Labour Needs to Bring Corbyn’s “Straight Talking” to its Brexit Policy
Michael Gove told us to ignore the experts, but it turns out they were right to be anxious about a vote to leave the European Union.
The impact of Brexit is already proving palpable, contributing to an economic downturn of worsening living standards, sluggish productivity and stagnant wages.
Philip Hammond made his party’s priorities clear by allocating £3 billion towards Brexit in the budget. Yet Hammond is a hate figure among Conservative backbenchers for his ideological impurity, while MPs who want to moderate their party’s position are derided as traitors.
A divided government provides easy pickings for the opposition. But Labour has also been criticised for a lack of clarity. Jeremy Corbyn once argued that Brexit requires leaving the European Economic Area - the single market and customs union that harmonise European trade and free movement - ruling out a so-called “Soft Brexit”.
Now Corbyn and shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer back staying in both as a post-Brexit “transitional period”. In an apparent U-turn, shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner stated in a BBC interview that Labour is keeping a Soft Brexit on the table.
This frames Soft Brexit as Labour’s backup plan, extending the negotiating period to haggle a “bespoke” Brexit deal that replicates single market access. But different faces at the Brexit negotiating table do not change the reality: a bespoke deal is always going to be economically inferior to the present arrangement.
the British government has a responsibility to negotiate on behalf of the whole nation
Britain’s bargaining power in the negotiations is not as strong as Brexiters made out. UK exports to the EU far exceed EU exports to the UK. Put simply, collectively they do not need us more than we need them.
Whether they are negotiating with Brexiters or Remainers, it is not in the EU’s interests to offer a deal that offers all the benefits of membership. The EU has no incentive to weaken its standing among the remaining 27 members.
Britain leaving the single market or customs union poses the risk of border controls between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which jeopardises the peace forged through the Good Friday Agreement. Leo Varadkar’s government is threatening to block trade talks over the border.
Economic and diplomatic realities dictate that a Soft Brexit might become a necessity.
It is not without precedent elsewhere in Europe, though. Norway and Iceland, along with Lichtenstein, have opted out of the EU but participate in the EEA. It is an awkward arrangement as it binds them to EU regulations while denying them input in any of the EU decision-making bodies.
But it has worked in those countries, where voters are wary of EU interference in domestic polices but also value the benefits of the European trade blocs.
EEA membership obliges the free movement of people, including for UK nationals in Europe. The European Court of Justice ruled that EU member states have the discretion to internally regulate migration.
The likes of Nigel Farage protest that a Soft Brexit would be a betrayal of the referendum result. However, the British government has a responsibility to negotiate on behalf of the whole nation about an issue that will affect the country for generations. Even 52% only voted to leave a political institution - they entrusted politicians to deal with the technicalities.
Some Remainers are suspicious that lifelong eurosceptic Corbyn sympathises with left-wing advocates of Brexit, who view EU membership a barrier to public ownership of public utilities and transport - popular ideas in Britain.
Anti-Brexiters point to nationalisations within EU law, but these decisions also have to be signed off by the European Commission. Brexit could allow Labour to be bolder on state intervention, integral to John McDonnell’s economic agenda. The cost would be a bad trade deal, impacting employment, interest rates and wages.
Labour has committed to blocking a “no deal” departure marooning Britain from the EU. Rightfully so, as imposing an array of World Trade Organisation tariffs would risk job losses and hit the poor hardest. It may have to go further.
The honest politics on Brexit is that getting a bespoke deal will be tough, and it will be inferior
Brexit is fundamentally a test of democracy, challenging politicians to finely balance the referendum outcome with the overall interests of the country.
Suddenly demanding a Breversal, as some Remainers demand, would be blessing to the Tories and even throw UKIP a life raft. What Labour can do is bring some much-needed honesty to the debate.
If Brexit is mishandled then the public opinion may turn. Labour frontbenchers are open to the possibility. Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott broke from her party to suggest there should be a referendum on the final deal. Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry has not ruled one out if there is a great enough shift in public opinion.
One of the Corbyn leadership’s slogans is particularly relevant to Brexit: the promise of “straight talking, honest politics”.
The honest politics on Brexit is that getting a bespoke deal will be tough, and it will be inferior: the Canada style deal proposed by the government is vastly inferior to EU membership. A Soft Brexit leaves us outside of decision-making bodies but allows for the status quo with regards to trade.
Straight talking politics prescribes that there are no perfect solutions. But the logic of Labour’s slogan - “Jobs First Brexit” - is that the UK retains the closest possible links to the EU.
Ultimately the national interest, and public will, may demand keeping Britain in the EU - especially if the opposing choice is a disastrous no deal Brexit. In the meantime, after so much dishonesty, the public might reward a party that speaks frankly about the options and steers clear of simplistic tabloid divisiveness.
The question remains whether Corbyn is willing to change course.
About the author
Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.
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