doing anything about my Labour Party membership. Maybe I will be convinced in the weeks to come that Labour can still provide a home for people with my views, and can be used as a platform to continue to argue for a forward looking, outward facing, economically credible and fairer Britain, rather than being drowned out by a fight between Corbynites and a post-Brexit form of blue Labour.
But I remain in hope rather than expectation.