The latest announcements suggest the party has finally adopted a sensible stance on the customs union. But with a weak Tory government and worker’s rights at risk, it’s not enoughby Oliver Kamm / December 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
It’s not fashionable in the modern Labour Party to acknowledge the achievements of past Labour governments but I will. The Good Friday agreement of 1998, negotiated under Tony Blair’s first administration, was a crucial step in resolving what had for decades—even centuries—appeared an intractable conflict of competing nationalisms on the island of Ireland. The agreement acknowledged the legitimacy of nationalist grievances while enshrining the primacy of the wishes of the people of the Northern Ireland.
It’s a measure—only one, but a tangible one—of the irrationality and destructiveness of Brexit that the sublimation of Ireland’s conflict in a shared European identity is now put at risk by Theresa May’s policies.
Her maximalist vision of Britain exiting not only the EU but the single market and the customs union has literally no electoral mandate behind it, and is guaranteed to require customs checks across the 320-mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—the only land border that the UK has with another EU member-state.
You’d imagine that Labour, the party which in government secured the trust of the protagonists in the conflict, would urge policies to avoid the reimposition of a hard border in Ireland. But Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is not a party of the rational left.
Mr Corbyn notoriously urged that Britain trigger Article 50 immediately after the narrow referendum vote to leave the EU. Now, Labour has finally, belatedly, arrived at the realisation that it needs to support membership of a modified customs union, if the voices of three members of the shadow cabinet are to be believed. But in truth no one really knows where Labour now stands, and the cynical vacillations of Mr Corbyn give no clear evidence either way.
If there is one thing that can be said with confidence about Mr Corbyn, it’s that he’s an intellectual lightweight whose privileged, privately-educated background means he probably doesn’t quite grasp the hardships that British workers are undergoing as a result of uncertainty over the business outlook and the consequent reluctance of companies to invest.
Labour’s triangulation on Brexit (to put it politely) makes no sense whatever for a left-wing party. The Tories are deeply divided over policy towards the EU, and Labour ought to be exploiting their discomfort.
In calling a general election this year three years ahead of schedule, Mrs May sought an electoral mandate for her version of Brexit. Even with an incompetent and dogmatic Labour leadership, she failed to secure it. This is the time, and these are the circumstances, in which to fight back. But Labour won’t do it.
Instead, the leader’s office still shows much sympathy for the most reactionary elements of British politics, opposed to Europe and to freedom of movement. The outcome is damaging for British households’ living standards, as output growth decelerates and real wages decline, and disastrous for the collective goals—on workers’ rights, environmental protection and much else—that a principled party of the left ought to be advancing.
This has got to stop. The pragmatic pro-European voice in British politics has largely been extinguished, given the weakness of the Liberal Democrats and the paucity of principled internationalist voices in the major parties. In the general election, Labour managed to gain big majorities in some urban areas because these places revolted against the dominance of a reactionary and nativist Tory government, unhindered by opposition.
My own Labour MP in east London, Meg Hillier, deservedly won a majority (not a total vote, but a majority) of 38,000; she merited support, in my opinion, for her vote (contrary to the instructions of the party whip) against triggering Article 50.
Labour under Mr Corbyn has abandoned the fight for the peaceful resolution of European conflicts, for the advancement of collective internationalist goals, and for an economic policy based on the gains from the free movement of goods, services, investment and people.
It’s a hard lesson for those of us who adhere to the traditional goals of left-wing politics and see them traduced by the reactionary chancers who now lead Labour. But we will fight, fight and fight again to thwart the isolationist cast of current British government policy and the suffocating cross-party agreement that would acquiesce in it.