Promising the past: why Corbyn needs a new policy on Europe

Corbyn during his first leadership campaign

Analysis by Christopher Silver

At a certain point, Brexit will have to be implemented. However, its unprecedented nature makes any clear reckoning of the outcome impossible.

Brexit is an eye-wateringly complex bureaucratic endeavour. Now that the gears of departure are in motion, they cannot be interfered with in order to serve any expedient political agenda.

Christopher Silver

This combination of political reality and the scale of the task suggests that some form of interim deal, stretching into the 2020s, will be the most feasible result. Yet still, a day will have to come about when the process grinds to its conclusion.

Running alongside this trundling machinery tasked with disentangling four decades’ worth of integration, politicians in the UK now have to shout above the din to get a hearing. They’re already tiring of it.

This is because their task is essentially impossible: they must offer clarity and vision at a moment when the future is entirely obscured by an unknowable event, at an unspecified time, with no fixed prospectus.

Thus behind every affirmation of new freedoms, now trumpeted in unison by the two possible parties of government, there sits an encyclopaedia of caveats, exemptions and opt-outs.

Freedom from complexity  

But still Labour and Conservative politicians pledge fidelity to the pillars of hard-Brexit for simplicity’s sake: control over borders, sovereignty over laws, liberation from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and an end to contributions to the EU budget.

These four gleaming prizes may well be what 52% of the people demanded in June 2016 (the chaos of the leave campaign means that we will never know for sure). Yet far from being simple, implementing each policy is fraught with enormous complexity. As a result, British politics has become locked into stasis. It must deliver what the people have asked for, knowing full well that doing so will prolong the deepest political crisis it has known since the war.

Itching for a hard Brexit

The crisis is premised on the great discontent that has plagued the European project for some time and has now become hegemonic in the UK. It asks for a simpler form of freedom: a freedom that could be enjoyed in a less complex world at an earlier time.

In the UK and the US, it essentially boils down to a desire for the comfort associated with the years before British and American capital ceded their manufacturing primacy to Germany and East Asia.

At such a moment in history, the border could easily be imagined as a one-way street for high value exports, reciprocal arrangements on laws and judicial oversight were marginal concerns, while the destination of the breadwinner’s honestly paid taxes could be easily understood.

Today, an array of complexities crowd this picture and many voters want to simply tear them up. It is left to the politicians to consider what a return to simpler times will actually mean.

Wholesale importation 

The outlook does not look comforting. The tech industry in the UK is currently at a loss to identify how its life blood – cross border data-flows – will be sustained outside ECJ jurisdiction. Border controls mean an end to the free flow of goods, which in turn means dislocating countless supply chains that see items cross borders multiple times before a finished “British” product goes to market. Large chunks of Britain’s services sector – by far the most valuable element of the country’s trade with Europe – will collapse if laws and regulatory regimes diverge.

Access to a bigger market always costs money for a smaller entity. However, British nationalist pedantry has a point to prove, and so economic vandalism seems preferable to a refusal to accept this basic facts of geography.

Inevitably, it will be those with least who will pay the highest price. Corbyn’s claim that he would leave the Single Market in order to prevent, “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions,” is a cold and illogical basis for claiming the opposite.

Despite the range of ideological choice that Westminster now offers, all of Britain’s politicians have become trapped into promising the past. It is a past that cannot be delivered, but that can be gestured to with nudges, winks and certain familiar tropes.

Corbyn’s remarks are at least an improvement on Keir Hardie’s, who claimed the only reasons he could fathom for “the introduction of a number of Russian Poles” to a North Ayrshire ironworks was “to teach men how to live on garlic and oil, or introduce the Black Death, so as to get rid of the surplus labourers.”

There is nothing new about anti-immigrant rhetoric from Labour politicians. Accusations of disease and foreign customs aside, the most obvious reality about migrants is that they can’t vote.

An unnecessary link   

Even if it was a fumbling attempt at triangulation, what remains deeply confusing about Corbyn’s position is the apparent need to link Single Market Access and the Four Freedoms to poor conditions in the first place.

In the OECD’s employment protection index, the UK lags behind every other European country, just ahead of Canada and the United States. On regulation on temporary forms of employment it is ranked the second lowest.

Add to this picture the IFS forecast of a squeeze on wages unprecedented since the Napoleonic wars and the true status of low pay, low regulation Britain starts to emerge.

Standards imposed at home on wages and the regulation of employment agencies are critical, not the “open door” offered by a common market with Europe. I

Labour policies, such as raising the minimum wage and clamping down on the “gig economy” ought to be far more effective at tackling the problem, even before considering the inevitable rise in illegal immigration that stricter regimes always bring.

Across the spectrum there is a willingness, in this era of populist surges, to bite the chauvinist bullet and the Labour leadership is not immune from this urge. Unpredictable election results have left politicians of all stripes desperate to be seen to stand against elites: political success becomes dependent on just the right amount of awfulness to allow the just to win through.

The universal migrant  

The people may believe that low-paid foreign workers are the source of their ills and will legitimately smart at the sight of exploitative employers taking advantage of freedom of movement to circumvent local labour markets. But this does not address the basic cause of economic migration, a matter so eloquently described by Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath:

“The causes lie deep and simply — the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times; a hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times.”

The author’s statement of the universal condition of the economic migrant under capitalism expresses why the left’s fidelity to the dispossessed and the destitute must not be stopped at a border.

For the author, charting a moment of political extremism, economic crisis and mass migration not unlike our own, a failure to stand alongside the economic migrant is just the first step in forgoing the entire universal struggle for solidarity.

This is because the migrant is not some aberration in the system, as we are led to believe.  The migrant is an integral product of a system that commodifies labour. The outsourcing of labour, or the importation of cheaper alternatives, is inevitable in any scenario in which further automation or innovation is unattainable.

Corbyn’s party knows that innovation is the way out of the problem, not British wage-slaving for British workers. Yet the Brexit machine, with its sound and fury, means that the old assumptions about migrant labour will not be challenged.

Freedom of movement is an immense privilege; it is one of the crowning achievements of post-war Europe. End it and British workers, pensioners and students will all be deprived of a string of entitlements once taken for granted. The narrowing of that horizon will be seen as yet another example of older generations wilfully snatching the freedoms they enjoyed from the young.

The project of the left should be the expansion of such really existing freedoms, not their curtailment in order to take a contentious stand on the side of the native worker.

Where is the vision? 

Labour needs to be honest about the fact that Brexit is a process of undoing, not building. When the day itself comes it will be experienced as a social, not just an economic, loss.

Today Corbyn’s “imported” construction worker is also a European citizen. Despite a tireless campaign by the right-wing press to strip them away, that worker remains free to enjoy many of the associated rights and privileges afforded to a local worker.

More worryingly, many politicians seem oblivious to the most basic and fateful realities of Brexit. Consider the task of taking all those different connections – friendships, marriages, families, colleagues, neighbours – and separating them out into a post-Brexit, post-connected regime in which the foreign worker is a mere surplus commodity, to be turned back from the land of plenty.

Labour’s performance in the General Election is widely understood to have been boosted by two key factors: a visionary manifesto, and grassroots mobilisation.

Allowing Europe to cripple their own effectiveness as an opposition, when they could be changing the terms of the debate, would be a monumental waste of hard-won political capital. In place of hard-Brexit homilies, they need a plan proclaimed with a loud, hopeful and boisterous rhetoric on the future of the continent, that can be heard above the din.

To be a migrant is to be many things: a threat, the lowest cog in a machine, a hidden presence, a challenge to the old ways. But in this era of complex change, being a migrant, imported wholesale and homeless, is an increasingly common part of the human condition.

But to be a migrant is also to hope for a better future. At the end of the day, the only certain way to stop further arrivals in the UK is to pursue the current course: by diving headlong into the politics of the past.


  1. Your premise fails way back at the first sentence.
    “At a certain point, Brexit will have to be implemented.”
    I’d rather hold my head in my hands and hope the bad people just go away. No, sorry, I’ll correct that. I’d rather kick and scream against the unthinking eejits who’ve thrust this on us.

  2. Corbyn’s politics should be of little concern to us. Like May he is a confessed British Unionist politician. Scotland’s interests now lie elsewhere. Detaching ourselves intellectually and psychologically from BritState and its anglocentric worldview should be our aim. We need to readjust our perspective regarding the old imperialist conceit that the world revolves around it and its polity; now seen by many observers as delusional. Given Scotland’s perceived marginal status in the increasingly marginalised UK, a case of pleasurable tit for tat.

  3. “At a certain point, Brexit will have to be implemented”
    I disagree with this assertion, actually. Scotland voted resoundingly against leaving the EU. The percentage of the vote in Scotland to remain in the EU was higher than the percentage of both England and Wales to leave the EU. The percentage of the vote in Scotland to remain in the EU was higher than the percentage of the vote that sentenced Scotland to remain inside the UK in September 2014, so if a 55% was enough to keep Scotland in the UK, then a 62% surely should be more than enough to keep Scotland in the EU.

    The UK is a union of 4 nations. 2 of those nations voted to leave the EU but the other 2 voted to remain in the EU. We were told on the run to the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014 that Scotland was an equal partner in the UK. Not a region of England, not a colony of England, but an equal partner in the UK. Well then, it is now the time to honour that, but I do not see any interest whatsoever to do so by any of those in Labour. If Scotland is an equal partner in the UK, as we were told by the unionist campaign back in 2014 leaded by labour politicians of the stature of Darling and Brown, then the UK government cannot simply expect to get away with overruling democracy in one country to uphold democracy in another, because that goes totally against he principle of equal partnership over which the Unionist based their campaign back in 2014 and will demolish any concept that the UK ‘is a political union’.

    Brexit should therefore in my view never be implemented, at least not in Scotland, because doing so is going against the very principle of democracy for Scotland (and of course NI) in the UK. Forcing Brexit over Scotland is telling the people of Scotland loud and clear that their vote count less than that of England, that the Claim of Right is worthless and that for as long as Scotland remains in the UK, its people will never be able to decide how their country should be governed and their resources managed, because the electorate of England together with their self-serving political representatives will do that for us we like it or not. For the unionists to force Brexit and remove the Scottish people’s EU citizen rights against their expressed democratic will is defaulting in the very principle the Unionists used as the foundations of their 2014 campaign: that of Scotland being an equal partner in the union. So Brexit, one way or another, will destroy the union as we know it.

    I must admit I do not longer have interest in what Corbyn has to say. I used to have a lot of respect for the man, but that sentiment started to evaporate the day he changed his public political stance with regards to Trident: to me that was putting internal party pressures before principles (and before what the people of Scotland actually want and their democratic institution, the Scottish parliament, voted for). His stance against Scotland’s independence and his determination to drag Scotland out of the EU and Single Market against Scotland’s expressed democratic will with the risk of inflicting serious economic, social and politic damage on Scotland for the sake of England has accelerated the evaporation of that sentiment.

    I would rather the author focused on politicians that actually care for Scotland and its people, rather than self-serving political figures that see Scotland simply as a source of nice revenues to help patching up the debt generated by successive UK govs and of course a few more seats in Westminster that could help the favourite English MP of the day to get the key for n10.

  4. Sturgeon has put clear objectives since the beginning.
    It doesn’t matter what Corbyn offers, good or bad, the Tories will always be back. He has no solution to that, along with all the other issues.

  5. I agree with Maria F.

    The assumption that Brexit will need to be implemented is just that, an assumption.

    To base an entire article on that entirely dodgy premise, does the author no favours. It is entirely possible that, once the terms become public knowledge, that there will be another General Election to either endorse or reject the terms and conditions.

    Corbyn, unsurprisingly for a man who has sat in the House of Commons as long as he has, can see no wrong in UK democracy. He is about as radical as a wet fish.


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