By Jake Lynch
The likely shape and pattern of Brexit has loomed larger out of the shadows in recent days. An iconic manufacturing workplace – the Ford auto engine plant at Bridgend, in south Wales – is to close next year, the company announced; with the loss of 1,700 directly employed jobs and many more through supply chains and the local area. And Donald Trump, on a state visit to the UK to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the turning point of World War II, said a free trade deal between the US and Brexit Britain would have to include access for American healthcare companies to the National Health Service. The accompanying crunching noise is from footfalls on the shattered debris of carefully cultivated British delusions.
Before entry to the European Economic Community in 1975, the country was afflicted by what was called the ‘British disease’ – extensive smokestack manufacturing industries beset by obsolescence in an intensifying global competition for market share. The more technologically advanced Japanese cars that started to appear on British roads in that decade were seen as a harbinger. Rather than reform the institutional and regulatory regime of capital markets to foster greater investment, however, the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher followed up its election in 1979 by adopting ‘monetarist’ policies, which sent thousands of factories to the wall. Britain has never had an industrial strategy worthy of the name. The gap was filled by using its EEC (later EU) membership to offer a low-wage, politically stable base for global manufacturers to gain frictionless trading access to the 500-million-strong single European market. If that goes, with Brexit, what will be left? Viewed from Bridgend, the answer is “not a lot”. Japanese and German carmakers, too, have announced plans to scale down their UK investments.
Legislated by the Labour government of 1945, the NHS has been likened to a secular religion in Britain. Universal health care, free at the point of use, is a popular socialist idea and the centrepiece, indeed, of political gains made by the working class who bore the brunt of war. It is baked into the image of victory over fascism, just as surely as the old men with chestfuls of medals who attended the Normandy commemorations. True to form, Trump abruptly disavowed his previous comments, telling a friendly interviewer “I don’t see [the NHS] being on the table”. Ample precedent shows the word of the ‘stable genius’ cannot be trusted from one hour to the next. What is certain, however, is that American HMOs will demand their slice of the cake if and when a free trade deal comes to be discussed. Their lobbying power in Washington will ensure their voice is heard. Any British objections will be overridden because a politically desperate UK will have no leverage.
The dawning truth has led to a trend picked up increasingly in opinion polls: three years after the referendum victory for the Leave campaign, there is now a Remain majority in the country at large. Enter the ‘Brexit Party’, led by Nigel Farage, formed with the declared purpose of pushing through on the result of the 2016 vote and propelling Britain out of the EU even without the ‘deal’, or Withdrawal Agreement, signed by Prime Minister Theresa May – which has been voted down three times by MPs. The new party won the UK elections to the European Parliament on May 23rd. (How many of those voters know of his opposition to the NHS? Farage is on record as favouring its replacement by a US-style system of health insurance. He was exposed recently by Channel Four News as having accepted – but not declared – donations running into many thousands of pounds from Leave campaign backer Arron Banks. Who, by coincidence, runs an insurance company…)
Even then, add together the votes for declared Remain-supporting parties – the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Change UK, Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru – and they comfortably beat the combined total of the Brexit and UK Independence Parties. The governing Conservatives took a kicking at the ballot box, as did Labour – with large numbers of the party’s overwhelmingly EU membership-backing supporters having switched their votes. Surely now, many felt, it would be time for the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to come off the fence and back a second referendum, with Remain as the Labour catch-cry?
Not so fast. For a parliamentary majority, Labour would have to take Leave-backing constituencies as well – and, as luck would have it, last Thursday (June 6) provided a test in the shape of a byelection in Peterborough, which voted 61% Leave in 2016. In the event, the party’s candidate, Lisa Forbes, squeezed out the Brexit Party by a few percentage points. The win showed Labour was right to focus on “inequality and injustice”, Corbyn declared, rather than Brexit – and journalists agreed that Labour’s mass mobilisation around local issues had swung the contest.
Labour’s declared policy is still to refashion Brexit to keep the UK in the EU Customs Union – which would rule out independent trade pacts, such as a free trade agreement with the US – and a policy of ‘dynamic alignment’ with the regulatory regime of the European Single Market, including on worker rights, environmental safeguards and consumer protection. Such a deal would then, on the party’s plan, be put to a confirmatory referendum. However, such commitments cannot be added to the Withdrawal Agreement, which – the EU has made clear – will not be renegotiated, but only to the accompanying Political Declaration, which is non-binding and purely aspirational. Meanwhile, May has announced her resignation, and – of the candidates jockeying to replace her as Tory leader and therefore Prime Minister – all of those with a realistic chance of getting through the party’s two-stage selection process have vowed to drive the UK over the cliff-edge if no further EU concessions are forthcoming.
So Labour, despite the Peterborough effect, ultimately still faces the unpalatable choice of coming out for either Remain, or in all probability a no-deal Brexit. The Bridgend factory announcement concentrates minds, as the consequences of the latter are already being priced into investment decisions that will affect many thousands of jobs held mostly by Labour voters. The vast majority of its supporters in the country hate Brexit – and why wouldn’t they, when they look at the array of forces backing it, from the extreme pro-market right wing of the Tories, to fascist parties across Europe; the egregious Trump, and the sinister Putin? Their instinct is to fight to keep Britain as an open, Europe-facing country rather than one that looks inwards to nativism and self-pity.
At stake will be the chance, finally, to challenge the twin orthodoxies that have held sway in UK political life since Thatcher’s election victory of 40 years ago. The lady herself once infamously re-cast the biblical story of the Good Samaritan as that of a wealth creator, freed by such policies as cuts to personal taxation and deregulation of markets to enrich himself – only then, her reasoning went, did he possess the wherewithal to offer help to the needy. In the early 1980s, the crunch to Britain’s money supply and cuts to public spending were rapidly joined by policies of privatising great swaths of the public realm, and liberalisation of trade, financial and labour markets (the latter enabled by attacks on trade unions). The ‘New Labour’ ministry that ousted the Tories in 1997 broadly accepted the resulting neoliberal political and economic settlement – for all its ingenious ameliorative measures, ranging from in-work benefits and tax credits to subsidise sub-living wages, to ‘public-private partnerships’ to keep infrastructure spending off the national accounts. “We don’t want to turn the clock back”, Peter Mandelson – the party’s intellectual guru of the time – once told me in an interview, recorded when I worked at Westminster as a Political Correspondent for Sky News.
Under Corbyn, on the other hand, the still-substantial constituency who always opposed Thatcherism has finally been mobilised behind a social-democratic alternative. Labour’s manifesto for the 2017 General Election proposed renationalising public services and utilities. It would raise taxes on business (targeting the billions held in company bank accounts that is neither invested nor paid in wages) and wealthy individuals to reverse Tory shrinkage of the state – labelled ‘austerity’ – and restore proper funding to health and education.
In addition to taking on the dominant neo-liberal economic creed, Labour under Corbyn has opposed the neoconservative world view that holds sway over British foreign and defence policy. In 2017, campaigning in the General Election was suspended for 24 hours following a suicide bomb attack on a pop concert in Manchester, which killed 22 people. As details emerged of the bomber’s origins in the Libyan community of south Manchester, Corbyn returned to the hustings with a speech in which he signalled that Britain under Labour would be much less inclined to join in US-led wars and ‘security operations’. Instead, he emphasised “the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home”. To draw attention to such connections “in no way reduces the guilt” of the attacker, he went on. But “protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism”.
In this, of course, he committed a heresy no less dangerous to vested interests. The official security narrative has Britain beset by threats and potential threats, which require the use of force to ‘neutralise’ them. Deploying troops in faraway locations is supposed to keep British people safe, not endanger them. Corbyn’s ‘reward’, for daring to point out that the emperor has no clothes, has been a relentless attack from all sections of the establishment, including the right-wing press but also broadcasters – who should not only know better, but are obliged by charter to do better. Even so, as the Peterborough result showed, Labour’s grassroots campaigning can still cut through the noise.
If the twin orthodoxies of British politics were to be overturned, by a radical, reforming government, it would send positive pro-social energy through many other countries as well. To bring that about, Labour would need votes from people who supported both Remain and Leave in the referendum of 2016. But the moment is approaching when it will have to choose. There might once have been a Brexit capable of meeting its criteria and concerns, and of bringing Britain together. That was destroyed by May’s disastrous ‘red lines’, and the Tories appear intent on moving in Farage’s direction by embracing a no-deal exit from the EU. In response to that, Corbyn will have to work out how to combine the campaigning appeal of Labour’s pitch to transform Britain, and using the country’s EU membership as a springboard to fight inequality and injustice. Only then would a second referendum have a chance of producing a different result from the first. So that is the political work of 2019.