Labour needs to block May’s Hard Brexit

By Pat Tanner

The Corbyn leadership of the Labour party is the most important development on the left in Britain for generations and should be wholeheartedly supported by all socialists and the left. However, due to the cavalier behaviour of the previous Tory leadership under Cameron, this Labour leadership is faced with grappling with an equally momentous and complex political crisis resulting from the vote in favour of Brexit.

Last week May finally set out her framework for the coming negotiations with the other 27 members states of the EU. In her speech she set out a roadmap towards a ‘hard Brexit’, clearly ruling out membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union. May, and her pro-Brexit supporters, have fallaciously presented this as the real meaning of the vote in last year’s referendum; but the truth is that the British population was not asked the question as to what leaving the EU should precisely mean. Both sides put forward many different proposals about the shape of the UK’s future relationship to Europe in the course of the referendum debate. May’s interpretation, for a hard break with not just the EU but the Single Market, is the one that is most damaging for the future of the British economy and therefore the population’s living standards.

Essentially May said that if the EU does not allow the UK to cherry pick a number of tariff concessions, while rejecting freedom of movement, she is prepared to walk away from the negotiations without a deal. Her empty threat in the event of this outcome was that the UK would dramatically lower corporation taxes to essentially reconstruct the British economy as a tax haven. This is an empty threat as ultra-low business taxes could be implemented by the UK while part of the EU and would not have a serious impact on the economies of EU members. What it would mean is a major decrease in UK government tax revenues, which would inevitably result in a huge attack on welfare and health care.

Corbyn and the whole of the labour movement and Labour Party have correctly opposed such a goal, instead calling for negotiations that seek to maintain ‘tariff-free access’ to the Single Market; and in Jeremy Corbyn’s much commented upon Peterborough speech ten days ago, he made it clear that while Labour would favour greater controls over migration from the EU, Labour was not making a principle of for or against freedom of movement, as the economic issues and their results for jobs and incomes take priority. However, worryingly, Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow minister for Brexit, claimed May’s strategy did not amount to a hard Brexit, abandoning his own five tests to judge the government’s strategy, which included whether it was clear on seeking to remain in the Single Market and customs union. Others on Labour’s frontbench, such as John McDonnell, who said May’s approach would be bad for jobs and the public finances, not ‘a clean Brexit’ but an ‘extremely messy Brexit’. Labour has consistently opposed a ‘hard Brexit’ and should take that fight to May now, not concede in the way of Keir Starmer.

Not only Labour, but the Lib Dems, the SNP and a significant number of Tory MPs also oppose the ‘hard Brexit’ set out by May and believe that it is in Britain’s best interests to stay in the Single Market or as close to that as possible. In fact it is highly likely that if there were a parliamentary debate and vote on the goals of the Brexit negotiations there would be a majority in favour of staying in the Single Market and opposed to May’s course. That is why May is desperate to avoid such a debate.

May has consistently tried to avoid Parliament having any say over the Brexit process at all, seeking to overturn the High Court judgement last year that the decision to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – initiating the process of leaving the EU – lies with Parliament not the Cabinet. It is widely expected that the Supreme Court next Tuesday will reject May’s appeal.

As a result, very soon, possibly as early as this coming week, the Prime Minister will ask MPs to vote to trigger Article 50, but without the opportunity for any debate or discussion on the outcome the UK negotiators should seek, or Parliament having a chance to express its view on the framework May set out for an exit terms agreement in her Lancaster House speech on 17 January.

Labour should insist that Parliament has an opportunity to debate and vote on May’s plans for Brexit before there is any vote on Article 50. Once Parliament has voted on Article 50, essentially Theresa May will have a free hand to conduct the negotiations with the EU outside of any Parliamentary or public scrutiny, and in secret with the only information available being that which is let out by the EU or the government in the course of the negotiations. In other words the Tory government will have carte blanche to embark on a course that will deeply damage the British economy and working class living standards.

Given the widespread opposition to May’s ‘hard Brexit’, if Labour took the lead in calling for debate on this, backed up by the threat that it would vote against Article 50 if it is invoked before such a debate, May would eventually have to agree, as such a position could probably command a majority in Parliament.

Of course sections of the media and the hardline Brexiteers would try to claim this meant Labour was blocking Brexit. But as this would not be true, and Labour would in fact simply be seeking to maintain public and parliamentary control over the Brexit negotiations, this would be short lived when the real situation became clear; that Labour was simply ensuring there is a full democratic debate on the mandate for negotiations before the process is triggered.

The most effective course for the Labour leadership would be to announce clear preconditions before it agrees to vote in favour of triggering Article 50. Labour should not back the government on the vote now, without any decision over the negotiation mandate, as that would surrender the only leverage that progressive forces have over the exit process and hand the entire thing over to the Tories.

Instead Labour should reject May’s proposed negotiating framework and insist on a starting point that defends jobs and living standards, and therefore seeks to maintain UK membership of the Single Market. There is a majority in Parliament and also in the country for the Single Market. That majority needs to assert itself before the negotiations are triggered. Giving the Prime Minister a free hand would be disastrous, particularly now her support for the nuclear Brexit option is clear.

The negotiations have not yet started, but living standards are already being pushed down due to the Brexit vote. Inflation has risen to 1.6 per cent, thousands of jobs already are being moved out of the UK and racist attacks have significantly increased. May’s approach will dramatically worsen this deteriorating situation.

Labour needs to lead the fight against the government’s dangerous course and to protect living standards. Such a fight also helps defend the Corbyn leadership, whose base in the party opposes the Prime Minister’s hard Brexit approach.