And So, Back to Brexit!

I want to try to understand Brexit. Don’t we all? What follows is to some extent “thinking aloud” – me trying to help myself to understand and accurately to document what I do understand about this momentous political decision. So, the Tories are determined that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on 29 March 2019, come what may.

What may come, in the meantime, depends on the outcome of formal talks and negotiations between Theresa May (or her successor) and her Minister for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, and our erstwhile 27 other European partner states, represented by M. Jean-Michel Barnier.

May has signalled an intent for the UK not only to end its membership of the EU, but also explicitly to discontinue the UK’s participation in the EU’s Single Market – an immensely beneficial arrangement for UK industry that minimises the regulation of goods and services within all 28 EU member states and makes the movement of such goods and services, essential to the UK’s prosperity, vastly easier than it might otherwise be.  In simple terms, the Single Market is the reason why there are only sometimes 5 mile queues of trucks up the M2 from ports like Dover and Folkestone rather than permanent 15 mile long queues.

May has also signalled that the UK also intends to cease membership of another hugely important pillar of the EU, the Customs Union.  The Customs Union – again another immensely beneficial arrangement for the UK-  guarantees minimum uniform tariff rates to be levied for all categories of goods traded within the 28 EU member states (because they are agreed and defined in advance by those states).  Outside the Customs Union, the UK’s exports would not benefit from the agreed tariff rates in operation for Customs Union members, and would probably have to pay substantially higher tariffs.

The shorthand for the above has become known as “Hard Brexit”, and you might reasonably look at it and ask why anybody in their right mind would want to walk away from such beneficial arrangements, that actively contribute towards the UK’s prosperity.

The short answer is this : immigration.  Over the past 20 years or so, an apparent majority of the English and Welsh electorate (though not the Scots or Irish) has been conditioned by the likes of Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan Smith, Paul Nuttall, and others to become absolutely obsessed by immigration.  In particular, Farage and his ilk in UKIP, because of their stated opposition to British membership of the EU, decided that the best way to persuade people that the EU was A Very Bad Thing was to convince them that Britain’s membership of the EU was a prime source of immigration to the UK, that was wholly detrimental to many aspects of UK society.  That they whipped up and deliberately engendered racial hatred and prejudice in doing so was of no concern to them.

In order to be a member state in the EU, a country must agree to the central principles espoused by the Treaty of Rome that established the EU, one of which is the free movement of goods, services, and people, within all member states of the EU. It’s what makes the Single Market and the Customs Union possible, but it’s also what makes it possible for Polish electricians, or Latvian chambermaids, or French production managers, to choose to come to live and work in the UK, and, reciprocally, for Scottish mining engineers to go to the Czech Republic to work on major projects, or for English software developers to live and work in, say, Italy or Slovakia, or for British pensioners to stay toasty in southern Spain.   Again, this is (in my view) unquestionably a fantastic arrangement. It affords younger people, in particular, fantastic opportunities to travel, learn and grow in different countries, and provides significant, tangible benefits to the British economy – not least to the staffing of our health service.

UKIP and others have chosen (because it suits their purpose) to characterise the free movement of people within EU member states as immigration, when technically, the free movement of EU citizens is not immigration at all. It is what it is –a mutually agreed, mutually beneficial arrangement between states in which most of the movement of people is not actually permanent in the way that the notion of “immigration” implies.

It should be noted here that any responsible government, mindful of the UK’s status as an EU member state and the responsibilities entailed by that, would and should take practical action to address the possible concentration of pressures on services and infrastructure that can result from particularly intense movements of some EU citizens into a particular locale. This is precisely what Labour’s Regional Impact Fund, established by Gordon Brown, was established to do.  The Regional Impact Fund was immediately scrapped by the Tories when they assumed power in 2010.

This false characterisation of the free movement of EU citizens, and the associated encouragement of racism and xenophobia, are therefore what has enabled first the “victory” in the EU referendum of 2016, and now, the determined rush towards Brexit, on the wholly bogus basis that it represents “the will of the people”.  Everything, it seems, must be subordinated to the Holy Grail of freeing us from the cursed burden of EU “immigration”. And because retaining access to both the Single Market and the Customs Union is possible without being an EU member – but absolutely conditional on continued acceptance of the free movement of people, here is the reason for the drive towards “Hard Brexit”, which can therefore include neither.

In their approach to the Brexit negotiations, Theresa May and David Davis have encouraged the fantastical notion that the UK can leave behind our membership of the EU, the Single Market, and the Customs Union, and somehow be better off and more prosperous than our remaining part of these institutions would afford. How this might be possible is unexplained, other than a nebulous notion of achieving international trade deals signed with distant nations other than with the largest trading bloc in the world, situated right on our doorstep.

It is difficult to envisage what we will be left with when we eventually reach 29 March 2019.  I think that leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union represents economic hara-kiri for the UK, and that it therefore will not happen. We will do a deal to retain access that inevitably requires the inclusion of the free movement of people.  “Hard Brexit” is doomed, and the utterly specious notion that “No deal is better than a bad deal” must surely be shot down in flames – no deal is the worst possible of any sort of deal.

Looking further ahead, it is possible optimistically to foresee a date when the UK re-applies, post-Brexit, for EU membership, as it becomes brutally apparent that the decision to leave was a mistake of gargantuan proportions.

But as we contemplate Brexit of whatever complexion, consider this heart-breaking reality :  The UK currently has the best terms of membership of the EU of any of the member states : We are not part of the Eurozone and are exempted from contributing to bailing out Eurozone member countries such as Greece. We are not part of Schengen, and will not be. The soft border between Northern Ireland and Eire, integral to the continued success of peace in Northern Ireland, is made possible by our EU membership (and endangered by Brexit). We retain the annual contribution rebate established by Margaret Thatcher’s government.  And we are explicitly exempted from the aspiration of “ever closer union” espoused by the rest of our erstwhile EU partners.

All of these benefits would disappear on Brexit, and it is highly unlikely that we would be able to have any of them reinstated should we in future seek to re-join the EU.  In my view, this compounds the enormity of the decision to leave.

Technically, it is still conceivably possible for the UK to decide before March 2019 that we don’t want Brexit after all, and we’ve decided to stay as a member. It might take a further referendum – not currently on the cards – or a general election – currently still very likely to be on the cards while May’s minority government stumbles on – to enable such a decision to be taken.  It may be that such a decision is no longer possible in terms of Realpolitik, but I sincerely hope not. Many in the Labour party must surely be thinking along these lines.

Much Rests on Corbyn’s Shoulders

Vince Simonet’s thoughts yesterday on where Labour now finds itself following what was, to put things mildly, a very surprising election campaign and result, were interesting, but quite contentious in many ways. I’m going to try to offer a few reactions to Vince’s thoughts, in particular where I’ve found that my view diverges from Vince’s.

First, I think that continuing to talk about “Blairites” is, while perhaps for many a useful shorthand, rather unhelpful in terms of Labour advancing as a united party. As someone who has lately been very sceptical of the merits and benefits to the party of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, I have never described myself, and have in fact never been (as far as I understand the term) a “Blairite”. I’m old enough to have voted in the leadership election that saw Tony Blair installed as Labour’s leader in 1994, and I did not vote for Blair. I rather mistrusted him, agreeing with one commentator’s assessment of him as a “pot-bound politician” – someone who had no roots in the Labour Party. My vote went to Margaret Beckett, on the basis that she had done a fine job as acting leader after John Smith had suddenly died. More particularly, “Blairite” (almost always contemptuously spat out rather than spoken) has become a totem of certain supporters of the faction of the party that cleaves enthusiastically to Corbyn in such a way as to perpetuate Blair as the personification of where Labour went wrong. In fact, the Iraq debacle aside, the opposite is true, and a return to the winning ways that Blair’s 3 terms embodied would in my view be very welcome.

Vince wrote : ” JC and his allies can justifiably claim that if the parliamentary party had shown unity towards the leader for the last two years then we might now be in government. ”

Really? I don’t think that they can justifiably claim any such thing. Corbyn’s performance in 2016, particularly in respect of his appalling showing in the EU referendum campaign and his immediate call for article 50 to be triggered, was failing on every level, from strategy, to performance at PMQs, communications, message discipline, accessibility, and to day to day management of the parliamentary party. There was an egregious failure to provide any effective opposition to the government, and the challenge to Corbyn’s leadership was both fully justified and in fact rendered inevitable by Corbyn’s own recalcitrance. Had everybody simply collectively bitten their tongues and pretended everything was going swimmingly it would never have worked.

I note that Len McCluskey made a similar observation the other day, but I’m afraid that it is simply not credible. The challenge to Corbyn in 2016 was not made lightly or frivolously, and the concerns and forces within the PLP and the wider party that drove it could not simply be suppressed.

I also find myself in disagreement with Vince’s view that the proposition that only a centrist political project can succeed has been “skewered” as Vince puts it.

It has not. Tony Blair’s achievements in government were certainly not exclusively centrist in character (record NHS funding, tax credits, Sure Start, real progress on LGBT rights through civil partnerships, peace in Northern Ireland), but the trick that he was able to pull off was to get the huge, flexible chunk of the electorate that can be characterised as “the centre” – and whose support to winning an election is key – substantially to back Labour’s programme and to vote for it in the required numbers. Arguably, although our 2017 manifesto was rightly anti-austerity and recognised the desperate need to re-invest in public services, it was as “centrist” as anything put forward by the Blair-led governments elected in 1997, 2001, and 2005. Labour members right across the party could find plenty in it with which to agree, and it caught the mood of much of an electorate that seven years of austerity has failed and a change in direction is required. It was the late Phillip Gould who most tellingly put forward the proposition that elections are won from the centre. In my view, Gould’s assessment still holds good.

But it needs to be re-stated that we did NOT win this election. We made progress, and deprived May of her majority, but we still lost by 60 odd seats. Although Labour’s vote share increased by 10%, it achieved a swing from Tory to Labour of just 2%, when what was required to win was a swing of the order of 9.5% (as estimated by the Fabian Society) – twice the swing we needed, and did not get, in 2015. There may well be another general election within months in which Labour can finish the job and elect the first Labour government since 2010 with Jeremy Corbyn as PM, but I’d argue that that is not nailed on. With a minority Tory government supported by a distastefully nasty sectarian Northern Ireland based minor party, the role of Labour as the official opposition in parliament becomes more critically important than it has ever been.

Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in this aspect of his job, one (crucial) element of the concerns that prompted the vote of no confidence by the PLP and subsequent leadership challenge in 2016, has hitherto been lamentably sub-standard.

It’s not unreasonable to observe that Mr Corbyn’s parliamentary leadership game will need to be raised at the very least to the same extent to which he managed to raise his campaigning game during the election if Labour is successfully to work towards the defeat of Theresa May’s government. However, the rapid development of the parliamentary skill set needed to maximise the advantage of opposing an enfeebled and vulnerable Tory minority government is not the sole challenge facing Mr Corbyn.

Following the better than expected (which is to say annihilation avoiding) general election performance , there have been expressions of contrition from erstwhile trenchant Corbyn critics such as Chuka Umunna, Owen Smith, Harriet Harman, and even John Mann. But in spite of speculation that Corbyn would strengthen his hitherto somewhat talent-depleted front bench team by bringing in, say, Yvette Cooper and Ed Miliband, only Owen Smith, Corbyn’s leadership challenger, has so far been given a front bench brief. Corbyn may have missed a chance here, by dint of faint action in bringing in only Smith, genuinely to unify the party for the battles to come.

I’d certainly agree with both Len McCluskey, and with Vince, that that unity in the party, previously absent, is very much what is now required, but it is dependent to a great extent on how the party is led forward from now on. As ever, there is a great deal riding on the leader’s shoulders.