An interview with the former Labour MP Alan Simpson about Brexit, free movement and climate change. Read the left case against Brexit, a piece by Grace Blakeley, here.
On Brexit, the reality is that Parliament is gridlocked. The Tories have no majority to get anything through. Labour’s response has to be much clearer. Initially ambiguity was sensible. If you’re not in the negotiations, you can’t say much about the details. That was when Labour set the six tests. That position doesn’t hold as you get close to the negotiation deadline.
I see it in trade union terms. Your negotiators negotiate, but what they bring back has to be put to the members. This is not a betrayal of the electorate, or of the will of the people in the 2016 referendum. It goes to the core of trade union democracy. It is the members who always have the final say.
For example, you might tell me that you want to try a parachute jump. So you get up there. Then you find there’s no parachute, and I offer you a big handkerchief instead. You’d say: get me back onto the ground. It is an act of sanity, not of political betrayal. It faces Labour with the question of how to campaign round a second referendum. And it takes me back to the “Remain and Reform” position Jeremy [Corbyn] and John [McDonnell] tried to argue in the 2016 referendum.
They were blocked by the then leadership of Labour’s campaign in the referendum, which was all in the hands of those deeply opposed to Jeremy’s election as leader. Jeremy did more meetings than any other member of the Shadow Cabinet, and more than those officially running Labour’s Remain campaign. But there was specific refusal to allow Labour to campaign against the TTIP proposals then current, which would have transferred rights from citizens to corporations.
Jeremy refused to share platforms with Cameron, and we had no Labour dimension in the campaign to show how neoliberal policies had laid waste to large parts of Britain. The outcome was shaped by the crushed hopes and expectation of a public which responded to the “don’t undermine our prosperity” line by saying “what prosperity?” That’s the space Labour must fill if we get a second referendum.
It is utterly naive for Labour to try to argue that a general election, producing a Labour government intent on negotiating a better Leave deal, could even do so. The position of the EU 27 is that they are fed up with Britain. They will not entertain another round of “Leave” negotiations. What would Labour do then? An extended period for Article 50 is open to us if it is for negotiating about staying, not leaving. And that would take up back to the position that Corbyn and McDonnell tried to argue in 2016.
What if we get an early general election, and Labour is still on the “negotiate a better Brexit” line?
We will need a vehicle enabling activists to argue simultaneously in the election campaign for Labour and against Brexit.
The DUP will almost certainly vote against the government on May’s proposals. That doesn’t mean that there will be a sufficient majority for a new general election. If we get one, the obvious ploy from Theresa May will be: why replace my government by one which wants a better deal but has no idea how to get it. That would massively undermine Labour’s campaigning in that general election. Any attempt to negotiate better terms will get an absolute rebuttal from the EU. And we would struggle to engage with the 170 Labour constituencies which voted Leave because we still wouldn’t have a transformative economic programme to put on the table.
All the variants of Leave put forward fail to address the wider crisis of capitalism and of survival. We need to respond to this on two levels.
First, sovereignty. It is naive to think that somewhere, in a world spinning towards existential crisis, a little island could be self-sufficient and unaffected.
Second, solidarity. The EU is a mess. The only thing worse than being in it is not being in it. It needs a leadership which defines a different sense of commonwealth for decades ahead. The ecological crisis takes us into a 1945 moment. At the end of World War Two the international institutions were not fit for the tasks of reconstruction. The same today. Europe doesn’t have mechanisms to deal with the floodtides of forced migration and a succession of climate shocks already changing weather patterns. We need new institutional frameworks to deal with those shocks.
I want Labour to be in the vanguard on this. We need to acknowledge the faults of how the EU is structured now, but in solidarity with forces in Spain, Greece, Germany and other countries we can promote a new conversation on what economics is about. If we are serious, Labour can offer the space in which that conversation unfolds.
Labour needs to return to its previous support of free movement within Europe...
There’s a danger of attaching excessive importance to the concept of free movement. The left is a bit sloppy about this.
Personally I don’t believe in free movement — of capital, of drugs, of goods with unsustainable carbon footprints... “Fair and managed movement” is a better platform, but it is bereft of meaning at the moment because we have abandoned much of the global redistribution and remedial finance which allowed people to live sustainably in whatever part of the planet. 99.4% of UK export credit guarantees go to fossil fuel projects in the developing world. It’s the equivalent of sending out crack cocaine. Through UK tax allowances, internationally we are also supporting fracking projects in India, China, Brazil, and Mexico, developments that will result in war, famine, and forced migration. There is no sanctuary from those problems via open doors.
But free movement is not just about forced migration. It’s also about people who move because they want to move, rather than being forced...
We all have constraints. Europe just needs a different institutional framework to make citizen movement safe and effective. There are four examples of how this might be underpinned by a system of Europewide taxes: carbon taxes, on aviation and on shipping; taxes on movements of speculative capital; and on tax haven. These all need to be pursued on a transnational basis — the EU is probably big enough to do it. Those tax mechanisms would provide a dowry which should go on a per capita basis to those who are forced to flee from elsewhere.
Thus, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, and parts of Germany would get substantial amounts of money that came along with the numbers of people whom they offered sanctuary to. We would create a pot from which those who did most, got most — a cascade of benefits rather than costs to local economies.
Labour has got a good response to the green policies in the 2017 manifesto. But there’s no success in building a grassroots movement around those policies. This year’s annual climate change demonstration, on 1 December, was tiny, despite the IPCC report, despite COP24 coming up in Poland. There’s XR, but that’s explicitly turning away from politics.
The green groups and environment NGOs are saying to Labour: “It was a great invitation in the last manifesto. We responded to it on the basis that the values in the manifesto would be translated into specific policies to deliver huge changes. But that hasn’t happened”. Both John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn recognise this.
Jeremy has had round tables with green NGOs to add substance to the policy. John McDonnell increasingly talks about the need for transformative economic policies and has set up a working group with Clive Lewis charged with changing Treasury ground rules to make sustainability central to Labour’s plans. The most important aspect of that working group is the input from climate physicists, who have been saying that we have only a short period in which to make huge changes.
Climate physics must be in the driving seat, not the politics of convenience. Trouble is, there’s a gap of understanding with the wider Parliamentary structures, still trying to work within a remit which says that we can work on the long term without having to make big changes in the short term. The climate physics says we have to cut emissions by half in the next decade, then halve them again in the decade after, and halve them again in the decade that follows. If we don’t deliver a 50% cut in the next decade, then we are in deep, deep trouble.
The left has to be talking about tomorrow’s jobs, and about the necessary huge overarching institutional changes which have to form the basis of national policy. This means national changes delivered within local structures. The whole society must feel part of this. It can begin at the smallest of levels — with trees and soils, for example. The Tories’ commitments to tree-planting in their 2005 manifesto will never materialise, and they already fall pitifully short of what poorer countries are doing.
A couple of years ago, the state of Uttar Pradesh, in India, broke records by planting 50 million trees in 24 hours. Last year the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh broke the record again, with 66 million trees in 12 hours, using over two million volunteers. Labour could go into the next election saying it will give every one of our eleven and a half million pensioners a tree to plant with their grandchildren — a recognition that solidarity includes “between generations” as well as “between communities”.
We also need rapidly to raise the standards of energy efficiency in people’s homes, and shift into decentralised clean energy and transport, following examples which already exist in Germany, Norway, and elsewhere. We must also have to have conversations within the labour movement about the “how” of radical change. Too many people still think the problem can be kicked down the road. The climate physics says that we can kick the can, but then there won’t be a road.
A younger generation is not looking to the politics of AfD type parties, but for something more visionary, radical, green left. If Labour doesn’t offer it, then people will move to the divisive politics of the right. We’d be in the scary scenario that Rosa Luxemburg predicted: on the wrong side of the choice between socialism or barbarism.