Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to oppose Brexit in Parliament is as culpable as Harriet Harman’s failure to oppose welfare cuts. It will haunt Labour just as much. The job of opposition is to oppose. We currently have a more right wing government than I imagined the UK would ever see in my lifetime, and it is riding a tide of racist populism in England and Wales, barked on by a far right media whose ownership and world view is ever more concentrated. This is no time to drop the duty of resistance.
Corbyn’s view of the EU is ambivalent. Both major English and Welsh parties are led by people who are at least highly sympathetic to Brexit. That is a democratic failure when 47 per cent of the English and Welsh voters supported the EU.
The problem with the EU as a cause is that it is supported by some extremely unpleasant people. Straw (father and son), Mandelson, Osborne. The EU has nobody given media coverage to speak for it in the UK that is not amongst the most despised members of the political class. And in criticising Corbyn’s failure to oppose Brexit, I find myself echoing Blairites, which is uncomfortable.
But there are two major problems with the left criticism of the EU. The first is its willingness to be hijacked to the racist cause with the economically illiterate argument that immigration means competition for the fixed number of jobs, and thus drives down the living standards of British workers. That atavism I dismiss with contempt. Not least because even if it were true, it shows a very narrow lack of concern for workers of the world outside Thanet. Beggar thy neighbour is not a socialist motto.
The second and more subtle trap into which the left falls is to view the EU as a set of policies. It is not a set of policies, it is a supra-national institution. At the moment its policies tend towards the neo-liberal because at the moment Europe, and especially the UK, is dominated by neo-liberal governments. The notion that leaving the EU will bring more social justice under the reality of continual Tory governments is one of the more risible contentions of much of the British left.
The EU can very much be a force for good. I am personally convinced that there are two reasons Scotland is so much more pro-EU than England. The first is a generally more internationalist and communal outlook in society at large. The second is that during the Thatcher years, when Scottish industry was being devastated and there was a deliberate government policy of no action to alleviate suffering communities, EU regional policy provided the only ray of light. I recall personally seeing big signboards at the dualling of the A9 and the construction of Dundee airport, stating that they were paid for by EU Regional Funds. As Corbyn pointed out in the referendum, workers’ rights, the maximum working week, tachometers, many health and safety standards, all came from the EU when doctrinaire right wing Westminster documents were abolishing “red tape”.
This failure to note that the EU is an institution not a policy, is reflected in the Left’s current attitude to trade agreements. Trade is an extremely good thing. Neo-liberal governments around the world have added highly undesirable extras to trade agreements. The role of Investor Protection clauses which allow cabals of lawyers to adjudicate billions of dollars to rapacious corporations is well understood. But it is not a necessary feature of a trade agreement. Nor is it necessary for a trade agreement to forbid state aid. It is a perfectly logical position for two states to trade without tariffs while accepting that the organisation of the internal resources of a state is its own affair. The neo-liberals are in any event inconsistent here. They ought to believe that state aid to one industry is going to cause inefficiencies which will balance out by giving the state traded with comparative advantage elsewhere. Because neo-liberal governments have secured the addition of these unnecessary bolt-ons to multilateral trade deals, does not make the concept of multilateral trade deals in itself bad. And again, the notion that Liam Fox is going to negotiate anything fairer is hysterical.
Corbyn’s failure to oppose Brexit is a symptom of the abandonment by much of the left of the principles of internationalism. Internationalism is not possible without international institutions. To write off those institutions because they are currently controlled by right wing governments is short-sighted to the point of being stupid. That it leaves the left vying for the racist vote with the atavistic right is a plain signal of what a wrong direction it is.
Labour is becoming an irrelevance in Scotland. The latest opinion poll has SNP 47%, Conservative 27%, Labour 15%, Lib Dems 4%, Greens 3%. This continues a trend of Labour bleeding support to the Tories. It is however fascinating that the Tories in Scotland having achieved their highest point, that point is still lower than the lowest point of Labour in the UK under Corbyn. Yet Tory ministers are prepared to take this Tory “popularity” in Scotland as evidence they can ride roughshod over the Scottish people en route to Brexit.
More significant is what is happening at council by-elections all over Scotland, held under Single Transferable Vote. It has become an accepted part of political life here that Tories, Lib Dems and Labour will transfer their preferences to each other. So Labour voters will transfer to Tory rather than to SNP or Green. This everyday collusion with the Tories reveals Scotland’s remaining Red Tories for what they are. It also makes it essential that everybody in the crucial council elections looming in Scotland votes SNP first or at the very least ensures they use all their preferences and include all the SNP candidates.
I have blogged for some years now about the deep gap in social and political attitudes between England and Scotland. That this gap manifests itself in attitudes to the EU is not surprising, and if that has become the wedge all well and good. That the same gap is resulting in a clear choice between Independence and the Tories – both Tory rule from Westminster and the Tories in Scotland – is the inevitable working out of the same process.
That is why all the Scottish left should now suspend dispute and get behind the SNP until after Independence, provided the referendum happens before the end of next year (which appears happily almost inevitable).