Next week there is the opportunity to halt, or even reverse, the long slide to a catastrophic EU withdrawal. After a summer break Parliament will debate the House of Lord amendments to the Brexit Bill. Endless calculations of the Parliamentary arithmetic will be made, but all will depend on courageous Conservative rebels and, more importantly, the attitude of the Labour leadership.
We should all rejoice that there has been a shift in Labour’s position. It appears that the Party’s current stance is for the softest possible Brexit: to stay in the customs union, while seeking a relationship with the EU that gives the benefits of the single market without membership. This is of course nonsense. As a country we have received repeated indications that this it would be unacceptable to the EU. Such a position can only be regarded as an opportunistic debating stance with an eye on the main chance of forcing and winning a general election.
Sadly the current Labour Party leadership and their most enthusiastic adherents believe this is all that matters: use any sleight of hand to keep the Labour Leave voters in the old heartlands on side and hope to take advantage of the chaos that results from Brexit. There is little interest in the wider case for internationalism or for growth through frictionless trade; hence membership of the EU is incidental to progress to the idealised socialist nirvana. Judging by his actions this is Jeremy Corbyn’s stance to date and, since he is certainly a man of principle, we need to ask why.
Everybody looks back fondly to the day when they discovered their politics, especially if it marked a period of successful activism and personal advancement. For Jeremy Corbyn that period was the late 1970s and early 1980s. I remember that time well. I was a young economist in the nationalised coal industry and an active member of Corbyn’s fractious North Islington Labour Party.
In that period the ‘alternative economic strategy’ (AES) developed by Tony Benn defined the economic thinking of what were then called the new left. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott were keen disciples. The AES was about centralised planning: elements included an investment bank (the National Enterprise Board), planning agreements with private sector companies (which simply never happened) and an extension of public ownership. It was a credible instrument in its time and its successes and failures deserve careful analysis in any consideration of the effectiveness of Labour in power. At the time Benn led the hostility to what was then called the common market on the grounds that it was an international capitalist conspiracy and, if outside, the UK would be able to create some sort of socialist state.
We are forty years on; times have changed. However the AES continues to have a disproportionate influence on the left of the Labour Party, especially the more elderly members of Momentum. They fail to appreciate that 21st century economic and social problems require international co-operation.
A good example is one that emerged during the May Irish referendum on abortion. Electoral integrity was potentially compromised when paid advertisements financed from overseas appeared on social media; anxious to avoid serious government intervention both Facebook and Google banned such advertisements. Important issues were raised here: current electoral law is no longer appropriate to deal with the impact of international social media. What is certain is that this is just the first of many complex problems that will arise with social media companies. They cannot be resolved by nationalising the companies concerned – they are global players – and appropriate regulation can only be developed and implemented internationally. There is a common agenda to be developed across Europe. Moreover, the left’s concern that greater state intervention will be made more difficult in the customs union and single market has itself been hotly contested – see for example the thorough analysis by Andy Tarrant and Andrea Biondi in Renewal http://renewal.org.uk/blog/eu-law-is-no-barrier-to-labours-economic-programme.
So, if the electorate decided to vote for the Alternative Economic Strategy, or variants thereof, there is no reason why it could not be implemented within the single market. Opposition to the EU on these grounds is based on nostalgia and gut reaction rather than any analysis of the facts. There is no sensible reason remaining for anyone of left-of-centre views to equivocate on Brexit. Next week’s Parliamentary decisions will go down as a turning point for the Labour Party and have an impact way beyond the immediate issues.
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