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Can the Labour party rise to the task of challenging Brexit?

Without strong parliamentary leadership and clearer direction from Labour, a broad-based challenge to hard Brexit will be impossible.

In the celebrated “New Times” edition of Marxism Today of October 1988, the issue of the future of Europe was simply posed. It was not a question of “if” but “how much” and “with what outcomes”. Retreat to the nation state was unimaginable. Thatcherism had transformed the landscape of Britain’s political economy. The project was now to extend market liberalisation to western Europe, not withdraw from the common market. The British left had no choice but to engage on European terrain.

Fast-forward three decades and Thatcher’s heirs are pursuing Brexit to complete the tasks that she left unfinished. They aim for the total dismantling of tariffs, further deregulation of labour and product markets and corporate tax reductions. Britain will be reinvented as the “world island” of its imperial imagination, only this time buccaneering without the gunboats: east of Suez reborn as an entrepôt for east-Asian capitalism.

This is the hardest of all Brexits, one in which the UK leaves the European Union without a deal. It is a political project being pursued by an emboldened faction within the Conservative Party that is now powerful, not marginal. Its transformation from a cranky, obsessive fringe, roaming the wilderness during the New Labour years and kept safely quarantined during the coalition, to a significant force in British politics occupying high office has been remarkable. It is also deadly serious. The “World Trade Organisation option” – until recently inconceivable beyond the pages of think-tank pamphlets – is now canvassed as a plausible national ambition.

Yet, if Thatcherism was a project of the “free market and the strong state”, as Andrew Gamble memorably wrote, the unionist nation state will be tested to destruction by a Brexit on these terms. Northern Ireland has lost its unionist majority for the first time since partition. It will not tolerate the return of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. Scotland has a determined, strategically astute nationalist leadership. It threw down the independence gauntlet to the Prime Minister just as she sent Article 50 up for royal assent. A hard Brexit made in southern England could yet break the Union.

How has it come to this? The trade unions are introverted, their attention elsewhere. Capital is strangely quiescent, its different sectors working out their options. The old Tory industrial interests have long since withered, leaving only the Macmillanite grandees of the party to issue rebukes to their government. And, in sharp contrast to the early 1970s when Britain joined the common market, the conservative press is now almost wholly, often viscerally, Eurosceptic. The hostility to immigration that it has nurtured for years is now widely shared in society, emboldening the Prime Minister to elevate immigration control to priority boarding in national policy.

Politically, the biggest factor is the weakness of the centre left in England. The Lib­eral Democrats are still recovering from catastrophic defeat. They are spirited and their pro-Europeanism has the merit of authenticity. Yet they cannot lead a liberal fightback on their own. It is Labour’s death spiral that truly enfeebles progressive Britain. The party is divided on Europe once again, but this time it is a paltry kind of division: electoral, not principled or ideological. Its MPs face in different directions depending on which parts of the country they represent.

The Conservatives’ electoral supremacy appears assured, in large part because it is unassailable among the crucial voting bloc of older voters, for whom Theresa May’s conservatism of unfussy solidity and ordered hierarchy is tailor-made. The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up. Infighting aside, Corbynism is invisible now. It has no secrets to conceal.

Without strong parliamentary leadership and clearer direction from Labour, a broad-based challenge to hard Brexit will remain out of reach in the near future. Absent a parliamentary bloc capable of uniting Labour MPs with Scottish Nationalists, Liberal Democrats and Remain Conservatives, the terms of Brexit will remain an internal argument in the Conservative Party, communicated in WhatsApp groups of Eurosceptic MPs. The political dynamics will only change once the real negotiations start, after France and Germany have new governments and the economic reality of what Brexit means start to bite.

But whether Brexit is hard, soft or reversible, the UK will not be hammered back into unitary shape by an intransigent Conservative unionism. That is a statecraft that preferred suppression to accommodation over Irish Home Rule, and it will fail now, as it did then.

The UK needs a new, quasi-federal settlement, involving not just greater devolution to Scotland and Wales and significant flexibility for Northern Ireland but national recognition for England and decentralisation of power to English cities and counties, rather than a technocratic, ahistorical regionalism. Elections in May will produce a new crop of English city and county mayors. They need to give voice to a progressive Englishness and help rebalance the Brexit debate.

At root, the problem facing progressive parties across Europe is how to unite the new middle class of sociocultural professionals with working-class voters and sections of the private-sector middle class. The challenge is unusually tough in the UK, where social class and age inequalities in voter turnout are pronounced. There are small signs of revival in Europe. Portugal has shown that a coalition of the broad left can govern successfully, while contesting eurozone austerity. Under the leadership of Martin Schulz, the SPD is mounting a strong challenge to Merkel’s hegemony in Germany. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron may succeed in rousing a centrist liberalism in France.

Like 1968, 2016 was a defining year in global politics, a moment of punctuation in historical time. We are now living through the messier, more complex aftermath. In these new times, politics will be highly charged and deeply contested, just as they were in the 1970s. Building coalitions – intellectual and political – will be imperative. Otherwise, the emerging new constitutional and economic settlement for Britain will be shaped, once again, by the right. 

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.