Schematising Labour’s Euroscepticisms

January 15, 2018

As I discussed in my post on ideologies of Brexit, there are a range of different left attitudes to the EU and Brexit. In this very short post I want to focus on just one category of left attitudes to Brexit: euroscepticism in the Labour party.

Basically everyone in Labour understands that trade with the EU is of great economic value. Disagreements come over what other elements of EU membership are desirable, or undesirable. I think you can usefully schematise those disagreements along two dimensions: whether EU constraints on national-level economic intervention are on balance good or bad; and whether free movement of labour within the EEA is on balance good or bad.

Schematised into a good old two-by-two matrix, the basic positions are as follows:

Although this is an extremely simple schema, it is still has one more dimension than a lot of UK public sphere debate about Brexit. A lot of debate over Brexit is stuck in the spectrum of ‘hard’ through ‘soft’ Brexit. Likewise, a lot of liberal analysis is attempting to frame political debates in terms of ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ politics.

In my view debates over Brexit outcomes are better reconceptualised by assuming that we are negotiating over some variant of single market membership (or ‘access’, if one prefers), and getting clear on which if any bits of the current single market rules we most want to negotiate exemptions from. Those exemptions might not be achievable, given the EU’s own negotiating position and the UK’s likely unwillingness to trade off too many other EU benefits, but we would at least be clearer about where we stand.

For Bennites (or Lexiters), the answer to this basic question is clear: EU economic governance rules significantly constrain national, democratically elected governments’ industrial policy and/or interventionist economic decision-making. Corbyn and McDonnell want this to end, to the extent that this is achievable, and this is their major substantive (as opposed to tactical) objective in their Brexit positioning.

For many others in the Parliamentary Labour Party, the answer is equally clear: the public has rejected free movement of labour within the EU – we must listen to these Very Real Concerns and do what we can to reduce immigration. Whether this position is held sincerely or not, a lot of the PLP regard free movement as politically toxic, and don’t want Labour to be associated with it.

Although current Labour Brexit policy is still one of ‘constructive ambiguity’, the eurosceptic messages Labour is sending are currently a synthesis of these two basic positions. The leadership has chosen to triangulate on immigration, in the belief that this will appease both anti-immigration voters and Very Real Concerns factions in the PLP. Against this, a lot of liberals are making the economic case for single market membership – often together with a quieter advocacy for negotiated exemptions from freedom of movement, as in Tony Blair’s recent interventions.

There’s a lot that can be said about all this, but the main point I want to make is that, of the four quadrants of this simple matrix, the bottom left quadrant – ‘open borders Bennism’ – is severely underrepresented in current public sphere debate. There is plenty of advocacy for full ongoing EU membership; for single market membership with negotiated exemptions from freedom of movement; and for ending both freedom of movement and EU government constraints on UK economic interventions, in one way or another. There is much more limited advocacy for preserving – and extending – EU-wide free movement rights, while also undoing constraints on national-level government economic interventions.

Schematised still more simply, the EU and its related institutions offer four freedoms within the EEA internal market: of goods, services, capital, and labour. Almost everyone in the UK Labour Party wants to minimise disruption to trade in goods and services. But there is significant debate over whether to retain or constrain the power of capital, and whether to retain or constrain the rights of labour.

At this (rather unwieldy) level of abstraction, I think a good case can be made that the ‘correct’ left position is to give democratic governments within the EU greater power relative to capital, and at the same time to maximise freedom of movement for citizens within the EU. This position – ‘open borders Bennism’, if you like – may be impossible to achieve in practice, and may be an electoral non-starter regardless, but I wish it had more and more prominent advocates in current left debates.


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