Starmer’s needless support for Johnson’s Brexit deal undermines a Labour return to power

By Michael Rafferty

In supporting the government’s post-Brexit trade deal with the EU, on the eve of its coming into force, all but 37 Labour Party MPs needlessly rendered assistance to an administration floundering under the weight of the multiple crises it has variously created or exacerbated.

Johnson’s “oven-ready” deal did not require the support of a single Labour MP to pass into law. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with its barely-defrosted ingredients, it enjoyed one of the highest majorities of any piece of legislation last year. This is because the politics of Brexit take precedence over the ramifications of the deal. The Labour Party leadership has demonstrated a cloth-ear for both.

With the burden of justifying the Brexit outcome—which portends a deepening neoliberalisation of the economy and potential fracturing of the state—now shared between the two major parties of the UK political system, the Labour Party has written itself into a compromised Singapore-isation over which it has no control and from which it stands to gain little. Far from being a “massive opportunity” for the Left (as proclaimed by the Guardian’s Larry Elliot), politically the Brexit deal represents a charter for rolling out a new variant of neoliberalism inculcated since Johnson’s victory in 2019.

The great liberation from the EU’s state aid rules allows the government to use public procurement to channel public resources to its chosen corporate beneficiaries, but still precludes the same interference with “market competition”, oft-used by left eurosceptics as a good socialist reason for leaving the bloc. With Labour’s fingerprints on the foundation stone of this new edifice, will it have the credibility -or vision – to articulate an alternative prospectus, or will this always have to be a milquetoast version of Johnson’s failed tax-haven?

And what a botched tax-haven it would be. The deal’s non-tariff barriers around, for example, rules of origin will impact smaller enterprises, especially in agri-food but across manufacturing exports, more heavily than multinational corporations, further hollowing out the productive forces of the UK economy and allowing global corporates to fill the gaps. Unsurprisingly, the deal makes no promises to workers employed by such SMEs, indicating a deepening of the “flexible labour market” model which has failed to address regional inequalities in Germany and brought its more robust economy to the brink of recession.

The removal of freedom of movement disrupts the already highly precarious labour supply for UK food production, and the scope to water down EU-derived environmental regulations threatens to reduce workers’ rights in this area and the quality of much domestic produce. Advanced, professional and financial services—a key underpinning of London’s “Alpha+” global city status and the engine of the UK’s neoliberal economy—are also threatened by the loss of freedom of movement and the lack of provisions for continued trade in comparison to goods. That a government led by the plutocratic wing of the Conservative Party wouldn’t blink twice in undermining the British economy is depressing but not surprising. But that Labour Party MPs thought it worth actively backing—even with the paper tiger threat of no-deal Brexit safely isolated by Conservative whips—shows an alarmingly widespread paucity of nous and vision.

Starmer’s apparent strategy of obsequious support for the government in the “national interest” as defined by the Tory-conceived tabloid creation of Red Wall Man, for example in keeping schools open at all costs amid rampant transmission of coronavirus, does not augur well. “Never interrupt your enemy while they are making a mistake” is carried by Starmer to its extreme in supporting the Brexit deal. The supposition that Brexit is, in and of itself, an epic mistake by Johnson and the Tories which will naturally result in failure and return Labour to power is itself a grand error. It situates Labour’s success as a function of anticipated Tory failure; it is not built on a radical and viable alternative programme, such as the 2017 manifesto which secured 40% of the popular vote.

Boris Johnson’s boon has been in making his “success” a subjective measure not based on national economic performance, or delivery of promised freeports and enterprise zones, but on setting low bars and nearly achieving them. Now that he has “got Brexit done” the key to his next victory is simply avoiding—or at least plausibly denying—the scale of logistical and supply problems caused by the Brexit deal. It would be foolish to underestimate his brass neck in this: the chaos relating to the border closure before Christmas was successfully dismissed first as a mere 174 lorries, only to be shrugged up to 500 or 600 lorries a day later. By the time the truth had emerged that the traffic-jam in Kent was more like a systemic shutdown involving flows of goods and people to the UK from across much of Europe, Johnson had shifted the narrative to his Brexit deal “success”.

Meanwhile in the USA and in several major EU states—partly as a result of the pandemic, and partly a generational rejection of life under neoliberal rule—the erstwhile radical ideas of nationalisation, public healthcare, state planning and a reinvigorated welfare state are becoming the new common sense. This has played a formidable role in building the coalitions necessary to defeat right-wing incumbents already in Spain, Portugal and the USA.

What is galling about Starmer’s strategy is that under a previous leadership the party had done all of this pioneering work already, for example on a renewed public ownership of resources such as universal broadband or local authority public housing. In order to muster the coalition to achieve power, all Starmer has to do is stand on the ground the party is already on, expand the reach of its offer and avoid blundering mistakes. The decision instead to expunge all aspects of Labour’s leftward drift and indulge the Tories’ Red Wall Man on all of the reactionary aspects of Brexit throws away an “oven-ready” basis for a confident return to power, couching Labour’s success only as a concomitant of Tory failure.

Global geopolitical shifts in energy and trade, coronavirus and climate breakdown are breathing down the neck of an increasingly detached national body politic that uses the number of lorries parked in Kent as a yardstick for the success or failure of a 2,000-page trade-deal. Instead of following Johnson’s lead, or using obsolete Blairite formulas, Labour should avoid chasing the ghosts of Brexit and set about constructing an alternative offer before it’s too late. The electoral stakes have scarcely been higher, with boundary changes assisting the Conservatives in England and the prospect of Scotland seeking independence within the decade.

The Corbyn leadership, for all the criticism of fence-sitting and dithering on Brexit it received, realised and acted decisively upon the need to offer a new prospectus to an expanding layer of discontented working people across the whole country. Starmer has shown little by way of imperative in this direction so far, playing it dangerously safe in pandering to the patriotism of the Red Wall straw-man on a consistent basis. This approach renders Labour a supplicant to a Tory-tabloid definition of the “national interest” and could be just the crutch Johnson needs to “fail upwards” yet again.

Michael Rafferty is a doctoral student at the University of Luxembourg.

Image: Brexit. Source: Brexit. Author: Christoph Scholz,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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