Welsh Labour Leadership Election: if you’re serious about 21st Century Socialism, you have to back a People’s Vote

In a BBC Wales televised debate last night between the three candidates for the Welsh Labour leadership, there were sharp exchanges once again between Mark Drakeford and Vaughan Gething on the issue of a People’s Vote on the Brexit Deal.  Vaughan Gething roundly criticised Mark Drakeford’s tone – he supports the Westminster line that Labour should only press for a People’s Vote if it fails to get a general election – as “awful” and added that Wales needed leadership on the issue – a view that Drakeford strongly dismissed.

In an election that was expected to see an easy win – a coronation almost – for Mark Drakeford, the People’s Vote campaign and Brexit itself have become defining issues.  Put briefly, Mark Drakeford says that Welsh Labour must back Jeremy Corbyn’s line from London; Vaughan Gething strongly favours a people’s vote on the deal; as does Eluned Morgan, who in the same hustings repeated her position that she would as First Minister lead the campaign in Wales to secure a Remain vote.  

Mark Drakeford’s position is problematic on two counts – that the case for a General Election as the way of deciding the way forward on Brexit does not, on its own, stand up; and that changes to the system of taxation in Wales means that Brexit – any Brexit – will severely damage Welsh public services, in a way that will entrench austerity achieve precisely the opposite of the 21st Century Socialism that Drakeford has placed at the heart of his campaign.

The first point is that the Westminster Labour strategy of securing a general election before moving to a People’s Vote doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.  Of course Labour people – right across the Party – want to see the Tories removed from office.  Of course we want to see the end of, for example, the misery caused by the botched rollout of Universal Credit.  But Labour’s position on Brexit remains wholly incoherent.

It appears to revolve around the belief that, with the current proposed deal failing to meet the six tests, a newly elected Labour government could negotiate a better Brexit.  But there are a number of problems with that.  There appears to be no consensus on what that Brexit would look like, except that it would contain “a” customs union, access to the single market, but with the right to negotiate our own trade deals and to derogate from the EU’s provisions on freedom of movement.  But such a negotiating position will fail for the same reason that the May government has had to abandon its red lines; because the EU will not accept cherry-picking of aspects of the four fundmental principles.  Barnier is not bluffing when he says this is the only deal on the table; the current deal goes as far as Europe can without breaching those principles and thus threatening the principles on which the Union is founded.

Moreover, any renegotiation following a General Election will need an extension of Article 50.  While the EU has indicated that it would accept an extension for a referendum – in line with the text in Article 50 about the constitiutional provisions of the departing Member State – it would not be willing to do so for a General Election.  After all, the 2017 General Election settled nothing – why would another one do so?  

The problem with Corbyn’s line is not just that it is unworkable – it is that, combined with the rhetoric that is coming from Labour’s leaders in Westminster, it looks increasingly like a strategy, not for stopping or challenging a Tory Brexit deal, but one that is designed to facilitate it – because that better Brexit deal that Corbyn talks about just isn’t available.  There is no such thing as a “jobs first” Brexit; every Brexit scenario will destroy jobs and kill investment.  And, moreover, it seems incredible that there is no Labour strategist in London who cannot grasp the essential point that whichever party implements Brexit will, in the long term, pay the gravest political price; because there is no Brexit that will deliver what was promised during a dishonest and fraudulent pro-Leave referendum campaign.

Which brings us to Wales.  There are two fundamental issues for Wales – first, our economy is exposed to Brexit to a much greater degree than other parts of the UK.  And, second, Brexit will coincide to a change to the way tax is collected in Wales that will exacerbate that effect, because it will jeopardise our public services.

First, it is well known that the Welsh economy, with its greater reliance on manufacturing – much of it the result of inward investment – and agriculture is more vulnerable to Brexit.  The range of that impact depends on how far away we move from the current EU arrangement, but it could mean a reduction of more than 10% in Wales’ GDP.

But, second, as I have argued before, the changes in the way income tax is collected in Wales from next April means that, for the first time, the amount of revenue available for public expenditure will directly depend in part on the performance of the Welsh economy.  In other words, insofar as Wales is hit worse than the rest of the UK by the fallout from Brexit, its public services will be hit disproportionately.

In a recent lecture at Cardiff University, Mark Drakeford set out his priorities for what he calls 21st Century Socialism, as a bulwark against austerity.  He placed public services and public provision at the heart of those priorities.  But unless we as a nation fight and defeat Brexit, none of that can happen, because not only will it be far more difficult to grow the Welsh economy, but the effect on tax revenue will mean poorer, not better, public services.  And the idea that you can somehow package that as 21st Century Socialism seems, to put it at its mildest, implausible.

It loses sight of the fact that Brexit is, at its heart, an austerity project.  It is not about “taking back control” in any democratic sense, but for elites who will be unconstrained by the EU’s social, environmental and consumer rights legislation.  There is a Lexit argument – a sort of socialism-in-one-country argument that portrays the EU as something that would stop Labour implementing its programme – but, as I’ve argued before, that’s nonsense.  On any serious analysis, the economic damage of Brexit will make it more, not less, difficult to implement any kind of socialist or social democratic programme.  At one level, that’s the whole point of Brexit.

And, moreover, the line that Wales needs Jeremy Corbyn in No 10 seems to me to be based on a basic misunderstanding.  Of course as a Labour Party member I believe that a Labour government would be preferable to a Tory one; but why should Wales be dependent economically on the flavour of Government in Westminster?  If devolution means anything it’s about the right of Wales to decide its own economic destiny, and not to be dependent on Whitehall (which has not always proved Wales’ strongest friend, even under Labour governments).

So, in conclusion, if you are serious about a twenty-first century socialism, the current position being articulated by Mark Drakeford on Brexit won’t do.  I’ve made it clear that I back Eluned Morgan as the next Welsh leader – because she understands the importance of growing the Welsh economy, of constitutional arrangements that mean that economic decisions are taken in Wales, and because she is pledged to lead the campaign against Brexit in a people’s vote if elected.  It doesn’t mean I don’t want a twenty-first socialism, or a Labour government in London; it’s because I believe that you can have a twenty-first socialism of the sort Mark Drakeford describes, or you can have Brexit.

But what you simply cannot have is both.  And that implies that if you are serious about 21st Century Socialism, you need to abandon the undeliverable position about a General Election – and campaign for the People’s Vote that will give people – in Wales and beyond – a genuine say.

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