By Brian Jackson
The new policies announced by Labour on the EU Single Market confirm further positive moves to defend living standards and jobs by Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The decision to accept membership of the Single Market for at least a ‘transitional period’, while not excluding it as a permanent arrangement, is correct from the point of view of working class living standards. It was, for interrelated reasons, also immediately followed by a further strengthening of Labour’s lead over the Tories to five percent – 43% to 38%. Unfortunately, this move by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was incorrectly attacked by some on the left. It is therefore necessary to understand clearly why Corbyn’s position was correct.
Defence of living standards
Defence of working class living standards against attacks on them is the main economic dividing line in Britain. It is because it is committed to defending living standards that ‘for or against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party’ is the main political divide in Britain.
This social reality is reflected in political support and opinion polls. The ineffectualness of attempts by the Lib Dems, and Labour right, to claim that the main divide in British politics is simply for or against the EU is reflected in the miserable standing of the Lib Dems in the opinion polls. This is because the population, rightly, understands that the ‘Euro-austerity’ favoured by the Lib Dems and Labour right, and shown for example in the policies of Hollande or Macron in France, and previously Cameron in Britain, would lead to severe attacks on living standards just as does the ‘Brexit austerity’ of Theresa May and the Tory government. It is because he opposed all forms of austerity that Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party and secured the big Labour advance at the last election. A pro-‘Euro-austerity’ Labour Party would suffer the same low level of support as the right wing Socialist Party in France, the right wing socialists in Holland, or right wing Labour in Scotland.
But while Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to austerity has been correct from day one it is also necessary to work out the precise policies to oppose austerity. It is on this that sections of the left have become confused, and Labour’s new policies under Corbyn are correct.
Analysis of the present situation
As Lenin stressed any Marxist analysis must be a ‘concrete analysis of the concrete situation’. Engaging in empty sloganising has nothing to do with Marxism. What, therefore, is the concrete situation in Britain?
If Britain were about to introduce socialism this would, of course, be contrary to every rule of the EU. To make the transition to a socialist society Britain would either have to leave the EU to implement the necessary measures or it would be expelled. The economic benefits from the transition to a socialist economy would far outweigh any losses from not having access to the EU Single Market.
But, very regretfully, Britain is not on the eve of a transition to a socialist economy, nor will a Corbyn government be able to introduce socialism. What a Corbyn led government can do is to introduce measures affecting both domestic British living standards and international politics which are massively progressive. In short a Corbyn led government would be a huge step forward for both the British and international working classes.
But this means Britain, under a Corbyn government would be, unfortunately, still operating under a capitalist economy – albeit one in which the position of the working class and the state was hugely strengthened. A Corbyn government would be a (very) left reformist one, but it would not be able to introduce socialism as this is not possible in the real relationship of class forces in Britain. As the overthrow of capitalism is not posed, but a very progressive left reformist government is objectively possible under present circumstances, then it follows that the question of how to defend working class living standards under such conditions is the most important issue confronting such a government.
A modern economy rests on a massive international division of labour. The concept of ‘socialism in one country’ always was an illusion and it is even more so in a present day economy. Any attempt to create a self-contained isolated economy, cut off from the international division of labour – or in Marx’s terms from internationally ‘socialised labour’ – would lead to a major decline in living standards; the exact opposite of what a socialist policy should seek to achieve. Even a socialist Britain would have to attempt to pursue policies of trade with other countries – although the methods it would use to develop its own economy would lead to it being excluded from the EU.
Translated into precise economic realities, attempting to pursue ‘socialism in one country’ and not attempting to remain fully part of the international division of labour, would lead to exactly the consequences that, in today’s circumstances, would result from unnecessarily leaving the Single Market. Such policies would mean the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, most probably far more, in manufacturing and other sectors of the economy. It would lead to a general decline in living standards as inflation resulting from devaluation of the pound hits wages and pensions.
It is these concrete consequences that are leading the trade unions to line up in support of maintaining membership of the Single Market – and the trade unions are the force which has led to Labour’s new policies on Brexit.
The argument that exit from the Single Market should be called for because the Single Market would prevent carrying out measures that would introduce socialism in Britain is precisely an example of not carrying out a ‘concrete analysis of the concrete situation’. Britain is not faced with a situation where socialism can be introduced and therefore it is entirely false to base policy on a situation which does not exist.
As for the argument that the Single Market would prevent the introduction of the policies which are proposed by a Jeremy Corbyn government this appears improbable given serious analysis of these. Corbyn’s policies are certainly far to the left of those of almost any other government in Europe but they do not propose this government would eliminate capitalism – quite correctly because (unfortunately) the elimination of capitalism is not possible in present conditions in Britain. Corbyn’s policies would, of course, greatly improve the conditions of the working class in Britain and aid progressive international struggles – but they would not eliminate capitalism and are not necessarily illegal at all under EU Single Market rules.
Anyway, the test of this is practical – a Corbyn government should proceed to carry out its policies and if the EU Single Market attempts to block them then of course it should revise its position on the Single Market/customs union. But a Corbyn government should not voluntarily lose the tens of thousands of jobs, and suffer the decline in living standards, that would follow from leaving the Single Market unless forced to. Only by demonstrating to the population that it is taking every single step possible to defend the population’s living standards could a Corbyn government continue to enjoy popular support.
It is these economic realities which explain why Labour moved further ahead in the polls after announcement of its new policies on the Single Market. The population understood Labour under Corbyn was moving still more firmly to defend their living standards.
Labour’s present policy is to stay within Single Market or customs union for a transitional period but not to exclude staying within it permanently if restrictions on ‘freedom of movement’ of labour, that is on immigration, can be negotiated. In reality, analysis shows, such restrictions on freedom of movement will not be agreed while remaining within the Single Market/customs union. Britain therefore should decide to remain within the Single Market/customs union and accept freedom of movement – indeed the attempts to restrict freedom of movement, and anti-immigrant rhetoric, are merely examples of racism and should be opposed anyway. But it will take some time in the negotiating process to make clear restrictions on freedom of movement and membership of the Single Market/customs union cannot be combined. Meanwhile Labour will attempt to negotiate these and go through this experience.
Far from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour’s new position on the Single Market/customs union being a ‘sell out’ or retreat, as some have suggested, they are therefore a further sign of its commitment to defending working class living standards. In short they are a further step forward by Labour.