Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

There is no leftwing case for Brexit

The economic case for a leftwing Brexit is based on nostalgia. Now is not the time to be looking at the past, we must look forward for answers, argues Alison McGovern

There is no doubt that those advocating a ‘leftwing Brexit’ have different values to rightwing Brexiters, particularly on their commitment to workers’ rights and redistribution of wealth. However, they have one thing in common: a sense of nostalgia.

Brexiters look back to look forward. They look back to a time before immigration, globalisation and European integration. Reminiscence and collective memory has long been an important part of our cultural imagination. But it cannot help us out of the Brexit mess we are in now.

Nostalgia is not reliable. It is never really a true representation of the past – things are never really how you remember them. Grounding political arguments in nostalgia creates fantasies. Hence the Brexit unicorns – plans with little basis in reality that are being offered by Brexiters.

For many Lexiters, they too are looking backwards to a description of the European Union, promoted by a section of the Labour party in the 1970s, which saw the common market as a ‘rich man’s club’, or a capitalist conspiracy. But nowhere is austerity enshrined in EU rules. It is clearly a political choice. If a British government wants to spend more on public services, they can. And that is why we need a Labour government.

Public spending as a proportion of gross domestic product varies widely within the EU itself. The United Kingdom’s public expenditure is about 40 per cent of GDP. Ireland’s is about 30 per cent, Germany around 44 per cent and Denmark, France and Norway about 50 per cent. The common monetary policy, interest rates and conditions on a country’s budget deficit that make prescriptions on members of the Eurozone do not affect the UK. And needless to say, it will not in the future.

State aid rules can change how an industrial strategy is pursued to support the economy, but they do not stop a government taking action. Many EU governments do far more to support their industries than the UK does. The UK spends just 0.35 per cent of GDP on state aid, compared to 1.22 per cent in Germany and 0.62 per cent in France. With a government pursuing the right policies for our infrastructure, there would clearly be scope for more state aid in the UK.

The existence of the EU does not prevent a nationalisation programme. The treaty on the functioning of the EU explicitly protects the right for member states to take ownership of property: ‘The treaties shall in no way prejudice the rules in member states governing the system of property ownership’. If we want to nationalise our railways or our energy markets, we can. Just as we brought Network Rail ‘in house’ after the disastrous failure of Railtrack.

And there are the progressive reasons for transnational governance, such as technology giants, who are clearly not contributing enough to tax revenues, reaping eye-watering profits in the process. Their business model is global so the most effective response will be transnational as well. The EU is already taking action. Last year, Ireland recovered €13bn in back taxes from Apple. Sure, Europe needs to act quicker on these issues but stating that the EU is solely ‘project capitalism’ does not hold up to scrutiny.

To those that say freedom of movement pushes wages down, I say we should focus on bringing people out of poverty pay by enforcing a proper living wage, encouraging wider trade union membership and better rights at work. Telling UK workers that migrants can replace them as ‘cheap labour’ may be a threat that works in the interest of unscrupulous employers, but it does not have to reflect reality. In September 2018, the migration advisory committee found that immigration from the European Economic Area only had a small impact on overall employment opportunities and aggregate wages. By contrast, the fall in wages that we have experienced since the 2008 financial crash have hit harder. Real wages for all groups are still around six per cent below their pre-recession levels, according to last year’s figures from the Office for National Statistics. We need our economy to grow so that wages grow too. And once the economy is growing, more jobs will be created. It is a misconception of anti-immigration arguments by both Brexiters and Lexiters that the number of jobs in an economy is fixed. It is not.

Furthermore, ending freedom of movement would have a very tangible impact on the National Health Service. The very threat of it already has. A total of 3,962 nursing staff from the EEA left the Nursing and Midwifery Council register between 2017 and 2018. This is a 28 per cent increase on the numbers who left in 2016–17 and three times higher than those that left in 2013–14. At the same time, the number of EU nurses and midwives coming to work in the UK has fallen to its lowest level. Just 805 of them joined the NMC register in 2017–18. Clearly, Brexit is further embedding the chronic staffing issues in the NHS and we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to this for the sake of our ageing population.

Brexiters, on both the left and the right, argue the economic impact of Brexit is overstated. Of course, the economy may bounce back in time – but short-term disruption has long-term consequences. Just ask anyone from a town where the main employer shut down. You do not even have to look backwards. The economics of Brexit are already hitting people. Many of my constituents’ jobs are already at risk. Workers at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port are facing hundreds of potential job losses, following warnings from Vauxhall’s owner Carlos Tavares that the threat a no-deal Brexit could have major consequences for UK plants.

The economic arguments against Brexit are overwhelming. Members of parliament advocating a final say for the public are very frequently criticised for ‘doing Britain down’, for ‘writing off our country’ and being ‘anti-British’. Resorting to this emotional argument is characteristic of the nostalgic discourse that permeates both left and rightwing arguments in favour of leaving the EU. As I said in the House of Commons last month, I do not need lectures on patriotism, on how to love my country and nor do any of my colleagues. All MPs were elected in 2017 with a mandate to make decisions on our country’s behalf. Whether my colleagues want the public to have a final say, a compromise deal of some description or to leave the European Union, I believe they do so with a pride in Britain.

With that in mind, we have to look at the world as it is now and as it will be, not as it was, in order to make the political decisions needed to improve Britain’s future. Approaching the world from this perspective does not mean that we deny the difficult challenges. We only have to look to the the United States to our west and Russia to our east to know what a precarious world we are living in. Closer to home all MPs know the reality of universal credit, rising poverty and food banks. Brexiting will not fix these issues. As a Labour MP fighting constantly against the Tories’ destructive and hurtful policies, I know it extends far beyond that. Tackling the world’s challenges falls to our political will, not the questions of political union.


Alison McGovern is chair of Progress


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Alison McGovern MP

is chair of Progress

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