‘We’re clearing up Labour’s mess”: That was the Tory refrain deployed against the electorate until its ears bled. But it was based on a cynical rewriting of history. Labour had not caused the global financial system to implode. The Tories had backed every penny of their opponent’s public investment until the end of 2008, despite their later, shamelessly dishonest narrative that overspending had caused the country’s woes. If Labour committed a crime, it was a failure to properly regulate the banks in an era in which the party was too in thrall to market ideology.
Britain is again in the grip of crisis, and this time the blame can be placed at the feet of only one party. The Tories had a nightmare, and we’re all trapped in it. A referendum was called, not because it was felt it was in the national interest, but because former prime minister David Cameron had bothersome backbenchers and a United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) challenge to deal with. And then his successor launched a snap election to extinguish her opposition, and instead destroyed her authority, wasted negotiating time and left Britain a laughing stock among the very governments it needs to agree a deal with. The Tories set the house on fire; now they claim to be the only ones who can put out the blaze.
Yet, somehow, it is Labour that supposedly finds itself in a vice. Week before last, it committed to a transitional phase after Britain leaves the European Union (EU) in the spring of 2019: Britain should seek to remain in the customs union and single market for that period, the party declared. Now that the Tories have made such a hash of the post-Brexit reality, the argument goes, it would be fantasy to pretend that a lasting agreement can be reached in 18 months — business is increasingly nervous about uncertainty, and a cliff edge beckons.
This was portrayed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s critics as a U-turn. Yet, from the start, the Labour leadership’s position has been mischaracterised and misunderstood, often intentionally.
Brexit has long been deemed to be Corbyn’s achilles heel. His life-long Euroscepticism, the unfair characterisation of his role in the referendum campaign, his whipping of Labour MPs to vote for Article 50, his alleged commitment to a so-called hard Brexit: All were wrongly cited as evidence that he was heading for a terminal day of reckoning with his own enthusiasts.
Yes, the Left has long had a critique of the EU, ranging from a lack of democratic accountability to the enshrining of pro-market ideology. But it recognises the positive impact the EU has had on workers’ rights. Thus, after Labour’s election loss in 2015, when Cameron made it clear he would attempt to negotiate away those rights in any pre-referendum deal, Corbyn, trade unionists and left-wing activists all made it clear they would oppose it. That led to a climbdown by Cameron. Without Corbyn as the hot favourite in the Labour leadership race, Cameron would never have retreated. In which case, the margin for Leave might then have been even higher, and this would have given the Tories a mandate for a destructive Brexit.
In the referendum campaign, Labour was conscious of two things. First, that an uncritical defence of the EU would backfire in a country where there was little enthusiastic pro-EU sentiment. Second, it was haunted by the experience of Scotland, where Labour had joined with the Tories in a campaign of fear that led to the near-annihilation of the party north of the border. In the aftermath, it feared the disintegration of a fractious electoral coalition between younger and urban voters, who were despondent about Brexit, and an older, working-class, small-town electorate delighted by the referendum result.
There are those — myself included — who want to stay in the single market and the customs union. The fear is that leaving will produce an economic shock, and those who will pay the greatest price will be Labour’s natural voters. And having spent years making the case that European migrants are not responsible for social injustices caused by the powerful, how could I possibly make the case for ending freedom of movement? So there is a genuine dilemma.
If you keep the single market, the customs union and freedom of movement, you arguably remain a de facto EU member, but subject to laws over which you have little say. “We would become, in effect, a satellite state of the EU, relying on the EU commission or other member states to defend our interests,” as Professor Vernon Bogdanor puts it in his case for a second referendum .
But if the referendum wasn’t a vote on making at least some changes to freedom of movement, what was it? To that end, various options have been floated, such as opting for freedom of movement of workers instead of people. The Labour leadership has emphasised that membership of the customs union remains on the table for the long term, and its repeatedly stated aspiration is to maintain the benefits of the single market. What this means and how it will be achieved need to be spelled out.
It is easy to avoid the complexities of the mess Britain is in. Just ignore a referendum won with lies, is the cry on one side; just sever a formal relationship with anything connected to the EU as soon as possible, says the other.
Corbyn won the leadership by eschewing his rivals’ caution. But it is difficult, in good faith, to see how some form of compromise on the terms of Brexit can be avoided. For those of us who fear a destructive and disorderly Tory Brexit, a genuine alternative is at last emerging. That’s encouraging. But the Tories plunged this country into the mire. Never forget it.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist.