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IN THE days preceding Jeremy Corbyn’s Coventry speech on Labour’s relationship to the EU, the Labour leader could have been forgiven for feeling that he was being surrounded.
On one side were the anti-Brexiteers, from the right of the Labour Party marching under the banner of Progress, arguing that an imagined economic catastrophe can only be avoided, at the very least, by remaining in the single market and the customs union (note the use of the definite article).
More than 80 notables in the Labour Party had signed a joint letter to the Observer the day before the speech, urging Corbyn to support Britain’s continued membership of the single market.
A few of them, like Alistair Campbell, simply want another referendum and a reversal of the Brexit vote.
For many of them, the disintegration of Corbyn’s manifesto under fire from EU state aid and anti-state ownership provisions would be welcome collateral damage.
On the other side were the Tories. Confusion abounds because of Tory splits as to exactly what they want out of Brexit, but all Tory factions appear to share a desire for a comprehensive free trade agreement based on the very free market principles that they have helped embed in the EU they are so keen to escape (Thatcher, after all, enthusiastically signed up to the Single European Act, which created the single European market); this would make the job of any incoming radical Labour government doubly difficult since it would not only have to dismantle existing Tory policies but disentangle itself from treaty obligations with the EU.
Any doubt as what that treaty might contain was dispelled by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, when he said: “There will be no ambitious partnership without common ground in fair competition, state aid, tax dumping, food safety, our environmental and financial stability…” for which, read a continuation of the EU’s neoliberal policies of stopping state ownership and preventing support to indigenous industry.
Corbyn had to keep the Labour Party together, expose the dangers that the Tories posed, while keeping faith with those millions of working-class voters who had voted Leave as well as his own long-held concerns about the nature of the EU, as he put it himself in the speech: “I have long opposed the embedding of free market orthodoxy and the democratic deficit in the European Union, and that is why I campaigned to ‘remain and reform’ in the referendum campaign.”
And that is not all. He had to bear in mind how Labour’s position was going to be received in Ireland and Scotland.
The question of how a “seamless” border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was going to be possible after Brexit had been fudged by the Tories and the EU negotiators alike.
In Scotland a row has rumbled on and on about how and when the powers, like agriculture and fisheries, are to be repatriated to the Scottish Parliament, with the Tories insisting that while they will eventually be devolved, this will depend on agreement being reached in relation to uniform UK standards.
More than anything else the Labour leadership had to offer a position that took the working class forward by promoting a “progressive Brexit,” one that advanced working-class interests without conceding to xenophobia or nationalism or the inevitability of some sort of compromise with neoliberal rules that would confine the core elements of the 2017 manifesto.
And by insisting on a “bespoke” deal based on a customs union that required opt-outs from the neoliberal framework, that is what Corbyn achieved.
“But we are also clear that the option of a new UK customs union with the EU would need to ensure the UK has a say in future trade deals … So we would also seek to negotiate protections, clarifications or exemptions where necessary in relation to privatisation and public service competition directives, state aid and procurement rules and the posted workers directive.”
By addressing concerns over, for example, tariffs on the car industry that had legitimately troubled many trade unionists worried about tariffs, Corbyn isolated those enthusiasts for the single market in the labour movement whose “concern” for jobs camouflaged a deeper commitment to the neoliberal trappings that go with single market membership.
It also enabled him to attack the dangers of a Tory Party captured by the lure of deregulating trade deals: “Labour respects the result of the referendum and Britain is leaving the EU. But we will not support any Tory deal that would do lasting damage to jobs, rights and living standards.
“And Labour is implacably opposed to our NHS or other public services being part of any trade deal with Trump’s America or a revived TTIP-style deal with the EU, which would open the door to a flood of further privatisations.”
By insisting that post-Brexit Britain would introduce an immigration system based on “fair rules,” by dissolving the border issue in Northern Ireland through espousing a common customs area and by promising to return the powers to the devolved authorities that are enshrined in the devolution settlements, he went some way to demonstrate how Labour could achieve his pledge of “no scapegoating of migrants, and no playing off the nations of the UK.”
Needless to say he will not have won over the “extreme” remainers, but he has deprived them of a broader base.
It is now up to those of us in the labour movement who believe that Brexit does provide real opportunities for left advance to support Corbyn and to marginalise the opposition to a progressive Brexit, by showing how radical ideas will have space to flourish, free from the maws of the EU leviathan.
Vince Mills is secretary of Scottish Labour Left.
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