Labour right using Brexit issue against Corbyn

MPs Layla Moran (Lib Dem), Chuka Umunna (Labour) & Anna Soubry (Conservative) at launch of the People’s Vote campaign

By Brian Jackson

A number of right-wing Labour figures are organising a concerted campaign to raise the Brexit issue in order to cause difficulties for Jeremy Corbyn. Working closely with Tories and Lib Dems, they are trying to use this issue to undermine Labour’s leadership.

As part of this a campaign has already been launched to encourage constituency labour parties to send motions to this autumn’s Labour Party conference, calling on Labour to change its policy on Brexit and/or support a call for a referendum on any final deal. Local parties normally discuss what ‘contemporary motion’ to send in early September.

The background to all this is that the Tory government is clearly in crisis on the issue, still negotiating with itself, unable to reach any realistic conclusions, simply postponing any decisions on customs arrangements, the border in Ireland, the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and many other issues. Time is running out ahead of the EU summit at the end of this month.

The Labour right, who all along support austerity, and are not concerned primarily about the negative consequences of Brexit, although some may be concerned about how British businesses will be damaged. Their main aim is still to undermine the Corbyn leadership, now using this issue as a wedge between the leader and his supporters. Their campaign is wholly opportunistic.

But the reason they are able to make any headway is that an overwhelming majority of Labour members and Labour voters oppose Brexit and voted Remain.  Their pro-Remain sentiment has only grown over time, with 78 per cent favouring another referendum and 87 per cent wanting to staying in the Single Market.

The economic situation has already deteriorated as a result of the Brexit vote, with living standards falling when the pound fell and pushed up prices.  The economy grew by just 0.1 per cent in the first quarter of this year and there is little sign of a pick-up since. Business investment, the main determinant of growth in this country over the medium-term, has not risen in the last three quarters.

However, the real damage from Brexit lies ahead as stagnant investment takes its toll. And there is still no overwhelming majority for remaining in the Single Market among the mass of the population. That may yet happen.

Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity is rightly based on his consistent opposition to austerity (as well as the important principles of opposing wars and racism).  Brexit will impose a new round of austerity as living standards fall further and jobs are lost.  It would be politically damaging if Labour is seen to support this outcome.

At a certain point it will be necessary to adjust Labour’s position. The current policy is for being in a customs union, rather than the customs union, but this may not be acceptable to the EU. In any event, this policy does not get round all the non-tariff barriers that arise by leaving the Single Market. It also does not address the issue of Britain’s important service sector either.

For now, the Labour position is tenable because the series of possible outcomes of the Tory negotiations with the EU has not been clarified.  As the various Tory fantasies are exposed, the situation of what is possible will become clear. Corbyn has repeatedly argued that under him Labour will do nothing to hurt living standards or destroy jobs and that it will vote down any Tory deal which threatens either.  It is only because of Corbyn’s leadership that Labour is committed to ending and reversing austerity.

The Labour right have always supported austerity. They went to ridiculous lengths to claim voters were pro-austerity and the Tories were popular because of it. The truth is Labour was unpopular before Corbyn because it embraced Tory austerity.

For the left, it is important not to make alliances with Corbyn’s enemies. The right’s concerns about the effects of Brexit on ordinary people are fake, as their support for austerity shows. Many on the left are rightly concerned about Brexit. But you cannot fight for living standards by linking up with the right, who are happy to see them destroyed.