My views on the EU, Brexit, democracy, neoliberal economics, Corbynism and Labour

In the 2014 European elections (they seem an age ago now), I subscribed to the policy platform of the Green Party – “three Yeses”.

1. Yes to reform of Europe
2. Yes to a referendum on whether the UK should stay in the EU
3. Yes to staying in Europe

I will use these statements as starting points for explaining my views.

1. Yes to reform of Europe

Out of the three, I was and still am most interested in the first yes. The European Union – in line with the global economic system – is a neoliberal institution that too closely aligns national governments within and into this orthodoxy. The reforms necessary to shift the EU and its institutions towards a radical progressive platform with redistributive tackling of inequality at its heart are sizeable, and I understand the scepticism of some about the ability of nation states, political blocs within the European Parliament and individual MEPs, never mind national polities (e.g. the UK public), to enact radical reform easily.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the alternative to this priority – giving up on the European project in its institutional/democratic spheres as a lost cause – is so much worse, particularly for a country with the colonial history and isolationist tendencies of the UK that has still sat in a prominent place within European politics.

It is not just the economic settlement where I would like to see reform. I think the democratic understanding of most people in the United Kingdom of the procedures and processes of the European Parliament is poor to non-existent. I see the need for legislation in the UK Parliament (perhaps in reform of the BBC charter and the way the media works generally) to ensure that EP sessions are included regularly on national media and on channels such as BBC Parliament for people to understand how democracy works in the European system. The European Parliament – on paper at least, if not in its perceived distance from the UK public – is a MORE democratic institution than the UK Parliament in pretty much every single way. This diagram explains this better than I can.

EU democracy

So, yes to reform of Europe, with UK MEPs and the people playing a strong, organised role in pushing for reform. This is what, I hope, would have happened if the referendum had gone a different way. It’s to the referendum that I now turn.

2. Yes to a referendum on whether the UK should stay in the EU

Ironically, given the current positions of both parties, the Labour Party was not offering a referendum on our membership of the EU heading into the 2014 European elections and the 2015 General Election and the Green Party was. At the time, the Labour policy struck me as being quite anti-democratic. My view then was that: a) people who had never had a say on our membership (i.e. who weren’t alive or old enough to vote in the 1975 membership referendum) should be able to have a say on it now and b) that if the vote – as I think most people expected – returned a Remain vote, that that would put the issue to bed for another generation, which in my eyes would mean we could focus more closely on more important things – like campaigning for EU reform, introducing proportional representation, taking bold steps to fight against climate change, and tackling income inequality and the housing crisis.

I can already hear people screaming “hypocrisy!” at me. How can I be in favour of the result putting the issue to bed if it went the way I wanted it, but not be willing to accept the result if it went the other way?

It’s a fair criticism, I suppose. At the same time, if people in UKIP (and eurosceptics in Labour and the Tories) had continued to campaign against our membership of the European Union after a Remain vote, I would not have thought that was anti-democratic or poor form, just a bit eccentric. That is completely up to them and it is a vital aspect of our democracy that people believe strongly in something (however much I think it is unimportant or settled) to continue to campaign for what they believe in. I would of course have supported the UK government (ugh!) in (presumably?) ignoring their pleas.

And so now that we have had a Leave vote, there is nothing to stop Remainers from continuing to call for what they want: to Remain in the European Union and for a referendum on the terms of the negotiated deal.

There are also numerous more reasons to question the referendum itself:

a)  The referendum question was a simple yes/no question, which does not lead to a firm conclusion as to the method of the UK leaving the EU.
b) The referendum was not legally binding in the same way as the Scottish Independence referendum was. This means that although different sides would need to accept the stated democratic will of the vote, the final settlement of the exact kind of exit from the EU was not clear. This calls into question whether the vote can be meaningfully called a democratic expression of the will of the people, as there was not a detailed picture of what leaving the EU would mean in practical outcome for the UK.
c) The Electoral Commission has ruled that the Leave campaign broke electoral law. This casts doubt over the whole referendum as a democratic procedure.
d) As there was a previous referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in 1975, there was now a precedent set constitutionally that the UK does not see membership of the EU as a “once and for all” vote, allowing subsequent votes.
e) The circumstances and specific content of the terms of UK exit are yet to be decided and, democratically speaking, if the public has had a say over WHETHER the UK should leave, it should also get a say over HOW the UK leaves, given the numerous options (no deal, hard, soft and remain after all) that will present themselves when the Government finally reveals the deal it has got with the EU.

3. Yes to staying in Europe

My priority in politics reads thus: what position and politics will lead us – at the local, regional, national, continental and global stages – to tackle climate change and social inequality effectively?

I do not believe that the UK can tackle climate change without cooperation, dialogue and international working as part of the EU. I also trust the European Parliament and EU to bring in strong legislation on climate change more than I trust the current UK government to do similar. Other European democracies have a better record than the UK does on this. We need a seat at the table and to be able to use our voice for change in that institution. As a cooperative, democratic institution, the UK is a vital peace project. Some of its economic and social policies are downright terrible – on Greece, or on the refugee crisis, for instance – but I believe the sum total of our collective wisdom needs to be supported in its institutional form, even while we criticise and attempt to reform its flaws.

The politics at play right now

It is clear that the Conservative Party is split on the EU still, and continues to procrastinate, argue and muddle through. MPs who campaigned to Remain are now adamantly for the hardest of Brexits because they are scared of the 10% or so they gained from UKIP in 2017 going back to them and stopping them from being the largest party at a subsequent general election. Irrespective of this, the Tories are in a bind anyway as, if the economy collapses if we leave the EU (whether no deal, hard or soft), it will be them who will be clearly shown to be terrible at handling the economy.

The Labour Party is also split on the EU, but their muddle-through is slightly easier because they are in opposition, they improved their position in the 2017 general election, and their party leader is seen as at best a “soft remainer” and at worst an “ardent Eurosceptic Brexiteer”. The difficulty they have is there are a majority of Labour Party members – on the left, centre, right, and wherever else – who are intelligent, see the EU as an important institution for the aims of international social democracy and solidarity, and have noticed that the polls show regret over the Leave vote (see image below), with the majority of Labour-held constituencies now being in favour of Remain.

Brexit mind change

This means that Jeremy Corbyn, who – if you remember – immediately called for the triggering of Article 50 on the day after the referendum in June 2016, finds himself on the wrong side of his party membership, the voters he needs to convince to continue voting Labour at the next general election, and the public at large. Refusing to support a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal may not ultimately prove to be his undoing, due to the weak, divided leadership of the Tories, the economy cratering and – to be honest – a bunch of people who will vote Labour whatever, whether out of fear of the Tories, support of a local candidate, or as “the only progressive option”. This is what Corbyn supporters perceive as “playing the long game” in terms of strategy.

The difficulty with this strategy is clear. Firstly, Corbyn will continue to be attacked on three fronts: by the Conservatives and other parties, by non-Corbynist MPs and members in his party, and by influential media sources who support the continuation of Conservative government. On the first, he may develop some good lines and play the same timid game Labour always plays in opposition of slowly winning trust in the country (this is for people who don’t realise or understand what a calamity Brexit would be). On the second, he will struggle – as we have seen with the anti-Semitism row. And on the third, he will without the tabloid press (and, let’s be frank, a positive media profile and perception that he is a moderate) find it hard to win over that extra 3-5% in the so-called centre ground of British politics that saw Tony Blair deliver two landslide election victories. Even as a leftist, I do not believe that the Labour Party just serves people who have leftwing politics. It reaches parts of the country my own party cannot yet hope to reach and we need it to continue to do so, at least for the timebeing.

As a Green, I find it more and more perturbing how easily some of Corbyn’s supporters gloss over the gap between Corbyn’s “straight-talking, honest politics” and the fact he doesn’t have straightforward answers on whether the UK will be better off economically outside the EU. We won’t be. Even the Government’s own forecasts show we won’t be under three different exit scenarios.
UK Brexit economy forecasts

If Corbyn is such a change from the norm, why can’t he just say “the forecasts show that we might not be better off, but if we are elected after Brexit has occurred, we will have to do our best with the situation we have inherited from the Tories”? Why is such an idealistic movement as Momentum prepared to put up with such a lack of idealism and leadership? And how will this help Labour’s electoral chances if they enable the Tories in pushing through whatever Brexit they negotiate without a chance for the public to say “nope, this will make things worse in every way”?

So, in summary (and quite obviously), I support a People’s Vote, I think the Labour Party needs to support it, I think Labour should have a strong Remainer who is on the left or soft left of the party as their leader, and I think only these outcomes will potentially stop economic catastrophe, further years of even worse Tory austerity and even more time wasted in tackling climate change and the unequal economic settlement that Corbyn and his supporters say they want to radically reform.

Rob Bryher
Wednesday 22nd August 2018

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