BREXIT DECONSTRUCTED: The Lexit lie

PUBLISHED: 20:47 23 January 2019

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking in front of supporters. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking in front of supporters. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA.

PA Archive/PA Images

JAMES BALL debunks the 'Lexit' argument that the EU prevents Britain from implementing left-wing policies.

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As we grind ever-closer to the end of the beginning of Brexit, confusion abounds over Labour’s position on leaving. Its members and its voters overwhelmingly support a second referendum, and still overwhelmingly support Remain.

Labour party policy, however, does not. The party’s current position, restated in its amendment to the government’s latest Brexit motion, is to leave under a better deal which Labour says it could easily secure if it were only in government. Should it fail, its policy is only to keep ‘all’ other options on the table, including a second referendum.

This slogan, and careful and frequent rephrases of it, has done much to keep the pressure off Labour to actually pin down a policy: if it says something that sounds vaguely friendly to the People’s Vote campaign, this gets jumped on by people who hear what they want to hear, rather than the actual words they use.

How has Labour got so close to the Brexit crunch without pinning down 
its policy? And why is the party so reluctant to support a second referendum? The answers seem to lie in a perfect storm of ideology, politics, and electoral maths.

The politics of the parliamentary party is maybe the easiest to tackle: Labour has so far largely avoided the rancorous divisions of the Conservatives, despite having a wide range of opinions among its MPs.

By making its Brexit policy something of a Rorschach test – in which each faction can point to something which resembles what it wants – Labour minimises divisions, but also ducks the issue. If Labour had one specific, realistic Brexit policy, it would risk getting the blame for Brexit if whatever final outcome occurs matches its policy. This is smart politics, to an extent – perhaps when it comes to the politics of Brexit, the only winning move is not to play.

This also, at least in many Labour MPs’ and staffers’ views, suits the party’s electoral maths. While its voters and members are overwhelmingly pro-EU, several of its marginal seats – and many of its key target seats – voted to Leave. This logic would then argue that if Labour went too pro-EU it would lose seats and face an impossible path to electoral victory.

This argument has proven compelling to many in the party, which is a shame, as it’s an idiotic one – and one that if followed to the end of its logic would mean no party could ever pass a policy again.

Even a hugely popular policy, such as renationalising the railways, tends to poll at 80%-85% of supporters – and so if we assumed that losing the remaining 15%-20% would happen if we passed that policy, we’d face electoral oblivion.

In reality, people don’t tend to move their votes based on just one issue. There are plenty of lifelong Conservative voters who back Remain – only a handful of whom would consider flipping to Labour. This logic works in reverse, and but is usually only applied to Labour Remainers: “where else would they go?”

They might not turn up at all, some might shift to the Liberal Democrats, but the analysis overall is largely correct – and it needs applying to Labour Leavers too.

It also needs to be remembered that Labour can win in Leave-leaning seats even as a Remain-backing party: by boosting enthusiasm of Remain, and winning over people who voted Remain and not Labour, many of the party’s key target seats seem perfectly winnable.

This brings us to the crunch of Labour’s reasoning: ideology. Corbyn – at least on paper – supported Remain in the 2016 referendum, but is known as a lifelong eurosceptic, as are several others in his inner circle. Given the strength of his position with party members, if he wanted to back stopping Brexit, he would face little blowback. Instead, he avoids doing so at every opportunity: Labour’s first-choice option is to obtain Brexit on its terms.

Much of the reasoning for this is around the ‘Lexit’ argument – that the European project prevents Britain implementing a truly left-wing set of policies. This argument relies on fundamental misunderstandings of the intent and effect of most EU policies, and would only stop the most radical of agendas – well beyond anything anyone in the Corbyn project has suggested so far.

EU rules help secure workers’ rights in law, making them far more difficult for a future government to weaken – something that cannot be guaranteed in any way by the UK as an independent state. It requires the UK to keep the European Convention of Human Rights as part of its law. EU law has increased health and safety regulation, food standards regulation, and more – to the benefit of all of us, and often over UK objections.

As to whether the EU stops us shifting to the left: it doesn’t. Of the 28 nations currently in the EU, 21 have a bigger public sector than the UK, and only six have a smaller one. The UK spends around 39% of its national income on the public sector, while its biggest spender (France) has a public sector which makes up more than 56% of its economy – if that is not scope for huge and radical change, what is?

Similarly, the ‘state aid’ rules so often demonised by the hard-left factions of Labour – and one of Corbyn’s big worries over continued EU membership – are in practice not a barrier to boosting public ownership in the UK: many other EU states have large nationalised sectors of the economy, and have nationalised sectors after becoming EU members.

What it rules out is nationalising without compensation (a dangerous move which can cripple investment in a country) and certain kinds of subsidies. For a government wanting to, say, boost steel companies, this can seem anti-worker.

But to look at how state aid works in practice, we need look no further than the US, where large companies ‘shop around’ the 50 states when they want to open a major new plant, and see how much each is willing to give it in subsidies, tax breaks, infrastructure investment and more. Just last year it was reported Wisconsin gave around $4.1 billion in subsidy to Chinese tech company Foxconn to build a huge new television factory complex.

Once the subsidy was secured, Foxconn revealed it probably wouldn’t actually build what it originally planned to at the plant, and this month it was reported it was already missing its modest early job-creation targets. Few believe the Wisconsin authorities will ever get back the $4.1 billion they handed to an overseas companies.

The state aid rules in practice prevent this apparent corporate freeloading – or at least restrict it – to the benefit of workers and taxpayers. To believe throwing them out is a credit to the left is a triumph of naïve idealism over what happens in reality.

The only situation in which supporting Brexit would benefit the left is if they were pursuing a far, far more radical policy than anything currently declared – akin to smashing up the state and economy and rebuilding it, on the scale of Venezuela or Cuba. That is not Labour policy – so they’re being fooled and being played if they think Brexit would help the actual, publicly-stated goals.

Beware those trying to sell Brexit as a good left-wing cause: it would not turn out that way in practice. Labour will soon need to pick a side, however cleverly it delays and prevaricates. If it chooses poorly, party’s core voters are the ones who will feel the pain most seriously.

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