After the Parliamentary votes on 29 January, which gave Theresa May a mandate to try to tear up commitments to an “invisible” border in Ireland, Jeremy Corbyn said he would meet her to discuss Brexit terms.
Not a good move after previously refusing, since Parliament had just voted to seek an “alternative” to the “backstop” which protects Ireland.
On Monday 28 January the Labour front bench said it would abstain on Tory legislation to enable the Tories to write restrictive new immigration laws which would bar many workers and make others insecure with temporary visas.
After an outcry, they switched to voting against, but only after allowing many Labour MPs to be absent. As a shadow minister said off the record, “our immigration policy stance is subservient to the needs of Lexit” — that is, to dreams and speculations about a “left-wing” version of Lexit.
It’s urgent for Labour to face facts. Theresa May’s talk of going back to the EU for renegotiation offers no light. The EU is unlikely to budge much on the “backstop” — and that’s a good thing — and there is no sign of light on any other aspect of Brexit.
The risk of crashing out of the EU with a “no deal” Brexit, with great damage to economic life, to our rights, and to Ireland, is still there despite the non-binding Spelman amendment voted through on 29 January..
A 13th-hour tweaked deal, or a substantial postponement of Brexit, are still possible; but there’s no chance of the tweaked deal being a real improvement.
There is no “left-wing” Brexit. The only viable "Plan B" is to stop Brexit by way of a new public vote in the light of what we now know.
We want an early general election, and Labour must go to that general election with a clear reassertion of the line of "Remain and Reform" and defending free movement which we had in 2016.
That reassertion is the only way:
• to keep borders low
• to press forward from what Europe has achieved in economic and social integration
• to gain scope, through working-class and labour-movement solidarity across Europe, for Europe-wide levelling-up of social and democratic rights
• to gain a broad terrain for the struggle for a socialist Europe
• to keep the Irish border "invisible" and open the way to a united Ireland
• to defend the right of free movement across Europe.
Labour should call a special conference to end its wavering.
At best Theresa May may get some cosmetic and marginal qualifications to or additions to the long-negotiated deal. Seeking "alternatives to the Irish backstop" will not get far when the whole point of the "backstop" is to be... a backstop. The EU has already said that the "backstop" can expire when the UK finds a working alternative, only it hasn't found one yet.
All outcomes are now improbable, and yet some improbable outcome will surely happen. Just possibly the EU will grant enough tweaks, and the Tories will scrape a 13th-hour majority for that marginally-tweaked deal. But that will be no better than the current Tory deal. And the only visible Brexit alternative is a crashing-out with "no deal" and economic chaos.
The Labour leadership has been "triangulating", trying to find ambiguous formulas which (they hope) escape responsibility for the Tories' Brexit, and yet don't fight against it.
They talk vaguely about "uniting the country" or even "uniting Parliament", i.e. uniting with the Tories. Until 29 January, and then only in a roundabout way, they did not even call for postponement of the Brexit date, though we have already gone way past the
They suggest that they could back the Tories if only the Tories go for a permanent customs union with the EU (like Turkey). Theresa May won't do that, because the Tory right wing is fiercely opposed. Even if she did, that would leave Brexit meaning the loss of the decades-old free movement between Britain and the EU, a reversion to outdated nationalist economics, and new barriers to solidarity and cooperation between labour movements and peoples across Europe.
None of this stance is in line with the composite shoved through the Labour conference in September 2018, except in the sense that the hodge-podge composite did not explicitly rule it out.
What the composite indicated, what the labour movement wants, what the majority of the electorate wants, is a chance to call a halt on the rush to disaster that the Brexit process has become.
For a united Ireland
The Irish "backstop" is no more than common sense, and it is hard to see how the EU can or will do other than offer some "cosmetic" changes. Norway is in the Single Market. There are border posts between Norway and Sweden. Turkey is in a customs union with the EU. There are border posts between Turkey and the EU. To avoid border posts, Northern Ireland has to be in the same customs regime, and the same market-regulations regime, for goods anyway, as the Republic.
In its Chequers Plan of July 2018, the Tory government suggested a tricksy workaround, based on as-yet¬undeveloped high technology and the UK collecting tariffs for the EU without being in the EU. The EU replied: if that works, fine, but guarantees are needed until a working model is in place. Thus the "backstop": Northern Ireland remains in a customs union with the EU, and in the Single Market for goods, until a working alternative comes.
The very fact that the Tories are worried about the "backstop" continuing indefinitely, and so keeping Britain in a customs union with the EU and in most of the Single Market indefinitely, shows that they themselves are not confident about a working alternative. Having got to this point after two and a half years of talking and haggling since June 2016, that they can persuade the EU of a real working alternative within a few weeks or months is unlikely.
The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, for almost all its length, has always run across Irish nationalist communities, rather than between the Republic and the "British-Irish" of the further¬north¬east parts of Northern Ireland. For decades it was highly policed and militarised. Between 1956 and 1962 Irish Republicans ran a "Border Campaign" of guerrilla raids across the border. From the early 1970s, many smaller roads were made impassable, bridges were destroyed, and the remaining major crossings had British Army posts at them.
The British Army watchtowers were eventually taken down over some years after the end of major Republican and Loyalist military campaigns in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Northern Ireland and the Republic both being in the EU Single Market and Customs Union then made it possible for the border to become largely invisible, like many borders in the EU on the continent of Europe. About 110 million crossings are made by people each year, at hundreds of crossing points. Maybe 30,000 people cross the border each day to travel to work; tens of thousands more cross to shop, to deliver supplies, to attend hospitals, or to visit friends. Keeping the border "soft" is vital to keep the road open to a united Ireland.