The alternative to Labour’s policy manoeuvre on Brexit is to develop the policies of rupturing with austerity, racism and war, says KEVIN OVENDEN
The great lesson of the last year in British politics and of the general election is that it is an anti-conventional and radical politics that can advance the left.
Labour under Jeremy Corbyn stands out uniquely compared with other European centre-left parties in its electoral gains.
No amount of fashionable talking up of the minority government in Portugal, which was granted a brief respite from EU austerity thanks to last year’s Brexit vote in Britain, alters that.
It is telling that there is a sudden enthusiasm for the centre-left government of Lisbon from quarters which only two years ago had transferred their interests to Podemos.
The radical left force in opposition to Spanish social democracy was meant to break the mould, bringing a new politics beyond desiccated social democracy.
Before that, of course, was euphoria at the victory of Syriza in the Greek general election of January 2015.
The contrast between Corbyn-Labour and those and the rest of the European centre-left is set to be highlighted further in the next month with the performance of the SPD in the German general election.
A centrist renosing of its profile six months ago saw only a brief bounce. Now it is back in the doldrums, seeping blue-collar working-class support as the party remains stuck in a conventional rut.
That is the great danger of Labour’s new policy trailed last weekend of embracing the single market and customs union in a long transitional arrangement with the EU.
It is a victory for those who want the party, leading in the polls, now to settle down as a conventional party of opposition.
The Brexit policy could not be more conventional. It is the one championed by the Treasury, the City of London and the Bank of England.
It will doubtless be welcomed by some on the left — probably with the argument that it can be a basis for defending the rights of EU migrants. But those can be fought for and won on their own terms. And in actually shifting public opinion decisively against xenophobia and racism, there is no substitute for winning these arguments from the bottom up and on a class basis.
In any case, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer says the new position is to seek a special deal in the EU on limiting migration within a single market designed to protect the freedom of capital.
Far from being a move towards the internationalist left, this looks very much like the position advocated by George Osborne and Peter Mandelson. It was in broad parameters the position adopted by David Cameron in his renegotiation with the EU.
It is likely to be explained as pragmatic, in two senses. First, as appealing to the part of Labour’s base which voted Remain; second, as a smart move to defang the internal opposition cohered around Chuka Umunna, who has bet the house on agitating hourly for the Blair-Mandelson pro-EU line.
We were not short two years ago of voices whose response to Corbyn’s first leadership victory was immediately to argue for programmatic adaptation and institutional compromise on a range of fronts: from Trident, through Nato and defence policy, to toning down calls for bank nationalisation.
With Labour polling consistently over 40 per cent after an election campaign that spurned such triangulation, there are now more powerful forces at work.
The British Establishment believed its own echo chamber in the run-up to June 8. One result was that senior civil servants, who are constitutionally bound to make contact with a potential incoming government, did not do so until very late in the day and largely cursorily.
They could not conceive of Labour being anywhere near winning the election.
That will now have changed. The Tory government is incredibly weak and its crises over Brexit and the implications of the DUP deal are only just beginning.
It wants to avoid an election at all costs. But for the British state and Establishment they must prepare and plan for the accidental fall of the government at any moment.
Corbyn’s tour of marginals is putting the electoral side of this potential for a change of government. The Civil Service and British state must put the governmental and administrative side — geared to continuity.
That will mean far more intensive contact and intervention with Labour frontbenchers who could become ministers of state in short order.
The biggest headache for the British state and big business is Brexit.
The pressure for Labour to adopt a centrist, pro-business position is not only about internal party management or electoral considerations.
Indeed, the election brought defeat or setback for the fanatically pro-Remain campaigns of the Lib Dems, SNP and Greens.
The position Labour had on Brexit before last weekend was unifying and electorally successful.
The big pressure now is through the mechanisms that come into play for “a government in waiting.”
It is no surprise that we see this in not just the Brexit department (now sprawling across Whitehall), but already in defence. Look at the shadow defence secretary’s interventions on Trident and Nato.
This is all reminiscent of Syriza in the period before the January 2015 election in Greece.
It was in exactly these areas — Europe, defence, foreign affairs — that the deradicalisation of that party was most pronounced.
Many well-intentioned people dismissed all that as merely an electoral gambit to deal with anti-left propaganda, then into government and on to delivering a radical policy — centred on the Thessaloniki programme of domestic economic reform and redistribution.
The argument was that these other concessions were either a price worth paying or would be swept aside by the logic of events as Syriza moved to end austerity.
But that is not what happened. The embrace in other areas of the conventional positions of the Greek state and capitalist class became a lever directly against the limited breach with austerity, the promise of which had secured the votes of working-class Greece.
As with the situation in Britain now, the centre-right government of Greece in 2014 was so weak and its economic policy so incoherent that there was room for Syriza to present itself as the only real “national party,” capable of solving matters both for the working class and for big business.
But in the course of doing so and preparing for government the inflow of this governmental and conventional logic swept back the insurgent radicalism that had enabled Syriza to break the old party system.
We know what the result has been.
Recalling it is not to cry treason or predict doom and gloom in Britain in advance.
All sorts of questions are open. The Tory government will face further crises over Brexit. Those will demand choices by Labour that this new policy around the transition period merely defers.
But it is to recognise that there is a deep connection between this kind of policy triangulation today and the political logic down the line — over the central issues, over defeat and victory.
The other side of this Brexit policy is Labour’s domestic programme of some radical reforms and ending austerity.
But as the ongoing crisis in Europe shows, those two positions are in conflict everywhere.
The alternative to this policy manoeuvre on Brexit is to foreground and develop more sharply the policies — and immediate struggles for them — of rupturing with austerity, racism and war.
It is on that basis that a popular negotiating position with the neoliberal EU may be articulated: a people’s or left Brexit.
That means making the arguments and patiently debating in the labour movement now, championing popular democracy against Whitehall and Brussels fixes.
Politics is not going back in the old box, said Corbyn in the wake of the general election. But the pressure for that to happen is enormous. It goes deeper than the position taken by this or that Labour figure or grouping of MPs.
It is built in to becoming a government in waiting. But apparent too this summer is the continuing enthusiasm for Corbyn-Labour when it strikes an anti-Establishment tone.
The Brexit question will not be boxed off by last weekend’s announcement. Nor will the conflicting pressures over which direction Labour should take.