Britain has not had a functioning opposition on the most vital question of the day ever since the Labour left and Tory right found they were in agreement on our future relations with the EU. Although both sides are too embarrassed to admit it, we are ruled by a Corbyn-Johnson pact. It will deliver a hard Brexit, whatever the costs to the country.
When Nigel Farage hailed Jeremy Corbyn as ‘almost a proper chap’ you learned that whatever trouble this hopelessly ill-equipped government faces it will never face trouble from the Labour leadership. The left has ceased to exist as an organised force in British politics, at least as far as the European question is concerned. In an article in the Guardian, which shocked even those of us who have never respected the Corbyn ‘movement,’ Barry Gardiner, Labour’s trade spokesman, explained the left was at one with the right in wanting to break all links with the EU.
We must leave the Customs Union and Single Market, he said. Free movement must go. Thousands of legal arrangements and international agreements must be torn up too, because there can be no role for the European Court of Justice in our post-Brexit future, and because we cannot now ‘pay money into the European budget’. It was as if Europe were an infection that Britain needed to confine like lepers in a colony.
During the Brexit campaign, Farage talked of Britain being at ‘breaking point’ as Turks and Arabs prepared to sweep into this county. (They never came). Corbyn now warns that the ‘wholesale importation’ of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. If he were a Tory, leftists would be screaming their angry heads off. But as Corbyn is a leftist, there are only embarrassed mutters. (A double-standard, which if you think about it, suits actual right-wingers very well.)
Vince Cable is comparing Corbyn to Ramsay MacDonald – fighting talk on the left, as Cable well knows. Corbyn has ‘collaborated’ with the right, Cable charges. He has ignored all the attempts by Labour pro-Europeans to soften Brexit and placed himself alongside Theresa May and Liam Fox on ‘the hard right of British politics’.
As long as they are not forced to explain themselves to anyone except the already ideologically committed, Corbyn’s ‘left’ Euroscepticism has a superficial coherence. A spurious coherence, I would say, but enough to convince the far left that he and his friends are not quite the sell-outs they appear to be.
Corbyn and McDonnell barely bothered to campaign to keep Britain in the EU because they subscribe to the old Bennite notion that the EU is a capitalist club. They justify this view by pointing out that its state aid rules prevent widespread nationalisation or part-nationalisation of the UK economy. There are vast problems with this analysis: the EU is the only organisation on earth prepared to regulate the tech giants, for instance, and France has a huge public sector. Nevertheless, since the 1945 Labour government refused to join the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the EU, many on the left have argued that EU and socialism are incompatible.
But therein lies the difficulty in 2017. What does the anti-EU left mean by socialism today? It has had no economic argument for years. The post-1989 far left failed to find an economic policy beyond social democracy to replace the Marxism it had lost. It cannot say why it is better for the working class to live in some Bennite version of the 1970s rather than in a European social democracy on Scandinavian, German or French lines. The modern far left has engaged in extreme versions of identity politics, and in a largely disgraceful in my view accommodation with dictatorial forces in the poor world in the name of ‘anti-imperialism.’ But it has not developed a successor to socialism.
Although they have become the object of mockery and the butt of countless jokes, I, therefore, have sympathy for the pro-European crowds who cheered Corbyn at Glastonbury. You needed to have buried yourself in the minutiae of the far left to understand Corbyn and McDonnell’s ideology. They haven’t argued their case in public. There has been no real debate on the left. They just refused to offer more than token support for the ‘remain’ campaign then gratefully seized on Brexit for reasons I doubt one in 100 of their supporters understood.
You can hardly say that Caroline Flint, Rachel Reeves and the other northern Labour MPs, who now agree with their leaders and say they’re all for Brexit too are a part of the Corbyn left. They have reached the same position as their leaders for entirely different motives. They say they have to respect the Brexit result, which is fine. But then add that the only acceptable Brexit is a hard Brexit because cutting immigration was the leave voters’ overwhelming priority. For different reasons, therefore, large sections of the Labour party are collaborating. Whether they will maintain the collaboration is another matter entirely.
Although a muscle memory of 1980s Bennism jerks the Labour leadership around, anti-Europeanism is not a defining issue for the far left. The best way to understand what motivates the Labour leadership is to read the Morning Star or Socialist Worker. The EU barely features in their pages. These may be papers that want to establish a global dictatorship based on the bloody ideologies of Russian fantasists, madmen and murderers, but when set against the Mail and the Telegraph their editors aren’t complete cranks.
The bulk of Labour MPs, meanwhile, are just pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment. (I exclude, obviously, the minority who dare to challenge Corbyn.) They don’t believe a word they are saying. They have simply given up on any idea of leadership. They won’t argue with their constituents or explain why leaving the single market will threaten jobs, in particular, jobs in manufacturing. ‘We cannot contradict our voters’ they say in effect. ‘Even if we know our voters are wrong and could lose their jobs and livelihoods. Brexit has just got to go ahead and we can pick up the pieces afterwards.’
The lack of a serious economic theory on the far left and the cynicism and opportunism among the bulk of Labour MPs explain the rather pathetic stories emerging from Westminster about Labour changing its position if the public mood changes. Maybe that will happen. But change will come despite not because of Labour. As things stand, the party which purports to have renounced the timidity of Blairism is now so frightened of speaking out it might as well merge with the Tories.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.