A radical Labour government won't only be tough on Brexit, but that it will be tough on the causes of Brexit—and unlock a new Europeby Zoe Williams / July 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
A full two years after the referendum, in late June, Theresa May was still sounding like a baffling professor of formal logic, having advanced the conversation on from “Brexit means Brexit” to “Brexit means Brexit does mean Brexit.” She still had nothing concrete to say about what leaving the EU would involve.
Then, at the start of July, she finally moved beyond gnomic utterance, convening her cabinet in Chequers to settle the real choices—a single market in goods, but not services or labour, “taking account of” European Court of Justice rulings and so on. It was all fantasy, in the sense that there was no reason to believe the EU would buy it, but for today’s Conservative Party it proved too much even to get specific in the realm of fiction, and her cabinet started to crumble.
The root reason for this is that, with no positive vision of a future outside Europe from the right, and none for a future inside it from the left, there has been no change at all in the range of Brexit options that can be considered as logical possibilities. That still stretches, just as it did in summer 2016, from a no-deal, cliff-edge Brexit to the softest, greatest-possible-alignment Brexit.
An unfolding impossibility
“What about no Brexit?” is still unsayable—which seems strange given the dwindling band who still pretend that any of the available Brexits are at all satisfactory: either we will be submitting to rules we can no longer write, or driving the economy over a cliff.
Despite the government dissolving into entropy and rage, a new line of thought is gaining traction: there cannot be any good option, because to reverse Brexit would be as bad as to execute it. If you think the nation is divided now, just wait until you try and thwart it in its democratically expressed will.
It is bizarre to watch some Conservatives say this explicitly: Priti Patel tweeting, “This is no longer an argument about whether Brexit was a good idea, but is about democracy… the public want to know that political leaders will stay true to the promise made to them that Brexit means Brexit.” As the impossibility of Brexit unfolds, the act itself becomes irrelevant: all that matters is the decision to act.
This is quite an interesting cognitive trajectory. Here are two propositions. First, however unproductive anyone expected the Brexit negotiations to be, the reality is proving worse for the country and its citizens.
Second, Brexit cannot be stopped because that would betray “the people.” The two are clearly linked by an idea never spoken: why don’t we just not do it? The implacable rage of a leaver, thwarted, is amplified and prioritised in the political conversation. Why? Because the alternative is to entertain the unthinkable, which is that we simply don’t leave.
And yet, at least for my mind, the forbidden question just won’t go away: what if we didn’t leave? Other questions flow from it: what new European contract might we hope to build? And how might this new Europe help to address the concerns that led so many voters to plump for “Leave?”
Given the politics, that last question is the first thing that has to be tackled in thinking through whether “remaining after all” could fly: the fear of betraying the Leavers’ mandate looms so large that no progress can be made until we have cleared out of the way the question of what they wanted.
What Leavers wanted
The trouble is that no plausible inventory has yet been made of practical things that Leavers voted for. May ties herself and the process up in knots over the single market, but even if David Cameron warned that Brexit might mean quitting that too, few voters were drilling into that sort of detail, and they certainly weren’t listening to Cameron: they were voting against him anyway.
Back in 2016 few people had even heard of a customs union, still less built up enough animus for it to have been a driving motivation. Immigration certainly featured heavily in the arguments, but even post-referendum, the most reputable studies, such as NatCen’s, found that the economy was at least as big a motivator across the public as a whole.
Sure, immigration may have loomed larger among Leavers, but since the question of migration was tacked, so misleadingly, on to the issue of low wages, can we really be confident that freedom of movement was the animating issue, rather than, say, low wages?
Whatever meaning the vote had doesn’t reside where the post-referendum debate situates it. But it doesn’t follow that the vote was meaningless: it wasn’t. It would be fair to say that it was a vote against the status quo, a rejection of the establishment. When every living prime minister lines up to tell you to vote one way, and 52 per cent of you vote the other way, this surely counts as a vote for “none of you lot.”
A radical shift—without leaving
A government that itself represented discontinuity wouldn’t need to do Brexit. It could quench the thirst for change with its own radical programme. And in practice, whether you like it or not, in this time and place that means a Corbyn-led Labour government.
Many Remainers despair at Corbyn’s palpable lack of interest in Europe, and the complacency with which he can seem to disregard the consequences of crashing out—as, most notoriously, when he called for Article 50 to be invoked within hours of the referendum vote coming in.
The critical thing about a radical Labour government, however, is not that it will be tough on Brexit, but that it will be tough on the causes of Brexit.
That simply isn’t true of many of the more establishment forces who are pushing for “Remain.” There is no significant new thinking among the Conservatives that could make the case to cancel Brexit without simply signalling a return to the rather indolent worldview of Cameron and Osborne. A cross-party cavalry (David Miliband, Anna Soubry and Nick Clegg as a wild “for instance”) would be an incendiary statement (“No, you may not have your new politics; try this post-politics, instead”).
So my case for Remain and Reform—I travel under the banner Another Europe is Possible, which campaigns against Brexit from the left—assumes Corbyn, or his like-minded successor in Downing Street.
The way I’d hope to see things playing out wouldn’t satisfy the well-heeled Surrey voter with a sovereignty fetish, but I’m not sure his anger has a political solution.
What ground-down Britain urgently needs, and what exhausted Europe sorely needs too, is a dash of hope that people’s day-to-day lives can change for the better—the hope that was so palpably missing from the “Remain” campaign of 2016. (“Great for students, great for families, great for pensioners” said one leaflet. It sounded more like a Center Parcs advert than a political vision.)
For any internationalists on the left, aside from the dreamiest Utopian, it is plain that progressives will be better served by staying involved with the EU, solving common problems collaboratively across national borders.
Britain, Europe and the world as a whole face three pressing challenges beyond stagnant living standards: climate change, the refugee crisis and the rise of fascism, both within and without its borders.
A moment’s reflection is enough to realise that reducing the scope for multilateral action, by walking away from Europe, is going to make it more difficult to tackle any of them.
European action on climate
On climate change, as LSE academic Mary Kaldor notes, “there is considerable momentum for far-reaching efforts to keep climate change under 2 degrees, including the ‘Clean Energy Package for All Europeans’ and the ‘EU Roadmap for 100 per cent emission cuts by mid-century.’”
We can see from our own equivocations since 2010 how the pressures of domestic politics destroy the will to do what is necessary: a prime minister can one minute vow to lead the greenest government ever, then the next minute scream “cut the green crap.” The vested interests, the nostalgic denialists and the need to build a century-long strategy out of five-year planning horizons combine to make the urgent work tomorrow’s problem.
No nation alone is up to the massive cultural and economic transformation that will be required to break out of this. Nothing ever undertaken within borders has achieved anything like as much as European environmental law.
Renewable energy is one concrete example of ingenuity, incentive and unity of purpose combining to solve an apparently intractable problem, and change the dynamics of a failing status quo. Let’s salute the co-operation already in place.
A European supergrid, to share the wind surplus of Denmark and the solar of Portugal, will potentially transform not just the energy use but the geo-political priorities of a continent (just imagine what foreign policy could look like in a post-oil world: you could claim to seek nothing but peace, and actually mean it).
The refugee “crisis”?
As for the “refugee crisis,” it is a misnomer: the numbers are tiny as a proportion of the European population. This is a political crisis, incubated in the chauvinist language of “swarms” and “floods” which has taken hold from here to Hungary. Whether refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean or held in cages in Texas, we have a moral obligation to those seeking sanctuary whether we’re in the EU or not.
“We have a moral obligation”
We’ve had that responsibility, understood and respected it, since long before we joined the EU, and—in law—will remain signatories to the Refugee convention which the UK signed a whole generation before the Treaty of Rome.
As guards from Frontex, the European border agency, drag makeshift ships back to anywhere but its own shores, the noblest principles on which the European enterprise was built have gone missing.
Their rediscovery, if it happens at all, will be collective. Britain can play an important part in it, but not by leaving.
Europe against fascism
Finally, and not unrelated, is the newly-pervasive threat of fascism: in the bellicose language of Donald Trump, in the slippery interventions of Vladimir Putin, it looms from without. Within Europe it is there in the Roma-baiting of Matteo Salvini, and the strongman fantasies of Viktor Orbán.
A politics is afoot that has unhitched itself from decades of carefully constructed consensus on what is decent and peaceable, preferring wild promises, repudiating fact and reason.
It is, surely, important to stand up against those ugly forms of nationalism which have visited such -destruction on so many countries, our own included, in the past.
But we are currently witnessing only a half-hearted response, one detailed argument at a time; individual national governments pointing out that no, the EU was not created to take advantage of America, and yes, a framework of universal rights was built for a reason, principally, to prevent genocide.
This is flimsy: authoritarian ideas must be rejected in concert by the largest possible bloc. We’re not going to help that by walking away.
For all the flaws of the EU, its susceptibility to corporate capture and its technocratic turn since the financial crisis, it is the only set of institutions ever planted in the soil of peace and reconciliation in this continent.
And it is the only sphere in which a British government whose priorities were disarmament rather than buying arms, co-operation rather than trade advantage, internationalism over soft-nationalism, could bring any of that to fruition.
The Left road to Remain
So we know where we need to go. But how to get there? How to actually build—and promote—a Europe capable of tackling the problems that gave rise to the “Leave” vote in the first place? Let’s throw ourselves straight in with the toughest challenge of all. How do we recast the whole debate about free movement? That’s what we need to do, rather than ceding yet more ground to anti-immigrant opinion, as Nick Clegg effectively proposes with his ideas about “emergency brakes” in this month’s issue of Prospect.
“What would freedom of movement look like,” asked Niccolò Milanese, author of Citizens of Nowhere and director of the campaign group European Alternatives, “if it were a genuine expression of liberty, rather than the exploitation of labour by large capital blocks?”
This went unasked during the referendum, when Remainers assumed—with some justification—that when freedom of movement was raised, the only thing to do was “protect and survive.” It was defended by explaining the lump of labour fallacy, and occasionally lauded as the human side of the free market—which otherwise only existed to keep the wheels of profit turning.
A sensible approach to the single market
The single market would, without provision for freedom of movement, undoubtedly be worse overall—even more skewed towards commerce over the citizenry. But free movement as we have had it, within that market system, has sometimes served as a channel for exploitation.
Just think of the way that Sports Direct could draft in workers from eastern Europe who knew nothing about their rights and had no local networks to offer advice. The warehouses they staffed became laboratories for a disturbing blend of Victorian working practices and modern surveillance, which inevitably spread to indigenous workers.
While free movement was never seen as a problem when it meant movement between the comparably prosperous countries of western Europe, when the EU moved east, the right was suddenly extended to workers who earned very little in their nation of birth. In pockets of receiving nations, citizens felt their power in the workplace eroded by the arrival of this unencumbered, un-unionised, adventuring workforce.
In the UK, with its long history of opt-outs on things like working-time rules, the competition offered by work-hungry new arrivals was particularly keenly felt. The perception that migration lowers wages may have been wrong, but wages, over a decade or more running up to the referendum, had stagnated.
Telling people they were wrong about immigrants became a coded way of telling them there was nothing to be done about stagnant pay. (Everyone always says that Blair’s government didn’t want to talk about immigration after Europe expanded east, but this isn’t the case. They wanted, very much indeed, to talk about how migration didn’t depress wages. What they didn’t want to talk about was wages.)
Nor did the source nations necessarily win. Parts of eastern Europe were haemorrhaging their young people, graduates included, not because of rich opportunities to the west, but because low-skilled drudgery here was somewhat better paid. Better opportunities certainly opened up for some, but in many cases, they did not. The lands they had left behind were impoverished, not so much financially as in their bones.
Liberty of movement
Genuine liberty of movement can only be achieved when there is adequate investment in the skills, rights and competencies of both the migrants and the natives in the receiving nations. The TUC’s research has found more of an internal European migration effect on skills and rights than on wages, as short-termist employers have chosen to import rather than train skilled labour, and exploit the willingness of incoming workers to submit to total “flexibility,” thereby establishing a benchmark of precariousness for all.
So how to respond? By working across national borders, not retreating behind them. When companies are international, worker organisation must be too. Otherwise, when Amazon falls foul of your unions, it will simply move its operations to Poland (as it did from Germany, in 2015).
By working across Europe—on wage floors, training and universal entitlements—unions could achieve a magnificent push back against the erosion of rights that has been the story of this young century in every European nation.
Transnational worker co-ordination, allied to a resurgent left in Europe, could do so much more than the rather hollowed-out national social democratic offering, which had shrivelled to the project of protecting people from the worst effects of business, while scraping to remain attractive to competition from other, less regulated nations.
“Historically,” Milanese reminds us, “the UK, the Labour Party in particular, has played a huge role in bringing about workers’ rights.” It should be “right at the heart of discussions” about how to advance them again in our changing world.
“We need to stop the clock and get stuck back into Europe”
Neither Labour nor Britain is ever going to be able to do that while it is determined to walk out of the one international club that has a significant social dimension. We need to stop the clock and get stuck back into Europe—making plain to all those who felt the EU had become a force to undermine working conditions that Britain will, in future, do all in its power to ensure it is used to drive standards up instead.
The political challenges don’t stop with migration. We need to confront why the “Remain” case didn’t work in the first place, namely that many of the arguments against the EU had some truth to them.
Too often led from the top down, Europe lacked the legitimacy to embody or enact the principles that made it a worthwhile project. There was what the economist Wynne Godley called, in the pre-euro 1990s, an “incredible lacuna” in the Maastricht Treaty: it had a blueprint for a central bank and single currency, but not even the trace of an idea for a political union or central government. Technical economic fixes went uncontested, while the idea of a joint political project aroused fierce suspicion.
The principle here is preposterous: you cannot build economic systems linking democratic nations without pathways of accountability back to the voters.
Imagining a new Europe
To stimulate more continent-wide democratic debate and decision-making processes, and to move Europe away from stitch-ups behind closed doors, a progressively-governed and Remaining Britain would of course have to work with others in Europe.
Is that a pipe dream? Those who built the EU in the first place had inherited a bloodstained continent. But they believed that another Europe was possible, and through their deeds they steadily created one. Nothing but timidity can prevent us from re-imagining Europe again, and then getting to work on making it a reality.
It is time to re-think Europe from the bottom up. A Europe that enlists movements operating transnationally, that answers similar problems with grass-roots responses that cross-pollinate one another. A Europe that combines the might of its individual states into an entity genuinely equal to the forces working against the social lives of its people.
That is the only way to face modernity with power and confidence. And it is a dream whose best shot might just begin, if only Brexit can be stopped with a clear eye on the problems that caused it in the first place.
Now read Nick Clegg’s route to staying in