THE POLITICAL TIDAL WAVES that have lashed over the government, unleashed first by Hurricane Boris and then the wet Tsunami that is Chancellor Hammond have in the last month served to draw attention away from what is going on within Labour over the EU.
Thankfully, Labour’s apparent volte-face over the clean, anti-Single Market position it adopted in the party’s general election manifesto may not be as definitive as Sir Keir Starmer would like to think. Nor perhaps is it a reflection of where Jeremy Corbyn and many of his supporters within the party really stand?
Corbyn is using opposition to the Great Repeal Bill – on the claimed grounds of concern over parliamentary scrutiny – in order to buy himself some much needed time in relation to three contradictions he is grappling with. These are dilemmas that, while directly linked to the EU issue, have wider implications for the Labour leadership. They are connected to the politics of power, both within the party and in terms of the broader electorate.
To understand the depth of the problem Corbyn is facing one needs to understand that his support in the party is a pot-pourri of contradictions and disconnected thinking. Corbyn, unlike John McDonnell – an ideologically disciplined politician who owes a great deal to Trotskyist theory, epitomises the non-relational thinking of the “New Left”. In contrast to its classic Marxian counterparts, the New Left adheres to a series of emotionally driven, vaguely defined free-floating concepts and values – divorced from a serious objective analysis of the economic, political and cultural conditions within which they operate.
So, Corbyn, like his hard old-left counterparts, is committed to socialist economics. In contrast to them, however, he accords the identity politics agenda of feminism, environmentalism, transgenderism, anti-racism – and so on – an equal status to the desire for economic transformation.
The ideologically disconnected nature of post-modern leftism means that there is no prioritisation of objectives. Corbyn shares the New Left’s instinctive distaste for the nation state and is inclined, therefore, towards transnationalism and supports the free movement of labour. He is naturally averse, just like the Blairites, to the very concept of there being a ‘British people’. He does not share the understanding that many on the old school left have – including his advisor Seamus Milne – that the attainment of socialism can only, in reality, take place within real, bounded, national communities.
The spirit of social collectivism does not tend to thrive on a transnational basis (as the Greeks are currently experiencing).
Until now, as a backbench MP and activist, Corbyn has not had to resolve the contradictions inherent in his own political make up. He has only been responsible for maintaining the survival of the hard left within the Labour party. Now, he has to sustain its new leadership role and deliver governmental office for the party through the wider electoral process, putting into place a policy programme that is not just attractive to the public but can stand up to analysis and potentially be delivered.
Until he, so incredibly, became leader he was only required to strike a series of rhetorical poses. These were a series of positions that often lacked any fundamental coherence and were detached from the real, objective conditions that would be necessary to achieve them.
This has now all changed and the complications of the EU issue in particular are forcing the Labour leader to wrestle with three related contradictions:
First, there has been the contradiction between the party’s new official line – supported by the overwhelming number of its MPs – of staying within the Single Market – and Corbyn’s desire to use his position to push for a variety of leftist economic measures.
If the UK were to remain within the Single Market the ECJ would most likely continue to dictate what a future Corbynite government could and could not do. No re-nationalisation of the railways; no abolition of tuition fees for British students only; probably no freezing of energy prices, no state aid for the steel and other industries. This was the key argument Professor Richard Tuck made in his recent Policy Exchange lecture on why Brexit can potentially breathe new life into a leftist project.
Second, is Corbyn’s natural desire to, on the one hand, see total free movement of peoples and, on the other, the need to win the support of traditional working class voters who overwhelmingly want immigration policy subjected to democratic control. At the last election Labour was able to block the much anticipated Tory advance in south Wales and parts of the north by winning back the support of many ‘red’ UKIP voters who had abandoned the party in 2015 and then went on to support Brexit in the referendum. Labour did this by pledging to respect the referendum result and come out of the Single Market, so enabling the party to limit EU based immigration in the future.
The last contradiction concerns the need for the hard left leadership to maintain its still tenuous control within a party that is overwhelmingly dominated by a large soft or centre-left presence that is structurally pro-EU. Unlike working class, formerly habitual, Labour voters, the vast majority of the party’s politicians and activists want to see free movement of labour continue post-Brexit through membership of the Single Market. Many share with Tony Blair the hope that a long ‘transitional period’ after Brexit along these lines will result in the British people being persuaded to endorse a return back into the EU.
The cosmopolitan middle class types who participated in the Corbyn cult of personality at Glastonbury (and who predominate in London and many primarily southern constituencies) are prepared, for the time being, to overlook the Labour leader’s ambiguous and fuzzy approach to the EU. However, to keep them on side in the longer-term will require a firm commitment to the Single Market and maybe even a promise to reverse Brexit. For the time being the leader, by agreeing to adopt Keir Starmer’s transitional ruse, has bought some good will from some of the metropolitan left.
The contradictions, between appeasing Labour’s now culturally and numerically educated and white-collar middle class base whilst simultaneously enlisting the support of its earthier traditionalists in the two-thirds of constituencies that backed Brexit, are enormous. As is Corbyn’s ideological desire to actually go to the country with a range of leftist economic policies that can credibly be delivered together with a position of staying in the Single Market.
The task facing those who support Brexit, including those on the left, is to unravel forensically the Labour leadership’s currently disingenuous holding position by driving home the wedge issues relating to these mutually incompatible objectives. They constitute what those in the Marxist tradition would refer to as ‘inner contradictions’ and logic dictates that eventually they will have to be resolved through the making of hard choices.
For the time being, though, the Corbynite high-wire juggling act on Europe continues.