Corbyn and 'hard Brexit'

Of course, this is demonology, not serious analysis. 

I'm not referring to Ian Dunt's pro-single market position, which is one I have differences with but understand. I'm not even talking about the morality fable about Chuka's brave rebellion. 

Rather, there is a complete paucity of analysis when it comes to understand what will actually determine Labour's Brexit position. There is a ubiquitous tendency, which is merely the obverse of the most unreasoning Corbyn fandom, to ascribe it all to the machinations of a wily old left-wing eurosceptic. Here is another way to look at it.

The capitalist class -- businesses, banks, property developers, speculators, landlords, etc -- is the ruling class. I don't offer any proofs of that assertion here, I'm just making it. If you can accept it for the sake of argument, then we can see where it takes us. For me, it means that Labour can't hope to govern effectively or for any length of time without making the capitalist class an offer.

Now this is not uncomplicated, because the Labour leadership is also committed to systematically moving British politics to the Left, as far as it can within the limits of parliamentary Labourism. But just because capital rules doesn't mean it's the only class with any power. No work takes place, no production, no growth, no profit, without a tacit class compromise on the conditions of acceptable labour, the wages thereof, the extent and forms of rights (sometimes called 'industrial citizenship') and so on. 

And it is always an unstable compromise. There is always haggling, always struggle, always an attempt to push it in one direction or another, and the parties to the deal wax and wane in power, cohesion and political leverage. For a long time, the organised labour movement has been weak, and so the majority of the shifts have tended to favour capital. But the political organisation of capital is, at the moment, itself unexpectedly fragile and crisis-ridden. The 'rules' don't work any more. In that context, Labour's leadership is trying to exploit a unique opportunity to change the system of class and social compromises in a way that benefits people at the bottom.

Nonetheless, in the event that Labour forms a government, whatever they deliver will be a compromise, reflecting the different pressures on any Labour administration. So when we talk about Brexit, what Labour seeks will not just be determined by Corbyn's personal ideological preferences, or even by the prevailing mood of the parliamentary Labour Party. It will be determined by whether they can realistically present their deal to capital as a decent Brexit, one which won't destroy British trading and financial competitiveness. At the same time, they have to be able to convince their base that they aren't going to lose jobs, rights and principles, or that if they do they will somehow gain more in return.

That brings us to the question of economic consequences. It's easy to treat economic arguments as merely technical arguments. And so we tend to have arguments about a menu of 'options' over Europe where the costs and losses are estimated for each scenario, on the assumption of all other things being equal.

But of course all other things never are equal, and they can't be in this case. The EU has made it clear that whatever kind of Brexit is pursued, single market membership or not, there will be some sort of economic cost. And this is a political imperative, to protect the integrity and functioning of the Union. Likewise, a free trade deal outside the single market can be comprehensive, but will not offer as much as inclusion in the single market.

Given this, 'all other things' have to change if Britain is not to have an economic disaster. The direction in which they change, and the costs of that change, will be decided by political struggle. At present, the two parties represent, at least nominally, a choice between: 1) cautious austerity possibly accelerating into full-on shock therapy in the event of significant losses in Europe, in order to achieve a competitive advantage; 2) cautious Keynesianism, borrowing £250bn to invest in infrastructure, R&D, regional investment and jobs, plus higher taxes on the wealthy and on profits to support an expanded social wage. 

The former represents a further descent into a cultural sump, characterised by social sadism, resentment, racism, and robber baron age inequalities. The latter represents modernisation, a social upgrade, channelling the aspirations of most people in work, most students, most people under the age of fifty, most people without assets -- basically, those looking to the left at the moment -- into a collective renovation of the society.

Supposing Labour were negotiating Brexit, I suggest it would probably have less scope for radicalising its agenda than the Tories, in the event of a bad deal. The pressure on Labour to find a deal that works for capital would actually be stronger than that on a party which, though historically the party of business, seems to have been taken over, to some degree, by its mad poujadist wing.

All of this, of course, is to say nothing for the moment about the EU's position in negotiations which will be of decisive importance. There is a lot of Kremlinology about Corbyn and Labour, very very little rigorous analysis of the European Union and the kind of institution it is. I'll come back to this in future posts, since it's so crucial.

I've already argued elsewhere what I think Labour should do, in terms of finding the optimal solution. I think, if it can achieve a good, comprehensive settlement outside the rules of the single market, it should; but if it can't, then it should pursue the 'left-Varoufakis' strategy of fighting within those rules to implement its agenda. But that's just my view as a writer; much as I'd like to believe otherwise, I'm not the ruling class. And when we talk about what a Labour government should do, rather than getting wound up by morality fables, we should consider what the dominant pressures on it will in practice be.

Become a patron to

Unlock 127 exclusive posts
Listen anywhere
Connect via private message