THERE HAS BEEN MUCH EXCITEMENT in recent weeks over the Labour front bench’s supposed ‘U-turn’ on the question of Brexit. Keir Starmer has announced a policy of favouring a significant buffer period after Britain leaves the EU, during which the country will remain in the single market and in which there will continue to be free movement between Britain and the countries of the EU. This has been presented in the media as a concession to so-called ‘soft Brexit’, and as contrasting with Jeremy Corbyn’s previous acceptance of both the letter and the spirit of the EU referendum result. It certainly did not sit comfortably with previous statements from senior Labour figures casting doubt on ongoing single market membership and free movement.
Confronted with this apparent shift towards a softer stance, what should the left say? Are we for a soft Brexit, or a hard Brexit, or for no Brexit whatsoever? Perhaps we ought to support a medium sort of Brexit? But whatever we say, the temptation is to position ourselves on a spectrum which runs from the hardness of Nigel Farage to the softness of Chuka Ummuna, with Keir Starmer lurking around the squidgier regions.
We should not give in to temptation. The spectrum view of Brexit does not sit comfortably with the way socialists understand, or at least ought to understand, politics. For us, the basic dividing line in society is between the vast majority of people and the small minority who control the wealth we create. The question we ought to ask of any political proposal is: does this further the interests of working class people? For the mainstream view of the Brexit debate, on the other hand, the major dividing line is between those who want fewer ongoing relations between Britain and EU institutions and those who want more. These criteria are not ours, and we ought to refuse to define ourselves in terms of them.
But isn’t this simplistic? There’s a raging debate in the country at large and it is largely framed in terms of hard versus soft Brexit. If we don’t participate in that debate the left will not have a voice in what, by any reckoning, is one of the most important political decisions in Britain for a generation.
There’s something to be said for this viewpoint. Certainly we ought to comment on important moments in the ongoing debate. For example, it is clearly appropriate to welcome at least the fact that Starmer’s move has given Labour a clear official position on Brexit and has moved us on from a previous position in which we were almost giving the Tories a blank cheque to negotiate as they saw fit.
However, a socialist approach cannot be fitted into the contours of the mainstream debate. This is for a very simple reason. The interests of working class people do not neatly coincide with those of either British sovereignty or of the EU. If people are wanting to close borders in the cause of clawing back power from the EU, damaging migrant workers and their families in the process, then socialists have to oppose that. If, on the other hand, they want to remain in a single market whose rules impose neo-liberalism and favour privatisation, our attitude is not likely to be very favourable either. Our task is to defend workers’ rights in or out of the EU, soft Brexit or hard Brexit.
The problem with the ‘hard versus soft’ framework is that it pushes together questions that ought to remain separate from a socialist perspective. This has clearly happened around the issues of the single market and free movement, which have been treated as two sides of the same coin by key Labour figures since the referendum. Yet they are not. The freedom of people to move and the freedom of money to move are simply not equivalent. If the starting point of a discussion about international relations assumes otherwise, things will not end well.
This leaves the left in Britain in a frustrating position. We cannot engage in the mainstream debate in its own terms, but this leaves us without any kind of strong voice. The organised left is, in spite of the Corbyn surge, without a strong independent voice. The failure of Momentum to develop beyond being solely a campaigning organisation - and a top-down one as well - has helped to ensure this. We can say and do things without them having much impact. This is not as things ought to be, especially during such an important time politically.
However, we need to do what we can, mainly locally and in piecemeal fashion, to shift the terms of the debate.
In my view, the place we are best able to do this, by expressing solidarity with a vulnerable group of workers, is in the debate around free movement. We can win this at CLP level, and create a head of steam against ‘Fortress Britain’ which the front bench will find it difficult to ignore. In combination with campaigns with local migrants’ rights groups there is the potential to renew the labour movement’s outlook on this, while bringing within the remit of Labour politics the concerns of a group of workers who have traditionally been relatively excluded from our movement. That is worth doing, and certainly more worthwhile than sterile debates over whether we’d rather support Chuka Ummuna or Keir Starmer.
Leeds Central CLP and member of UCU executive committee at Leeds University,