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THE Conservative government is in crisis once more. The EU Withdrawal Bill goes to the Lords this week and faces a series of defeats.
The cabinet is split between those who want to keep within the EU, either through membership of the single market or the customs union, and those who don’t.
From outside, the Confederation of British Industry is pressing for an immediate declaration in favour of a customs union and EU negotiators are upping pressure for the single market.
Tony Blair, the Liberal Democrats and the head of the biggest City of London bank Goldman Sachs are stepping up their campaign for a second EU referendum. As the Prime Minister dithers, leadership rivals jockey for position.
It is therefore a moment of decision for the Labour Party. It has hitherto refused to bow to dictation by big business and the City of London and argued that the best way to defend the interests of working people is to remain outside the single market.
In his interview on ITV on January 14 Jeremy Corbyn made three important points.
First, there should be no second EU referendum. To do so would be anti-democratic.
Second, there should be a vote by MPs on any final deal. If it’s done by the Tories, of whatever description, it is likely to be a bad deal for working people.
But Corbyn’s third point was the most important. Labour had to be explicit about its criticisms of the single market. Under its terms state aid for industry would be restricted. Labour’s key progressive programme pledges to intervene on jobs and industrial development would be at risk.
The essence of the Tory split is about what is best for the very rich. Hammond wants something close to the single market which would allow the City of London banks to continue to dominate banking and finance across the EU.
Boris Johnson and Michael Gove want to strike trade deals across the world on neoliberal terms — something after the fashion of US President Donald Trump’s low taxes and minimal social services.
Labour’s election commitments were exactly the opposite — to govern for the many not the few. Labour’s opportunity is to spell out once again what this means.
Britain’s manufacturing was in crisis long before the EU referendum. In the last 10 years, 620,000 jobs had been lost, almost a fifth of those remaining.
Each workplace closed meant well-paid jobs lost, skills dispersed and more young people condemned to work in the zero-hours economy as City of London speculators made fabulous fortunes for the very rich.
Labour won votes last summer because it said this had to stop.
The government could and must intervene for public ownership of utilities, a state investment bank, for state aid to industry that could create thriving regional economies, for sectoral collective bargaining and, not least, for an end to auctioning off public services to the lowest bidder.
Labour, it argued, had to seize these opportunities now existing outside the EU. These opportunities remain and are essentially about reasserting the principle of economic democracy — a goal of the labour movement and the Labour Party since formation.
But there also needs to be clarity. Before Labour’s promised consultations on its approach, arguments are being made for the EU customs union. Can this be an alternative to the single market? Not so.
Membership involves single market rules. In fact, worse, it additionally requires accepting external EU trade treaties such as the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement whose provisions allow privateers to sue governments for lost profits.
Tory crisis is Labour’s opportunity but only if it recaptures the enthusiasm of its election campaign and advances its own democratic, progressive alternative.
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