Alberto Smith & William Sorenson for LEFTA
Cameron gambled, lost, and now we are all paying off his debts. The past three years have been squandered due to political manoeuvring in all the major parties. And instead of bridging the expectations gap and having an internal debate over what could heal the divides that have been laid bare by the EU referendum, the Labour Party has fuelled the fires of division.
Brexit didn’t have to be like this. The current maelstrom of Conservative ego-driven score settling, understandably accompanied by a hands-off approach from Labour, has resulted in a perpetual souring of the Brexit debate – where no one gets anything they want. Theresa May’s ill defined agreement with the European Union is ambiguous by design. It could in theory promise someone everything, but the precarious nature of modern politics has instead threatened everyone with the delivery of nothing.
After the 2017 General Election, it was clear no one was getting everything they wanted. The Conservatives were now a minority government, and by definition, this should have meant concessions from all, starting with the Government. Unexpected Labour gains were welcome, but as a result of political necessity, or of cynical New Labour style triangulation, Corbyn and Starmer’s position remained one of intransigent neutrality. The cost of support for Conservative proposals was always to be compromise, but this has since proven to be too high a price on too many occasions.
It would be wrong to suggest that compromise will be easy: the current political climate is one of extremes and division, not conciliation and reason. Nevertheless, there is room for hope. Labour has too readily given up the centre ground on Brexit, capitulating to the urge to join the other parties in the grand game of Brexit poker, which leads us to our current policy.
Our current policy is admirable – it has the hallmarks of compromise, more democracy, more choice, more consultation – but it doesn’t quite hit the spot. Labour has become too reactive to other forces on Brexit, and while our policy is not as difficult to understand as pundits, newspapers and opposition MPs like to suggest, the reality is that it offers the wrong kind of compromise. Whilst the Liberal Democrats, the Tories, and the Brexit Party are unashamed in their support for ‘do or die’ solutions – be that a do or die leave, or do or die remain, Labour has rendered itself a passive mediator rather than an active player in the game. This is an understandable position, but a regrettable one. The party has tried to straddle two constituencies of voters throughout its recent past, with very different demographics and correspondingly different views on Brexit. It has been no easy task to marry these differences with policy. However, the difficulties of this task have been both overstated and largely of our own making.
‘Labour leavers’ in the north are a lot stickier than is often presupposed, and a mass exodus away from Labour in numbers that are likely to swing safe seats is incredibly unlikely. These communities are anti-Tory before they are pro-Brexit, and are unlikely to fall into line behind Boris Johnson’s Thatcherite tribute band. The same could be said for our metropolitan and youth vote: many university-educated and urban voters have strong memories of the Liberal Democrats in government. They have not forgotten that party’s broken promise to abolish tuition fees, nor their complicity in austerity, whilst their recent pivot to revoke and remain may prove to be a step too far in the direction of indulging remain-populism. Put simply, we cannot (and should not) attempt to out-Remain or out-Brexit other parties, and should instead focus on what we do best – radical transformative policy.
In 2017 Corbyn made some promising noises around what Labour’s approach to Brexit meant. The Labour manifesto that year had all the ingredients of a great deal: a focus on ensuring that the United Kingdom remained closely aligned with the single market, research, workers’ rights and environmental standards, while placing these – and the nation’s interests – above what it called ‘bogus immigration targets’. This approach aimed to strike a balance between the parts of EU membership that remainers yearned to retain and the democratic obligations imposed by the referendum result. The problem with this policy was never the sentiment: it was the fact that Labour never put a label on it, never truly put forward a vision of what they were aiming for. By 2018, and the crucial votes over May’s Withdrawal Agreement, Labour had become the particularly unglamorous and uninspiring ‘party of the customs union’. By avoiding talking up immigration Labour alienated urban remainers, while it was unlikely that non-Labour voters would ever be fooled into thinking that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn would ever make controlling it a priority.
As what was on offer was a rebuttal to a Tory Brexit, rather than a socialist vision of our relationship with Europe, the battle was lost before it had even really begun. What form of Brexit compromise could Labour offer that retains the cultural and economic ties to Europe that Remainers desire, in the form of defending freedom of movement, whilst in theory ending the remit of the ECJ, reducing the ‘fee’ paid to the EU, and moving democratic accountability closer to home rather than Brussels? The answer is obvious – EFTA.
This vision would perhaps most importantly allow Labour to build a Brexit model that enhances its wider project of transformation in Britain, as EFTA membership would free Britain from EU state aid rules, allowing a Labour government to mobilise the state to help regenerate the ‘left behind’ areas that largely voted leave, addressing the roots of division. Brexit policy cannot be allowed to define our domestic policy, it must act as a catalyst, not a constraint. By seeking EFTA membership, we offer both clarity and compromise. Though much of the debate over Brexit was driven by right-wing hysteria around immigration, the Labour Party must be unashamed in its defence of a progressive attitude and a welcoming approach. On this matter, the party of the collective and intersectional working class has given too much ground for too long.
There are problems with the Eurocentrism of Freedom of Movement, and this must be continually confronted. Again, however, this must be seen in light of wider policy objectives and must go hand in hand with a commitment to strengthening the rights of and numbers of refugees admitted to the UK under a Labour government. Freedom of Movement, put simply, must be defended and extended. No good compromise pleases everyone, but we believe that this model provides a genuine opportunity to enshrine the freedoms and cultural cohesion that Remainers desire from EU membership, as well as allowing Labour to be free in implementing their manifesto to invest in areas devastated by Conservative and Liberal Democrat austerity.
To continue to worship referendums in and of themselves as a solution to referendum-induced chaos would be a mistake. If Labour is clear on what our deal represents, the only mandate we will need is that of the electorate in a General Election. Binary plebiscites are no way to heal political schisms: they are a tactic used by defeated party leaders to further their own interests and divide, not a passive instrument of change. Democracy must be defended at the grassroots, but this can be achieved by a wider project of devolution and strengthening the accountability of MPs, not through cynical and selective use of direct democracy. Whilst the majority of Labour’s membership are no doubt tempted by the prospect of another referendum, a new referendum based as a rerun would be a facile attempt to “un-have” the first, and no democratic socialist should appreciate the mandate awarded by the first referendum as satisfied by the hamfisted fudge that the Conservative Government has produced. All the while, a new referendum does not satisfy a single Leave voter. We all owe it to the British public, who largely do recognise the validity of the referendum, to ensure that we don’t allow Conservative Euroscepticism to strip away the facets of international solidarity that we all cherish.
It is widely supposed that the EU has not been willing to replicate the uncomfortable relationship it has with the Swiss. However, at this point in the Brexit debacle, clarity is king. If a Labour government acts with goodwill and shows a genuine interest in the continuation of regulatory alignment, together with respect for the principle of freedom of movement, for citizens’ rights, and for the United Kingdom’s obligations under the Withdrawal Agreements without threatening the integrity of the single market, this dream could become a reality – as the EU themselves made clear before Theresa May destroyed the negotiations.
EFTA represents the ability to enact Iceland-style capital controls on economies that have gone haywire, while protecting base immigration rights via freedom of movement, hopefully creating the base for a future progressive immigration policy. It protects jobs, living standards, and the Good Friday Agreement, while allowing a near-future Labour government to negotiate trade agreements with our international comrades, unrestrained by European laws on State Aid.
Of course, Switzerland are not in a formal customs union with the EU, meaning that there is at least in theory a customs border between the Swiss and the EU. A Labour government would never allow an agreement like this to necessitate a hard border in Ireland. We believe that this could be solved by the Common Market 2.0 proposal, a temporary customs union until there is certainty that checks can take place away from the border, such as a full rollout of the Union Customs Code.
A principled defence of the continuation of Freedom of Movement would also negate the need for immigration checks in Ireland, softening Brexit’s effect on the all-important Irish peace process and complex identities. It exists today, and represents the best kind of compromise to everyone except the hardliners who have redefined Brexit as a nationalist fever dream – in both remain and leave ‘ultra’ camps.
Clearly, though we do not believe that a referendum is likely to heal our Brexit divide, Labour has committed to a new referendum between remain or a Labour deal. If we wish to provide an option that satisfies the demands of leavers, whilst adhering to our core values as a movement, EFTA is the only option. As negotiation fatigue sets in both in Europe and Westminster we see this as the perfect opportunity for Labour to fill the void, to end the Brexit chapter and press on to achieving its core purpose – creating a society that works for the many, not the few.