Labour on the Rocks

For any blog site commenting on current developments, the latest headlines define the agenda. The opening days of April provided many, but if the Livingstone saga is ignored as driven by one person’s private attempt to stay in the headlines, there are two underlying themes that make Labour’s future increasingly grim. The first is the Party leadership abandoning Party policy to appease right wing interests, and the second is the short sighted belief that the battle for Party dominance is what defines party politics. Both major factions, Old Left and Modernised New Labour are paddling these canoes with no sense that the public is moving elsewhere. The first of these two problems is now coming to a head.

The major political issue of our time is Brexit, and the dominant forces in the PLP have abandoned defence of the EU for acceptance of the hard right agenda on splitting from Europe. The party policy passed by the 2016 conference, still holds that while it “noted” the TUC decision to accept the majority vote, it would reserve its position including not triggering Article 50 and stated that “The final settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through parliament and potentially through a general election or referendum”, which remains feasible, most crucially through another referendum.

But the PLP leadership, from Corbyn to Mandleson, abandoned this with classic short term thinking. The principled reasons for defending Europe were abandoned once the vote came in, but it was not only Corbyn who demanded total obedience to Brexit. Miliband’s speech to the Open Labour conference was that a soft Brexit was acceptable and Labour would get this, with no reference to the actual results of this policy. As I have already argued, there is no soft Brexit and to accept the Tory agenda as Corbyn did by putting a three line whip on Article 50 was folly. However the electoral argument is currently top priority. The Corbynistas still claim that they can win the next election, arguing it will take two years to turn the party round.

This has to be measured against the reality of Labour’s actual election results. At both the February by- elections, in Leave constituencies, the vote for Brexit candidates outnumbered the pro-Brexit parties, but by accepting Brexit Labour is said to have held on to Stoke Central, despite losing Copeland. The result was clearly the result of UKIP splitting the Brexit vote. This was a poor outcome in a Leave seat, and there is no answer from the Party leadership on what would happen in pro-Remain constituencies: the threat to Labour’s north English seats was enough to ditch party policy. However the double thrust of losing Remain and Leave seats is now looming. SNP and Lib Dems are as much a threat, in Remain constituencies as UKIP and the resurgent Tories are in Leve seats.

To add a twist of pure stupidity, the Times reported on April 6th that Peter Mandelson is arguing the UK should pay £50billion to release the UK from the EU, at which point negotiations on a trade deal could begin. The idea that paying £50 billion wins votes is a non-starter. The Leave case rested largely on stopping monies being paid to Brussels. Paying large sums to them would trigger a backlash from the Right and is so far from reality that Mandleson has entered the realms of delusion.

The same day the paper reported that internal Tory polling showed the Lib Dems likely to win back seats in South London and the South West they lost in 2015, but due to the strength of their local organisation not the call for a second referendum. This will be put to the test in the vote Farron has called on May 12th, but at least means that a snap election is impossible for the Tories to call, so Labour has time to assess what is to be done about its Brexit favouring leadership.

The grim failure to grasp what accepting Brexit involves was most sharply pointed up by Ed Miliband – of the Speech of Retreat at the Open Labour conference on March 11th – and Hilary Benn, now risking becoming the member for voting with the Tories, jointly writing in the Guardian on 2nd April. What stood out was two experienced politicians arguing that Labour can build national unity but “we don’t do it by appearing to write off the 52%”, a statement not merely political nonsense but hypocritical since they belong to a party elite which ignored the growing alienation of the working class voter as Labour failed from 2001 to hold its core vote. It is dangerously patronising to second referendum supporters. These know they have to pay close attention to people who voted for the Tory hard right and win their support. This is very different from seeking to appease people who Labour now fears will vote against them in the future. The Labour leadership has lost any credibility by flip flopping over Europe and the strategies and tactics needed to hold on to and develop Party policy will not come from the compromised politicians on the front bench.

Trevor Fisher

Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007. He was a member of the Compass Executive 2007-2009

This article first appeared on Labour Uncut as ‘Labour’s pro-Brexit front bench is more of a problem than Corbyn

Brexit and the Archbishop

Any campaign for a 3rd EU referendum faces major problems, the first being that EU 1 has been forgotten. That Referendum, in 1975, was caused by divisions within Labour which still remain. EU2 in 2016 was caused by divisions with the Tory party, which still remain under the surface. EU1 was an overwhelming YES while EU 2 was a narrow NO, but the first lasted forty years as it was not particularly destructive. EU2 was so destructive it may end the UK and cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.

However there is no simple way either can be re-run and something better has to be devised than a crude yes no with no checks and balances – as was said in the 2016 epetition…. which tellingly was devised by a UKIPPER, though not I think UKIP policy. But when they thought they had lost, the better brains in their ranks were looking for a third referendum. Now its a once in a generation decision.

However that is not where the big obstacles lie. The Lords debate (EU notification of withdrawal Bill March 7th) was noted for a sensible debate – the Commons debates have been contemptuous, as befits a chamber that voted to give away its rights of scrutiny – which threw light into three of the dark places of the referendum process – its role in democracy, the flaws in referendums but their unavoidability nowadays, and the reasons why there is no soft brexit, only In or Out The EU.

To start at the top, the comments of the Archbishop of Canterbury arguing against a 3rd Referendum spoke volumes. Knowing the that the 2016 bill had created deep divisions, his Grace argued “it will deepen the bitterness. It is not democratic; it is unwise. Even if circumstances change, as the noble baroness Lady Wheatcroft, rightly said they were likely to do – even if they change drastically – a dangerous and overcomplicated process is the result of a referendum”. We may say that only when it is as badly handled as the 2016 one was, but the really crucial aspect of this is that having a debate and a vote is regarded as divisive, and even if the circumstances are likely to change drastically – ie badly – the nation cannot be allowed another vote, it would be dangerous.

In fact a third vote is the only way to reconcile Remainers to the situation, win or lose. Hard Brexiteers will never be convinced, but it is their right to campaign for another vote if they lose EU3. The fundamental democratic principle is the right to challenge the status quo. Remainers backed the right of Leavers to do so after 1975 and still do so. But we now have an Orwellian world in which Remainers are undemocratic for wanting to scrutinise and debate Brexit.

Only in a dictatorship can the governing status quo not be challenged. Parliament has given up its right to scrutinise and challenge Brexit, which EU 2 certainly gave the government the right to initiate, so the only channel left is a third referendum. Referendums are as daft as using a chain saw to do brain surgery, but its all we have left due to our politicians. It is neither dangerous nor complicated to say STOP: we want the status quo.

Many now fear an endless sequence of referendums, but that is the result of a destructive process. Referendums are indeed destructive, and a deliberative process like a Constitutional Convention would be better. But parliament sanctioned referendums. And as for Soft Brexit, while Referendums are a bad thing, they do have one valid consequence. They are clearly IN or OUT. So lets keep that choice going while we can.

Trevor Fisher

Brexit And Gibraltar – Cause for Concern

This is the full version of a letter (to The Telegraph) from the Labour MEP for the South West and Gibraltar Clare Moody. The consequences of the Brexit vote are now becoming clearer and the dangers more evident. The Brixiteers clearly have not understood the vulnerability of Gibraltar as they have failed to grasp other destructive consequence of Brexit.

It is notable and alarming that Michael Howard and other Tories called for war as a reaction to the alleged threat to Gibraltar, making the issue more than just the standard Brexit issue. There has been no war talk in Western Europe since 1945. This was an ominous first and makes discussion of the effects of continuing with the Brexit project more urgently necessary than ever.

Editors.

 

Dear Sir,

It is the outcome of the referendum and the UK government’s actions since, that has put the interests of Gibraltar at risk post-Brexit. Equally Theresa May’s Article 50 letter completely overlooked the fact that the Government is also responsible for negotiating for Gibraltar, a deep concern not only for Gibraltar but for all British citizens that are relying on the competence of this government in the negotiations.

The remaining EU27 are predictably looking out for their own interests and now will only hear the Madrid government’s view as the UK is no longer at the table. This careless and totally unnecessary misstep by the Prime Minister did not go unnoticed by them last Wednesday.

I was shouted down in the campaign for employing Project Fear when I pointed out the problems that Gibraltar would face if the UK voted to leave. Spain was rightfully forced by the UK to open the border as part of their deal to join the EU. It is why that it was no surprise that 96% of Gibraltar’s population voted Remain.

The government has, belatedly, committed to standing up for Gibraltar’s interests, although Michael Howard’s comments have been incredibly counter-productive for the UK in these negotiations. We now need to see if May’s promises are met, the statement on Friday from the EU27 was a draft and we will find out if the reference to Gibraltar has been removed when we see the final statement is published. 30,000 Gibraltarians and many million other British citizens are depending on May delivering on all the promises she has made about what Brexit will deliver.

Yours faithfully, Clare Moody, Labour MEP for the South West and Gibraltar

New Brexit Forum Created

Progressive Politics has now added a Brexit Forum to site’s list of features.

Brexit is not only the defining issue of this Parliament, but almost certainly, the political issue that will dominate the politics of a generation.Some believe the will of the people must be followed, as so the debate becomes one of a soft or hard Brexit. Others believe that the end result of the negotiations may be so horrendous that the British people may well change their mind; they should have the chance to speak on the final settlement in a final referendum. Others are dedicated to campaigning for the Britain to either remain in the EU or to seek to rejoin at a future date.

You may think it a little over the top to suggest that this issue will dominate politics in such a way but, as I approach my 60th birthday, I remind myself that the very first national vote I took part in was the first referendum on Europe. Throughout all of my political adult life the issue of Europe — and Britain’s relationship to it — has not been far from the headlines.

The Brexiteers have reminded us of the value of long term political thinking and campaigning, just as the Monetarist economists did a generation or so ago. In the face of the post war settlement and political consensus, economists like Milton Friedman dug in for a long, hard, political battle. It took the Monetarists until the mid 1970s before they found their champions in the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The Brexiteers have shown similar stamina. For many years most of us thought the Brexiteers to be, frankly, bonkers but yet they won out in the end. It is a reminder that we cannot take progressive values from granted as we move through the years. We cannot always move forwards. We have to have a view to defending and consolidating what was won.

In reality, Labour has long been as divided over Europe as the Tories but for much of the Blair/Brown years that division ran alongside the Parliamentary mainstream and left divide. Cornyn’s election as Leader — as in so many areas of policy — has many scratching their heads as to what Labour really now believes over Europe.

Over the last six months we have seen a growth in both national and local movements dedicated to fighting or overturning the Brexit decision. At the heart of these groups are young people for whom this is without doubt the defining political issue of the age. Having worked with them a while now I don’t doubt this fervour will be long lasted.

And so there is much to discuss about Brexit but we need to move beyond the decision that have already taken (whatever we think of them).

What will life in Britain look like in a post Brexit world? What are the challenges for our economy? How midge Brexit impact on our social and welfare security? And what might Brexit mean to the very make up of the UK and to our institutions of governance?

This issue will run and run. It is vital that — on this issue — Labour moves onto the front foot and seeks to lead opinion rather than simply respond the agenda setting of Theresa May and her colleagues.

So, whether you are pro EU or anti, whether you are for a hard Brexit or soft, or whether you feel we should be campaigning to stay in or seek return at some future debate, your views are welcome.

Please feel free to contribute to the debate by contributing to us. Send any copy to:

editors@progpol.org.uk

Each article or viewpoint will have a comments section. So, if you don’t fancy composing your own contribution then please feel free to make a shorter one as a comment.

Brexit Economics: The Shadow Chancellor Who Deserted The Ship

Now the by-elections are out of the way it is time to get back to Brexit, the political issue that will dominate not only this Parliament but that may well be a defining issue for a generation.

Diane Abbot is right when she points out that any political party with a foot in both the Remain and the Leave camp would find life difficult. Replace remain and leave with immigration and the economy and you have a more accurate reflection of the political dilemma facing Labour.

Immigration is, of course, an exceptionally difficult issue for any progressive Party to consider not least because the issues raised seem different across the regions of the country. Despite immigration being such a high profile concern Labour has not even started to debate the issue seriously, despite the All Party Group on Social Cohesion calling for a Commission to examine how a devolved immigration system might work. Clear, solid and principled policy will only come from pan-party debate, votes and brave leadership. As none of these factors are in place we can’t expect any clear Labour policy on immigration any time soon.

The economy should be an easier issue for Labour to headline on as ultimately it is should be our core issue. Talk to anyone for more than a few minutes and fears of Brexit quickly surface, even amongst those who voted to leave. Remember, the South Wales steel worker interviewed the day after the referendum? “I voted to leave but I didn’t think it would happen”.

It is very easy for broadcast journalists to find pensioners who simply don’t care about the economic arguments but dig a bit deeper and it is clear that many, if not most, of those of working age feel very insecure about their futures.

Fears for the future are understandable not least as the economic foundations of Brexit seem to change each week. During the referendum campaign Johnson captured headlines by proclaiming that, of course, we could stay in the single market. Other — harder Brexiteers — wanted out from both the single market and the customs union as soon as possible but these more extreme voices were never effectively challenged as the media focussed on the Johnson and Farage roadshows.

Since the referendum the government continues to shift its position, firstly, preparing to abandon the single market and subsequently showing itself willing to abandon the Customs union, preparing to trade if need be on World Trade Organisation rules and tariffs. As this mess unfolds Theresa May’s government becomes increasingly dependent on Donald Trump to seal a quick trade deal with the USA; they will have little choice but to snap up whatever is on offer from Trump. Some are optimistic as Trump opposed the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) as did many progressives did in Europe, but Trump’s objections are on very different grounds. How easy do we think it will for British industry to get tariff free access for high value manufactured goods without us reciprocating by the further opening up our health and public services?

At least 50% of our major businesses feel that Brexit is already having a detrimental effect on the bottom line. Each week we see businesses — from financial services to manufactures — making it clear that they will re-consider their UK bases and future investment programmes if they are left with a ‘hard Brexit’. It is already clear that trading on WTO terms will be a disaster for the UK, making our economy uncompetitive in the global economy. Negotiating trade treaties to replace those we already have access by virtue of EU membership will take years.

So, given the seriousness of these economic concerns is seems extraordinary that John McDonnell is not addressing them. He is failing to articulate a clear commitment to the prioritising of the economy in the Brexit debate.

Many of those Labour MPs who voted to trigger Article 50 argue that there is still time to act as the shape of the final deal becomes clearer, yet in reality they are being lured into fighting on Tory territory. You can’t trust Labour with Brexit will be the continuing rallying call of this government. McDonnell needs to get wise; he can’t campaign for eighteen months on being a better party for Brexit and at the last minute throw up his hands and declare the whole thing is a disaster.

For Labour finding space in the media for an anti or doubtful Brexit message will be hard. This is why Labour’s position needs to be unequivocal and our priorities shouted out long and loud. The Vote on Article 50 was a disaster precisely because it abandoned the one opportunity for Labour to grab serious media time and to make the headlines. It would have allowed McDonnell the become our champion the protection of jobs and living standards from the outset.

Such a stance need not be automatically anti Brexit or against the popular vote. It is possible, we must suppose, that the government may pull off an acceptable deal with Europe even if this seems unlikely. However, there must be a real likelihood that the position we are left with after leaving the European Union is worse than that if we had remained in it. At the end of these negotiations, do we think McDonnell is really brave enough to take on the government, to argue against the very foundations of Brexit if that becomes necessary?

There is another reason why Labour needs to adopt a laser-like focus on the economy and on jobs and trade over time. Many of the electorate seem to have a poor knowledge of basic economic principles. Tim Shipman’s account of the anti European movement and the referendum campaign, _All Out War_, shows how — as the referendum campaign reached its zenith — both campaigns found that their focus groups were un-moved by economic arguments, they simply didn’t understand them. Labour will need to campaign long and hard to effectively inform voters. Education campaigns demand time.

So, whatever the eventual result of the negotiations with the EU Labour must campaign hard now if it is to have any chance of having a serious impact on public opinion. Labour’s ability to take on the Tories in the future will depend on it.

Labour’s position needs to be unequivocal. Labour must be a party prepared to defend jobs and prosperity and prepared to argue against the Brexit deal _if_the deal sells the country short. Labour should be clear now that there must be a second referendum on the final terms of the Brexit deal. May’s ‘take it or leave it vote’ will offer little chance for eleventh hour campaigns or reversals.

Labour’s pitch to voters needs to be blunt. To trade on WTO terms would be to impose a ‘tax’ on each job in the UK. If voters are uncertain about economic arguments they sure as hell understand the notion of tax. Whether you work in manufacturing, hospitality, financial services or technology, trading on WTO terms will make you and your employer less competitive in world markets. The low tax, low protection economy favoured by hard Brexiteers will decimate the public sector.

The policy and campaign positions discussed here are not designed to be anti Brexit, rather they are aimed positioning Labour as the protector of our economy, our jobs and our living standards.

In failing to step up to the mark John McDonnell has effectively gone absent without leave. Until he finds the courage to develop a clear line on Brexit and the economy, Theresa May will continue to dominate and Labour will continue to poll at record lows. Labour’s Leadership is already conceding the future of the post Brexit world to the Tories and the right.

Andy Howell
28th February 2017