The shadow trade secretary, Barry Gardiner wrote thought-provokingly on Brexit in The Guardian last week for which he has been much berated. I believe he should be praised for accurately exposing the real dangers we face as Brexit reality bites. I know Barry and appreciate what a committed Remainer he was during last year’s referendum. I am sure he despairs at the utter folly that Brexit entails and the fate awaiting our people and our country. Labour says free movement will end when we leave the EU but argues we need a free trade deal to protect jobs. Brussels repeated response is that you can’t have one without the other. As Shadow Trade Secretary, Barry’s job is to be candid when he tells us what can be achieved given our Party’s current position. And since last week, it appears thankfully that all possible Brexit options are now on the Labour table.
The EU is above all a political construct. In a similar way, the Brexit vote was a crude political response to a widely felt discontent among far too many within our country. Decades of neoliberalism have worn heavy on increasing numbers of our people who are struggling to make ends meet. Our current economic settlement deliberately leaves them behind. The main architects of this rigged system are based in Westminster. Yet, an alliance of former City boy Nigel Farage and fellow Tory Toff Brexiteers built a successful, but dangerous, narrative, that the EU and migrants were to blame for all the ills that have befallen working class people during the last three decades and the Tory Age of Austerity. Unless, we are now capable of changing the hearts and minds of many Leave voters, then our fate is sealed. Yet, we have every reason to be optimistic that we are up to this narrative changing task because, as always, politics is dynamic and people do change their minds. Just look at the change between the 2015 general election and the one held this June. By the time we are due to leave the EU in March 2019, almost three years will have elapsed since the referendum – much longer than 2015 Tory majority itself lasted. If a week is a long time in politics, this time-frame, is an eternity.
Let’s face it, the referendum was sold on the premise of taking back control. So future membership of the European Economic Area or, any similar deal, is hardly going to chime with leave voters. Try telling them on their doorstep, by the way, that in future we are going to have to pay a large sum to access a market where others make the rules and Britain must acquiesce. Politically it will be suicidal. As Barry put it, Britain will become a vassal state. Similarly, reaching a Customs Union agreement with the EU may impose the same asymmetrical trading conditions Turkey would have faced had the awful Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) become a reality. Turkish goods into the United States would have continued facing tariffs whilst American ones into Turkey wouldn’t. A Customs Union agreement will also preclude Britain from making our own independent trade deals – not a vote winning strategy.
Of course, Barry outlined an option to try and meet the desires of Leave voters as well as Labour’s current position: a trade deal with the EU. On the face of it, this sounds sensible, possible and in the economic interests of both parties. The thing is that politics will get in the way of it. The idea that 27 EU states will be prepared to sign a post-Brexit trade deal which is more advantageous, or the same, as that the one we enjoy through our current membership belongs in Never-Never Land. Political reality dictates that the referendum has dealt the EU the Ace cards with which they will to us in any deal on offer. The top priority for EU members states is their future cohesion and the survival of the European ideal. Whatever collateral economic hardship we may endure due to our Brexit folly is our problem, not theirs.
A free trade deal without freedom of movement is not any part of the EU negotiators game plan. We will either accept their terms – which in all likelihood will involve the European Court of Justice continuing to have jurisdiction over a significant number of issues – or further exacerbate the Brexit disaster by falling back on World Trade Organisation terms or a second rate trade arrangement with some tariffs. We have a weak bargaining hand. If you don’t think so, you aren’t listening to the mood music emerging from Brussels and other EU capitals. It’s not about punishing us for leaving the EU. To speak in such terms is dangerous jingoism. But it’s about securing the best deal for EU member states in the event that Britain walks. That’s why, to put it frankly, the only deal which is likely to give us the tariff free trade we seek without becoming, by choice, the vassal state Barry predicts, is continued EU membership.
Let’s face it, as more facts emerge, minds are swaying which is why staying put must remain a Labour option which, when coupled to our game-changing manifesto can end business as usual. We must ensure Westminster delivers the regulation of our labour market which cures the daily malaise and economic hardship which far too many of our workers face. From sectoral collective bargaining, to how job vacancies are advertised and, everything else in between, we need a new system re-designed to protect workers from unscrupulous bosses. It must be underpinned by law and policed by a new powerful Ministry of Labour. We also need a proper living wage and an end to bogus self-employment. The beauty is all these policies were included in Labour’s 2017 Manifesto which really caught voters imagination and changed the narrative on economic policy. I am confident Jeremy can do the same on free movement and staying within the EU if the alternative, as increasingly looks likely, puts our jobs and livelihoods at risk. Barry’s article last week was a sober assessment of our current direction of travel. Leaving the EU was a vote cast by those who allowed themselves to go along with the reckless Tory-UKIP referendum ride. Too many people were wrongly convinced to join them on the false prospectus that EU monies would pour into our NHS. They now know they were told barefaced lies. Many of them went on to vote Labour in June. It’s now up to the labour movement to develop a different vision of what we can be. Let’s work with the hope and the imagination of our people to change the narrative. Brexit, like austerity, is not an economic necessity but a political choice which can be stopped if we win hearts and minds!
Manuel Cortes is general secretary of the TSSA union.