By Robin Jackson
Jeremy Corbyn, in his speech in Coventry today, called for the UK to be in a permanent customs union with the EU and for Britain to have a say in negotiating the bloc’s future trade deals. This move by Labour simultaneously reflects Labour’s economic priority to defend jobs and living standards and will place the Tory government under huge pressure to follow suit.
From a fundamental point of view, as Socialist Action has repeatedly pointed out, in a modern economy large scale production necessarily needs an international market. This is a necessary consequence of the fact that, as Marx analysed, socialisation of labour is the most powerful force in economic development. If Britain were on the verge of full blown socialism it would of course be thrown out of any customs union with the EU – but in that case the benefits of a full socialist economy would outweigh this loss in terms of economic development. But unfortunately, this is not the case today. Today Britain being outside a customs union with the EU, and therefore facing tariff barriers, would mean the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, particularly in manufacturing.
That is why Unite general secretary Len McCluskey correctly emphasised on Jeremy Corbyn’s speech: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has shown that people really do have a choice on Brexit. On the one hand, there is Labour which has pledged to build on the trading arrangements presently supporting millions of jobs in this country. A Corbyn government will also make it a priority to tackle the greedy bosses who have abused migrant workers to undermine employment conditions and attack the rate for the job. On the other hand, there are the Tories who are quite clearly putting their own party interests above those of the nation.’
On a more tactical level, if the Tories do not back down Labour’s shift today increases the likelihood that the government will be defeated on its Brexit legislation. Theresa May has ruled out Britain being part of any customs unions with the EU – a position that possibly may now be defeated in a parliamentary vote. The Tories only have a working majority of 13 with the DUP, meaning that if just seven Tories switch sides the government can be defeated, if every opposition MP votes together.
As Corbyn said in his speech the Prime Minister’s vision for Brexit could lead to ‘lasting damage to jobs, rights and living standards’. The Labour leadership understands that new trade deals with the US or elsewhere will not compensate for the loss of trade with Britain’s trading neighbours in the EU and the risks of lower standards and regulations outside the EU.
Corbyn also emphasised that Labour is taking a more progressive approach to immigration than the racist and xenophobic Tories and that Labour would immediately guarantee the rights of EU citizens and their families who are living in the UK. He said: ‘Let’s also be crystal clear it is not migrants that drive down wages, it is bad employers that cut pay and bad governments that allow workers to be divided and undermined, and want unions to be weak and passive.’
However the EU is not the most important issue
While Jeremy Corbyn’s speech was correct on the issue of the EU and a customs union, it is also necessary to reject the Labour right’s claim that the EU is the most important issue in British politics today. The most crucial issue in British politics today is to defend living standards. That is why in political terms since the Labour leadership election of 2015 the most fundamental issue has been ‘for’ or ‘against’ Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. The Labour right merely wish a reduction of living standards to be carried out via ‘Euro-austerity’ rather than ‘Brexit austerity’. This is not merely wrong in principle but would destroy Labour’s electoral support. It is because Jeremy Corbyn has been firm in his total opposition to austerity that Labour’s has maintained high electoral support while the vote of the right wing social democratic parties in Europe has collapsed.
From the moment of his election it has been clear that a Labour Party led by Corbyn is completely and absolutely unacceptable to capital. Crucially Corbyn is entirely opposed to austerity, which is the capitalist class’s bottom line in order to ensure a redistribution of incomes in favour of the bosses and against direct and indirect wages to the working class. Corbyn is also opposed to imperialist wars and stands up to the racism that is used to divide and undermine the resistance of working people to austerity. Capital and its agents understand completely that Corbyn is not only the most left-wing leader the Labour Party has ever had in words, but he means it.
On these crucial questions he has not bent to threats and pressure. Therefore, getting rid of Corbyn is the fundamental issue for the ruling class in Britain, and defending his leadership is the crucial issue for working people, the poor and oppressed. This is the main contradiction in British politics today. Other very important divisions, particularly on issues such a customs union and the EU, are important but of a secondary character and so should be treated accordingly. Labour’s support for a customs union is an important step to defending living standards, but it is a means to a more important end.
Capital is engaged in a determined offensive to raise the rate of profit following the 2007 financial crisis. This redistribution from the working class to capital is the purpose of austerity and what is driving down the population’s living standards. This is not merely the most important issue objectively but also for the mass of the population this is rightly the most important question.
Corbyn’s commitment to end austerity and his policies to make people better off are central to his popularity. Waging a fight against the Tories on these issues places Corbyn on the most favourable political terrain. It is key to how Corbyn led Labour to a 40 per cent vote share at June 2017’s general election and it underpins his support amongst Labour’s members.
Right wing wants EU divide seen as fundamental – to undermine Corbyn
That is why capital and the Labour right is determined to change the main focus of the political agenda. Capital is concerned that the Tories are so divided and discredited they might fail to stop Labour winning the next general election. So it claims, echoed by the Labour right, that the biggest divide in British politics is not ‘for’ or ‘against’ austerity, which therefore also means ‘for’ or ‘against’ Corbyn’s leadership of Labour, but ‘for’ or ‘against’ Brexit.
The Labour right, Chuka Umunna and others, have seized on this agenda to use the EU issues as a means to attack Corbyn. They are not even primarily concerned about Single Market or Customs Union membership, they have shown themselves very flexible on issues of the EU depending on their shifting political alliances.
Instead their aim is to use legitimate concerns over the threat of job losses and reduction in living standards caused by Brexit as a way to weaken Corbyn and shift Labour’s internal discussion away from ‘for’ or ‘against’ austerity to that of ‘for’ or ‘against’ Brexit. They also want to shift the agenda off living standards because they themselves support austerity – which is why they coordinate their Brexit campaigning with the Tories and Lib Dems. The Labour right merely pretend they are against austerity.
It is no accident that yesterday – the day before Labour announced its shift to supporting a customs union – that Labour’s right wing organised a public intervention in support of the Single Market, not in support of the policy shift on a customs union due to take place. They demanded Corbyn takes the step now of supporting the UK remaining in the EU single market. Instead of focusing pressure on the Tories, Labour’s right wing campaigns against Labour. This was a deliberate intervention aimed against Jeremy Corbyn.
As local elections approach – right wing steps up its campaign against Corbyn
This campaign by the right has to be directly challenged. At this May’s elections Labour can best advance by explaining how the population will be better off under Labour. Irrespective of views on the Single Market and Customs Union the right’s campaign to make this the main issue is destructive to Labour electorally, because it is living standards, limited or no pay rises, the health service and issues like student debt that are the main issues driving the electorate, not Brexit primarily. It is exactly because it supports ‘Euro-austerity’ that the Liberal Democrats electoral support has collapsed.
The Labour right were significantly set back by Labour’s strong result at the 2017 general election and spent several months publicly keeping their heads down. In September they tried to manufacture a fight over Brexit at Labour’s national conference, but were defeated by a Corbyn-left trade union alliance.
With May’s local elections now approaching efforts to undermine Labour’s electoral standing are on the increase. The Labour right used this pre-election period in the past two years to whip up controversy against the party’s leadership. This year is no different. The relatively quiet period of phoney war, since last June, has now come to an end and a series of new attacks have been launched on Labour’s leadership.
The Labour right has been waging a concerted public campaign criticising Corbyn on Brexit and claiming that this is the main issue Labour needs to discuss.
The right are also agitating against Corbyn over the Labour NEC’s unanimous decision to mediate in a Haringey Labour Group dispute about a controversial redevelopment deal with the private sector. Plus at Labour’s National Policy Forum (NPF) on 17 February the right attempted to defeat Corbyn by forcing through an election for NPF Chair, in defiance of Labour’s National Executive Committee which had decided against an election taking place at such short notice. Other campaigns against the Corbyn leadership should be expected between now and 3 May.
The really key thing is that Jeremy Cobyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has put forward that, within its fundamental framework of defending working class living standards and opposing austerity, it is necessary to support membership of a customs union with the EU. This is an entirely correct assessment and therefore furthermore consolidates both Labour’s position and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour.