Yes to Soft Brexit or No Brexit! No to No Deal or May’s Deal!

Jeremy Corbyn speaking immediately after Theresa May's deal defeated (by 230 votes) in January

By Jules Clarke

The next weeks are going to see rapidly moving political events as Parliament finally seeks to resolve Brexit. It is impossible to foresee every twist and turn. Therefore, it is vital that the left has a clear compass to react to rapidly evolving events.

That compass is simple. It is unimportant for the working class and British population whether Britain is part of the political structures of the EU or not, i.e. whether it is an EU member, but it is crucial it has access to the EU market.

The political structures of the EU were deliberately constructed in the most anti-democratic way possible consistent with creating a continental scale international market which modern globalised production requires. Power was deliberately concentrated in the non-elected European Commission and the role of the elected European Parliament was reduced to a minimum. These political structures carry out no progressive role and it does not matter to the British population whether Britain is part of them or not.

But what is extremely important in the present economic conditions is for Britain to have the best access to the European market and the supply chains for the British economy. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of jobs and the living standard of the entire population are tied to this. As analysed in detail below the most advanced and important sections of the British economy and manufacturing in particular, and therefore their jobs, will be devastated without the best access to EU markets. And the entire population’s living standards will fall with the resulting devaluations and inflation that would result from severing these links.

It was because of this major threat to jobs and living standards that all the leading figures of the Corbynite left – Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott – supported Remain in the 2016 referendum as did the overwhelming majority of Labour voters and Labour members. It is also why this website supported Remain in that referendum – not because of any political support for the EU.

But in terms of the political options which are at present on offer, this means that the policies that correspond to the interests of working-class living standards and jobs are either Labour’s own proposals for the closest possible economic links to the EU Customs Union and Single Market, or no Brexit at all (whether secured by a referendum on the terms of any EU deal or other means).

A No Deal/hard Brexit, which means imposition of tariffs under WTO rules, is a direct attack on the working class and must be fought tooth and nail. May’s deal, which does not establish permanent access to the EU’s Customs Union and Single Market, but merely creates a temporary situation which can still culminate in a hard Brexit, must also be rejected.

But in addition to their immediate effect on working class living standards a No Deal Brexit, or the danger posed by May’s deal, would be a serious threat to a possible Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. The devastation that would be created to manufacturing and other key sectors of the economy, for example, would be much more powerful than the realistic policies available to such a government. That is therefore also why, from the point of view of creating such a progressive Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn, it is vital for Labour to fight against a hard Brexit and against May’s deal.

But if these are the yardsticks for judging events in the coming weeks – No to No Deal or May’s deal, Yes to Labour’s proposals or to No Brexit – it is crucial for the left to draw the lessons of this crisis.

Why the biggest political crisis since World War II?

With the largest government defeats in votes in British Parliamentary history, the 2nd and 3rd largest demonstrations in British history, inability of the House of Commons over months to find a majority for any position, the largest signed petition in British history, an open crisis in the Tory Party, and splinters away from both major political parties, it is obvious and openly recognised that Britain is in its deepest political crisis since World War II.

It was entirely foreseeable that Brexit would unleash such a crisis. But the widespread media claims that Britain is in a ‘constitutional crisis’ are a distortion of the truth. Such a political crisis can only be the product of the clash of huge class and social forces. The correct handling of these is therefore crucial not only for defending the population’s living standards but also the project of a progressive Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government.

Divisions within the capitalist class

The first element in the crisis is the split within the capitalist class – reflected in the divisions in the Tory Party which have helped paralyse Parliament. The project of the leading Brexiteers is clear – indeed they openly proclaim it. They want to move Britain decisively to a US model of a low social protection, deregulated economy directly tied to the US via a trade deal which lowers environmental, health and other protections.

That is also why Trump, and his acolytes such as Steve Bannon, maintain open relations with Farage and similar forces, and why the financial core of the Brexit movement was hedge fund operators and the like. These latter forces do not care in the slightest, for example, if the British car industry and other sectors of manufacturing are severely damaged or even demolished, as is clear would be the case with a hard Brexit – because such sectors of capital don’t make their profit from this production and they are directly tied to the US and in particular Trump and his supporters. They are therefore entirely willing to suffer the imposition of tariffs on British exports, and the severing of production supply chains, that would follow from a hard Brexit – i.e. a Brexit on WTO terms. 

But such a hard Brexit is directly against the interests of other sections of the British capitalist class – who are involved in manufacturing and the other parts of modern large-scale production, which constitutes the bulk of Britain’s trade with Europe. The clash between these two forces within the capitalist class produces the deep tensions within the Tory Party right up to the top of the Cabinet.

All of May’s actions are designed to prevent the tensions between those two forces within British capital from leading to a split in the Tory party – the consistency in May’s actions is to try to ensure that any outcome to Brexit is essentially carried out by the Tory Party alone, with a few fringe hangers on, and that is why she has continually refused any real outreach to other parties. This unity of the Tory Party, and marginalisation of forces such as UKIP, is regarded as essential to maintaining the Tory Party’s hegemony in its demographic base in the South-East of England and the shires.

Labour and the labour movement

Faced with such a huge strategic attack on the working class, the key leaders of the Corbynite left, as already noted, were entirely right to support Remain in 2016. Unfortunately, this was defeated, opening up the present attack on the working class – with the big majority of Labour voters supporting Remain but with many Labour constituencies voting Leave. The key task of the Labour leadership was therefore to block the strategic attack on the working class, to maintain the support of Remain members, to maintain the enthusiasm of Corbyn supporters who overwhelming supported Remain, and to win over Leave voters or at least ensure they voted Labour. So far, against various threats to derail this, this has been achieved skilfully.

Threat from the Labour right

The first, most direct, threat to Labour’s support has come from the Labour right. This wanted Labour to adopt the position that the fight against Brexit, not the fight to defend living standards, was the most important issue in British politics. This would have doomed Labour to the same huge unpopularity that has hit the Germany SPD, the French Socialist Party and other European parties which have been complicit in austerity programmes.

Furthermore, it is clear that the tactics of the Labour right were not motivated by the aim of blocking Brexit but by the aim of blocking Jeremy Corbyn. This was already clear in the process leading to the creation of the so-called Independent Group of MPs, who are in fact bankrolled by Tory millionaires. It became even clearer recently in Parliament when the Independent group insisted on votes for a new referendum when even the People’s Vote campaign, for tactical reasons, did not want them at that time. This made explicit that the goal of these forces was solely to attempt to attack Jeremy Corbyn, not to primarily to attack Brexit.

Errors on the left and the threat to jobs

The second, more indirect, threat to derail success for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour came from the genuinely well-intentioned but wrong minority of those within the Corbyn supporting left who supported Brexit in 2016.

One of the lack of coherences of forces supporting Brexit is that they frequently do not explain what they actually propose. Some are willing to leave on WTO terms, indeed proposing ‘Britain should leave the EU on WTO terms’ – the same position as Rees-Mogg and the ERG. This is a disastrous position which would aid a huge attack on the working class and labour/trade union movement. It is merely necessary to look at two industries, life sciences/pharmaceuticals and motor vehicles, to see the result.

Life sciences/pharmaceuticals is one of Britain’s largest and most important industries, employing nearly 241,000 people with an annual turnover of £70 billion – the 241,000 directly employed in the industry in turn support hundreds of thousands more jobs in retailing, services and other sectors selling to these workers. The sector is much larger than its domestic market. The UK carries out 2.5 per cent of global life sciences investment, the highest share in Europe.

Simply the threat of a hard Brexit is already hitting the industry. Eisai has spent £10 million on transferring licences for about 60 medicines to Germany as well as on its stockpiling. GlaxoSmithKline calculated the cost to the company of the duplication of facilities at around £70m, while AstraZeneca said it anticipated spending between £40m and £50m on this – the company has also held back from further investment in manufacturing in Macclesfield due to Brexit uncertainties, having previously invested £220m in its factory.

The threat to the motor industry of a hard Brexit is similarly already well known. This is another huge economic sector employing 186,000 people and indirectly supporting hundreds of thousands more jobs among those selling to its workers. Eighty per cent of cars produced in Britain are exported.

The cancelling of a new model and investment in Nissan’s plant in Sunderland, directly influenced by the threat of a hard Brexit, rightly received huge publicity. But even more seriously investment in the vehicle industry almost halved, falling by 46.8% in 2018, under the impact of the threat of a hard Brexit. The threat to this industry is direct.

This literal investment collapse is a direct threat to the vehicle industry now, but it is an even greater one in the medium term. Enormous investments are required in the two technological revolutions about to hit the industry – the move from fossil fuel to electrical vehicles and the move to autonomous vehicles. Such investment is simply not profitable for a market as small as Britain’s – it only makes sense for a market on a European scale.

Claims that a hard Brexit would be welcome because it could be dealt with by ‘import regulation’ are a fantasy. Britain’s market is far too small to sustain by itself the most advanced sectors of production – which need a global market.

But if Brexiters who support leaving on WTO terms are extreme, positions advocated by other Leavers were also damaging. They proposed that Labour should support May’s deal. But May’s deal is not only damaging economically, it is also drastically political unpopular. Supporting May’s deal would therefore have damaged Labour politically, propped up the Tory government, and led to a huge clash between Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. Jeremy Corbyn firmly rejected such a damaging course.

There are supporters of Leave who also support Jeremy Corbyn, but they are a small minority. Indeed, in all the votes and amendments that Labour CLPs have made on this issue, there are no reports of a pro-Brexit vote by any of them – and no CLP submitted a motion supporting Brexit to Labour Conference. The overwhelming majority of the Corbyn left was right to support Remain, for the reasons outlined above, and the tactics which flow from that in the new political situation that now faces Britain.

Labour’s correct tactics

Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has rightly placed defence of living standards at the centre of its policy – giving Labour the highest electoral support and membership of any Socialist Party in Europe. Its policy of fighting relentlessly against both No Deal and May’s deal is part of that. Labour under Corbyn advocates and organises to vote for a policy of membership of a customs union, closest possible relationship to the Single Market and the protection of workers’ rights, and consumer and environmental protections. This has maintained Labour’s support. But it does not exclude supporting Remain in a new referendum, if a referendum on the terms of any British deal with the EU were to become the only position in Parliament capable of blocking No Deal and May’s Deal. Both of these positions protect the fundamental economic rights of the working class, and avoid the severe attacks that either the ERGs or May’s options entail. Labour’s position is entirely in line with the position adopted at its conference.

In rapidly moving events Labour has to take account not only of its own preferred positions but of Parliamentary arithmetic. It is crucial to defeat No Deal and May’s deal. Whether this is best achieved by a ‘soft Brexit’ along the lines of Labour’s proposal, or No Brexit achieved by a referendum (or other means), will be significantly determined by Parliamentary arithmetic and tactics. It would be folly in advance to rule out either option if it became clear one was the only way to defeat No Deal or May’s deal and Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is therefore right to keep these options on the table.

The key orientation of the left in the rapidly moving events of the coming weeks should be simple.  Yes to Soft Brexit or No Brexit! No to No Deal or May’s Deal!