There were signs this weekend that Labour was about to finally take a stand on Brexit.
For the first time, Jeremy Corbyn spoke out against the consequences of a hard Brexit on northern working class communities. The interview, on Andrew Marr, provided the first bit of evidence that he might actually be prepared to demand membership of the single market and try to stop the right-wing, free market reboot of the UK that such an event would entail.
There were more details this morning from shadow chancellor John McDonnell and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, who promised to maintain EU funding for deprived UK communities past the 2020 point the Conservatives have signed up to. All good stuff.
But then McDonnell stood up to make his speech and it was clear that the Labour leadership either has no plan or is not willing to share it.
Everyone talks in code over Brexit, but even on code deciphering duty it’s impossible to figure out what McDonnell is really proposing.
“Since the Brexit vote, the Tories have come up with no plan whatsoever. They have no clue. Half of them want a hard Brexit, to walk away from 30 years of investment in our relationship with Europe. Some are just paralysed by the scale of the mess they created. Working with our socialist and social democratic colleagues across Europe, our aim is to create a new Europe which builds upon the benefits of the EU but tackles the perceived disbenefits.”
His comment that the Tories plan to “walk away from 30 years of investment in our relationship with Europe” and the negative reference to a ‘hard Brexit’ suggests he wants to stay in the single market. That is where most of the policies on workers’ rights McDonnell mentions in the speech - like the working time directive - are found. But then he says:
“I set out Labour’s red lines on the Brexit negotiations a few days after the vote. Let's get it straight, we have to protect jobs here. So we will seek to preserve access to the single market for goods and services.”
‘Access’ is an unhelpful phrase when it comes to discussing the single market. It could mean anything. It could mean simply sending goods to it, in which case every country on earth has access to the single market. It could mean a trade deal which for instance gets rid of tariffs and non-tariff barriers if you trade with it. It’s not clear. But people typically say ‘access’ when they’re trying not to mention membership. Or else, you know, why not just say membership? So it now appears McDonnell does not want to maintain single market membership.
There are a couple of reasons why that might be the case. Firstly, the current rhetoric from Europe suggests we will not be allowed to have single market membership if we choose to get rid of freedom of movement, as most now believe is necessary to abide by the Brexit mandate. In all likelihood, the European approach will be more nuanced in talks, but that is the current message. Perhaps McDonnell accepts that is the case and believes leaving the single market is now inevitable, as many others do.
Or perhaps he still ascribes to the view, long held in hard left circles, that the single market is a barrier to the implementation of socialism because of restrictions on state aid. But then, it was telling that in his Today programme interview this morning, McDonnell pointed out that other EU member states, like France, are pretty happy to just go ahead and break those rules. He doesn’t seem quite as wedded to the hard-left critique of the single market as Corbyn is.
Then McDonnell addressed the freedom of movement point directly. Kind of. He said:
“Today, access to the single market requires freedom of movement of labour. But we will address the concerns that people have raised in the undercutting of wages and conditions, and the pressure on local public services.”
That’s a very interesting statement. For a start he says ‘access’ requires freedom of movement, whereas in reality membership does. So perhaps this distinction is meaningless when it comes to his statements.
He does not say freedom of movement needs to be scrapped or even reformed, but instead he goes back to Ed Miliband’s old left-wing answer to concerns about immigration: address the effect on wages and services. These are domestic responses, which governments could do regardless of freedom of movement. This suggests that McDonnell wants us to retain single market membership and then put in a concerted effort at home to deal with the practical complaints of working class voters anxious about the influx of new arrivals.
So the firmest conclusion you can come to is that McDonnell will fight for retaining membership of the single market, but he is not prepared to say so quite in those terms.
Is there any point to this analysis? Possibly not. Maybe McDonnell isn’t even aware of the seeming contradictions in his speech, or the way the codes he’s using can’t be decoded in any useful way. Maybe this is equivalent to Corbyn demanding we trigger Article 50 the day after the referendum: he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
But I suspect that he is aware. McDonnell is smart. Probably he thinks saying “access” as opposed to “membership” keeps Labour’s policy options open, but that specifying membership would be a more restrictive position.
If so, it’s not enough. Labour supporters urgently need a more thorough strategy than this.
Brexit is, at its heart, a problem about capacity and time. We have hardly any negotiators or trade experts to call on. With this limited capacity, we must unpick 40 years of UK/EU law, which itself will take about a decade; sort out a free trade agreement with the EU, which will take about seven years; and lay the ground for a return to WTO trading by extracting our goods and services schedules from those of the EU, which will also take several years.
The timetable Europe offers is two years. And that is why we will experience a hard chaotic Brexit in 2019 unless something changes. That means that workers’ rights are out the window, environmental protections are out the window, all the hard-fought for achievements of the left are out the window. The single market rules which protect them will be gone. And the incentive in trade talks will be for a reduction in standards across the board. That will coincide with a return of tariff and non-tariff barriers, both of which will hit manufacturing hard. Britain will become poorer and its poorest communities will get hit first.
The way to prevent this is to clearly and explicitly and robustly campaign for single market membership. At the very least McDonnell and Corbyn should be campaigning for an interim EEA deal which keeps us in the single market for the next ten years while we sort out our trade arrangements, firm up our legal standards and prevent damage to financial service revenue and manufacturing. That delivers on Brexit but protects working class communities.
But that would require a plan, a firm, clear plan for Labour to hammer the Tories with. And despite their repeated criticism of the Tories for not having one, it does not appear that Labour really has one either. And if they do, they’re not willing to share it.
This is standard operating procedure for the Corbyn era: Fine words, but scratch the surface and there’s not much there.
It’s not the time for fine words. It’s time for Corbyn and McDonnell to say exactly what they’re doing to prevent a hard Brexit hammering the poor.
Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.
There’s plenty of standard, run-of-the-mill political strategy in the Tim Farron’s speech today. He sees an opening, so he takes it. And British politics is increasingly full of openings. The Brexit vote has dragged the Tories to the right, with most of the party now actively lobbying for a strategy which most experts agree would cost Britain jobs. Labour has been dragged to the eccentric reaches of the hard Trotskyist left by Corbyn.
You don’t need to be a political genius to see the opportunity that opens up for the Lib Dems and Farron wasted no time positioning the party as the responsible but socially-conscious centre, the new New Labour - good for business, good for workers, good for refugees; open, rational and progressive.
Sure, it’s basically the same positioning Nick Clegg attempted just before the 2015 election. But that was sensible then and this is sensible now. They both have the same problem, which is the tarnishing of the Lib Dem brand. It’s unclear how much has improved in that respect, but the basic strategic decision is obviously sound. A Lib Dem leader would be mad not to follow it.
The remarkable thing about Farron’s speech isn’t the positioning, though. It’s the identity politics. He spends plenty of time criticising the Tories and the SNP for following the politics of division. But even in challenging them, he has to place himself on the identity politics map. This is the first conference speech by a Westminster leader which starts by assuming that we live in an identity politics world.
“I am a white, northern, working class, middle aged bloke,” he said in the opening minute. “According to polling experts, I should have voted Leave. May I assure you that I didn’t. But mates of mine did. People in my family did. Some of them even admitted it to me. And some of them didn’t.”
He then describes his home town. “Preston voted 53% to leave,” he said. “There were some places in Lancashire where two-thirds of people voted out. And I respect those people. If you’ll forgive me, they are my people. And if they’ll forgive me, I’m still utterly convinced that Britain should remain in Europe.”
When he turns his guns on Ukip and Nigel Farage, he says:
“There is nothing so dangerous and narrow as nationalism and cheap identity politics. But there is nothing wrong with identity. I am very proud of mine. I am a Lancastrian, I am a Northerner, I am English, I am British, I am European. I am all those things, none of them contradict another and no campaign of lies, hate and fear will rob me of who I am. But we lost didn’t we?”
Farron is using the language of identity politics, even as he challenges it. We’ve seen identity politics spread like wildfire on the left when it comes to class, race, gender and sexual orientation. North of the border, Scottish Labour is constantly complaining that they can’t get a hearing without paying tribute to identity politics.
That view has taken hold on the right, with Brexiter increasingly demanding an expression of national loyalty as a condition of political debate. The patriotism of Remainers is constantly brought into question. And it was telling that Farron today felt the need to frame his support for refugees in terms of his own patriotism.
The referendum - with its stark divisions between young and old, both sides holding seemingly incompatible world-views on social liberalism and diversity - cemented this. And now we see this language beng reflect, even having a hat tipped in its direction, by the leader of a major political party.
We’re in new ground here. The basic outline of the speech is the same as they’ve always been: personal story, strategic plotting, trying to inspire members. But the tacit way in which Farron feels he must outline his own identity before making his case against Brexit shows how rapidly our political conversation is changing.
The speech was very good, by the way: principled, genuinely angry, funny, and offering a clear, unequivocally liberal view of the world at exactly the moment that those ideas lie shattered on the ground. For anyone who felt the need to hear a mainstream politician express views which not so long ago would have been considered utterly conventional but now seem daring, here was Farron to provide it. Trade is good, diversity is good, we should be kind, we should pursue large-scale national change carefully and soberly. It’s basic stuff, but it now suddenly feels contentious because of the wave of lunacy which hit the country during the Brexit vote.
But the question remains, is there any point in a Lib Dem vote? Farron is right to target moderate Tories and - probably more realistically - moderate Labour supporters. But from a baseline of eight MPs can he really get into a position where the party are even relevant, let along in power?
The Lib Dem leader has a realistic strategy and realistic objectives. He wants to use the Lib Dems much-discussed ground operations to build from the bottom up. Everyone should be targeting a ward, the wards should be helping the Lib Dems to take controls of councils, and the councils will help them to take back dozens of wins at the general election. “My challenge to you is to pick a ward and win it,” Farron said. It’s not exactly ‘go back to your constituency and prepare for government’, but it has the virtue of being credible. With a very positive view, it might just work. But even if it did - so what?
Getting a few dozen more Lib Dem seats in 2020 - the target Farron himself set - is a functionless achievement. If May, as expected, triggers Article 50 in the new year and EU leaders, as expected, make us stick to the two year timetable, the Brexit negotiations will be long gone by then. We’ll already be in whatever situation the Tories put us in.
Farron needs an extension of the timetable, just like British negotiators do. And he’s unlikely to get one. So while his plan is a good one and his strategy is sound and the speech was well written and delivered, it remains a compelling proposition rather than a realistic one.
He has a sequencing problem. The current political reality is unforgiving. And the Lib Dems are at their most beaten precisely when they’re at their most needed.
Every day, more MPs emerge to pronounce the end of freedom of movement. They dribble out, one by one, Conservatives and Labour, always with the same message. They make sure they mention that immigration is economically beneficial to this country. It’s a wink to the rest of the political class. They know it’s all guff. And then they put on their Ukip facemask and do the immigration dance.
Sometimes they contrive hopeless arguments making out that they're actually being progressive. Sometimes they admit it is because they want to be re-elected. They’ve knocked on constituency doors and heard the same abysmal blame-the-foreigner rubbish we’ve all heard. They’ve decided it’s easier to pretend to accept it rather than try to fight it. This is the patronising new piety of the political class: to never correct, to never disagree. To pretend you are a robot of the public's will while you whisper your exasperation to fellow MPs in Commons bars.
The latest culprits are Rachel Reeves, Emma Reynolds and Stephen Kinnock, whose contributions to a Fabian pamphlet on Brexit show that they want to treat freedom of movement as a ‘red line’ against the Tories.
Reeves’ piece, which is particularly asinine, is like a cut-and-paste of all the standard phrases Labour MPs use when addressing this issue. If you played ‘Labour MP on immigration’ bingo you’d be hammered in five minutes. One sentence literally reads:
“Looking back, I think politicians’ failure to acknowledge voters’ legitimate concerns meant we didn’t earn the right to be heard on other issues.”
Reynolds actually admits wanting to impoverish the country rather than make the case that we are entering a period of economic self-harm on the basis of lies and racist innuendo from Ukip and the right-wing tabloids.
“We should seek to protect all the progressive aspects of our membership, such as the legislation which protects workers’ rights and the environment. However, it is my strong view that no future deal can retain free movement of people in its present form. We must argue for restrictions while getting the best possible economic deal in the circumstances. This won’t be as good as the status quo but leave voters clearly said that their concerns about immigration trumped their worries about the economic cost of leaving.”
But Kinnock is by some margin the most hypocritical as he ties himself in knots trying to justify himself.
“It’s no cheap imitation of Ukip, nor an ‘electoral ploy’, but an approach born of progressive values and our desire to see them realised,” he says. “The starting point must be to view our core values through the prism of immigration, and to conclude that immigration itself is not a left wing value.”
What fabulously stupid nonsense. They are proposing the exact same red line the Tories themselves want. Their only contribution to the debate so far has been to demand that the Conservatives become even more reactionary and narrow-minded than they already are.
Europe has made it clear that there will be no compromise on freedom of movement. Probably there is more wriggle room than that, but saying, as these Labour MPs are, that ending freedom of movement is a red line, just makes a hard Brexit more likely. Actually, it makes it nearly unavoidable.
Let’s just point out what the consequences of that are. It means we will drop out the EU, with no trade deal, onto WTO rules. This is inevitable, unless the British team can secure an extension in the two-year timetable of Article 50, something they have shown no signs of even trying to do let alone succeeding in. It is simply impossible sort a trade deal in two years, so this is an inevitable consequence of refusing to negotiate on freedom of movement. That means we’ll be out the single market with no EU trade deal, having lost all the mutual recognition agreements on trade with countries like the US, Australia and China that we enjoyed under the EU umbrella.
That means tariffs on our exports of manufacturing goods to the EU, which is our biggest market. And tariffs on our imports of the component parts of those products from the single market. It means consignments being stopped at the EU border and tested, at the cost of thousands per go. A system-wide slow down in our trade capacity. It means a drying up of investment in the UK. It will devastate working class communities.
And once the immediate devastating economic effect has passed away, we’ll be in the WTO system, where you can only liberalise unilaterally. Try to increase protections for domestic industry and you’ll find it very hard indeed. It is a free market project on a global scale.
And now we have Labour MPs driving us towards it. They are cooperating with the right of the Tory party to force Theresa May into adopting a position which will be more harmful to industrial workers than the one she seems to be currently contemplating. After all, her comments on freedom of movement have been much more vague than theirs are. They are actively working to force her to harden her position. Instead of helping her prepare the ground for a climb down, they encourage her onwards.
It is an act of utter spinelessness. An expression of self-interested political cowardice at a key moment in this country’s history.
Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.