Labour’s disappointing deadlock over Brexit

Written By: Martin Gostwick
Published: March 15, 2018 Last modified: March 15, 2018

I could only deduce from its Scottish conference last weekend that Labour remains deadlocked in the whole Brexit farrago because of the immigration issue.

Leader Jeremy Corbyn confirmed to the delegates in Dundee, and a disappointed listening nation, that the party will not commit to keeping Britain in the European Union’s single market and customs union.

This was a severe disappointment, but a crucial one in the leader’s otherwise splendidly positive message. Corbyn said: “A future Labour government cannot be held back … from preventing employers being able to import cheap labour, to undermine existing pay and conditions ….”

This was part of his argument for seeking when in power to establish a customs union for trade, but outside the EU, and at variance with the EU’s fixed, unalterable rule enforcing freedom of movement. It was another way of saying Labour wants to impose more immigration control.

A lot of his argument for leaving the EU is based on claims that it would block a Labour government from carrying out key radical policies such as renationalising the railways, postal services and other industries because of the Commission’s restrictions on public ownership. In fact many EU countries have more extensive public ownership and stronger trade union rights than the UK’s.

No, it is the immigration issue which lies at the core of this tortuous “separate customs union” position, and it is turning reality on its head to blame the EU for the importation of “cheap labour” when it is UK employers who have been at the forefront in Europe of driving down wages and conditions. And implicitly blaming migrants for this plays right into the hands of UKIP-minded Brexiteers.

The tragedy of the Scottish Labour conference was that it overwhelmingly backed Corbyn’s line, and had no real opportunity to state the case for Britain remaining in the EU’s single market and customs union.

It took a fringe meeting for the home truths to come out, and sad to say, it was those arch anti-Corbyn plotters, former leader Kezia Dugdale (pictured) and co-conspirator Ian Murray MP, to drive them home.

Ms Dugdale made the speech of her life, and one that should ring through the ears of every Labour Party member and voter the length and breadth of Britain. She said Labour had “allowed the myths of EU immigration rules to be perpetuated by our own failures to take on these difficult arguments for decades.”

She said: “Our party, a party of internationalism and equality, one that believes in freedom, hope and opportunity, should be one that’s at peace with making the positive case for immigration.

“(It should be) a party that doesn’t just accept, but proactively argues, that our country is culturally deeper and economically richer because of immigration, not despite it. A party that states clearly and unequivocally that your troubles finding a job, getting a house or seeing your doctor are caused by the Tories’ austerity ideology, not your Polish next door neighbour.”

She went on: “Every day we fail to do that is a day in which Nigel Farage and his kin get up smiling. How can it be that our party, by supporting a customs union but not the single market, can be at peace with the free movement of tractors, grain and widgets, but not people?”

Anyone on the broad left, anywhere, could be forgiven for crying out: “Why, in the name of good Socialism, did you not say all this long ago, when you were yourself Labour’s leader in Scotland with a real platform, instead of sounding off, almost too late, at a factional fringe meeting?

But better late than never. There is still time for the broad mass of Labour Party members, including all those elected to the UK’s three Parliaments, on local councils and in trade unions, to press for taking this chance to put a spanner in the Tory government’s Brexit plans.

Jeremy Corbyn has so far bottled it on this, fearing losing a horde of anti-immigrant, Britnat voters in the north of England, if Britain remains tied to the EU on terms of trade. His challenge is to lead a fight against populist falsehoods, and keep as much of a partnership with the EU in place as possible, pending a second referendum on membership..

Ducking that challenge is why, I believe, Labour is still only neck and neck with the Tories in the UK polls, rendering its re-election chances doubtful. Both parties are seen as on the same track, and for many voters they are. Labour’s differences are fiendishly hard to understand, and their implementation is dependent on far from guaranteed electoral success, and on improbable EU acceptance.

The party is also at only about 25 per cent equal with the Tories in Scotland, way behind the SNP’s 39 per cent in voting intentions, giving Richard Leonard, Ms Dugdale’s successor, precious little hope of getting the opportunity to implement all those fine pledges announced in Dundee.

The Scottish electorate remains by a large majority in favour of staying in the EU, and of signing up to membership of the single market and customs union as the “least worst” option to result from an exit

The Scottish Parliament meanwhile is engaged, as is the Welsh assembly, in a great struggle to stop the Westminster Tory government from a “power grab” to itself of some key functions due to be repatriated to Britain on exit from the EU, mainly in the areas of agriculture, animal health and welfare and environmental quality.

Scottish government emergency legislation (the Continuity Bill) is now going through Holyrood, with the support of the opposition parties, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens, for upholding the 1998 devolution settlement’s fundamental principle that all powers not specifically reserved to Westminster automatically belong to the devolved parliaments.

The Westminster power grab of 24 powers not to be devolved is not time limited. It is about London being able to complete trade deals with other countries on a uniform, pan-UK basis, with or without the consent of the devolved parliaments.

Scotland and Wales retain an option of trying to overturn Westminster’s EU Withdrawal Bill when it is presented, if they are still in dispute with the May government on these issues. If we reach that point, many foresee a major constitutional crisis.

The most recent poll shows support for Scottish independence standing at 45 per cent or just over, much the same as in the 2014 referendum, with a higher figure among younger voters. But a majority remain opposed to a second referendum in the next three years.

The Yes vote in 2014 was about a compelling vision of a brighter future. The Brexit debacle casts a dark cloud over that vision which is inescapable. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will review the options regarding a second plebiscite in the autumn.