Labour and Brexit: The Mason Plan

by Paul Mason

22 January 2018

Violaine Martin, UN Geneva/Flickr

I’m all in favour of #FBPE as a signalling meme. Everyone has the right to state what their position on Brexit is – and say “fuck you” to the other side, whether via a Twitter hashtag or hanging the EU flag from motorway bridges. If it makes you feel better, then fine.

But as a political strategy for Labour it would be a disaster.

The Tories want to use Brexit to turn Britain into a low-wage paradise for the rich – an offshore tax haven in which human rights currently guaranteed by Europe are seriously undermined.

Labour’s job is to stop that. And the current 40/40 opinion poll stalemate shows it can only be done together with people who voted for Brexit under the illusion that it would make them better off. Waging a campaign to depict them all as numpties, and creating a tribal atmosphere in which Brexit becomes the only political issue in town, is exactly the wrong way to go about it.

Since the new year, it’s become clear to influential people in the Remain lobby that they have, at best, a 25% chance of stopping Brexit.

Brexit can only be stopped in the House of Commons. If you want a second referendum, that too can only be called by the House of Commons – and that means something highly unpalatable to the pro-Remain Blairites and the liberal centre: a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn.

Influential Remain campaigners believe Theresa May is going to try to avoid doing any substantial Brexit deal before we leave the EU in March 2019.

If May tried to propose her own vision for a deal with Europe, the moment she placed it on the cabinet table is the moment the cabinet would split and the government would fall. So her likely strategy is to let Europe attempt to offer a deal, which she then rejects.

Then she will play for time, aiming to secure at the very last minute a one-line ‘deal’ saying “the UK and EU intend to sign a comprehensive trade deal during the transition period”. It will mean nothing, and provide no guarantee against the catastrophic walk-away from Europe that Tory Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg want.

Faced with this, Labour’s strategy – unlike large numbers of people on Twitter – cannot be “how bad do I feel this morning about the whole situation?” It has to start from the global economy and the political realities of Britain.

The hard-Brexit Tories are pursuing the same fantasy as Donald Trump – a nationalist form of neoliberalism. They want a partial break from globalisation in order to revive the old free-market model that has failed, but on a national terrain: to cut wages, slash regulations, reduce taxes on rich people and big companies, and carry on shovelling profits into the finance sector by shrinking the state.

I’ve argued, from the day after the referendum onwards, that Labour should seek the softest possible break with the EU.

Labour’s spin doctors dislike the phrase ‘soft Brexit’ but there’s no better way of signalling the outcome we need: the highest possible access for UK goods and services to the single market; inclusion in a customs union; the softest possible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; maximum integration into numerous cross-border European projects, but within a semi-detached relationship.

I don’t support those like Chuka Umunna MP who want Labour to make an unconditional commitment to staying in the single market after Brexit. It amounts to adopting the Norway model, which would leave the UK as a ‘rule taker’ – with no real sovereignty in trade and economic policy – and having to accept freedom of movement on the EU’s terms.

Umunna’s line would work if Labour wanted to lose the next election, but not if it wants to win it. A third of Labour voters voted Leave, mostly because they wanted to end free movement and regain some sovereignty. An unconditional commitment to staying in the single market would be guaranteed to switch them off. It ignores the very issue that made them vote for Brexit.

Instead, Labour should seek exactly what Emmanuel Macron offered last week: something between full single market membership and a trade deal.

That probably involves forming a new customs union with Britain included; it would mean Britain can’t sign independent trade deals. It could mean – if the EU will agree – a bespoke relationship with the single market that delivers more than an external trade deal. It is a big difference from what Tories like Boris Johnson want, and Johnson is annoyed as hell that a consensus is emerging around such proposals in business.

Anybody who claims to be an expert and says the Macron proposal is impossible is misleading you: it’s a negotiation. Both the hard Brexiteers and the Remainers have an interest in posing the question as all-or-nothing.

Nevertheless, the tactical interests of those who want a soft Brexit and no Brexit coincide for now, as long as Labour can set the terms of coordinated action.

So I propose a three-point strategy that allows united action between voters and parties that want to reverse the result and those, like Labour, determined to negotiate a constructive, soft Brexit deal. Here’s the plan:

  1. Force Theresa May to present a Brexit deal to parliament and vote it down.
  2. Force an election, in which Labour promises to do a comprehensive soft Brexit deal on the lines suggested by Macron.
  3. Put any deal agreed to a ratification referendum with three options: Remain, take the deal, or a no-deal Brexit with just the WTO rules.

Because she knows this strategy could work, Theresa May will try to avoid proposing any specific detailed deal on Britain’s future trade relationship. She wants to get to the watershed moment – March 2019 – without any detailed agreement. Labour needs to establish – with the other parties – a new set of red lines that allows parliament to prevent that.

Labour has already forced the government to stage a vote on its proposed Brexit deal; we need an all-party coalition to vote down the shabby deal (or more likely non-deal) May will offer.

If, in that vote, the government falls, Labour’s election manifesto should pledge a final ratification referendum on any future deal.

That allows people to vote Labour knowing it is trying to achieve a softer Brexit and that, if they don’t like what is achieved, they can still vote for the status quo, or for a hard Brexit. The ratification referendum proposal, then, allows Labour to speak for Britain, not just one fractious part of it.

But none of this absolves Labour from coming up with its own more detailed negotiating position for the desired end-state. The pressure on Corbyn to do this is coming from more than just the Blairites.

For every week that goes by with Labour simply trying to avoid the specifics, we lose an opportunity to give people vision, hope and certainty. We can’t go into another snap election without Labour outlining a clear negotiating position: it is likely to be the government. The whole experience of May’s evasiveness over what deal she’s after is a cause of growing cynicism – and Labour has to mobilise that to win.

So I propose this year’s Labour party conference prioritises a debate on Britain after Brexit, with a clear, comprehensive choice between positions. My view, since the day of the referendum, is that we have to deliver a progressive replacement for freedom of movement in its current form.

Inward migration will be vital to economic growth in future – and we need to re-establish political consent for it by taking control of it.

Labour should launch a crackdown on agency work, a worker registration scheme, restrictions on the national insurance number system, etc – all designed to deter the recruitment of precarious agency workers from low-wage countries. If you did that, you could effectively keep free movement – except it would be free movement to a real job on a living wage.

At the same time it should pro-actively welcome tens of thousands of people fleeing Syria. And stop deterring foreign students from outside the EU. And stop placing barriers in the way of companies recruiting highly-talented people from outside Europe.

The Remain lobby insist any practical restrictions on migration can be done inside the EU, via changes to the rules here. They are right in theory. However, it would be vulnerable to ECJ judgments like the Viking and Laval cases, which gave UK employers the right to simply import a workforce from eastern Europe on, say, Lithuanian wages and conditions, while the UK unions have no right to insist otherwise.

So it would be better achieved, for now, outside the EU. Britain could try to stay in the single market via joining EFTA (the European Free Trade Association) – but unlike Norway it should immediately invoke a seven-year ’emergency brake’ on free movement to take measures aimed at deterring the exploitative use of migrants’ labour. This would have to be guaranteed as unchallengeable in the courts, and therefore done as a treaty-level deal with the EU27, in advance.

The pressure from the Progress wing of Labour is aimed at pushing Labour into a position that would salve its centrist conscience – but would lose any election.

However, the pressure from ordinary members for a clearer statement of the desired end-state on the customs union, single market and a future migration deal are justified.

Unless public opinion changes massively, Labour will only get a hearing on the doorstep in some towns if it can go on saying: we’re going to respect the referendum result and do Brexit, but in our own way. That was my experience campaigning in three areas where Labour could have won but didn’t (Bolton West, Broxtowe and Plymouth North).

The promise of a referendum to ratify a Labour-negotiated deal would be a bold, unifying offer – putting an end to months of vagueness from Theresa May and, for once, allowing the people to take back control.

This is a clear tactical plan. It allows for unity in action between Remainers, single market/freedom of movement enthusiasts, and those like me who are closer to the Labour leadership’s position – and hopefully will draw in large numbers of Brexit-supporting working class voters who are prepared to give Labour the chance to lead negotiations once Theresa May fails.

Any idea that “reversing the referendum with another one is undemocratic” evaporates once the Tory government falls. It will have tried and failed to enact the will of the people, so a new government will need to ask the people whether a different deal is acceptable or not.


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