With the Parliamentary vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal imminent – and defeat looking overwhelmingly likely – there has been a certain amount of focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s line, based on a fudged Labour conference resolution. Britain needs a general election, he argues, so that a Labour government can deliver the better Brexit that people voted for in 2016, and sweep the Tories from power.
Many people in the Labour Party do not accept this strategy. Obviously, nobody in the Labour Party wants to see continued Tory government, but in my view it’s a bad strategy that fundamentally misses the point – even if you assume Labour would win (and optimism based on Labour’s better-than-expected election result in 2017 should not blind us to the fact that a Tory win is a likely outcome, given the polls and the exceptional circumstances in that election).
But the strategy all hinges on the belief that Labour in office could deliver a “better Brexit”. In my view that belief is based on a misreading of the attitude of the EU, but above all a wholly mistaken view of what Brexit is.
On the first point, it seems to me that we have to take the EU at its word: it won’t do the UK any special favours, and won’t accept an agreement that would traduce the fundamental principles – the so-called pillars – of the Union. The sort of deal that Labour leaders have trailed simply isn’t available. The fact is that Theresa May’s deal is the best we are going to get – the EU has no conceivable interest in going further, especially in the face of Eurosceptic governments in Poland, Hungary and Italy. If we have learned one thing in the course of the current negotiation, it’s that the notions of English exceptionalism behind the belief that the EU owes us a favour are meaningless in the big wide world (it’s a lesson that those who look optimistically to the UK cutting our own trade deals would do well to heed).
But the second point is the more fundamental one. The Labour leadership does not seem to understand what Brexit – any Brexit – actually is. Brexit is an ideological project of the economic Right. Its purpose is to embed austerity and produce a low-wage, low-tax, low-regulation, offshore economy; one dominated by financial services enjoying the laxest of tax regimes. It is about transferring wealth and power from the many to the few, dressed up in nostalgic, irrelevant language about sovereignty. It aims to ensure that any future Labour or other reformist government cannot change the terms of the economy, by actually removing the UK’s economic autonomy. It is about ensuring that the neoliberal project is embedded, and about taking away economic sovereignty.
In other words, the point is to ensure that future elections cannot deliver change – the contest would be between two or more parties with a largely similar right-of-centre economic agenda. There are those who claim that people opposing Corbyn’s strategy are doing so to thwart the Left – but the point is that those who oppose Brexit are actually enabling a social democratic economic agenda. As part of an economic and social union, with – despite what Lexiteers tell you – the right for Governments to decide about public ownership hard-wired into the Treaties, a UK government could deliver a democratic socialist economic agenda in a way that would simply not be possible outside the EU.
Moreover, the Corbynists simply do not appear to understand the extent that Brexitism – the set of social values around Brexit – is essentially a culture war; its purpose is to roll back social progress, to reduce diversity, to take away women’s rights in particular, to return to a fictionalised past in which people knew their place.
For all these reasons, the priority for Labour, if it is serious about defending its core economic and social values, must be to defeat Brexit. Yes, of course, we want to get the Tories out of office. Of course we want to create a fairer, more equal, more prosperous society; of course we want to deal with the obscenities of Universal Credit and Windrush. But in terms of strategy, the task has to be to defeat Brexit, and then defeat the Tories.
Because, quite simply, if we as a party enable Brexit – any Brexit – we are ensuring that no future Labour government will be able to deliver on our core values. It is as simple and as stark as that. Aneurin Bevan wrote that the language of priorities is the religion of socialism; and until our leaders understand that they’re not doing their job.