Labour’s response to Brexit to date has been painful to watch. It can probably most kindly described as irrelevant.
I don’t attribute this, as most of the media are keen to do, to weak leadership by Corbyn, or to the fact that Corbyn and McDonnell are quietly pleased about the Brexit vote, and don’t want to rock the boat; neither of them are stupid, and while they may have once been in the ‘EU is a neoliberal cabale’ club before the prospect of Brexit existed, their pro-Remain stance before the June 23rd vote will have been genuine enough.
The reason for Labour’s current irrelevance is that it is stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one side, Labour can’t ‘do a LibDem’ and set out its stall in favour of remaining in the EU on account of the clear economic catastrophe that we are now due.
The LibDem core vote is Remain-supporting, and it loses nothing in adopting this stance, while gaining some core-remain support from Labour. A lot of Labour’s core vote did vote Leave, though, and any approach that looks like it’s rejecting the legitimacy of that vote is fraught with electoral danger in the form of UKIP.
On the other side, Labour can’t, and shouldn’t ‘do the full UKIP’, celebrating our so-called sovereignty and our new found power to keep out the foreigners etc..
So we end up with Corbyn in the pretty impossible position of having to argue the freedom of movement is a bad thing on the basis of arguments about exploitation of labour by capital that no-one really gets.
There is, though, some belated hope that Labour has stumbled on a route past the current impasse. Yesterday’s reaction to May’s announcement that we will, indeed, be pursuing the hardest of hard Brexits, brought a non-response from Corbyn, but two interesting statements from two other Labour MPs.
Andy Burnham, likely to become Mayor of Greater Manchester, continues his pointless kowtowing on freedom of movement, but does manage an important step forward
Rather than leaving these crucial decisions to a London-centric right-wing clique around the prime minister, it is time to open up the debate, give Greater Manchester a voice in it and establish a Brexit committee of the nations and regions.
But Steve Rotheram, his Liverpool City Region counterpart, was better:
During our meeting last week I suggested that the North of England, in particular the Liverpool City Region, should have a voice at the Government’s negotiating table, as the decision to the leave the EU is likely to define the future of our area for the next generation.
If I’m elected in May 2017, I will demand that Brexit Ministers ensure full consideration of the interests of our City Region are at the heart of their exit strategy, as we cannot afford to allow the 1.5 million people across Merseyside and Halton to be left behind again.
This, I sincerely hope, is the opening salvo in Labour new campaign for a reasoned, locally relevant Brexit, through to the local elections and then beyond.
The messaging from now on should be all about wresting control from an incompetent central government led by May and peopled by buffoons intent on making us a tax haven for the rich, and about localizing the Brexit process according to local need and, most importantly, local democratic wills.
It needs to be joined up to the new but to date ignored policy announcement about the Council for the North, with the story developed (however post hoc) that the two issues of Brexit and devolution have always been joined up in Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s minds.
At the moment, Burnham and Rotheram are both just at the stage of rhetoric, and of making demands on the centre which they know the centre will not respond to, so they need to push further, and quickly.
I have already set out details of the legislative process that they might use to push the localisation agenda on, and these ideas are now starting to gain a little bit of traction – three months late but better later than never – within the very outer cricles around the inner circle.
But even if this particular route is not chosen, Burnham, Rotheram and others (initially in remain-voting areas), including of course Sadiq Khan, need to be liaising right now with their regional MEPs and getting themselves on Eurostar to Brussels to meet the right people in the Commission about options similar to the one which, as and when the Supreme Court finds in favour of the crucial but widely ignored Northern Ireland intervention in the Article 50 case and, requires that that country be allowed a separate voice.
Of course it will be more difficult for Greater Manchester, say, to argue for its own powers to remain within the Single Market than it will be for Northern Ireland, should that be the wish of the local electorate via its local representatives.
But Burnham will get a much warmer reception in Brussels than Johnson, especially if he talks intelligently of how dealing with English regions fits with the aspirations set out at article 1 of the Lisbon Treaty that “decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen” and it is not out of the question that the EU negotiation team will start to consider carefully the potential for picking off bits of the UK for serious negotiation, if it is felt that this might be a way of talking sense into May’s bunch of arrogant fools.
In any event, local regions making a bid for negotiating status themselves can be developed as a proper democratic alternative to the current mess, in which the government will try (probably in vain) to negotiate special deals for Nissan and the like.
These are the kind of discussions I hope Corbyn and Keir Starmer are involved in. None of the top dogs have ever had the courtesy even to reply to my emails and letters setting out these kind of proposals, but I suppose it is possible that some of the guidance set out in them has been picked up. I’ll keep trying – next stop the European Movement UK conference in Sheffield on February 4th – because there is still some hope that, if Labour actually does get creative about its options – we ca still save the country from the worst by doing what we’re best at, which is local government.