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Editorial: How should Labour respond to Tory Brexit policies?

TORY proposals for the creation of “free ports” post-Brexit show that Labour is right to see Conservative Leave plans as preparation for accelerated deregulation, privatisation and tax cuts.

While the creation of “free ports” would be justified as helping to make up for any loss of tariff-free trade if Britain leaves the EU Customs Union, the concept isn’t one that can only be floated because Britain is headed for the exit.

Free ports exist within the EU at the moment — one in Luxembourg was set up while current European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was prime minister there.

Concerns raised by MEPs that they are used to facilitate tax evasion and money-laundering were dismissed by Mr Juncker in March.

The Tories’ slash-and-burn agenda is one they have pursued vigorously within the EU — the sweeping attacks on the rights of the jobless and disabled, on workers’ rights including the right to strike and the escalating problems of poverty, homelessness and job insecurity all predate the 2016 referendum, while fear of “post-Brexit trade deals” ignores the EU’s driving role in promoting toxic trade deals such as the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership — or indeed the new deal struck with Latin America’s Mercosur trading bloc, condemned by trade unions on both sides of the ocean.

That the Conservatives will use Brexit in whatever way they can to intensify their assault on working people is not surprising. Their party will exploit any circumstance to that end.

Labour’s dilemma is how to respond. The fact that the Conservatives are currently in government, and therefore responsible for delivering Brexit, is used by left supporters of Remain to argue that Brexit itself must be opposed.

The “exit left” backed by organisations such as Lexit, the Full Brexit or Labour Leave is rejected as an irrelevant fantasy on the grounds that the left will not be in the driving seat on our way out.

Pressure is building on Labour to change its current position — to respect the result of the referendum, to fight for a general election and negotiate a Leave deal that protects workers’ rights and to keep the option of a public vote on the table — and adopt a more openly Remain stance (support for a second referendum on any deal, and advance commitment to campaign to Remain in said referendum — the latter point showing that the “People’s Vote” advocates assume that the vote should include a Remain option).

Labour’s present policy is claimed to be too subtle and unable to cut through in the polarised politics of modern Britain. This assessment rests on a rather low opinion of the public’s intelligence.

If the policy has been a “slow car crash,” as shadow chancellor John McDonnell is said to have described it, this could be down to its constant contradiction by Labour MPs, feeding a narrative of confusion that does not arise from the policy itself.

Further, Labour suffers because it has largely refused to stress the positive potential of leaving the EU in terms of our right to determine economic policy free of EU regulations, opening up a range of options on public ownership and planned economic development that are currently inhibited by EU law.

As a result, respecting the vote appears to mean agreeing reluctantly to deliver a policy its leadership think is wrong. That the Tories are suffering just as much from giving this impression doesn’t mean it is an inspiring or election-winning stance.

The pro-Leave left needs to raise its game in articulating a positive vision for leaving the EU that Labour’s left leadership can champion.

The alternative, to retreat into claims that the people got it wrong in 2016 and enter a general election appealing to Remain voters only, will only hand victory to the Tory extremists that the “people’s vote” campaign supposedly exists to stop.
 

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