Labour can't build "one nation" on its own

Miliband needs an alliance for change - Greens, social liberals and trade unions.

Your intrepid reporter has been clocking up the miles, dear reader. First in Bristol for the Greens, then Brighton for the Liberal Democrats and now just back from Manchester for Labour. I’m not going to Birmingham for the Tories, I may be a soft-left pluralist, but I’m not that soft and I’m too dizzy with fringes, receptions and okay, I admit it, drink.  

So what should we make of the progressive political scene after its conference season?  I came out pretty much as I went in, and as Gramsci told me I should always be, “living without illusions without being disillusioned”. The conferences reflect the party system – they are all in long term secular decline. Physically and emotionally they shrink, fewer people with fewer reasons to be there.  Let's take them in chronological order. 

The Greens are a sunny delight.  Brimming with hope, ideas and democracy (their members vote on everything, all the time), they have answers to the problems of the poor getting poorer and the planet burning – but they have absolutely no strategy for doing anything about it. They have won in one place - Brighton – the only four-way marginal on the planet they love so much.  But the planet's temperature is rising faster than Green Party representation in the political system. I know it’s the voting system. But please, my Green friends, stop doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome.  You’re not idiots after all.

And the Liberal Democrats? Speaking at three fringe meetings, I witnessed a party whose heart beats to the centre-left but which, up until now, has had little intention of doing anything about it. Of course they have the tough job of sorting out the mess when the public vote for a hung parliament, but they seem incapable of nudging that outcome to be a centre-left coalition, not a centre-right one, next time. They are just sitting tight and hoping, rather than acting.  If social democracy is organised liberalism then they need to get a lot more organised. So, my social liberal friends, stop doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome. You’re not idiots after all.

And finally to Labour. Look, Ed's delivery was amazing and authentic.  What we got was him. The land-grab on "one-nation" Tory territory was sensible electoral politics. He has now got to base camp. He no longer has to survive the day. He is at last the leader of the Labour Party.  Now he has to climb the mountain to get to the summit of power and not just be in office.  But he can’t do it alone.  The climb is too long and too tough.  It has three parts. First, he has to start taking the environment seriously after failing to mention it at all.  The future of the centre-left will be a synthesis of red and green. So it's not just one-nation but one-planet. Second, the big problem facing the left is the separation of power and politics as capitalism went global and politics stayed local. To win back control, we need one-Europe. Again, there was no mention.

Finally, Ed said on Tuesday that he will prove to a sceptical electorate that politics works.  Like Gordon before him, that is a Herculean task that no one person can realistically take on. Gordon got up earlier and earlier to take on the job and consequently achieved less and less.  Too many in Labour still think that the party and the party alone, can usher in socialism from above.

In the week of the death of Eric Hobsbawm, it really is worth remembering that Labour’s forward march was halted 30 years ago. It can’t be re-booted by one person based on the same broken model.  The class forces, the mode of production and not even the threat of the Soviet Union now exist to give Labour the power it once had. We are one-nation made up of people with differing views and a consensus will have to be negotiated, rather than inmposed. So, my Labour comrades, stop doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome.  You’re not, after all, idiots.

A one-nation politics will require an alliance for change. Ed will need Greens and social liberals, he will need stronger unions to predistribute, he will need civil society to battle for communities and equality and he will need networks across Europe to tackle the tax havens and the corporate blackmail of the race to the bottom. To create one-nation is a job far beyond Labour’s shrunken capabilities – though it can and must lead.

And one final thought, before we put the progressive conference season to bed. Labour has been polling anywhere between three to 14 per cent ahead of the Tories in the last few days. We will have a better idea of the lie of the land after next week's Conservative conference. But any sense that the economy is recovering in the run-up to 2015 could, as in 1983 and 1992, see big Labour leads melt away. The Tories will say “look, it took longer and was harder than we thought – because of the scale of the mess Labour left – so don’t let the wreckers back in and instead give us the a mandate to see the job through”.  The centre-left has to start producing an alterative story about the good life and the good society – and above all about a sustainable planet - so that no one wants to turn back to a temporary boom built on a continuing social recession. We need a different vision of what it means to live in the 21st century.

There is much to do and little time, but there is an emerging framework - the game is on.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

"The future of the centre-left will be a synthesis of red and green." Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.