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When Mark Rutte, the Liberal prime minister of the Netherlands, said that “England has collapsed”, he was not referring to England’s elimination from the European football championship by Iceland.  What he meant was that the UK has collapsed, in his words, “politically, monetarily, constitutionally and economically”.  Far from looking like a party of government in waiting, capable of offering an answer, the Labour party has become entangled in this systemic crisis and may end up splitting as a result.  The party’s reaction to the outcome of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union demonstrates that the image of unity and pro-European conviction that could be detected before the referendum was little more than a façade.  The pro-European conviction is being shaken to the core and unity, if it ever existed, has evaporated.

Key facts indicate that it did not have to be like that.  Recent polling indicates that 81% of Labour party members are in favour of the UK’s membership of the EU.  nearly two thirds of those who voted Labour in 2015 are estimated to have voted for the country to remain a member of the EU.  More than 90% of Labour’s MPs were active supporters of the Remain campaign and the leaders of virtually all trade unions and the TUC.  For a party that over the past year has been divided over a number of policies, these are indications of a remarkable degree of unity. In reality, though, things are quite different.  The behaviour of leading Labour politicians indicates that both the left and the right wing of the party find it very easy indeed to move away from their declared pro-EU stance.

Jeremy Corbyn performance in the referendum campaign was so lackluster and he was, arguably, so late in supporting the Remain camp (a stance that may be the result of his Bennite associations), that a couple of weeks before the referendum almost half of Labour’s voters said they did not know where the party stood on the referendum question.  The extraordinary degree of hostility from the media towards its leader (a hostility that brings to mind the mendacity of the British press against the EU that arguably had a decisive impact on the referendum’s outcome) can explain only part of this state of affairs.  Even if one ignores the multiple allegations that Corbyn and his collaborators actively sabotaged the party’s Remain campaign, the suspicion that Corbyn actually preferred Brexit was compounded by his spokesman’s statement that the result shows that Corbyn’s view is much closer to the views held by the British public.

Secondly, the extent of anti-EU sentiment in the party’s former heartlands in the North of England was such that just days before the referendum leading members of the party’s frontbench like its deputy leader Tom Watson and prominent backbenchers like Yvette Cooper argued in favour of restrictions in the free movement of people inside the EU.  Cooper in particular was so desperate in this attempt that she argued in favour of the abolition (in all but name) of the essence of Schengen area (i.e. one of the most significant achievements of the process of European integration) despite the fact that the UK is not part of it.  This was a belated and ultimately unsuccessful effort to appease the anti-immigrant (to put it mildly) feeling that was unleashed by the referendum.  It was reminiscent of the party’s 2015 general election pledge to reduce new EU migrants’ access to some benefits for two years: late, wide of the mark, out of line with the party’s pro-EU stance and ultimately unsuccessful.  Crucially, these Labour politicians did not try to confront the public’s misconceptions and prejudices at a time when academic research shows the significant contribution that EU immigrants make to the exchequer, even before one considers the cultural and other forms of their contribution.  Nor did they say much about the fact that for decades non-EU immigration (for which the UK has sole responsibility) has been higher than immigration from the EU.  So, even if one (despite the evidence) believes that immigration in the UK is a problem, policy failed in the part that is under the control of the UK government.  Though changing public perceptions during the post-fact politics is anything but easy, these Labour politicians have failed the party and the country by allowing the fact-free, anti-EU and anti-immigration sentiment to settle.

To his credit Corbyn publicly rejected the notion that immigration is a problem.  Both he and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, were right to argue that parts of the country were feeling the negative impact of immigration as a result of decisions made in Whitehall, not Brussels.  Proof of this is the scrapping by the Conservative/Liberal coalition government in August 2010 of the fund that was meant to help ease the pressure on housing, hospitals and schools felt by these communities.

The huge row inside the Labour party after the referendum has focused much more on Corbyn than on the policies that the party ought to pursue in the future.  In this context even some of Corbyn’s supporters (including amongst trade union members) have acknowledged that under his leadership Labour cannot make the electoral progress that it needs to make and offer the country a real alternative to the Conservative government.  At the same time, internal analysis of Labour’s performance in last Amay’s local elections shows that the party has increased its share of votes in areas where this progress would not affect the outcome of a general election.  As the authors of that analysis put it,

“The strategic problem is that only 14% of our gains were in areas we need in order to win general elections – while just under 50% of our losses were in those areas.”

This poses a major dilemma, the answer to which will determine the fate of the Labour party in the next decade or so.  Should it abandon its pro-Europeanism of which its support for immigration is a key indication and hope to attract some of the voters it has lost in its Welsh and northern English former heartlands or should it stick to facts and principles and try to change (rather than echo) the views of these voters some of whom harbour xenophobic opinions.  In other words, at the end of the day, it must decide whether it is a progressive, left-wing party or not.

Those amongst its most prominent MPs and officials who (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) prefer the former to the latter must be aware of the costs that this option will entail.  Joining the anti-immigration bandwagon (instead of, for example, attacking austerity and beefing up labour standards) is no free lunch.  The millions of cosmopolitan, urban dwellers (including those who helped propel Sadiq Khan to victory in the 2016 London mayoral elections) who support Labour (and have boosted its membership since Corbyn’s victory) will abandon it if it becomes little more than ‘red UKIP’ while it is hard to see why other voters (who could be tempted by the anti-immigration line) will prefer the copy to the original.  After all, preliminary evidence shows that a) there is absolutely no correlation between wage growth and support for Brexit and b) culture and personality, rather than material circumstances, lie behind majority support for Brexit.

This was originally posted on http://ukandeu.ac.uk/labour-after-brexit/

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Writing about the British Labour Party’s attitude towards European integration, Donald Sassoon rightly pointed out in his classic history of the West European Left in the 20th Century, that “No party of the Left has exhibited such profound uncertainty on the question of Europe.”

The British Left’s views on European integration – as expressed through the Labour Party- are quite dissimilar to the traditions of Labour’s French and German sister parties, ie the Parti Socialiste (PS) and the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) respectively.

For example, the Labour Party has never shared the German Social Democrats’ principled attachment to the idea of a united Europe and especially not to a federal one. On the contrary, they share some similarities with the traditions of Labour’s Scandinavian sister parties (especially the Swedish SAP).

Post-World War II

After October 1951, the Labour Party was in opposition for a long time and therefore had little room to contribute to the emerging concrete meaning of the enduring concept of unification. During much of this period it remained hostile towards European integration. This was because of two overlapping reasons.

The first related to control over vital national resources and was expressed through hostility to the Schuman Plan’s core idea of placing coal and steel under some kind of supranational ‘control’.

The second element of Labour’s opposition was its attachment to the Commonwealth and (though the party would not explicitly acknowledge it) to a certain idea of Britain as a major power in the postwar era at the centre of a network of (soon to be former) colonies.

As Hussein Kassim notes in his detailed account of Labour’s evolving views on European integration, “Like its sister parties, Labour eventually abandoned its hostility, though not all its reservations” but it never had a clear and emblematic moment of reckoning about it. “Its European journey has been complex, tortuous, and often contradictory, and even as Labour has become Britain’s main pro-European party, it remains circumspect about integration.”

1960s

While in the opposition benches in the early 1960s, Labour (then led by Hugh Gaitskell) opposed EEC membership around the time of the Conservative Macmillan administration’s decision to apply in 1961. However, with Harold Wilson in Number 10, the Labour administration submitted a new application in 1967.

The logic of this decision can be seen as a prelude to much of Labour’s subsequent positioning in European integration. It was not based on the acceptance of the principle of European integration. It was much more about mundane and practical, especially economic, considerations at a time when trade between the six founding members of the EEC was booming.

However, the party remained divided on the issue of European integration. Those (mainly on the left but also segments of the right wing of the party) who opposed membership did so on the grounds that it would undermine national sovereignty and even democracy.

Implicit in this populist narrative is the notion that full sovereignty was not only desirable but also possible only outside the European Communities. Those who supported membership rarely did so as a matter of principle (i.e. the idea that European integration is a welcomed way of managing relations between European states).

1980s

During the 1980s avid opposition to the European Communities (exemplified by the Labour Party’s 1983 general election manifesto pledge to take the country out of the EC) gradually gave way to measured support for membership and further engagement.

This, however, only emerged after Neil Kinnock’s election as party leader and, importantly, Jacques Delors’ major speech to the TUC in 1988.

The leaders of the British trade union movement saw in Delors’ ‘social Europe’ agenda – exemplified by the Working Time Directive – a protective shield against Margaret Thatcher’s domestic policies.

John Smith’s leadership further boosted the party’s gradual turn towards a much more pro-EU stance that had started under Kinnock.

Crucially, being a member of a particular kind of (evolving) EU was not seen in antithesis to, but a reflection of, the kind of Britain that – under Smith – the Labour Party wanted to build.

This was indicated by Smith castigating John Major in the House of Commons for wanting to turn Britain into the sweatshop of Europe and trying to compete against Taiwan on wages and not against Germany on skills.

1990s

Tony Blair’s much vaunted pro-Europeanism, while real and deep (and explicitly so) was, however, not particularly left wing. Although his government signed up to the ‘social chapter’ and gave British workers a series of benefits that their counterparts in continental Europe had been enjoying for years, the very same government was at the heart of opposition to the expansion of these rights, preferring instead what they considered to be ‘market-friendly’ solutions.

This is reflected in Blair’s statement that he wanted the EU to be a superpower but not a superstate. The first part of which is shorthand for Labour Party’s enduring and unwavering attachment to NATO and Atlanticism.

2010s

One of the key features of the latest Labour leadership campaign was that all four candidates – including Jeremy Corbyn (though after some initial hesitation) – agreed on the need to keep the UK inside the EU.  This was also Ed Miliband’s unequivocal view.

They also, with some variation in enthusiasm and specificity, all seem to argue that this is the way to promote left wing objectives such as the protection of workers’ rights, rights for women, the protection of the environment etc.

They appear to favour a certain kind of Europe as a reflection of (rather than in opposition to) a particular kind of Britain.

Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to oppose ‘Brexit’ and support an EU financial transaction tax which the City of London fiercely opposes is indicative of this stance.  As he put it in an article published in the Financial Times, ‘If Mr Cameron fails to deliver a good package or one that reduces the social gains we have previously won in Europe, he needs to understand that Labour will renegotiate to restore our rights and promote a socially progressive Europe.’

In that sense, rather than being stuck in the outdated debate about supporting or opposing further steps in European integration, or trying to ‘out-Ukip’ Ukip, the Labour Party has moved clearly in a substantively pro-European direction. It now regards the UK’s membership of the EU as part and parcel of the kind of future it wants to offer to the British people.

By Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London

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In the run-up to the election, senior business leaders have launched an attack on Labour’s policies. No-one should be surprised at this criticism. Labour presumably hopes to get its votes primarily from people who are not exceedingly wealthy. If Labour offers policies to attract the votes of the non-wealthy, the wealthy are not likely to be favourably impressed. That’s just how partisan politics works.

Nonetheless, criticisms from business do make voters uncomfortable when they associate the moniker of ‘business leader’ with entrepreneurship and job creation. If people with deep knowledge of economic affairs have reservations about Labour’s policies, those who feel that they lack that knowledge are likely to pick up the cue. The difficulty for voters is that meaningful messages from business about the impact of policies are overlaid with self-interested babble. Much of the critical comment has been about Labour’s tax plans. Claims that these will be a dampener on ‘business’ are the  self-interested objections of wealthy people.

The difficult reality for Labour is that the era in which it could comfortably bridge class divides and occupy a middle ground that combined business-friendliness and redistributive ambitions has ended. In its New Labour variant, business-friendliness meant at least a partial embrace of ‘trickle-down’ economics: what was good for business was good for the country. It was a comfortable position for its proponents, who could engage in great deal of glad-handing and prawn cocktail consumption, and save themselves from some of the more vitriolic attacks that might otherwise come from the right-wing media. But now that we live in the era of ‘trickle up’, where the wealth of the few grows at the expense of the many, this stance is no longer tenable.

Nothing has happened since the financial crisis to reverse the well-documented picture of rising inequality in the UK. Each year since 2009, growth in average weekly earnings has not kept pace with inflation; only in 2015 is this expected to change. The median hourly wage in 2014, a princely £11.85, was 12% below its 2009 peak in real terms.[1] While incomes have stagnated, wealth has soared, thanks in no small part to monetary policy.

The political implications of the rise in inequality are worrying. In the US, the political power of wealth has been evident in innumerable policy changes, often too small to be noticed by the general public, but adding up to substantial gains, particularly in reducing the tax paid by the most well-off. At least the wealthy in the UK do pay taxes, although this creates its own paradoxical pressures. Stuart Adam and Barra Roantree at the Institute for Fiscal Studies have drawn attention to the very high concentration of income tax receipts: half of revenue comes from just 3% of adults. The IFS has expressed concern that this leaves the public finances vulnerable: the ominous subtext being that governments have to handle the wealthy with kid gloves, or they will exit for Monaco. The less reactionary implication is that governments have to tackle these concentrations of income and wealth at their source if they are not to be held hostage by the top 1%.

In any case, the primary difficulty for Labour in formulating policies that reflect strong public preferences for combatting inequality is not the threatened mobility of the tax base. It is the belief that the party must demonstrate ‘economic competence’ to win elections. Since the court for judging economic competence is rigged by powerful economic actors, policies that challenge their interests are quickly condemned for failing to accept economic realities.

There is a lot of slippage between the idea of the ‘business leader’ who might be engaged in innovation and entrepreneurship, and the person who is merely rich. The distinction emerges rather strongly in recent research on the United States by Martin Gilens and Ben Page. They found that the preferences of the wealthy are not well-correlated with those of business interest groups. The wealthy tend to have stronger ideological objections to state intervention, and ‘prefer lower levels of government spending on practically everything’ while business groups often lobby for regulation or spending in specific sectors.[2] These differences, while rarely identified so clearly, are not surprising. Businesses need public goods to function; the wealthy can exit to their private domains.

If Labour is serious about tackling inequality, it is in for an uncomfortable time. It has to destroy the pleasant illusion cultivated by New Labour, that there are no fundamental conflicts of interest in a successful capitalist economy. Not only will this bring political opprobium from the rich down on the heads of the party’s leadership, but also it is a message resisted by many people who will never be rich. Nonetheless, it is the message that has to be conveyed, especially now that Labour can be undermined by voices from further left, at least in Scotland. Weathering the storms that can be whipped up by the rich and powerful is tough. Even the Financial Times, loved on the centre-left for its acerbic criticisms of the City, has shown its family loyalties by criticising Miliband. But there is no way of avoiding a bad press from business if Labour is to offer an alternative to the Tories. The easy times of the prawn cocktail circuit have gone for good.

This is an edited version of Deborah Mabbett’s ‘Commentary’ for the journal Political Quarterly. Read the full version at http://www.politicalquarterly.org.uk/p/editors-blog.html

 



[1] Low Pay Commission (2015) National Minimum Wage Report, Figure 1.10.

[2] Gilens, M and B Page (2014) ‘Testing theories of American politics: Elites, interest groups and average citizens’ Perspectives on Politics Vol 12 No 3 at p.571.