Saturday 12 January 2019

Brexit - Labour's fault?

Apparently, there's a journalistic convention that, if the headline ends with a question mark, the answer to the question is "no". So no, the labour party aren't responsible for brexit, and the full-sized cock-up which it has become. Not directly anyway. But their contribution deserves closer scrutiny.

I'll declare my hand here - I'm pro-European. I have lived and worked in France, I've travelled extensively in western Europe for work and leisure and I believe that European political integration and freedom of movement is generally a good thing. Economic union I'm not so sure about, but that's another discussion. One of the things I've found distasteful about the way the country has become since the referendum is the way that it's now considered normal to demand to know how an individual voted, breaking the whole principle of the secret ballot. That's deplorable but I'll say it anyway - I voted for the EU, but only as the least-worst option. I could have been persuaded to vote the other way if something different were on the table but it wasn't, and I don't think you get to dictate the rules by shouting through a closed door, but by being in the room. So that's that.

Obviously the people we should really blame here are the conservatives and their cronies. In a (ultimately successful) attempt to destroy UKIP and capture their electoral support, they ended up destroying the very things that they were supposedly trying to protect. Things like equality, offering a safe haven to the persecuted, helping the poor, that kind of thing. All of this is deplorable. But could it, and should it, have been stopped?

It's reasonable I think to put some blame the way of Tony Blair's government. In their enthusiasm for all things European, and perhaps their over-confidence after winning a landslide election victory, they did little to counter anti-European and anti-immigration sentiment. Also, they were overly keen to take responsibility for European initiatives (like the smoking ban and the minimum wage) and equally keen to blame Europe for unpopular initiatives (weights and measures, immigrants' rights).

But that's not what I want to concentrate on. No, it's Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party and their role in facilitating brexit. I'm no fan of Corbyn; although in general I think his policy direction is sound the divisions he has created in the labour movement will take generations to heal. He seems to me to be all for party democracy, but only when it suits him. And that's the core of their problem with brexit. Well, that and the fact that the more centrist, social democratic and, perhaps, representative part of the party are excluded.

The biggest issue I have with the Labour party's input to brexit is this: They have supported when they should have opposed, and have been plain absent when a broad coalition was called for. This is the most important constitutional change in decades; a cross-part coalition should have been formed to come to a compromise which suits as many people as possible. Labour should have been arguing for that. Instead their policy is one of self-interest; a no confidence motion which they threaten but won't move because they know they would lose. An imaginary general election which probably won't happen and in which they would struggle for an overall majority anyway.

If Theresa May's deal passes - and it still might - then nobody will be happy. If it fails then article 50 will be rescinded or extended, or worse, no deal will be agreed on. The failure of the Labour party to block the inclusion of a fixed leaving date in the act means that we are in an extremely precarious position - there may not be a majority for amending the legislation to extend the deadline. If there is, then what next? Another referendum, and more years of vicious division and hatred? Or the government collapses and potentially an even more right-wing one appears. This is all too risky, and all driven by Jeremy Corbyn's pig-headed dogmatism and implacable opposition to those within his party who actually know how to win elections; those who were part of the most successful Labour government ever.

Labour should have been present from the beginning, pushing for a better and more inclusive brexit compromise from the off. One which works for the majority, and especially the poor. One which includes a customs union, and access to EU rights and institutions through the EEA. In short, like Norway (plus). But, in part through fear of the bigots in their own party, they weren't, and they didn't. So now we have to hope that parliament will prevail, and not a right-wing government who are rapidly becoming indistinguishable from the fascists they claim to oppose.

Can I have the real Labour party back now please? The one which realises that in order to win elections they have to appeal to people who aren't their natural supporters? The one which acts for equality for all, not just the people who agree with them? The one which governed under Harold Wilson from 1964 to 1970 . The one I voted for in 1997 (in lieu of the Liberals), and which is remembered not for the minimum wage, peace in Northern Ireland, the huge reduction in homelessness or the massive investment in education, but for one stupid and horrible war. Yes, that was wrong, very wrong, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater has never looked as stupid as right now, with a Labour party which seems to prefer an extreme right-wing Conservative government over anything which is remotely similar to social democracy or "Blairism", even if it would bring them to power. A centrist compromise is what we need, not more division and hatred.

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