Labour’s Missing Brexit Strategy

Labour’s Missing Brexit Strategy

By choosing to view Brexit merely as a domestic electoral challenge, Labour risks ignoring it as an immediate, real-world test of the party’s democratic and internationalist commitments.

Jeremy Corbyn after meeting EU officials in Brussels in September (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

On October 20, 2018, some 700,000 marchers descended on London to demand a “people’s vote” on the terms of Britain’s impending exit from the European Union. The march was the largest demonstration against a sitting British government since the rallies against the Iraq War in 2003, eclipsing in size (if not fervor) the youth mobilization against David Cameron’s government’s trebling of university fees in 2010. During the forty-three years between the UK’s accession to the EU and its vote to leave, the blue-and-gold European flag was rarely seen in public spaces. Now it has been adopted as a symbol of pride by a sizeable, vocal minority of the young, the educated, and the professional: daubed on faces, encircling punning slogans, glued onto hats and badges.

On the same day as the march, the far-right media celebrity Nigel Farage was addressing a much smaller crowd in the well-heeled market town of Harrogate, Yorkshire, in support of his latest vehicle: the “Leave Means Leave” campaign for unilateral and immediate withdrawal from the EU. Farage’s rallies consist largely of a series of reminders that the Leave campaign won the 2016 referendum. There are ritual boos for a range of hate figures, from Cameron to Tony Blair to the European Commission’s unprepossessing president, Jean-Claude Juncker. The hardline Leavers, however, are far closer to real political power than their Remain adversaries. In Boston Lincolnshire—the district that cast the highest percentage of Leave votes in the whole country—Farage stood alongside Theresa May’s former chief Brexit negotiator, the Conservative MP David Davis, to demand that the Conservative government “chuck Chequers”: shorthand for a byzantine proposal for a not-quite customs union with the European Union.

Thanks to a needless, polarizing referendum about an issue that has little to do with Britain’s stagnant economy or fraying social fabric, these two tribes—the know-it-all Remainers and the know-nothing Leavers—now dominate British public life. Television news offers a ceaseless parade of ghoulish Euro-obsessives, from erstwhile Blairite operators and arch-Remainers Andrew Adonis and Alastair Campbell to the rolling cast of grifters and plutocrats who claim to speak for Leave’s narrow plurality of voters. There is no end in sight: when, or rather if, the initial agreement on withdrawal reached between the European Commission and Theresa May is passed through the UK Parliament, a new round of negotiations will focus on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. The gap between the enthusiasm of the two Brexit tribes and the tedium of the withdrawal process is close to comical. Never in the field of human history has so much energy been expended by so many people on something quite this dull.


Beyond the Brexit Tribes

What stake could Labour, a newly confident party of democratic socialism, have in this grim war of attrition between the decrepit liberal center and the odious far right? Under its previous leader, Ed Miliband, the party opposed holding a referendum at all—a position that looks wiser with every passing month. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour endorsed a lackluster pro-Remain position, which was followed by recriminations and soul-searching about the numbers of notional Labour supporters who voted Leave. Ever since its surprising electoral success at a snap poll called by Theresa May last year, the party leadership has relentlessly focused on bread-and-butter issues capable of uniting supporters of Leave and Remain. Labour is putting together some of its most ambitious economic plans in years: ending austerity, reforming the Treasury and the Bank of England, boosting public ownership, and developing a green, regional industrial strategy, capable of regenerating the English towns that pushed Leave over the line.

You don’t have to be a member of the blue-and-gold face paint brigade, however, to worry about the party’s failure to take on Brexit as a major issue in its own right. The details might be tedious, the cast of characters awful, but Brexit raises fundamental questions about Britain’s orientation in global political economy. By choosing to view it merely as a domestic electoral challenge, Labour risks ignoring the strategic need—and ethical obligation—to consider it as an immediate, real-world test of its democratic and internationalist commitments.

We are not lacking for critiques of the rigid, juridified, “undemocratic” EU, viewed by many on the left as emblematic of a dying politics of technocratic market discipline. But what does the alternative look like? At the time of writing, the party’s answer is confused and underwhelming: a relationship somewhere between a customs and a regulatory union, with a range of exemptions and veto rights—on industrial subsidies, trade agreements with third countries, and the free movement of workers—that the EU will never offer to a non-member. As this suggests, Labour is still guided by the transactional, nationalist assumptions that frame the rest of the country’s Brexit debate. In defiance of all available evidence, party spokespeople say they will get a “better deal for Britain,” because the “grown-ups will be in charge.”

The next phase of the Brexit saga will demand a bolder and more realistic stance. Labour urgently needs to internalize a deeper understanding of the UK’s fundamental predicament in today’s global order, alongside a sense of responsibility for the peace and prosperity of a Europe that is teetering on the abyss. The UK’s position in Europe will be the central question for a socialist foreign policy. For better or for worse, Labour’s answer could end up defining its next term in office.


Practical Internationalism

Focusing Labour’s foreign policy on the turgid details of trade negotiations in Europe is uncomfortable for a leadership whose strongest commitments lie in global solidarity and anti-imperialist movements. Prominent supporters of Jeremy Corbyn routinely lampoon diehard centrist Remainers for the bourgeois parochialism of their narrow European allegiance. Corbyn’s landmark 2017 foreign policy speech signaled that a Labour government would champion the UN as the indispensable venue for a “progressive, rules-based international system,” arguing that human rights could only be protected and extended in the context of global policies to tackle inequality. During an earlier “People’s Vote” march, Corbyn was visiting refugees under UNHCR protection at the Zaatari refugee camp in Lebanon. The contrast spoke volumes. For noisy, pro-European detractors, within and outside the Labour Party, it signaled (at best) Corbyn’s airy disinterest in the real-world politics of Brexit. For the leader’s allies, it demonstrated the seriousness of his commitment to a genuinely radical foreign policy.

It’s hardly a stretch, though, to suggest that a practical socialist internationalism begins with a commitment to peace, democracy, and human rights in one’s own region of the world. There’s a fine line to tread between a universalism mindful of Britain’s central role in colonialisms past and present, and a savior complex that recalls the imperial paternalism of the twentieth-century Labour Party. Strategic self-interest should also push Labour to pay more attention to the politics of the European continent. While the UK enjoys a privileged position in the global hierarchy of states, its room for maneuver is limited by its small size and exceptionally open and over-leveraged economy. Lacking a domestic production base—even for basics such as energy and food—it is spectacularly ill-equipped to be a guinea pig for a left-wing variety of economic nationalism. This makes it acutely vulnerable to the ruthless approach to globalization taken by major powers like the United States, China, and the EU itself.

As Adam Tooze has eloquently argued, the liberal thesis that global economic integration would act as a solvent of interstate competition has proven false. Instead, it has deepened and expanded the unavoidable entanglement of politics and economics, turning every aspect of the world market—from dollar financing to gas pipelines, internet regulation to investment pacts—into a potential means of coercion. Like Theresa May, Labour has tacitly recognized that this competitive and unstable global conjuncture pushes the UK closer to the EU. While party intellectuals noisily debated the merits of “Lexit”—total “rupture” with the European institutions—parliamentarians, members, and trade unionists quietly shifted Labour toward a “soft” Brexit, defined by continuing regulatory integration with the EU.

A Labour Britain, then, would have a massive stake in Europe’s future. But just what view does the party take of the continent’s multiple, interlocking crises? Beyond windy, moralistic condemnation of the EU’s manifold failings, and factional schadenfreude over the electoral collapse of “centrist” social democracy on the continent, it’s almost impossible to say. But wishing away the EU, or its problems, offers no solution. Brexit does not insulate Britain from the catastrophic economic and political consequences of a disorderly breakup of the euro or the EU itself. No one hoping for a successful left government in Britain can honestly welcome that possibility.

Leaving the EU, moreover, doesn’t absolve British socialists of moral responsibility for our near abroad. It was May and Cameron, after all, who first made the case for ending Mediterranean search-and-rescue missions for refugees, now taken up by Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, and Germany’s far-right AfD. As a key proponent of neoliberal policies, a bastion of tax-avoidance and finance capital, a block to the construction of transnational democratic institutions, and an advocate of hardline migration and security policies, the UK has long been part of the problem in Europe. Is there any way that it can be part of the solution? This is a question that no part of Labour, thus far, has been interested in asking.


A Nation-state of Mind

The stakes of Labour’s Europe policy become all the clearer when we consider the dangerous nationalist dynamic Brexit has unleashed within British politics. The winning campaign dealt in a maximalist conception of popular sovereignty that is difficult to reconcile with any continuing authority for European institutions in British life. Yet it also claimed that, after Brexit, the UK could participate in a free trade area from Iceland to the Russian border, something that sounds very much like the European Economic Area (EEA), a unified regulatory space requiring adherence to EU law. They promised, in essence, that absolute territorial sovereignty could be reclaimed overnight, with minimal economic disruption. Both Labour and the Conservatives have been complicit in obscuring the fundamental dishonesty of the Leave campaign, advocating selective forms of participation in a European legal order that the European Commission and the member states regard as unified and nonnegotiable.

Assuming the UK makes it over the first hurdle of agreeing to preliminary terms for its exit from the EU, a final agreement, concluded years from now, could take many forms. The bilateral trade agreement made between the EU and Canada in 2017, for instance, is quite different from Norway’s arrangement with the EU, which is based on full participation in the EEA. The EU, strikingly respectful of the “red lines” articulated by May during the negotiations, currently suggests a Turkey- or Ukraine-style association agreement as a model. Unlike the rest of the draft “withdrawal agreement,” however, plans for a future treaty are still up for revision.

The substantive details, however, are unlikely to matter all that much to the underlying politics of the EU-UK relationship. The imbalance of size and power between the two, the global reach of the EU’s regulatory state, and the overriding imperative to avoid a visible border on the island of Ireland all guarantee that Brussels will be a more identifiable and contested power in British public life than it was when the UK was a full member. Whether it is Labour or the Conservatives who end up signing the ultimate agreement with the EU, this is fertile territory for resentful narratives of humiliation and betrayal.

Labour must contain and overcome this nationalist, conflictual dynamic, the ultimate beneficiaries of which will be the coalition of right-wing forces represented by “Leave Means Leave.” Farage and his allies have a clear and frighteningly plausible roadmap for a non-European British future. An acrimonious breakdown in negotiations would provide a perfect occasion for them to implement a disaster-capitalist model of Brexit. Conservative ministers have hinted that no deal would oblige Britain to lower the corporate tax rate to 10 percent and slash social and ecological standards in order to preserve competitiveness” in the face of higher tariff barriers. Many in Labour assume that the Conservatives would be forced to call a general election in such circumstances, but it is equally plausible that a sense of crisis would bolster the authority of a new prime minister. With sterling in freefall, heavy goods vehicles lined up at ports, flights grounded, chaos on the Irish border, and supplies of food, fuel, and medicine in doubt, a major rightward lurch could be portrayed as a set of necessary responses to a national emergency. The asset-strippers, meanwhile, are circling in anticipation. As a Bain Capital executive told Bloomberg in September, “when everyone is rushing out of a building on fire, there can be opportunities to find valuable stuff there.

Voting down the withdrawal agreement is the best hope the Brexit ultras have of realizing this nightmare scenario. Even if the agreement passes, however, Labour will still have to reckon with the long-term consequences of Brexit’s radicalization of the Conservative Party. The victory of the Leave campaign has significantly expanded the British political constituency for what Quinn Slobodian terms the “alter-globalization of the right.” Economic alignment with the United States, on terms dictated by the Heritage Foundation and the GOP, has long been at the core of this Tory vision for Britain’s future. The minister for international trade, Liam Fox, has floated a U.S.-UK bilateral trade deal, an idea already reciprocated by the Trump administration. Needless to say, opening the NHS to U.S. pharma and healthcare companies would destroy the British welfare state as we know it. The Brexit elite talks the language of national sovereignty, but their real purpose is to radically undermine Britain’s political autonomy, using the shibboleth of the referendum result to silence opposition to their regressive agenda.


Democratic Interventions

As this brief survey suggests, the UK’s political future will not be defined by a straightforward choice between national sovereignty and neoliberal globalization. In the context of a fractured and unstable world politics, it is confronted instead by rival visions of regional and global order. Labour’s task, in these circumstances, is to build democratic legitimacy for the strategic choice it has already, in practice, made: in favor of a continuing, close relationship with the EU.

As the peace activist and international theorist Mary Kaldor told Renewal in July, the party’s current position strips out the political dimensions of integration—common citizenship and representation in the European Council and the European Parliament—while leaving transnational economic governance largely intact. Like the Eurozone crisis, or the failure to agree a common asylum policy, Brexit contributes to the degradation of democratic representation and sovereign equality as basic principles of the European Union. Even on Labour’s terms, then, Brexit doesn’t look like an escape from the bloc’s worst tendencies. Instead, it confirms them, offering a further instance of how member-states consistently opt for short-term, patchwork fixes and technocratic market integration rather than facing up to the challenges of transnational democracy.

For Kaldor and other members of the left-wing campaign for a “People’s Vote,” Another Europe is Possible (AEIP), the solution to the democratic deficit deepened by Brexit is simple: don’t leave the EU. If Labour threw its support behind the campaign for a second vote, they argue, it could join forces with left movements and governments across the continent to expand, rather than restrict, the scope of transnational democracy. Rather than pinning their hopes on the distant prospect of treaty change, AEIP stress the benefits of a socialist Labour government using its access to the European Council, Commission, and Parliament to push the bloc in a more progressive direction. AEIP’s Luke Cooper argues that Labour could take advantage of the bloc’s fragmentation by forming “coalitions of the willing” to advance a more generous asylum policy. At the Labour Party conference in September 2018, the campaign claimed a significant victory in pressuring the leadership to publicly contemplate a new referendum on the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU, in which “Remain” is still a definite option.

Aside from the formidable procedural obstacles to a second vote at this late stage, however, it remains far from clear that pro-Europeans have found a way to successfully challenge the poisonous dynamics of post-Brexit politics. There is no a priori reason why a new referendum should be regarded as less democratic than the first; it would in fact allow the electorate to judge a concrete Brexit proposition rather than the vague fantasies of the 2016 Leave campaign. But Labour may have left it too late to make a convincing case for a fresh vote. In a polity with few established procedures for popular consultation, simply repeating the exercise without thoroughly establishing its legitimacy risks further polarization and resentment. As things stand, the argument that Brussels and Westminster elites were refusing to take no for an answer would enjoy immense traction.

Even if it continues to reject calls for a second vote, however, Labour still needs to think more seriously about the democratic viability of a close, but asymmetrical, relationship between the UK and the EU. Bypassing, if necessary, the European Commission and national governments, it should seek the creation of democratic forums, both deliberative and representative, where citizens from Britain and the member states, or parliamentarians from Westminster and the European Parliament, could meet to discuss matters of common concern and come up with resolutions on European regulations and directives. This would not amount, of course, to the privileged co-authorship of EU law that Britain enjoyed as a full member of the institution. But it would ensure that the EU-UK relationship after Brexit is more than merely intergovernmental. Bringing citizens and representatives from different countries together, in public, is one of the only ways we have to diffuse the narrow, secretive, us-versus-them dynamic that has developed in the course of the withdrawal negotiations.

Labour could also signal its continued willingness to share in Europe’s problems, as well as its privileges. While he was at the Zataari refugee camp, Jeremy Corbyn made a striking offer to European leaders: that Britain, even after Brexit, would be willing to participate in a continent-wide quota system for the distribution of refugees arriving on the Mediterranean and Balkans routes. The importance and farsightedness of the announcement has been lost in the flurry of Brexit politics, but it contains the germ of a more constructive Labour policy. Instead of one-sided demands for privileged market access, the party’s future approach should be based on rebuilding trust with European capitals, demonstrating that a Labour government in the UK would be a valuable, principled supporter of progressive initiatives and member-state coalitions.

These suggestions are deliberately modest. They are intended as examples of how Labour might combine a principled commitment to democratic internationalism with a realistic assessment of the parlous condition of both the UK and the EU. They also seek to challenge the complacency and parochialism that have long defined Labour’s attitude toward Europe. Since the battles over the Maastricht Treaty and the Exchange Rate Mechanism in the early 1990s, Labour leaders have regarded the EU as an issue of minimal political salience, to be used to score tactical victories over a perennially divided Conservative Party. With the EU and the UK in an unprecedented, interlocking crisis, the party no longer possesses this luxury. On grounds of both socialist principle and strategic interest, Labour is called upon to help resist Europe’s slide into authoritarianism and power politics. Brexit makes this challenge harder, excluding the UK from EU decision-making and introducing a confrontational, nationalist dynamic into its relationship with other member states.

Over the coming years, it will become even easier to win votes by pouring opprobrium on Britain’s neighbours. Labour’s task in these circumstances is not to ensure that the sovereign British nation always comes out on top, but to extend democracy into every area of our common life, including those that transcend national borders. Democracy is not a singular moment of a decision, reserved to bounded, pristine, sovereign peoples. It is a constant process of adjustment, deliberation, and negotiation, which the modern world requires us to conduct in many different forums and settings—all of them less than ideal. The British left should view Europe less as an ideological project, requiring either allegiance or rejection, than as an inescapable political arena, in which we have a continuing responsibility to act. Finding the means and alliances to do so, whether or not the UK remains a member of the EU, is our sole hope for salvaging something worthwhile from the risky distraction of Brexit.

James Stafford is a UK Labour Party member, living in Hamburg, Germany. He is Postdoctoral Researcher in World Politics at Bielefeld University and co-editor of Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy.

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