Editorial from Solidarity 463
The Labour Party has inched a step further to opposing the erection of new barriers between Britain and Europe.
That brings the immediate prize of a possibility, within the next few weeks, of defeating the Government in Parliament over its desire to take Britain out of the European customs union.
It should also open a thorough discussion in Labour over Europe, leading to a debate at the Labour Party conference in September.
At the September 2017 Labour conference, Brexit debates were, lamentably yet largely thanks to a push by sections of the left, squeezed off the agenda. But the issue needs debate, open, thorough, and intelligent debate.
Solidarity, along with others, will push for Labour to uphold free movement of people — front-line, to defend the existing free movement within Europe — to campaign to stop Brexit, and to support a referendum over whatever deal the Tories come up with.
On 26 February, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that Labour would back Britain remaining in “a customs union” with the EU. A sizeable block of dissident Tories also want a customs union. The Government is due to bring that issue to a vote within the coming weeks, and as things stand it looks like being defeated.
The Labour leadership has signalled two other shifts recently.
A few months ago, shadow EU minister Keir Starmer committed Labour to demanding a vote in Parliament on whatever Brexit deal the Tories produce.
And on 21 February, shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott made a speech denouncing the idea that migrants should bear any blame for depressed wages or inadequate public services.
Fundamentally, as Abbott said: “We must go back to before the 1962 Immigration Act, and talk about immigrants as people”. “Of course”, she said, “there is pressure on schools, on the NHS, and on housing from a growing population. But these are problems associated with [population] growth, which should be met with investment”.
In fact, the “population growth” coming from migration is essential for making that investment. The NHS, in particular, depends heavily on migrant workers, and will shrink without them. Funding for pensions and benefits depends on migrants, more of whom (compared to the British-born population) are of young, working, heavy-tax-paying, low-benefits-claiming age.
Abbott’s speech was lighter on specific commitments than on general sentiments. But she did pledge Labour to end the family break-ups caused when Britain deports, for example, children who reach the age of 18, because they lack a right to remain, when their close family does have that right and will remain. And the change in tone signalled by her speech was very welcome.
Labour’s “customs union” shift is studiedly ambiguous. It supports “a” customs union with the EU, not “the” customs union. It is obviously fantasy to suppose that the EU will suddenly replace its customs union, as it has evolved since 1958, by some different construction, though it is possible that Britain could have a partial-membership deal with the customs union as Turkey and two small European territories, Andorra and San Marino, have.
Pro-Brexit, anti-immigration, maverick Labour MPs such as Frank Field appear to have been coaxed into backing the new policy by being told that Labour will accompany it with conditions for “a” customs union such as the EU will surely not agree to.
Labour’s policy on the other major trade dimension of the EU, the Single Market, is for “a new and strong relationship with the Single Market that includes full tariff-free access and a floor under existing rights, standards and protections”. That too is ambiguous. How would it differ from just being in the the Single Market?
The Single Market is a system of harmonising trade stipulations across Europe so that production all across the EU can be done according to a single system of standards of regulation, labelling, and so on, and the products can then move freely and without checks across borders.
The Customs Union is a common set of tariffs on items imported from outside the Customs Union area. Customs Union membership, or partial-membership, rules out negotiating trade deals with other countries distinct from those the EU may have with those countries. That is the Tory right’s stated reason for opposing Customs Union membership, though in fact their promises of quick and easy trade deals with non-EU states to come with Brexit has proved empty.
Turkey is (partially) in the Customs Union, but not in the Single Market; Norway is in the Single Market (for sectors other than fisheries), but not in the Customs Union.
The EU has bundled freedom of movement for people together with the Single Market. That is good. From an anti-racist, democratic, internationalist, or socialist point of view, the free movement of people (obviously unworkable without the free movement of trade) is the greatest prize of European unity, though we also value the elements of economic integration and the limited elements of social levelling-up.
The Labour leaders are evidently scared of annoying Labour voters who are pro-Brexit and anti-migrant. Few of those voters are hardened racists. Many could be convinced by an honest, respectful argument.
Even if they are not fully convinced, most of them will stay with Labour if a pro-free-movement, anti-Brexit stance is integrated with a social program to restore the NHS, renationalise utilities, repeal all the anti-union laws, raise the minimum wage, and so on.
Already, a clear majority of voters say that, even if they don’t positively support free movement, they would prefer the package of Single Market with free movement to quitting the Single Market. A 68%-19% majority of Labour voters want a referendum on whatever Brexit deal the Tories produce. A 50%-34% majority of the whole electorate also wants a referendum before a deal can go ahead.
For workers’ unity across Europe! For unity of migrant and British-born workers! Against re-raised barriers between peoples! For open borders!