Some disasters can only be seen with hindsight. Others are crushingly obvious for an extended period of time, like watching an asteroid move in ever-closer circles around the Earth. The Labour party’s relationship with Brexit is, for some of us at least, a perfect example of the latter. A policy of triangulation has served the party well for a year or so, but could now destroy both its electoral strategy and its ability to implement a manifesto.
To an extent, the consequences of Brexit have been clearly set out from the start of the referendum campaign. On one hand, Theresa May’s Brexit agenda promises to abolish a raft of workers’ rights, environmental protections and human rights, while awarding the government unprecedented powers to rule without the consent of parliament. On the other, it is a clear affirmation of every narrative that weakens the left in the long run – that immigration is to blame for falling living standards, and that Britain is a great power with a proud imperial history.
But the bulk of what Brexit will mean has only really become clear since the last election. As we move out of regulatory alignment with the EU, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox’s plan is to look westward to the United States as well as to various regimes like Saudi Arabia. Chlorinated chicken might be the most visceral element of this process, but there are political consequences too. The Conservatives plan to sign a range of free trade deals that will bind the UK into agreements far more regressive than the EU’s state aid rules. Global capitalism is a much bigger threat to the independence of Britain’s governments than Brussels.
The plan of the Labour leadership is essentially still the same as it was in June 2017 – to deliver a Labour Brexit, or at least one that meets its six tests, and not to be seen to frustrate the process. In spite of the view of Labour’s members, 78 per cent of whom back a referendum on the terms of May’s deal, a coalition at the top of the party has held the line. In brief, this coalition consists of a small core of true Brexit believers (mostly from the older Labour left and the Communist Party); those who believe that any pro-Remain turn would lead to electoral oblivion; and the loyalists – who won’t contradict Corbyn and view the current moment as an endurance match of Labour unity against fraying Tory discipline.
In private meetings and conversations, it is clear that Labour’s inner circle is still clinging to the idea that it could bring about a bespoke deal that meets its six tests. But the closer we get to March 2019, the clearer it becomes that this foundational assumption is a fantasy. Theresa May is pressing ahead with her agenda, and if she can get a deal through parliament and avoid a ratification referendum, she will use trade deals and executive powers to set the course of Britain’s future. Put simply, whatever you might think about it in the abstract, there is only one Brexit reality – and it is a Tory one.
The left is rightly sceptical about narratives which hinge on doing what is “good for the economy”, when this so often means pursuing the interests of big business. But we do need to get real about the effects that a crumbling economic outlook would have on Labour’s ability to implement its manifesto. It is undoubtedly possible to pursue a radical programme for government with diminishing overall resources, but this requires a politics of expropriation and redistribution substantially to the left of where Labour presently is. Could Corbyn command a parliamentary majority for such measures, or would he immediately be forced into a round of austerity?
Meanwhile, the electoral consequences of Labour’s Brexit position are becoming starker. It is unclear whether or not we witnessed its first public outing at Tilda’s Essex plant on Monday, but the new centrist party is real and forming. Under a First Past the Post electoral system it will fail, but not without first ruining Labour’s electoral prospects. Swathes of marginal seats will swing with Remain voters. Leavers, too, could desert Labour – but not if they have faith that Labour will deliver on a radical domestic agenda.
There is no way through the Brexit crisis that does not involve pain and risk. For both sides of Labour’s divide, the task of formulating a workable alternative policy has been overshadowed by seemingly bigger political and factional calculations. For now, the internal debate centres on an attempt by the Lords, and some Labour MPs, to keep Britain in the single market. While the Norway option might be better economically and in terms of rights and regulations, it is from every perspective a worse outcome than simply remaining in the EU.
Having formulated a Brexit position on the basis that it was expedient, Labour must now come to terms with the fact that this policy will make it less likely to get and win an election, and seriously undermine its prospects when in government. Jeremy Corbyn’s quickest path to Downing Street might well now be to block May’s deal and, by putting the question back to the people, to derail Brexit altogether.
Michael Chessum is an organiser for the campaign group Another Europe is Possible.