As the UK-EU negotiations on Brexit begin, the political landscape in Britain is in flux. The general election result was widely interpreted as a riposte to the Tories’ push for a hard Brexit. Now senior Tory critics of a hard Brexit, and indeed of Brexit per se, are becoming bolder.
Some, for instance Broxtowe MP Anna Soubry, even advocate the maintenance of free movement from the EU. More senior Tories have hinted at that too. Meanwhile polls suggest public opinion is shifting. A new YouGov/Times poll says that 58 per cent of people believe that trading with the EU is a higher priority than controlling EU immigration. More voters now believe Britain was wrong to vote to leave than right: 45 to 44%. A Survation poll found that 55% favoured a “soft Brexit” with the UK remaining in the EU single market and customs union, while only 35% favoured a “hard Brexit”. Survation found that 48% favour a referendum on the final Brexit deal, while only 43% are opposed!
All this is despite a lack of leadership from the Labour Party. Labour generally criticises the Tories from the left, i.e. from a more anti-Brexit position. It has rightly denounced the government’s concessions on the right of EU citizens to stay in Britain as “too little” — because as the campaign Another Europe is Possible and numerous migrants’ rights groups have explained, the offer is hedged round with all kinds of very bad limits. It’s “too late” because it should have been done a year ago, when Labour proposed it. More generally, however, Labour’s position is as clear as mud. With one, decisive exception: senior Labour spokespeople are very clear that they support an end to free movement from the EU. In other words, the position they have tied themselves to is to the right of that taken by Anna Soubry.
Labour’s stance has no doubt been given encouragement by the Stalinist-origin types in Corbyn’s office who think that leaving the EU is a win for “fighting the monopolies” or whatever. But its origin is with the Labour right. As late as November 2016, Corbyn told the Sunday Mirror that Labour would vote in Parliament against triggering “Article 50” unless the government agreed to a “Brexit bottom line” that included staying in the single market — and thus accepting continued free movement. Then Tom Watson, who combines right-wing, Stalinist and pseudo pro-working class strands in his politics, intervened to say that Labour would put down amendments but vote for Article 50 regardless. Corbyn eventually deferred to Watson.
Corbyn did not publicly endorse ending free movement until well into 2017, and then he did it in such an unclear way it looked very much like he was unhappy about it. Yet that then became Labour’s policy in the election. The leaders of the organised Labour left played a poor and even harmful role here. During the many months before and even after the referendum when Corbyn was holding the line on free movement, Momentum never once stated its support for this principle, let alone campaign to back Corbyn up. This was despite Momentum committees repeatedly taking a stand in favour of free movement, most recently in December 2016, when a motion on it passed with only a few votes against. Not long after the 23 June referendum, Momentum leader Jon Lansman made it clear that he favoured the left advocating an end to free movement.
Did he stay quiet on the Momentum National Committee because he thought that position would lead to a breach with his allies, many of them young and enthusiastic about migrants’ rights? Whatever the backroom manoeuvring was, Momentum never carried its democratic mandate on this, even while that was in line with Corbyn. Labour Party members or their representatives have never been given a chance to vote on this issue. At last year’s Labour Party conference, no motions were submitted advocating an end to free movement – but motions were submitted opposing it, including from the national Young Labour committee and CLPs including Norwich South, Clive Lewis’ constituency. These motions originated with socialist activists on the left of Momentum.
Unfortunately these motions were not prioritised for debate and the Labour right successfully counterposed the issue of refugee rights (which it seemed less keen on during the Blair years!) to having a discussion on free movement. The bulk of Labour members are very likely in favour of defending (and extending) free movement, and certainly vast majority of left-wing activists are. Yet this has not found expression in the hierarchy or public position of the party. Supporters of the hard right Progress group, which is making such a big deal of fighting a hard Brexit, like to say it will be possible to retain close ties to the EU while also limiting immigration. If the labour movement stands up and fights it can shift things further.
It is time to stop the retreat — starting on the left. Labour and trade union activists should unapologetically argue: 1. That leaving the single market will make workers in Britain “poorer and less secure”. We should oppose it. Like it or not, remaining in the single market means accepting free movement of labour from the EU. 2. That, in any case, people coming to Britain is not a problem. The labour movement should reject the right-wing idea that it is, and champion unity of all workers to win better conditions and rights for all.
We need an organised campaign to make these arguments, shift Labour’s position and finally make the labour movement a positive rather than a negative factor in the shifting patterns of the UK-EU negotiations.