John Palmer talked to Solidarity.
S: You’ve talked about a “Schrödinger’s Brexit”...
P: The great Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger, who worked with Einstein, discovered that there are particles that have the strange characteristic of being in two places at the same time, or two states at the same time. He illustrated it by a thought-experiment of a cat in a box subject to such particles which is simultaneously alive and dead. I use this metaphor to illustrate the character of the Brexit deal which Mrs May’s government will — fairly soon now, I expect — come back with. It will have many of the full obligations of EU membership — EU law, Single Market alignment, de facto Customs Union membership, payments into the EU budget, being subject to ECJ [European Court of Justice] jurisdiction in a whole range of areas — but we will no longer be members of the European Union. We will not have a voice in decision-making, we will have no votes in the Council of Ministers on in the European Parliament or in the selection of Commissioners. We will be in as far as obligations are concerned, and at the same time out as regards democratic powers of decision-making.
A lot of people on the left say that the Tories are heading for a very “hard” Brexit, or a “no-deal” Brexit. Do you think this is a scare story with the political function of rationalising, maybe, some Labour MPs voting for May’s deal on the grounds that those are the alternatives?
There are broadly three alternatives spoken of. One is a “hard” deal in which we are treated by the EU as an external country like Canada, or, more favourably, Norway. The Canadian option, which is a free trade deal virtually outside the special relationships of the EU economy, seems now very unlikely. May will say that is still the ultimate objective, but for not for years to come.
The second option, which is often equated with “hard” Brexit, is no deal. That is a theoretical possibility. But I don’t think in practice capital in Britain or elsewhere in Europe has any interest in that, and the Government knows that. While it plays at right-wing populist politics, I think at the end of the day the interests of capital will be a major restraining factor. So we get the third option, this ambiguous relationship.
The key issue is that we will only have negotiated the terms of eventually exiting the EU. The Government will not have yet negotiated a deal describing in detail the future long-term relationship. That is going to take years — not just the already-agreed transition period, which will last from the end of March 2019 to the end of December 2020, but now, almost certainly, way beyond that. May herself talks about December 2021. Others say it could take seven, eight, nine years — that is typical of the time it takes to construct a comprehensive new relationship. This in/out state is going to go on, I suspect, to 2022. It might last even longer.
A general election could and should happen much sooner, but at the latest it has to happen by June 2022. So some Labour MPs could argue that if May proposes a deal like that, it leaves things open, and isn’t it better to vote for that than to risk another outcome which could close things off more?
The job of the left in this complicated discussion is to hold on to some key strategic objectives. The first is that any deal outside full membership of the EU will represent a worsening of conditions, and one particularly affecting working people and the likely level of social standards. Nobody seriously argues that the position of working people would, from day one, be in any way improved by Brexit. Even the right wing fears that talk of massive new trade deals is now for the birds. Britain will not be legally able to introduce any new deals until the future long-term treaty relationship with the EU has been negotiated, at the end of a tunnel which looks longer and longer. The job of the left, the supporters of the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, is to argue for rejection of these terms.
Labour has set out six tests which speak to the original Tory promises of reproducing exactly the same benefits as we currently have. Those May cannot reproduce, because she will be excluded from all decision-making arenas. May’s deal will be clearly inferior to what exists now. The question is, can it be defeated? There is a reasonable chance that it can, because of the confluence of different political forces. Many on the hard right won’t like the deal, and the Tory majority even with the DUP is quite small. The DUP itself may abandon the government if arrangement for the Irish border involve some new controls on trade between the north of Ireland and the rest of Britain (some already exist). The biggest risk of May’s deal not being defeated comes not so much from old-style Lexiters who think that there can be some kind of socialism in one country outside the EU. It comes from moderate, so-called centrist, Labour MPs, who are flirting with the idea of voting with the Government. They argue that this would be better than a Hard Brexit or No Deal. In this way they could preserve the Tory government in power.
The six tests, however, expressly reject the free movement of workers across European borders which exists at the moment.
The position of the Labour leadership is ambiguous on this. Keir Starmer, who speaks for the front bench on this, says that he has raised a number of issues which a future Labour government might wish to discuss with the Europeans if it were to win an early general election after the May deal had been rejected by Parliament. Among those issues, in my opinion, are likely to be some adjustments to British legislation on EU migrant workers which are fully consistent with EU law but which the British government has chosen not to introduce. For example, there are questions like making possession of an employment offer a condition for migration and social security benefits. We’re talking here about European workers, not asylum seekers.
Such measures have never been introduced by the British government, and one reason is that introducing them might involve introducing identity cards. Identity cards are universal throughout the European Union, but not in the UK. The real question, however, is not any excess of EU workers coming to Britain, but a desperate shortage. There has been a massive reflux of workers deterred by the “hostile environment” which the Government has created for European workers, and that has created great shortages in the health service, in social care, and in some other sectors. I suspect there is here, as in other areas, scope for a Labour government to negotiate changes which a Tory government wouldn’t be interested in, but which would allow Labour, if successful, to return with a new “remain and reform” agreement which could be put to the vote. That has happened before.
When Labour rejected the Heath Tory government’s terms for entry into the (then) EEC, the newly elected Harold Wilson initiated an admittedly rather staged process of renegotiation and a renegotiated treaty deal was successfully put to a referendum in 1975.
But shouldn’t the left stand up for the rights of free movement which already exist, and oppose attempts to restrict them?
Yes, of course it should. Defence of workers’ rights of free movement within the EU (movement of capital and trade are already free) is essential. The next British Labour government should openly support trade unions in Britain and across the EU which fight to protect wages and employment standards. Employers have used the EU Posted Workers’ Directive to undercut wages and standards when sending workers on contracts in other EU countries. But there is a proposal going through the EU institutions — European Parliament, eventually Council of Ministers, etc. — to change the Posted Workers’ Directive so as to prohibit the use of it by employers to undercut wages and conditions.
The current Labour leadership policy is no longer “remain and reform”, but to replace a Tory deal by what Jeremy Corbyn calls “a workable plan”, a better-negotiated deal. In order to pursue the scenario you describe, we have to change the Labour Party policy, from the “workable plan for Brexit” to “remain and reform”.
Yes, I agree with you. The Labour leadership has not explicitly rejected “remain and reform”.
During the 2016 referendum, Jeremy Corbyn explicitly argued for “Remain and Reform”. Now it has fallen silent about what – in detail – it would do in power if elected after the fall of the Tory government over the Brexit outcome. The position of the left must still be “remain and reform”. Sooner or later, if Labour finds itself in power it will face the realities of how to manage an economy in isolation from the rest of the European Union if we are Out and not In. But there are already left political forces — socialist, social democratic, left Greens, left regionalists/nationalists — fighting for some of the same objectives, sustainable growth, ecological reform, far greater democratisation of the EU itself, greater labour and social rights, greater social equality.
Labour in office must be part of that movement across Europe to have any chance of sustaining their own reform promises and countering the real risk of a swing to the far right. “Remain and Reform” in Britain and in Europe is indivisible.
• John Palmer was a leading member for a long time of what is now the SWP, and later European editor of the Guardian. He was talking with Martin Thomas.