In response to the continuing fiascos and scandals about the shape of Brexit, the Labour Party is edging towards a “less-Brexit” stance. But it remains evasive.
Labour members and trade unionists must be able to debate this out at Labour conference on 23-26 September this year.
The labour movement needs a policy debated through the ranks, not just “managed” by self-accredited sages and scribblers in the Leader’s Office. Only then can it have ideas which it can take out to the unorganised and the wavering voters, to convince them.
The latest eye-opener came from Britain’s tax chief on 23 May, officially telling the government that “max-fac”, its favourite alternative to staying in the EU customs union, will cost £20 billion a year and anyway take years after the government’s Brexit date to implement. The EU’s view is that “max-fac” is unworkable anyway.
That’s just the latest. In September 2017 the TUC went officially on record saying that staying in the single market and the customs union should be “an option” — and it suggested no other option that would deliver what the TUC wanted.
Denying that migrants are to blame for problems with public services, the TUC said flatly: “They aren’t: politicians who have imposed savage cuts are”.
Free movement? The TUC said: “There are many different ways countries in the EU have interpreted free movement. The approach taken in the UK has allowed bad employers to profit whilst letting public services decline... The UK should urgently adopt tough measures to prevent bad bosses exploiting migrant workers and undercutting local labour markets”.
That’s evasive. It leaves an open door for meaner limits for migrant workers’ access to benefits, although they pay more into the welfare system than they draw out. But it’s more for free movement than against it.
In 2016 the Labour Party leaders and Momentum blocked debate at Labour conference on Brexit. Labour’s ranks must ensure there is debate this year.
Some say that when Solidarity campaigns for debate in the Labour Party on this, we are allying with the right.
Our angle is different from the anti-Brexit segments of the Labour right. They are concerned for continued smooth, cheap supply chains and export paths for British bosses, and some of them explicitly oppose free movement. Our main concern is rights to free movement.
In any case, socialists cannot decide our politics by always saying the reverse of what the right says. To do that would be, in fact, to let the right do our thinking for us. We must have our own independent view.
For decades socialists who supported workers’ rights in the Stalinist states had to “ally with” (some of) the right, against the “mainstream” left, when the issue came up for debate in the labour movement.
Some say that debate should be avoided because it might embarrass or discredit the Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.
But Corbyn continued to defend free movement for some time after the June 2016 referendum. He capitulated in November 2016, partly because Labour left groups like Momentum gave him no support on the issue against the Labour right who said that Labour must concede to anti-migrant feeling among some Labour supporters.
Corbyn can and should return to his principles. If we abstain on the issue for fear of embarrassing him, that means that we too are capitulating to the anti-migrant right, only at one remove.
Some on the left say, as most of the Labour right said in 2016, that anti-migrant feeling among Labour voters is so strong and immovable that we dare not demand a popular vote before any Brexit deal, or campaign to cancel Brexit via that vote.
Most Labour voters are anti-Brexit. A minority are pro-Brexit. Most of those are not hardened anti-migrant bigots. They can be convinced. But only by an argument; not by evasions.
Those hardened in anti-migrant prejudices may not be convinced by a socialist argument; but they will not be convinced by evasions, either.
There are principles here. Free movement is a principle. Reducing barriers between countries — except where issues of self-determination for otherwise-oppressed nations claim primacy, which they can’t here — is a principle.