It is now just six weeks until the deadline for the UK to request an extension to the Brexit transition period (30 June), and the Tory leadership is digging in. Their spokesperson said:
“We will not ask to extend the transition period, and if the EU asks we will say no.”
According to the Sunday Times (17 May), civil servants previously working on pandemic control have been shifted to work on no-deal Brexit preparations.
Even if the UK and EU agree a trade deal, it will represent a very hard, damaging form of Brexit. But as we go to press negotiations have once again stalled. A No Deal Brexit, smack in the middle of the economic and social fall-out from Covid-19, looks highly possible.
The UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, has complained about the EU’s “ideological” approach. What he means is indicated by the reports this week that one UK demand is the watering down of environmental protections.
UK polls show that two thirds want an extension, including clear majorities in every age group, region and social grade. They suggest that in the last month support has grown most in the categories least enthusiastic about extending — over-65s, for instance, and people in Yorkshire and the North East. Most strikingly, support from those who voted Brexit Party in the election has more than doubled, to 45%!
The Scottish and Welsh governments, the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Green Party have all called for extension. Labour and the unions have not.
Well over 80% of Labour voters favour extension. It is the working class and the poor who will suffer worst in the destruction when Covid is multiplied by Brexit, and from the turbo-austerity, worker-attacking, migrant-bashing agenda the Tory right will use the chaos to push. Yet Labour’s voice has been determined by Keir Starmer and his lieutenants telling the press they are “not calling for an extension”. Instead they urge the government to work hard and get a deal done!
Those with insight into the backroom discussions say that Starmer and co. favour extension, but don’t want to raise it for fear of right-wing attack. They hope the Tories will get into an even deeper mess and be forced to call for an extension at some point anyway.
This ignores the glaring fact of the 30 June deadline — and that getting an extension will be significantly harder after it. In any case, this is politically bankrupt. The labour movement should be using this issue to indict the Tories, charging them with putting their nationalist ideology above saving livelihoods and lives in this crisis. It should do that regardless of its wider divisions on Brexit itself.
The labour movement’s stance should not be decided by the narrow circle around Starmer. We should demand our movement’s democratic structures discuss it. Labour’s National Executive (NEC) should debate and come to a decision. Meanwhile, local Labour Parties, union branches and union executives should start meeting online and take a stand on this.
Labour for a Socialist Europe has taken the lead in demanding that Labour and the unions speak up. L4SE’s statement has now been signed by five hundred party and union activists, including six of the UK’s ten former Labour MPs. L4SE and Another Europe is Possible have organised public meetings to discuss the issue, with more coming up. L4SE is planning more activity, including an initiative among health workers.
Given the extremity of the situation, and that much of the ruling class is not happy, all this could still blow up in the next six weeks. Labour speaking out could be crucial. In any case, we need to get keep pushing — to tell people the truth, prepare them, and maximise the chance of reopening this if 30 June comes and goes.
• Sign the L4SE statement calling for Labour to speak out here
• AEIP Zoom meeting on the issue: 1pm, Saturday 23 May. Details at anothereurope.org
• Help the campaign. More: labourforasocialisteurope.org or firstname.lastname@example.org