Newly elected Labour MPs crammed into Westminster Hall last week and sang “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn.” But it didn’t take long for some of them to return to business as usual and stab him in the back.
Last Thursday 50 Labour MPs defied the party whip and voted with the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists for an amendment to the queen’s speech. It called for Britain to stay in the European Single Market and Customs Union after Brexit.
They were headed by Chukka Umunna. He’s held up as a Blairite standard-bearer, though he chickened out of running for the party leadership two years ago, when Corbyn won.
The rebels have been supported by those on the liberal left who dream that Brexit can be reversed. Theresa May’s disastrous snap election has encouraged them in this belief.
Various EU bigwigs—for example Donald Tusk, president of the European Council—have expressed a similar hope.
The Brexit negotiations will probably contain many pitfalls, and the outcome is hard to predict, but there are three reasons why Umunna & Co were completely wrong.
First, the Single Market isn’t some neutral device helping economies to trade with each other. It was introduced in the mid-1980s essentially by two figures—Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Jacques Delors, then president of the European Commission.
Thatcher was, of course, alongside US president Ronald Reagan, a key architect of the neoliberal counter-revolution of the 1980s. Delors, French finance minister in the first half of that decade, drove through France’s version of these changes.
The Single Market has accordingly acted, in the words of the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, as “a machine for the liberalisation of European capitalism”. It has been used to support an agenda of privatisation and deregulation and to block any extensions of social ownership.
It’s not surprising, then, that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who want to reverse austerity and partially bring back into the public sector some of the industries privatised by the Tories, aren’t keen for Britain to stay in the Single Market.
Corbyn understood voters better than his critics
The only thing to be said in the Single Market’s favour is that free movement of labour is one of the “four freedoms” required for membership.
But Umunna, like other Blairites, is on record saying he would support leaving the Single Market if that were necessary to get rid of free movement. So no one should imagine that this rebellion was about defending the rights of EU citizens in Britain.
The second reason the amendment was wrong was that it reflected a profound misunderstanding of what happened in the election. May tried to make it about Brexit in the hope of winning over Labour and Ukip voters who had backed Leave in the referendum last year. This tactic failed because Corbyn refused to walk into May’s trap.
In other words, he did not follow the advice of the diehard Labour Remainers and campaign against Brexit. He also didn’t side with the right-wing Brexiteers.
Lots of commentators have attacked him for being a “bystander” in the Brexit debate or for his “ambiguity” on the issue. But Corbyn understood voters better than his critics.
By refusing to focus on Brexit he avoided antagonising the pro-Labour cities that voted heavily to remain or the many Labour voters in the north and in Wales who backed Leave. This “ambiguity” allowed Labour to concentrate on campaigning against austerity and for its manifesto of popular economic and social reforms.
This brings me to the third reason why the rebels were wrong. The election has left the Tories in disarray—divided not just over Brexit, but also over whether to press on with austerity. Over the past week cabinet ministers who have publicly disagreed included Philip Hammond, David Davis, Michael Gove, and Boris Johnson. By drawing attention to Labour’s divisions the rebels were throwing the Tories a lifeline.
The way forward for the left is not to defend the indefensible neoliberal EU. It’s to press home the battle against the Tories on austerity. This means more mobilisations on the streets, not cross-party parliamentary manoeuvres by treacherous Blairites.