Brexit reveals the Labour leader’s longstanding worldview as a paradox of open borders and a closed shop economy, writes Richard Carr
We live in uneasy political times. If Whitehall might be ‘muddled’ on Brexit, Labour is currently mystifying on the issue. This largely emanates from the fact that Jeremy Corbyn has been handsomely re-elected as Labour leader while holding opinions on the European Union that are opaque at best, and downright unhelpful at worst. For all the government needs to be held to account, for those of us on the left it is arguably here that we need greater understanding. We cannot have a solid foundation for critiquing Theresa May, after all, without understanding the quicksand on which the Labour leadership operates. With the bungled relaunch of both his views on freedom of movement on 10 January in mind, we need to go back to first principles for some clarity.
At its heart, the Corbynite view of the world begins from the interconnected assumptions that capitalism is essentially a negative phenomenon, and that its victims should not be punished for its excesses. The post-Brexit news cycle may blow Corbyn this way and that, but this is the starting point. Yet because this view of the free market – formed in the 1970s – and its losers is so all encompassing – constituting more or less anyone below the global top one per cent – this leaves Corbyn, and by extension the current Labour party, down some unhelpful and contradictory avenues. An incoherent media operation is just the tip of this iceberg.
Much of this can be traced back decades. For one, since the Corbynites and their predecessors see capitalism in transnational terms as having produced economic losers from Berlin to Bangkok, the very concept of national borders has always been innately troubling to the hard-left. Their view is global rather than European. Why, after all, discriminate on matters of cartography when the evil of globalised free markets affects all of mankind? In this line of thinking, since Nike owes no allegiance to any particular nation, why should the political left?
This argument takes various linguistic forms. Some argue that we should ‘fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance.’ Others believe that ‘inevitably in this century we will have open borders’ and the whole idea of a formal state, as it exists today, will become ‘irrelevant.’ The fact that the latter quote comes from John McDonnell in 2016, and the former from Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator in 1940, only serves to illustrate both the length and fantastical utopianism of this position. Whatever its theoretical merits, such universalism makes the tough, pragmatic calls needed to hold high political office rather difficult. Unlike the 10 January relaunch, Corbyn is ideologically ‘wedded to freedom of movement,’ and on a global scale.
On its own a blanket open borders position could at least be logically consistent, even if it is a tough sell to the voting public. What truly sinks the Corbynite worldview is when this sympathy towards open borders is married to the belief that free trade is innately suspicious. ‘Give us your huddled masses, just not your goods and services’ is essentially where the leadership would like to take the party to.
Europe forms a concrete testing point for some long worked up theories. While there has been an occasional fresh lick of paint (‘socialism with an iPad’), this anti-market agenda has been cryogenically frozen in its fundamentals since the Michael Foot-Tony Benn era. Indeed, for many on the hard-left, there has always been an anti-Bilderberg mentality which sees international capitalism as innately conspiratorial. Just as the so-called ‘bankers’ ramp’ had forced Labour from office in 1931, for the Bennites in the seventies and eighties a European-wide nexus of financiers would soon serve to threaten British democracy itself. Resisting capitalists’ attempts to hoard power away from the masses thus become a transnational struggle as the twentieth century progressed. Grey suited bureaucrats in Brussels and Strasbourg assumed the same status as their pin-stripped equivalents on Wall Street or in Frankfurt. Yet whereas Benn and Foot were intellectual titans who had at least had the tempering experience of cabinet office, the current leadership is held back by no such considerations.
In its fundamentals this is a negative rather than a positive vision, and emerges from a gloomy view of British competitiveness. In 1975, during the debate on Britain remaining in the common market, Benn continually made the point that a free trade area would see British industry move en masse to the German Ruhr – thus undermining our tax take, and eventually necessitate spending cuts on public services. In such logic, Britain could not compete with the German economic miracle, and the only recourse was to raise barriers against it. In this view of the world, the welfare state could simply not survive the European Economic Community.
After common market membership was approved by the electorate, the ‘alternative economic strategy’ of import controls, permanent ownership of the banks and the imposition of capital controls began to take shape. Only this type of siege economy, it was felt, could save Britain from globalised capitalism. Foot’s commitment in 1983 to take Britain out of the EEC was the natural endgame for this agenda. By this stage Labour was then, as now, a long way from actual power. With Margaret Thatcher laying the groundwork in the mid-1980s for what became the single market, such prejudices were more or less confirmed – as Neil Kinnock fought valiantly to disavow the backbenches of such views. That Corbyn is now trying to save the single market, including the preservation of freedom of movement, remains an odd position given his background.
Brandishing his Bennite credentials, it was therefore easy for Corbyn to tell the House of Commons in 1993 that the creation of a European Central Bank would undermine ‘any social objective that any Labour Government in the United Kingdom…would wish to carry out.’ More broadly, early 1990s Corbyn then believed that ‘the imposition of a bankers’ Europe on the people of this continent will endanger the cause of socialism in the United Kingdom.’ This was a profoundly cynical position on a number of levels. After all, this was just four years before a Labour government came in ratifying the social chapter on worker’s rights, delivered on Labour’s historic call for a national minimum wage, and funneled record levels of investment into the public services. Genuine achievements which benefitted the lives of millions carved out in the compromises of high office. One of the chief blots on the copybook of the current leadership is the sheer inability to defend that platform.
Wrong, and out of touch
Above and beyond its tendency towards drawing the world in simplistic black and white terms – open borders for people good, open borders for trade bad – the basic Corbyn worldview is faulty on three levels.
Firstly, it is not entirely clear it makes sense on its own terms. After all, if the goal is to dismantle the transnational ills of capitalism then, whatever the skill of planners in Whitehall, this cannot be done alone. From his proposed financial transaction tax to cracking down on tax havens, much of the money needed to pay for Corbyn’s economic agenda will emerge from policies which would benefit from multilateral co-operation. A meaningful slice of Corbynomics are things that can be done at a multilateral level with politicians of the European centre, or indeed right. Corbyn seems ill-suited to such compromises (or they unravel under scrutiny) and thus, once again, it is not just the policy platform but faith in the man trying to deliver it that has its problems.
Secondly, if a new corporatism is indeed the goal – as one could read into some of the leadership’s statements – then Corbyn will need both business and the trade unions onside. Unite has argued that any Brexit must include ‘unrestricted access to the single market with zero tariffs and commitments to retaining and extending employment rights.’ They are joined (on the trade side) in such emphasis by groups from manufacturing body the EEF to the Confederation of British Industry. And for all the January muddying of the waters, Corbyn continues to prioritise single market membership with the concurrent lack of restricting migration that brings. Again, this may or may not be a reasonable position, but for an avowed anti-global markets politician, it is one that emerges from a politics with a long record of rejecting such pragmatism. To trust politicians on the trade off between freedom of movement and access to free markets, you have to trust the politicians in the first place. A free-trade, growing economy which experiences historically high migration is one thing, but requires effective governance. If Corbyn is not trusted to deliver the former then no one will believe him on the latter.
Thirdly, and most importantly, if forced to choose, the British public would likely plump for the opposite of the hard-left’s core worldview: greater control over the borders and an openness to free trade. Albeit with massive sleight of hand, this was the platform the ‘Leave’ campaign successfully put forward ahead of the June referendum. And crucially the dimensions here are both economic and cultural. From the economic point of view, the dampening effect of EU migration on unskilled wages may be limited, but it exists. For the low paid, rises in the national minimum wage may be welcome, but they can too often serve as a de facto maximum wage as certain employers peg wages to the Low Pay Commission’s view and, arguably but not proven, sense that migration has too rapidly increased the supply of labour. In any case, the issue often goes beyond pay and into working conditions. As James Bloodworth has chronicled, the insecurities generated by ’70 eastern Europeans waiting for your job’ are hard to quantify, but cannot be defeated by spreadsheets of pro-EU data alone. This is a question of wider trustworthiness over wonkish detail.
All this is not about money anyway. Culturally, few would dispute the need for a tolerant Britain – and our country should be proud of its record in this regard. As such, the recent rise in hate crime since the EU referendum can and must be called out. Extremists who think 52 per cent of the country have legitimised everything they stand for need tackling head on – including by more moderate Leavers. But there is a caveat here. The liberal left’s praise of diversity automatically enriching the nation has always been something of a rhetorical trade-off. If ‘they’ are ‘enriching’ the country then ‘you’ must have been holding it back. In some leftwing discourse it can appear as if Britain was a nation of backward little Englanders until post-war immigration made everything instantly better. Labour have always been in a quandary here, but for the hard-left this has historically meant cultivating a decisively odd rainbow coalition of economic and religious radicals. Whatever the solution to all this is, harping on about ending national borders is not it, nor is welcoming Hamas as ‘friends.’
There is certainly room for reform here. A more nuanced take on immigration does not go against Labour’s history, only a certain reading of it. Indeed, the party has always been pragmatic on the issue. In 1964 Labour’s manifesto accepted that ‘the number of immigrants entering the United Kingdom must be limited.’ It declared that ‘until a satisfactory agreement covering this can be negotiated with the Commonwealth, a Labour government will retain [previous Conservative] immigration control.’ Indeed, in his two spells as prime minister, Harold Wilson would never preside over a year where immigration to the UK exceeded emigration from it. Later, even New Labour’s 1997 manifesto noted that ‘every country must have firm control over immigration and Britain is no exception.’ In the late 1940s this general party line was relaxed to plug gaps in the health and transport services, and in the early 2000s to furnish a steadily growing economy, but these were pragmatic decisions taken by Labour governments to address particular issues, not a commitment for time immemorial. As such, the recent backing of Stephen Kinnock and Emma Reynolds for a two-tiered EU migration system has more to commend it to the Labour tradition than the starting point of open borders of the hard-left.
In summation, we have a British population that broadly likes global capitalism but views the pace of immigration as too fast. This is currently being met by a leadership team generally sceptical of the free market and which views open borders as a necessary corrective for its ills. The Corbynites are thereby theoretically on the wrong side of both arguments – and even when they try to shift position this unravels within 24 hours. Whereas Vince Cable has recently called the ‘argument for free movement’ a ‘tactical’ one – ‘part of a package that also contains the wider economic benefits of the single market’ – Corbyn has never even bought into the positive side of that trade-off. At present, Labour is all at sea on the issue.
For ‘Remainers’, the benefits of EU membership outweighed the pitfalls and there would still be an argument to remain in a genuinely reformed EU. Certainly, pro-EU wonks should be working up a game-changing list of reforms to reverse Brexit if it appears to be heading towards the worst expectations of it. In this light Tony Blair’s recent manoeuvres should provide a focal point for such behind the scenes activity. However, since Corbyn saw the EU as always no better than ‘seven, or seven and a half out of 10’ even pre-referendum, such dexterity seems unlikely whatever the march of events. If we are leaving, we should at least seek to the maximise the advantages – electoral and in terms of policy – of doing so.
The first step necessitates new thinking on immigration. Given the prime minister has signaled she will prioritise its cutting over and above single market membership, it should indeed fall from April 2019. Part of this emanates from May’s home office background, but mostly the issue is tactical – gaining greater control over the borders at least attempts to square previous Conservative presentational problems on reducing net migration to the tens of thousands; and it is something the UK can do unilaterally with greater ease than economic negotiations with 27 other states. Whether people ‘feel’ this change in the year prior to any election, and in what ways, will depend on a likely compliant press. Thus far, Corbyn’s re-think on managed migration has involved tinkering at the edges on issues to do with exploitation and advertising jobs abroad. More will be needed. There will certainly be few votes for Labour in being the party of open borders.
To regain power, Labour needs some counter-intuitive thinking that appeals to both sides of the debate. As a first step, Labour should demand the enforcement of already existing conditionalities regarding freedom of movement. For one, European Council Directive 2004/38 states that should they wish to stay more than three months in another member state then ‘EU citizens and their family members – if not working – must have sufficient resources and sickness insurance to ensure that they do not become a burden on the social services of the host member state.’ ‘Public policy, public security and public health’ all serve as grounds by which such individuals may be removed from an EU state, as does the failure to seek employment. This is stuff Labour signed up to when in power. Either the present government has not resourced the relevant agencies to remove those not fulfilling this criteria, or they do not exist, but highlighting this at least sends out a concrete signal that any future Labour government would not be about blanket open borders, and prioritises competence over ideology. Aside from reversing home office cuts, further resourcing local authorities to enforce these regulations (as, de facto, they do in other EU nations like Belgium) should be a part of Labour’s evolving devolution agenda.
Secondly, from the opposite side of the argument, Labour should not pander to reckless policy. With caps being lifted on university course numbers, it makes no sense for the government to be flagging up intended cuts in the volume of foreign students. Such individuals, who mostly only stay for a few years and make a significant contribution in directly subsidising their UK equivalents, are of both short term economic and long term strategic benefit to the nation. You do not solve concerns regarding public service pressures in Clacton by stopping students studying in Manchester. Again, Labour has to look like the non-ideological force in all of this. The visa model forwarded by British Future – a ‘global talent’ route, the reciprocal free movement for skilled EU workers and students, and preferential sector based quotas for low and semi-skilled EU workers – seems a sensible starting point.
Thirdly, to address working class concerns regarding globalisation, Corbyn has to put skills at the heart of his agenda. Rather than harp about a ‘Bankers Brexit’ or maximum salary caps, the leadership has to turn back to supply-side socialism and make clear it is serious about equipping people with the skills to weather the global storm. This cannot just be about state managed expenditure. It must involve the Federation of Small Business, CBI and, since multinationals are clearly a part of this, they should be brought into Labour’s discussion on skills too.
Labour must therefore reject Bennite views on international trade and open borders, and focus on a social democratic future. Managed markets and borders that give fair returns to working people and provide the needed labour force for business is the way forward. Anything short will not suffice. In electoral terms, if the economy is a draw and the Tories own migration, we are in for a rightwing landslide across much of England.
The Labour leadership must therefore be at the intelligent centre of this debate for reasons of both pragmatism and principle. Recent Fabian analysis shows that at the next election ‘Labour is equally vulnerable to losing support to another liberal-minded, pro-European party; and to the socially conservative, Eurosceptic parties.’ This suggests that ‘Labour has no choice but to reach out to people in both camps.’ In varying manners both of these will take the leader out of his historic comfort zone, but if Labour is to avoid catastrophe, better late than never. He needs to go further, and he needs to go faster.
Richard Carr is senior lecturer in the Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin university and author of a new political biography of Charlie Chaplin. He tweets at @Richard_Carr
Photo: Richard Gardner
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.