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

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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.