Opposing Hard Brexit is not issue-number-one for Labour, but we still need coherence
In the June 2017 General Election Jeremy Corbyn was completely correct to emphasise the bread-and-butter issues that impact directly on working people’s lives: eternal austerity, mushrooming inequality, the running down of public services in health education and transport, and the unaffordability of housing - ideas encapsulated in the slogan “For the Many Not the Few.” The Liberal Democrats highlighted opposition to Brexit and flopped.
The reason is clear. The vast majority of British voters are not affected directly by Brexit. Most do not live or work in the EU27, nor did they ever plan to do so. Few have family members with other EU passports.The loss of European political rights is prioritised only by politically conscious progressives; and the negative economic impact of Brexit for most people is indistinguishable from the other failings of British capitalism.
But, because Brexit is not issue-number-one, that can’t justify Labour’s obscurantism. There seem to me to be three possible reasons (none of them good) why Jeremy lines up by default behind the Tory Brexiteers and doesn’t clearly call for retaining membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union. Remaining in these institutions would remove the economic cost of withdrawal from the EU and keep Freedom of Movement. What are Corbyn’s not-very-good reasons?
First, by not saying anything coherent, Labour keeps the focus on the Tory Government. Brexit is likely to be a disaster, mainly economic, leading to division within, and opposition to, the Tories. Labour, it could be argued, will benefit in the 2022 election.
Second, Hard Brexit will remove any legal restrictions on Britain. A future majority Labour Government could then start implementing ‘socialism in one country.’
Third, that minority of Labour voters, and potential voters, who are ardent Leave supporters, would be so incensed by retaining freedom of movement that they would be able to prevent the election of a Labour Government.
For me none of these arguments adds up, nor do they justify Labour’s muddled messages on Brexit and on freedom of movement in particular.
As things are going at present, from the end of March 2019 Freedom of Movement will exist from Donegal to Athens, from the Arctic Circle to Sicily and from Tallinn to Lisbon, with just the UK excluded. Britons will be locked in - lacking the right to retire to Spain, study in Berlin or work in Paris. The Polish plumber in London may be able to stay with “settled status” as a second class citizen, but his younger brother can’t come to work with him. No socialist should be muddled about opposing such a state of affairs.
Postscript: At the end of August 2017, the Labour leadership let it be known that now Labour would support continued membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union for at least between two and four years after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019. The issue of permanent membership would be left open. On the desirability of freedom of movement, Labour's message remains muddled.