19 Oct 2016

The Brexit Landscape

This article on the Brexit negotiations is out of date, but still relevant. It has been republished as part of my October series.

Here I shall present a two-part analysis. The first is about Labour; being a member I am inevitably deeply interested in party politics, and there is no doubt that Brexit has provoked significant upheaval in the party. The most dramatic of these was the fact that 2/3 of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet resigned—and the no-confidence motion, passed by 80% of Labour MPs, is almost as important.

Inevitably, the question is: what next for Labour?

The second part of this analysis will concern the fate of the country. I will of course refer to today’s summit of the EU-27, as well Nicola Sturgeon’s efforts to woo Brussels.

Anyway, to business.

What Next for Corbyn?

The most difficult and pressing question we face right now is of course Jeremy Corbyn. Loved by most of the members; loathed by most of the PLP. This contradiction is at the heart of the problem, and has been since Jeremy has been elected Leader.

But there is another element to this: the referendum. If you recall, most of the party prior to the referendum result was willing to work with Jeremy, and many were accepted into his shadow cabinet. And yet, we are now seeing a mass walkout of the shadow cabinet—not to mention the no-confidence motion. What changed? Could the Brexit really be the reason that Corbyn is facing a coup? Or is it just a handy excuse?

No doubt many Corbyn backers prefer the latter explanation. In all truth, however, they are almost certainly wrong. It is not true that the Parliamentary Labour Party is full of careerists and Blairites. Sure, there are the Simon Danczuks and Liz Kendalls; but these are a minority faction of die-hards. They can mouth off in the rightwing press all they like, but they alone are not enough to account for the revolt Corbyn is facing.

Because let us be clear: this is a revolt on an epic scale. It wasn’t a minority of the PLP that voted for the no-confidence motion; it was 80%. That basically encompasses not only the Blairites, but also what is commonly called the ‘soft-left’ or—more accurately—the mainstream.

The sad fact of the matter is, the only people who have any faith left in Corbyn are his closest friends and backers—McDonnell, Diane Abbott, etc. The others (let’s be honest) only voted against the motion in order to try and preserve the idea of order, however faint it may be.

So what is to be done? It is believed Angela Eagle—the Shadow First Secretary—will mount a leadership challenge. (EDIT: Owen Smith is also receiving support from the PLP.) If they do, will Corbyn make the ballot? The latter is likely; for Corbyn to not be on the ballot would not only be constitutionally problematic, but would deeply undermine the membership.

This is the crux of the problem Labour is facing. The membership are the ones who canvass and campaign; they are the boots on the ground. They give the party backing, money, and energy.

But the PLP is the body with the real power. They sit in Parliament and vote on legislation; they go on TV and defend the party’s policy. Without the membership the party is wearied and weakened. But without parliamentary presence it is not a party in any meaningful sense of the word—and certainly not a party that can lay claim to government.

At the end of the day, it is as simple as that. If Corbyn cannot keep the PLP under control (let alone on his side) then he is not fit to be leader. In its present state of conflict, the Labour party is unlikely to win a majority; and even if it did, it would not be a functional government.

We can rage against the PLP till the cows come home. It doesn’t really matter. The game is up.

We can, naturally, wonder why the PLP has turned outright hostile to Corbyn. Is it because he was not overly enthusiastic in the referendum campaign; because had he been a little firmer with his message, a little more ready to remind our voters of what the EU has done for Europe (promote peace, forge trade links, fight global warming and tax evasion)—then he might have swung the vote to Remain?

Our MPs seem to believe so. Are they justified? Ultimately, I think they are. While many voters wouldn’t have cared for what the Labour Leader had to say either way, there is no doubt that with a 2% margin, Leave’s victory was extremely narrow. If Corbyn had been more determined, he may well have stopped Brexit.

Even if you don’t agree with this, it doesn’t matter. Corbyn has proven himself terminally unfit to lead. He may have the right message; but he is not the man to sell it. He has the charisma of a retired university professor (a rather charitable analogy). He has too much baggage from decades as a CND chair and perpetual rebel. He has no front-bench experience.

Believe me, this is not easy to admit. I gave him my second preference in the leadership election. At the time, I gave him the benefit of the doubt—maybe he would prove a competent leader. Maybe he really would deliver. He had, after all, already confounded the political class when he became frontrunner and then leader.

Alas, it is not meant to be. This is not to be defeatist: the Corbyn effect has always been about his ideas, not about Corbyn himself. The members will continue to believe in those ideas; Momentum will continue to fight for them.

They might not, of course. But if they don’t, then this only makes my point. Corbyn is just a man—and not even such a great politician at that. If nothing remains after he leaves, then there was never a movement. It was always a personality cult.

So my message to Corbyn supporters is this: let Corbyn go. He can’t lead the party and his continued presence as Leader can only lead to heartbreak. Rather, Corbyn supporters should focus their attentions on changing the structure of the Labour party. They should do their best to influence the selection of parliamentary candidates. They should bring policy suggestions through the mechanism in place for that.

And perhaps most of all, they should stay on the lookout for an MP that can make the socialist case. For an MP that fights against poverty, inequality, tax avoidance, and privatisation—but who does this with charisma and pragmatism, not just with passionate principle.

Keir Hardie, after all, was never a successful Commons leader. The man who really got the Labour party somewhere—who turned words into deeds—was Clement Attlee. Corbyn supporters would do well to heed the lessons of history.

Labour and Brexit

Moving onto the second point of order, Labour must address the challenge posed by Brexit. For Brexit puts us into a tricky situation. Two thirds of our voters may have to Remain; but this still means a third voted to Leave. And what of the voters we wish to convince? More than half would have voted Leave.

To add further cause for concern, the Liberal Democrats may have awoken from their slumber. Tim Farron has pledged to undo the referendum result if his party is elected. Do not underestimate this: the petition to undo the referendum result has received 4 million signatures. This is unprecedented for a petition. And as the many memes on social media and the rally held at Trafalgar Square shows, there is actually a substantial number of people in this country who really don’t want Brexit.

Anti-Brexit Rally

Above: there are others like them. Do you think a party that pledges to undo the referendum using parliamentary sovereignty won’t get their support?

This puts Labour in a very awkward situation. If we take a conciliatory approach with regards to the European Union, we will lose the votes of the young and the metropolitan middle class to the Lib Dems. Allow me to be frank: without those votes we don’t stand a chance of getting into government.

If we take a firmly pro-EU stance, we may alienate the voters we wish to gain support from.

My take on this is that we should have a pro-EU policy framed by a conciliatory rhetoric. We will as a party attempt to keep Britain’s access to the common market (regardless of the immigration it will inevitably involve). Why? Because it would be disastrous for Britain’s working people if what remains of our industrial base moves to Europe. Recession would likewise be disastrous—for everyone.

We must however do our utmost to re-assure people when it comes to immigration. I would suggest we take the following line: the immigration we’ve seen in the past couple of years has indeed been high. But it won’t last much longer. Eastern Europe’s economy is growing; and many of the people who would have emigrated have already done so.

To counter the threat of those Liberals, my instinct would be to attack Farron. ‘We’re all sinners, Mr Farron’ sounds catchy. The people who want to remain in the EU most fervently are, after all, the young and the cosmopolitan. They will not approve of Farron’s rather dubious, religiously-motivated stance on gay rights. (I sure as hell don’t: his kind of thinking has caused immense suffering for other gay people like me, and indeed still does.)

‘But Alex!’ you ask: ‘Do you not want to undo the referendum? Surely you of all people would like that!’ Well, yes; I would like it. But I am no idealistic fool. Farron and his band of liars can promise whatever they want. But undoing the referendum can only be done with another referendum; to undo it through Parliament would provoke a constitutional crisis without precedence. It could literally mean riots on the streets.

And a second referendum, well; that’s plausible, but seems unlikely. Firstly, because can we really put it in our manifesto without alienating potential voters? But moreso, because I’m not sure it would matter even if the result came out for Remain. The EU has made clear that it wants the UK to invoke Article 50. Once we do that, the process is irreversible.

It’s strange, I will admit; to be so staunchly pragmatic at my age. But protest doesn’t change anything. Power does.

The Brexit Negotiations

The news regarding the UK’s negotiation with the EU at today’s summit is very boring. This is because it is completely unsurprising. Merkel says the UK will not get access to the common market without granting the four freedoms; Renzi, the Italian President, says being in a family requires taking the bad with the good; François Hollande says the same thing. Donald Tusk says no á la carte single market. In others words: as Remain said all along.

In more interesting news, Nicola Sturgeon’s attempt to woo the EU is a mixed success. Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian PM responsible for the Brexit negotiations, thinks it is quite plausible for the EU to cook up a deal with Scotland. Martin Schulz is open to the possibility. But Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish incumbent head of state, is opposed. (Unsurprisingly, what with Catalonia and all.) Tusk also declined to meet Sturgeon—claiming that it would be bad precedent for him to meet Sturgeon, and would provoke an avalanche of visits from other states. He seems to think Scotland’s position will be negotiated along with the UK’s.

So: what do I make of all this?

I think it’s too early to tell. But I do think Sturgeon stands a strong chance of keeping Scotland in the EU—either through some sort of deal with Brussels, or by becoming independent and rejoining (which would take about 5 years or so). This is because the EU leaders are for the most part sympathetic to Scotland; after all, Scotland is not leaving out of its own free will.

As for Rajoy, it’s not even certain he will be Spain’s head of state. (After all, coalition negotiations are still ongoing; Rajoy doesn’t have a majority in parliament.) Even if he’s still around, I think he will capitulate, because a) Scotland’s situation is not that of Catalonia; the latter is not being forced out of the EU and b) because vetoing Scotland would be unpopular in Europe, unpopular in the world stage, and unpopular in Catalonia.

He can also spin it off. Scotland is a unique situation; it can remain in the EU because of the exceptional circumstances regarding its departure.

Anyway, a lot of this is conjecture at this point.

Closing Thoughts

These are uncertain times ahead. The political situation requires further news and further analysis—which I shall be doing over the coming months. At present, Labour has to contend both with a bitter internal divide and a potentially dangerous electoral landscape: the Lib Dems on one side, UKIP and the Leavers on the other.

Anyway, one thing is for certain: I will be writing. I have already begun revising the Ark, with chapter two being mostly re-written. Wish me luck. I shall be releasing numerous progress updates on the Ark. The Magical Realm, after all, is chiefly a writing blog.

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