It’s over a month since the General Election, which destroyed Theresa May as any sort of credible leader.
Having called an election, despite repeatedly promising not to, she then showed a startling inability to meet ordinary people and to connect with them, in complete contrast to Jeremy Corbyn, and ended up losing her majority, instead of increasingly it massively, as was forecast, forcing her into a humiliating deal with the backwards religious fundamentalists of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party just to keep her government in power.
Corbyn, meanwhile, thrived on the campaign trail. Finally freed from the liberal media’s shameful negative portrayal of him (which had been pretty relentless for two years), because of the liberal establishment’s accepted need for something more closely resembling objectivity on the campaign trail, he was revealed as a leader with the common touch, able to connect with and empathise with ordinary people effortlessly.
His supporters always knew this about him, but it had been suppressed by the media — and by Labour rebels — since his election as leader two years ago.
Some of Corbyn’s success came about because of Theresa May’s uselessness. She scored a huge own goal by refusing to debate with him on live TV, and she made colossal errors of her own beyond her woodenness and her apparently very real fear of actually meeting people: the so-called “dementia tax”, for example, an effort to address the costs of care for elderly people that was immediately seized upon — by Conservative voters and the right-wing media, as well as almost everyone else — as a classic “nasty party” attack on the security, savings and assets of the elderly.
That may have sunk it for her, but as Corbyn zoomed around the country, addressing huge crowds, it was also apparent that he was connecting to more and more people on the basis of his genuine and heartfelt opposition to austerity and its ruinous effects on the lives of the poorer members of British society.
Formerly the permanent backbench outsider — along with his best friend John McDonnell, now the shadow chancellor — Corbyn has a clear history of genuinely supporting and empathising with anyone suffering at the hands of the rich and powerful, and this came across clearly when he was finally allowed to show it.
I know it from his support for Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo (see here, here and here, for example), I know it from the former refugee from his constituency, interviewed standing with Corbyn on the day of his election as leader, telling a reporter that she wouldn’t be here in the UK without his support, and I know it from the #Grime4Corbyn movement, when London’s grime artists — black and working class — came out in support of Corbyn in last month’s election because they had all been able to research his record, and to establish that, for example, he had always been a ferocious opponent of the unforgivable injustice of apartheid.
As North London rapper Awate explained just after the election:
I first saw Jeremy Corbyn’s face in a picture frame that sat in my living room. My parents were in the photo with him. I’m from Maiden Lane Estate in Camden. It’s not in Corbyn’s Islington North constituency, but around here a lot of people can tell you stories of how Jeremy helped them – as he helped with my various problems with police harassment and malicious prosecution.
The reason why so many of us organised and mobilised others – through social media, knocking on doors or organising events – was because we knew the strength of his character; that he wouldn’t renege on promises, unlike Nick Clegg, whose party went from losing four-fifths of their MPs to him losing his own seat. Corbyn answers questions with thoughtfulness and without contempt for those who are suffering and want answers.
Jeremy Corbyn’s success was well worth applauding — increasing Labour’s share of the vote by 10%, and, since the election, becoming a clear leader in opinion polls – and, as a result, it is appropriate to say that his old-school Keynesian position on revitalising the economy through government investment has considerable support not just from the public, who, in increasing numbers, are throughly sick of the counter-productive damage inflicted on the economy and on people’s lives by the Tories’ cynical “age of austerity”, but also by a wide range of experts.
Martinez pointed out that the Tory-led coalition government’s “austerity narrative blamed the rising deﬁcit on Labour’s spending, but much of the rise could be explained by the global recession itself, not the unremarkable spending of the previous government.” He added, “The recession was a global phenomenon, far beyond the control of the Labour government. Despite this fact, a banking crisis that had its origins in the irresponsible and illegal behaviour of the private sector was repackaged as a crisis of government ﬁnance.”
Martinez also noted that “[c]utting spending in a recession has been tried many times and – without exception – failed,” and cited US economist Paul Krugman’s observation that, “since the global turn to austerity in 2010, every country that introduced signiﬁcant austerity has seen its economy suffer, with the depth of the suffering closely related to the harshness of the austerity.” As Martinez also noted, Osborne’s economic plan “increased the national debt by 80 per cent in just ﬁve years,” and he “borrowed more in ﬁve years than his predecessor did during a whole decade.”
The following passages are also illuminating:
Even if we accept that reducing the government deﬁcit was an immediate priority, there was more than one way to do it. Osborne opted for a strategy that harmed the most vulnerable, creating a cost-of-living crisis in the world’s seventh richest country. He forced a million people to rely on food banks, stripped disabled people of essential ﬁnancial support and cut beneﬁts to the low-paid and unemployed. Many people have died because of these policies. One study looked at the impact of the newly introduced Work Capability Assessment, designed to reassess the eligibility of disabled people for out-of-work beneﬁts with the stated aim of getting more people ‘back to work’ so as to reduce the welfare bill. This programme, which declared many sick and severely disabled people ‘ﬁt for work’, was associated with a signiﬁcant increase in suicides, mental health problems and the prescription of anti-depressant drugs. In 2011, Mervyn King, then Governor of the Bank of England, summed the situation up when he said ‘The price of this ﬁnancial crisis is being borne by people who absolutely did not cause it’ and ‘I’m surprised that the degree of public anger has not been greater than it has.’
The deﬁcit could have been reduced by placing the burden on the wealthiest instead of the poorest. Rather than cuts to public services, the British government could have raised taxes on the wealthiest individuals and corporations; introduced a ﬁnancial transaction tax (the so-called Robin Hood tax); eliminated tax loopholes that beneﬁt the top earners; and ensured that corporations paid the full value for using national resources. ‘These revenue raisers would not only make for a more efﬁcient economy’ writes Joseph Stiglitz, they would ‘substantially reduce the deﬁcit [and] also inequality.’ But the rich did not bear the burden of reducing the deﬁcit. Instead, the Conservatives cut the top rate of tax – a policy so unpopular that even the majority of their own voters were against it.
If austerity is bad economics, why did business leaders and politicians support it? The simple answer is ideology. It is an article of faith for neoliberals that the state must shrink, welfare and social security must be cut, and everything from healthcare to prisons must be privatised. The focus on deﬁcit reduction provided a convenient cover to lay waste to the welfare state. Speaking candidly at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in 2013, David Cameron revealed that spending cuts were ultimately about ‘building a leaner, more efﬁcient state … Not just now, but permanently.’
Brexit: the elephant in the room
However, while the above explains why Jeremy Corbyn was correct to focus his campaigning on ending austerity (a bolder move than could have been expected from the compromised Blairites in his own party), it is also apparent that all his plans to revive the economy through government investment cannot even be contemplated if the UK maintains its suicidal obsession with leaving the EU.
As I watched people treating Jeremy Corbyn like some sort of saviour on the campaign trail — and afterwards at events like his appearance at the Glastonbury Festival — I became more and more worried that this was dangerous projection and wishful thinking on the part of far too many of his supporters, because it by no means clear that either Jeremy Corbyn, or the Labour Party leadership, is prepared to take the only sensible course of action available to us if we want to save our economy from the single greatest act of economic suicide imaginable, and that is to work out how to make sure that we don’t leave the EU at all.
On the election trail, when Theresa May paralysed herself by making the election about Brexit, but then refusing to publicly discuss anything about Brexit at all (as has been her position throughout her leadership), Corbyn and the Labour Party also took the opportunity not to take a position on Brexit, making the campaign all about austerity instead, with considerable success, as noted above. By refusing to take a position, Labour was able to continue not alienating the roughly one-third of its voters (many outside London and the south-east, and other cities), who voted to leave the EU.
However, it cannot have failed to register with the party leadership that the majority of new voters were Remain voters — or would have been, in the cases of those who were too young to vote last year. Corbyn was very successful at attracting young people to vote, many for the first time, and it is reasonable to conclude they were all Remainers, as young people overwhelmingly support us staying the EU.
Some older voters may have come back from their 2015 flirtation with UKIP, because of Corbyn addressing austerity — the true enemy rather than the EU — but the majority of new voters were swelling Labour’s Remainers to something more than the estimated two-thirds who supported remaining in the EU in last year’s referendum, and at some point Labour will surely have to stop carefully being non-committal and hiding behind the default position that the “will of the people” must be fulfilled.
It is a sign of the success of Labour’s caginess that it is difficult even to say what the party’s true position is. Anecdotally, I would say, Corbyn is regarded as a fairly lukewarm Remainer, but actually his position at the time of the referendum reflected that of his party. As he explained to the BBC 12 days before the referendum, “his passion for remaining in the EU rates at about ‘seven, or seven and a half’ out of 10.” He explained that “he wanted to be part of an EU that was about ‘social cohesion’ and ‘human rights.’”
In the run-up to the referendum, he also said that there was an “overwhelming case” for staying in the EU. In an official statement on April 14, 2016, he stated, “We, the Labour Party, are overwhelmingly for staying in, because we believe the European Union has brought investment, jobs and protection for workers, consumers and the environment.”
Since the referendum, of course, Theresa May, formerly a Remainer, rather surprisingly became evangelical about leaving the EU, and as the months passed it became clear that May and her Brexit ministers — the deluded David Davis, the vile Liam Fox and the idiotic Boris Johnson — were pushing for a “hard Brexit,” one that involved us crashing out of the single market and the customs union, and also removing ourselves from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. This was an obsession of Theresa May’s, from her six paranoid years as home secretary, and from my point of view I would say that her whole leadership reveals how this obsession continues to drive her in a frankly deranged manner, and how her position on anything else other than “national security’ — the single market and the customs union, for example — is primarily being driven by her ministers.
I have written before about how alarming I find Theresa May’s obsession with doing away with our rights, and I remain unconvinced that there is any good reason whatsoever to get rid of our adherence to the European Court of Human Rights, and also the European Convention of Human Rights. Both, incidentally, are requirements not of EU membership, but of membership of the Council of Europe, but you have to be a CoE member to be a member of the EU.
On the single market and the customs union, it is clear that both are really quite essential to the health of our country, and it would be a disaster if we were to lose access to them. This, however, is the crux of the Brexit problem. These trading essentials are only available to countries that accept freedom of movement, and our Brexit position — the very heart of the “will of the people” we hear so much about — is a claim that it is important that, above everything else, we control immigration.
In reality, the absurd truth is that even if we leave the EU we are unlikely to be able to noticeably control immigration. Not only do we need huge numbers of immigrants to make our economy work; we also don’t really have mechanisms available that can significantly stem immigration — except, perhaps, trashing our economy so that no one will want to come here.
Given the problems stemming immigration, and the palpable disaster of dropping out of the single market and the customs union, the reality seems to be that there is no “soft Brexit” available — we either destroy ourselves via the “hard Brexit” that Theresa May still seems weeded to, or we don’t leave the EU at all.
This is the position I hope to see Jeremy Corbyn adopt — but he still maintains a silence on it, as, in general, does the party, with the exception of those figures like Chuka Umunna, who are actively working against a “hard Brexit” via Open Britain.
All we can say with any certainty is that, last September, Corbyn was obliged by his party to issue a clarification of his position regarding the single market. In a personal statement, he said he would be “pressing for full access to the European single market” for Britain’s firms, but added, “There are directives and obligations linked to the single market, such as state aid rules and requirements to liberalise and privatise public services, which we would not want to see as part of a post-Brexit relationship.”
AS the Guardian explained, “Labour sources insisted Corbyn’s position was consistent with shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s claim in the aftermath of the Brexit vote that ‘the damage that would be done to our economy by pulling out of the single market at this time could be substantial.’”
In many ways, of course, it still makes sense for Labour to wait and see if Brexit destroys the Tories, as it certainly seems to be the most extraordinary example of a poisoned chalice. I have recently taken to describing Brexit as a process that is destined to destroy whichever party implements it, and there would, of course, be some considerable poetic justice if the Tories, the party whose former leader foolishly, and with flagrant irresponsibility, allowed the referendum to go ahead, were to be destroyed by its replacement leader trying to fulfil its absurd mission.
I do think that, with Jeremy Corbyn still so popular, and with so much hope projected onto him, that he should use the opportunity to begin explaining to the British people why leaving the EU would, on reflection, be a disaster that no leader can honestly permit to happen, but perhaps that is still too much to hope for.
Certainly, Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit minister, seems to be holding the closest thing to a definition of the party’s position via his six tests, announced in March, which, if not met, will mean that Labour won’t back a final deal in Parliament.
The six tests for the Brexit deal are:
- Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?
- Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?
- Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?
- Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?
- Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?
- Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?
Point 2 seems to me to be the escape clause — and I suppose my hope is that, when it is demonstrated how disastrous leaving the single market and the customs union is, the case can then be made that Brexit is basically too big a disaster to be implemented, and that it must be stopped.
Today, as the government published the first of its Brexit bills, the so-called Great Repeal Bill (there’s nothing “great” about it, but the way), it became clear that May’s obsession with citizens’ rights has, as the Guardian described it, set the government “on a collision course with opposition parties by insisting that it will not bring the EU charter of fundamental rights into domestic law on Brexit day.” The bill (which is now known as the European Union (withdrawal) bill) includes a clause that states, “The charter of fundamental rights is not part of domestic law on or after exit day,” which fails Labour’s fifth test. It has also angered the Liberal Democrats, and elsewhere the Scottish and Welsh governments have said they will try to block the bill. See here for details of Labour’s opposition, and their promise to vote against the bill at its second reading unless significant changes are made to it.
I hope that eventual public opposition to Brexit is where Labour is heading, but as I began by saying, I fear that a lot of wishful thinking is going on with all the excitement about Jeremy Corbyn, when he has not made clear that, when it comes to the defining political decision of our lifetimes, he will not, in the end, support or facilitate our departure from the EU.
Note: Please also check out this letter to Jeremy Corbyn from John Palmer, former European editor of the Guardian, regarding his meeting today with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. As Palmer tells Corbyn, “you must show yourself willing to reject Brexit and embrace radical EU reform.”
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