The Labour Party position on Brexit

On 19th May, Keir Starmer, Shadow Secretary of State for Brexit spoke at the Fabian Society Summer Conference. I found this the clearest and most explicable account I have read of the Labour Party’s position, and for the first time I felt I understood the logic behind it – even if I disagree with it.
The key points are that the Labour Party:

– is concentrating on supporting the Lords amendments which give control back to Parliament.
– remains committed to its six tests of the Brexit deal (all of which have been promised by Theresa May), and will vote against the motion to approve the deal if it fails to meet them.
– is not supporting the People’s Vote campaign, because the timescales make it impractical, and polling suggests it might deliver a divisive and inconclusive result.

However, nothing is ruled out, since things can change rapidly.

My full note is at: The Labour position Fabians May 18 web

What next on Brexit?

During the last year, my thinking about our relationship with the European Union has been evolving. I remain convinced that leaving is a major act of political, social, and economic self harm (in that order), which will damage most many of those who voted to leave. This is a (long) account of my views. I have written it against the background of a debate in the Broadland Constituency Labour Party about what the Party should do, but has wider implications.

A political project

For me, membership of the European Union is about values, peace and solidarity with our friends and neighbours. The European Union is probably the most ambitious political project ever attempted. It set out to create a community of shared values, among countries of widely differing sizes and cultures, operating in 24 official languages. Above all it set out to prevent Europe sliding back into the internal warfare which had been the norm for centuries, culminating in the horrors of two twentieth century wars. Since its creation we have seen the establishment of democracy across all the member states, and the longest period of peace in Europe since the Roman Empire. No one under 80 today has any real experience of what it was like to live with war, and we have come to think of peace as normal: it is not: we live in an increasingly dangerous world, where we need friends, not enemies.

One of the strategies of the Brexit campaigners, over the decades they have been fighting the battle, is to claim that the EU is fundamentally an economic union, and can therefore be judged by economic outcomes: a weighing of costs and benefits. But this is a (deliberate) mistake.

The EU was founded on a set of fundamentally social democratic values. It supports democracy, citizens’ rights, equitable treatment of countries and organisations. Through the EU, the member states agree major, overarching goals for public policy. It recognises the role of government, at regional, national and European levels in regulating markets and ensuring fair treatment for all players. It aims to address big and complex issues which extend beyond the boundaries of nation states, like climate, demographic, technological and industrial change. It also aims to make it easy for people throughout the Union to behave as if they were in one country, with no barriers to movement, working and living.

A democratic institution

In any democracy there are competing views, interests and strategies. Good governance depends on maintaining a delicate balance between majority and minority interests, and between member states and the collective Union. Of course, it cannot always satisfy everyone. Complex compromises are essential. Sometimes this involves long implementation timescales, sometimes exceptions are made for individual member states. Reaching agreement with all the parties and countries can be mind numbingly slow and tedious, but is still better than war. Inevitably disputes arise about the interpretation of EU laws and regulations, and The European Court of Justice (to which each member state appoints a judge) exists to adjudicate on such disputes.

Negotiating and agreeing solutions involves complex work by the EU’s civil service, the Commission (which is a relatively small for the size of the task: about the size of a middle sized UK Government Department). Sometimes the Commission funds research to understand the challenges and possible solutions.  Where solutions call for significant legislation or regulation, the decisions are taken jointly by the member states (through the Council), and the elected Parliament. To pass, legislation must be supported by a majority of countries, representing a majority of the population, as well as a majority in the Parliament. Over time, the processes and institutions have evolved to increase transparency, accountability and democratic influence.

The Euro is a special, and difficult issue in the debate on the EU. In retrospect, many believe that it was a mistake to set it up without an accountable democratic system of governance, and the UK was certainly wise to opt out (another example of how the EU can adapt to a particular nation’s issues). The result has been inappropriate lending policies followed by the imposition of punitive regulations on some member states. These problems have been exacerbated by the economic crisis of 2008 (not the fault of the EU), and as a result, public confidence in the Euro, and the EU as a whole has been badly shaken. Those who criticise the lack of democratic accountability in the management of the Euro have a case, but the Euro is not the EU.

Losing our influence

Since we voted to join the European Economic Community in 1975, the UK has always been one of the most influential members. Because it is the third largest country by population, very few significant decisions are taken without UK support, usually in alliance with Germany and France. On issues of particular sensitivity to the UK we have been given special treatment (exclusion from the Schengen Agreement on free movement, and from the Euro, and a large rebate on our notional subscriptions). British diplomats, lawyers and civil servants have a high reputation and significant roles in the workings of the EU. When the Lisbon Treaty established the role of High Representative on Foreign Affairs (to speak for the EU on international issues) the first appointee was a British Labour politician. It is ironic that it was a British lawyer who drafted Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, with the aim of appeasing the right wing of the British Conservative Party.

The suggestion that the UK has no influence over laws and regulations is a myth. Between 1999 and 2016, the EU passed 2592 laws. In the Council of Ministers, the UK voted in favour of 95% of these (2466). The level of disagreement is, of course, higher than this, since drafts are only presented to Parliament and the Council after lengthy diplomatic preliminary work, where some ideas are removed before even being published. UK Ministers have sometimes voted against the majority of elected UK MEPs.

The EU’s evolving mission

Meanwhile, the EU continues to evolve, and will go on doing so after/if the UK leaves.  The Union has agreed a set of ten future policy priorities:

  • Jobs, growth and investment
  • Digital single market
  • Energy union and climate
  • Internal market
  • Deeper and fairer economic and monetary union
  • A balanced and progressive trade policy to harness globalisation
  • Justice and fundamental rights
  • Migration
  • A stronger global actor
  • Democratic change

All of these issues matter to the UK, and to the electorate who voted in the referendum. If we stay within the EU, we would have the opportunity to influence the direction of these policies. Outside, we have no voice, but the EU will move on without us. For the last 43 years we have been “rule makers” in EU policy, and if we leave we will necessarily become “rule takers”, since our economy depends so heavily of the EU, There is no option to ignore the policies of the EU. We are 60 million, the 27 countries are 440 million. It is absurd to think that we will continue to have as much influence over the issues which matter most to us after Brexit as we have now.

In 2019 elections will be held for the European Parliament. If Brexit goes ahead, the UK’s parliamentary seats will be redistributed among the other member states, and we will lose our democratic voice.

The EU and the member states

The EU is a collaborative club of member states, who join for mutual benefit, and agree to contribute to the costs. The success of the common enterprise depends on everyone playing by the rules, but being prepared to tolerate compromises to meet the particular needs of individual states.

What is not negotiable is commitment to the “four freedoms” (freedom of movement of goods, services, money and people) which gives equal rights to all citizens, companies and organisations, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which adjudicates in disputes.

If any member state refuses to abide by these rules, it acquires an unfair advantage over the other members, which is precisely what the Union was created to avoid. It is therefore essential to the survival of the entire enterprise that no country breaks these rules. The EU has no interest in “punishing” the UK if it leaves, but it cannot reasonably be expected to agree to the UK having an unfair advantage over its members. If everyone leaves the club and expects to keep the benefits, there is no longer a club!

What did people vote for?

The Brexit referendum offered a simple binary choice. Campaigners on both side offered visions of the consequences of leaving or remaining, but most of this was inevitably speculation, and much was exaggerated. In a real sense, no one could know what they were voting for.

Opinion polls since have tried to investigate what people thought they were voting for, and the picture is not at all clear. Some thought it was primarily about immigration, while others prioritised “control” (though whose control over what was much less clear). One significant poll shortly after the referendum illustrates the problem. When asked whether people would prioritise remaining in the Single Market over controlling immigration, the balance was 2:1 in favour of remaining in the Single Market: a policy which the Government has repeatedly rejected.

What outcomes are possible?

In principle there can only be four outcomes from the Brexit negotiations:

“No deal”

meets the requirement to honour the referendum result, but it is inconceivable, and no one seriously believes that it will happen. If all existing agreements and treaties lapsed on 29th March 2019, there would be no legal authority to adjudicate in disputes between the UK and the rest of the EU, and businesses would be unlikely to risk operating across the border. Air traffic would stop, existing EU contracts would be in limbo, imports of medical isotopes for cancer treatment would stop, and financial services based in the UK would no longer be able to do business in the rest of the EU. The Irish border would be closed, with a threat to political stability. The legal status and rights of UK citizens living in the EU, and EU citizens living in the UK would be unclear. World Trade Organisation tariffs would be introduced immediately on UK exports to the EU (and probably EU imports to the UK), causing major delays at ports, given the need for large numbers of additional customs checks. Import delays would provoke serious food shortages. If businesses believed that this was at all likely, the emergency plans required to protect their commercial interests might cause significant unemployment and social disruption.

Soft Brexit

can also meet the requirement to “leave”, though Brexit campaigners differ in what compromises they would accept. There are several variants of “soft Brexit” (including Norway, Canada, Switzerland), but all involve “cherry picking” which bits of EU rules and institutions we remain in, and what we pay for the privilege. All depend on the willingness of the other member states to agree, and all require us to renounce our seats on the Council, Parliament, Commission and Court of Justice, and to give up our votes on laws, regulations and the future direction of the Union. To continue to cooperate on issues like medicines, crime and air traffic we would need to create a large number of new institutions to parallel those which we are members of as members of the EU. We would need to create a new body to adjudicate in disputes, to replace the ECJ. Any realistic version of “soft Brexit” would thus be very expensive to implement and while it would satisfy the requirement to “leave”, it would not actually increase control over anything significant.

Stop Brexit

is still an option, but would clearly not honour the expectations of those who voted for Brexit. Up until 29th March 2019, the UK can withdraw its notice to leave, and return to its previous status. The UK would retain unrestricted access to the EU market, and benefit from the EU’s trade agreements with 70 odd other countries either agreed or in active negotiation. In return it must continue to contribute to the budget and subscribe to the four freedoms. Although Parliament has the constitutional right to decide to stop the Brexit process, it is unlikely to do so for fear of punishment by the electorate for abandoning the “will of the people”. It therefore requires either a substantial change in public opinion (which is not yet evident) or a new mandate (through a general election or a new referendum on the terms on offer).

Leave and return.

The UK might decide to leave the EU on one of the bases listed above, and then, after some years, change its mind. Opinion polling suggests that public opinion is quite likely to support this, since opposition to membership is far greater among older people. However, under EU law, the UK would have to apply like any new applicant state, and abide by the rules. This would probably require us to join Schengen and the Euro, and lose the current budget rebate. This would be a very expensive option.

The Labour Party’s policy

Finally, a comment on the parochial interests of the UK Labour Party. The last two years have shown the extraordinary irresponsibility of the British Conservative Party, prepared to put at risk the UK’s economy, social welfare and standing in the world (all issues they claim to care about), to deal with an internal party squabble. Once again, they have demonstrated that retaining control of government in the party interest outbids any national interest. Against this, the Labour Party needs to be a strong voice for what is best for the UK as a whole. This should be a principled position, not based on our chances of tipping out a weak and divided government, desirable as that is.

Respected legal opinion is that nothing in the 2017 Labour Manifesto is prohibited by EU laws. Where there is any doubt, our chances of changing things are greater as members than as outsiders. It is also clear that there are many things that some on the political right would like that are prevented by membership. Freedom from EU laws and regulations would enable a Conservative UK government to repeal legislation protecting workers’, citizens’, and consumers’ rights. It would also protect us from the EU’s plans to regulate tax havens. It is not a coincidence that the leave campaign was led and funded by some of the richest people in the country, and supported by print media owned by tax exiles.

Conclusion

The referendum was limited, but legitimate. Although only 37% of the electorate voted leave, people were told that that a simple majority of those voting would be sufficient result, and 52% of them chose leave. They were told conflicting things about whether the result would be binding on the government, and about what leaving might mean. Only when the current negotiations are complete will anyone know what the real choice is.
Parliament has the constitutional right to stop Brexit when it sees the result of the negotiation, but to do so would be politically dangerous, not only for parties and MPs but for social cohesion and the national interest. I therefore believe that Parliament requires a new mandate on the terms actually available. This could be achieved by:

  • a general election where the parties took distinct clear positions, for and against Brexit on the terms negotiated
  • a general election where one party at least campaigned for a referendum on the terms negotiated
  • a referendum on the terms negotiated, without a general election

Each of these has risks and advantages, but to allow this government, with no Parliamentary majority, to put the future of our security, economy and rights at risk to resolve internal party disputes would be the height of irresponsibility.

The clock is ticking. The terms must be clear by October to allow them to be ratified by the other member states. Any of these three options is likely to require some extension of the Article 50 period beyond March 2019, and the other member states might be sympathetic to agreeing this, since most of them would prefer us to remain members, However, this causes problems for the European Parliament elections due in May 2019. It is vital, in the national interest, that the Labour Party makes its position as clear as possible, as quickly as possible.

Its our future: give us the choice!

In a democracy, we elect a Government, and if we don’t like what they do, we vote them out.
Leaving the European Union is not like that: once we have left, its over for us, our children and grandchildren, so it is important to get it right.
Since the Referendum, people have seen how complicated it is to leave the EU. Although many people simply want the Government to “get on with it”, a growing number are having second thoughts, and think we should have a vote on the final deal.
When we voted in the Referendum the choice was simple – “leave” or “remain”. But what “leave” meant could not be clear, since no country has ever left before. With a “soft Brexit” we would carry on much as before, but just give up our voting rights and the protection of the European Court of Justice. With a “hard Brexit” we would break all our ties, which almost all experts (whether they are “remainers” or “leavers”) think would be disastrous for our living standards and quality of life.
The Government hopes for something in between. It believes that it can negotiate a deal with most of the advantages of membership and few of the costs. The other 27 countries have repeatedly made it quite clear that they will not agree to this – if you leave a club you give up the right to make the rules. In the first round of negotiation, the UK Government has had to accept almost all the proposals made by the EU, on money, citizens’ rights and the Irish border. It is likely that the second phase will go the same way.
It is now clear that if we want to continue to trade with the countries of the EU (who represent around half of our international trade) there will be a price. We will lose our vote on European laws and regulations, but will still have to abide by many of them. Immigration will probably not fall, because our economy needs more nurses, doctors, chefs, and fruit pickers than we have here. We will still have to contribute to the EU budget as a price of keeping the benefits of free trade. We will lose the right to travel freely across Europe, the protection of our human rights, and a host of other benefits from free healthcare in Europe to access to nuclear isotopes for medical use.
Membership of the EU has been good for Britain, and we have been very influential in European policy and legislation. The EU has helped secure peace across the member states for the first time for centuries. It has given us environmental protection, and high standards for food and consumer products. European regulations, and the adjudication of the European Court of Justice have ensured that UK businesses can compete on a level playing field with their European competitors, and that individuals are protected against unfair treatment by employers and their own government. Its funding programmes have invested in the poorest communities in Britain to support growth and development, when our own Government did not.
Most of the problems we face, and which probably provoked the “leave” vote, were caused by our Governments, not by “Europe”. The massive growth in inequality of wealth and income was a result of our own Government’s failure to manage the economy and taxation. Under the rules of the EU (which we helped create) we could have supported our steel industry, maintained a nationalised railway, and prevented privatisation in the NHS. Within the EU’s rules on “free movement” we could have managed migration by people who do not find employment, in the way that many other EU countries do – our Government chose not to do so.
Since the Referendum it has become clear that the Government wants to “take back control” of our laws and borders, but to give that control, not to voters, or to our elected MPs, but to the Executive. Theresa May has repeatedly tried to bypass our elected MPs, resisting attempts to allow Parliament to vote on Brexit strategy, and hiding the Government’s own analysis of the effects of Brexit. This is not democracy.
For this reason, groups of concerned citizens across the UK have been coming together to campaign for a referendum on the deal which our Government negotiates, with a clear option to decide that the deal on offer will be worse for Britain and its people that staying in the EU (it is ironic that the people who will benefit most from staying in, are in the areas which voted most strongly to leave).
However, we live in a democracy, and if there is a clear vote in favour of leaving on the terms which the Government negotiates, I would accept that decision. What is unacceptable is for a Government without a Parliamentary majority to decide what is best for us.

My team: right or wrong

Why are people not changing their minds as the difficulties of Brexit become increasingly clear?

Since the referendum, exit negotiations have made almost no progress, and the Government is increasingly in disarray, with Ministers and MPs quarrelling about what they want, and what it might mean. Public dissatisfaction with progress has risen substantially, with a clear majority believing that the negotiations are being badly handled.

Yet public opinion remains stubbornly unchanged on the central issue. Those who voted to leave remain leavers, and many of those who voted remain accept the “will of the people” and believe that Brexit should happen, even if they believe it will be an economic and/or a social disaster.

Yet the “will of the people” is a lie, amplified by the passionate Brexiters and through the right wing press. Three quarters of the population (including those too young to vote, who will be most affected) did not vote for Brexit. Two thirds of the electorate did not vote for Brexit (either by voting against or not voting at all). Those who did vote divided almost equally between leavers and remainers, with a very small margin in favour of leave. A minority of MPs voted for Brexit, and two thirds of Labour supporters and voters did so.

It is also clear that those who did vote for Brexit did so for a wide range of, often incompatible, reasons, and the Government has already conceded that many of these will not be achieved. Immigration will not fall, because the economy and public services depend heavily on immigrant labour. There will not be more money for public services, since all commentators agree that the short term effect will be an economic contraction, as we see with UK growth falling behind the rest of the EU. “Control” by the people or by Parliament will not be increased, as we lose our MEPs and our seat on the Council of the EU, which will continue to set the rules for much of our trade, and the Government centralises power in the hands of Ministers. We will not see an expansion of trade  with the rest of the world, as we struggle to renegotiate (from a position of weakness) the many trade deals which we are party to as EU members.

What is the explanation for this effective support for Brexit, despite the fact that it  is increasingly difficult to do?

Firstly, most people do not understand much about the EU, and do not care much about it. Until two years ago, when opinion polls asked about what issues concern people, Europe always figured low down the list, far below the NHS, housing, schools, and employment. During the referendum campaign the EU rose up the list, but it has now returned to its previous low place. So until the referendum people took little interest. The achievement of the leave campaigners was to harness these other concerns to the idea of the EU, and persuade people that leaving the EU would in some way solve these problems, despite the fact that the EU has little or no impact on any of them.

Because most people know little, and care little, about the EU per se, when forced to take a simple yes/no position their decision was more emotional than rational.  Because it was a binary choice, people came to see it as like a football match in which one side wins and the other loses. And like football supporters, they feel they have chosen their team, and they support it, even when it is badly managed, and constantly defeated. True supporters do not abandon their team just because it loses matches.

This is why evidence of the difficulties and the losses we might face from Brexit carry no weight. Opponents at home, or in the rest of Europe, are seen as an enemy to be defeated (despite the Government’s rhetoric about “friends and partners”). Evidence of failure is seen as a new challenge to be fought against, not an argument for compromise. What the leavers want, with a passion, is to leave, whatever that might mean, and they are quite willing to accept changes in policy in the interests of winning.  It seems that many, perhaps most, leavers will accept continued migration, devaluation and economic decline, perhaps even unemployment, in order to win. Furthermore, they have been repeatedly told, and they believe, that they represent the will of the people: all right thinking people are on their side, and the rest are traitors.

This presents all political parties with a challenge. Because the referendum was set up on a simple majority of those voting, and a marginal majority has come to be seen as the will of the people, they feel (wrongly in my view) that it would be undemocratic to resist. So ardent, and no so ardent, remainers support leaving as “democratic”. For the large majority of professional politicians (who were remainers), the task has become to find a solution which demonstrates that we have “left” while doing the least social, economic, and diplomatic damage.

For the Conservatives this involves appeasing the extreme Brexiters, who for a range of ideological and personal reasons seriously want to leave. Although they remain a minority of Conservative MPs, and probably Conservative members, they will be constantly alert to betrayal, and they do understand the detail on issues they care about. With the right wing media, they will cry foul at the first opportunity, particularly if this fits with personal career advancement.

For the Labour Party the problem is different. Because the public opinion contest is not a rational one, anything which looks like resisting the will of the people will be seen (however spuriously) as betrayal of democracy.  Despite the fact that a clear majority of members, supporters and MPs were remainers, and probably a majority remain so, the dangers of appearing to reject a democratic vote are seen as too great. Hence the current position, to repeat endlessly that we are leaving, while trying to ensure that we travel the shortest possible distance from membership. The risk is that the endless repetition of accepting the will of the people reinforces the belief that leaving is the will of the people, when this is plainly untrue. It is appeasing bullies.

The hope for Labour remainers is that somehow public opinion will shift to stopping Brexit, but the evidence is slim, for the reasons I have outlined. People have taken sides, and will die rather than admit that they were wrong.

So what would a Labour minimal Brexit look like? We would remain, for at least a “transition” period and perhaps indefinitely, in the single market and the customs union, because of the huge trade advantages, and because this is the only way of resolving the Irish border problem. This would require us to retain free movement of people and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, membership of most or all of the host of collaborative and regulatory institutions like the Medicines Agency, and continue to contribute to the budget. The Government has already conceded that the volume of migration will not change, we will simply have “control”. Historically, the UK has chosen not to use the controls on movement which are available to it. As Belgium and Luxembourg demonstrate, “free movement” does not mean uncontrolled free movement, or unlimited access to housing or welfare benefits. The ECJ is a totemic issue for the far right, but most people care little about it. As long as we trade with the EU at all we will need a system to adjudicate on disputes, and it would be wasteful to create a parallel court to shadow the ECJ on this. On the budget, most people have no conception of the numbers: that our current contribution is tiny as a proportion of Government spending. Most will accept with a shrug a “divorce settlement” of £60bn rather that £20bn, since these are numbers beyond individual comprehension, and the scope for fudging over time is considerable.

The great and sad irony, is that the one thing we must do to demonstrate that we have left, is resign our formal democratic influence on the EU, its policies and rules. It is inconceivable that people will accept a Brexit which retains our seats on the Parliament and the Council. So we give up our position as one of the “big three” nations, without whose consent little has happened in the EU until now, and become “rule takers” like Norway, obliged to implement rules which we have no say in formulating. When this becomes clear, it might be the tipping point when people recognise this nonsense for what it is. It might be too late.

Have I changed my mind?

Last night at a local Labour Party meeting I was challenged about some of the views I expressed last year about the leadership of the Party, and divides within it. We had an interesting debate, and this post is a response. At its simplest, I have not changed my view of what we want, but I have changed my mind about what might be possible.

Firstly, I joined the Labour Party because I believe that we live in a profoundly unequal society. This is not merely immoral, it is bad for both winners and losers. A divided society is an unhappy society, and people lose sight of what matters in life and lose the ability to change things. I believe that the Labour Party is the party most likely to do something serious about this inequality, and as someone privileged by the accident of birth I have a duty to try to help. I have been fortunate to spend my working life doing things which I believed were making the world a better place, but which were also intellectually stimulating and personally rewarding. Many people don’t have that opportunity, and working for the Party is one way in which I hope to repay some of the debt.

Secondly, I believe that most members of the Labour Party share a set of beliefs: above all that resources and opportunities should be more fairly divided, and that the state should provide the core services which people need to provide security and opportunity, and a safety net for those who fall out of the mainstream, for whatever reason. Everyone should have the right to a safe secure place to live, decent rewarding work which makes a positive contribution to society, prompt and appropriate support when they are ill or need caring. In the fifth richest country in the world it is scandalous that we do not secure those things.

I don’t believe that Tony Blair or Jeremy Corbyn differ greatly in this: where they have differed is in how to achieve it, and what is politically possible in a given environment.  This is not a matter of morality or principle, but of political judgement and context. The gap between Blair and Corbyn is far smaller than their distance from our “conservative” opponents, who believe (wrongly, but often in good faith) that removing the state and allowing free play to the market will produce better outcomes for everyone. Blair may have misjudged the potential of markets to produce a fairer society, but I don’t believe that he intended that markets should make things less equal. In retrospect he was clearly wrong, but he made those judgements in a very different time.

We interpret the Labour mission in differing ways and in different contexts. In the 1970s, when I was first involved,  we had lived with a set of (broadly Keynesian) economic and social models which had dominated Western countries since 1945, and which were shared broadly by Labour and Conservative governments (look at the Conservative record of council house building, or creating comprehensive education).  However, after 1970, those models began to weaken, and many people began to feel that the model was broken, though they differed in how they explained that.  This opened the door to ideologues on right and left who proposed radical solutions. The ideology which won, was an extreme right wing one of free markets, which bore little connection to the traditional “one nation” conservatism, let alone traditional Labour values.  Since 1980, that neo-liberal consensus has dominated politics and economics. When the Conservative Party collapsed in 1997, a Labour Party inherited that consensus, and when it tried to implement its historic mission, it did so from that base. New Labour believed that after 17 years of being told that there is only one way of thinking, people would resist radical change, even if they sought it. The result was a regime of “doing good by stealth”.  Whatever one thinks of Tony Blair as a person, he led a government of many major achievements , from the minimum wage to abolishing pensioner poverty, and the creation of Sure Start. Schools and hospitals were renovated and new ones built on a large scale (even if the financial juggling required has pushed problems down the road to a future generation).  Britain’s standing in the world increased, and a very long economic boom did benefit many ordinary people.  When the global economic crash came, Gordon Brown played a major part in avoiding global economic collapse (for which he rarely receives any credit). We boasted too little about the achievements, and sometimes it seems that people on the left have forgotten them.

However, the fruits of the boom years were not evenly distributed, and there were some major misjudgements, of which the Iraq adventure was the most indefensible. Like many people of my generation, I marched against the Iraq war and resigned from the Party when they did not listen.  As a result, the Blair governments are wrongly remembered (especially perhaps by those do not remember where we were in 1997) as a disaster.

In 2008, capitalism, as we had understood it since the 1980s (and perhaps much longer), failed. Predictably, most people, not very interested in politics or economics, looked for personal scapegoats – a conspiracy by bankers, elites, “experts” to serve their own (usually financial) interests – rather than a systemic failure of an ideology. But it was the machine that failed, not the drivers.

The collapse broke the credibility of the neoliberal model, and people across the developed world became more frightened, but also more open to the idea of radical change.  For those of us on the left in the UK, this opens an opportunity. At the point where most people are willing to consider radical solutions, the right is destroying itself over Brexit. UKIP, which never had any serious intellectual roots and was a single cause campaign, seems to have worn itself out, while the Conservative Party is hopelessly divided over Brexit, the biggest issue of the decade, between free market ideologues who would willingly risk the whole economy on a political principle, and “one nation Tories” who are horrified by the risks, but unable to see an escape route.

By contrast, the Labour Party is presenting a coherent alternative. The 2017 Manifesto offered a positive vision of a different kind of society, based on the core values which Labour members share with a majority of the population (including many Tory voters, when they get a chance to hear).  The Party’s relative success in the 2017 General Election reflected the charisma of an authentic leader, but also a platform which had massive appeal to people seeking solutions to deep social problems. This bound us together. There will  continue to be disagreements and divides, but we are united in a way which we have not seen for a decade or more. Despite the press coverage, the Corbyn revolution is not a matter of teenage groupies chanting for their hero, nor is it a defeat for traitorous “Blairite” neoliberal MPs. Here in rural Norfolk, most of the flood of new members are aged 50+, seeing an opportunity at last to achieve some of the things we hoped for in the heady days of the 1960s.  The tide which has been against us for nearly 40 years is turning, and we can unite in imagining, and building, a better world.

I am neither a Blairite nor a Coybynista. Leadership matters enormously, but we need more than the leader: Clement Attlee (one of the least charismatic of leaders) presided over one of the  most revolutionary governments ever.  The leader needs a united team, of Ministers, MPs and members.

I believe that we now have that. We always shared the underlying vision. When we doubted the leadership a year ago, it was not hostility to the ideas, it was a judgement about tactics, and concern about problems in management of the party, which now look like the teething problems of a team with very little experience of leadership or management.

Our fears have been allayed, but our aspirations are massive. Once we are in government we will have to work hard not to disappoint many who have bought the vision. I have seen enough of government to know that once in power, making change is long, slow, frustrating and difficult. There will be uncomfortable compromises along the way, and Brexit promises to be a huge wasteful diversion, and a limitation on our resources. Here in Broadland, our first challenge is to turn 700 members into a serious campaigning force, but the second will be to hold the vision, and to keep everyone on board while we recreate a national consensus on what is normal and right. A decent society deserves that.

Five Provocations

Most politics, at national and international levels, operates on the assumption that the world will continue to be broadly as it is, and that the survival of a relatively prosperous, healthy and happy human population can be achieved by modest political interventions (even if these do not always succeed).

There are a number of reasons why this assumption about the future might not be true. Below are five “provocations”. Each is a debatable statement about a long term change, which might fundamentally disrupt our notions of human societies and how they are managed.  They have been developed in the light of conversations with the Norfolk Fabian Society, and some RSA Fellows in Norwich. However, the views are entirely my own. I am not claiming that any of them is necessarily true, and I am well aware that they are all oversimplifications of very complex issues. What I find most interesting, and perhaps under explored, is how they might interact.

Key points:

  • Each has been proposed in some form by serious people, and reflects a large body of theoretical and academic debate, in some case over many years. Each is in a sense a “caricature” for the purposes of debate.
  • They are happening simultaneously and they interact with each other in complex and unpredictable ways.
  • Responding to each of them will require disruptions which will be politically unwelcome, since they threaten the current distribution of resources
  • Responses require solutions which extend beyond the boundaries of nation states, and the timescales of conventional political careers

 

Five Provocations

My question is – are they true, and if so what should “we” do about them.

1.      Work and meaning: what replaces paid work?

Paid employment will cease to be a major part of most people’s lives. Human beings seek meaning and structure. Since the industrial revolution, paid employment has provided this for most people. But within a few decades AI/digitisation/robotics will destroy most of the kinds of work which provide paid employment now, including both manual tasks and those professional roles which depend on large bodies of knowledge and experience. This means that another mechanism will be needed to provide meaning and structure to people’s lives, and a new economic model will be required to share resources fairly. A universal basic income might be that model, but it is difficult to see how we get to it from where we are now.

2.      Artificial intelligence: is it too late to control?

Within the next 50 years AI will outstrip human intelligence. It may already be beyond our control. “Computers” “talk” to each other, they know about us, and “understand” what we say, they access vast and growing bodies of data about the world, they learn from us/each other/experience, they make things, they move, and they program other computers. It is no longer implausible that AI systems will replace or dominate the human species. Some believe that this will happen within the lifetime of people now alive.

3.      The end of capitalism: what will be a new economic model?

Capitalism is dying, but we are not yet aware of it. The deregulation of capitalism led to the crash of 2008. It is doubtful whether political control can be re-established in a way which enables capitalism to survive in its present form. One issue is the way in which technological change in the last 50 years has led to a concentration of wealth which is politically unsustainable in the long term, whatever political system obtains. Globalisation enables the poor to see how the rich live, and they are increasingly unwilling to tolerate it. The non-white, South will demand a fairer share of resources, and will take it, by migration, economic/political pressure, or war. The traditional role of much politics on the left – to defend the interests of workers and disadvantaged groups more generally in the home country, is in clear conflict with the international perspective.

4.      Replacing/reshaping democracy?

The forms of democracy which we have now will not survive. Democracy as we know it developed alongside capitalism, and is failing with it, accelerated by technology. Many of the challenges we face cannot be addressed at the level of the nation state, but international democracy has proved difficult even at the relatively modest level of Europe (the EU is the largest such experiment ever tried)

5.      Growth: can we live within our resources?

The earth does not, and will not, have the resources to enable all its population to have the material living standards which many aspire to (even at the level of the developed Western economies now). Furthermore, climate change is eroding the resources available, as population continues to grow (albeit at a declining rate). Current economic and social models are not sustainable.

All these statements can be challenged in detail. However, the important question is whether they are, in principle plausible, and if so what should we be doing, bearing in mind that many of the kinds of change implied will be deeply unpopular, and many current political trends (both conservative and radical) are intensifying the problems.  One critical issue is how they interact with each other.

After the Election – the 2017 Fabian Society Annual Conference

On 8th July 2017 the Fabian Society held its annual summer conference, attended by some 200 Fabian members. The event focused on the 2017 election, the manifesto, the campaign and lessons for the future, especially in relation to Brexit and Housing. These notes reflect my personal interests, and are certainly not a coherent account of the whole conference.

Fine keynote by Yvette Cooper, and especially interesting contributions by Lisa Nandy, Seema Malhotra and Emma Burnell.

The Election

We did not win, but we did well, partly because the Tories lost, with a disastrous campaign.

Hostility to the Tories was a strong factor, and the fact that no one expected us to win

Remember 130 seats swung from Labour to Conservative

We had a strong manifesto, we offered hope, and support for public services

We had a leader who presented passion, decency, authenticity (though the Corby effect is ambiguous – some voted for him, some voted despite him)

Because no one expected us to win, we were not subjected to thorough scrutiny, especially on the economics – this will not happen again!

We held the factions together around a shared manifesto, and avoided fragmenting and infighting

The result polarised constituencies substantially with the erosion of the minor parties. Seats where one party has more than 50% of the votes increased dramatically between 2015 and 2017. Tory seats from 52% to 77% and Labour seats from 46% to 85%.

There is no simple explanation of individual results – the largest Labour majorities were in Bristol West and Knowsley!

Leadership was a paradoxical issue – in focus groups, half of people said that they voted because of Corbyn, but half voted despite him

Parliament is more diverse than ever before. 45% of Labour MPs are women, there are 27 BAME MPs, and we have the largest ever proportion of “out” LGBT MPs.

The result has already reversed Tory policies on several issues – grammar schools, foxhunting, winter fuel, Northern Ireland abortion

The Manifesto

The manifesto was put together in a hurry, not all was thought through.

It was better at demonstrating our values and direction of travel than as a detailed plan – not all could be addressed in one Parliament, not all was affordable

Focus group evidence shows that the manifesto worked – people liked hope rather than fear.

They noticed our policies on Tuition Fees and Bank Holidays! They remembered the Tories for the U-turn on the “dementia tax” (the U-turn more than the policy itself) and foxhunting.

Tuition fee policy was popular among parents and grandparents, not just the young.

Our manifesto was weak on welfare and the poor

there was debate about the proposal to abolish Student Loans (though note Andrew Adonis’ Guardian article supporting abandoning loans). Is this the priority at this point? If the rationale for loans is that graduates should contribute because the degree leads to higher earnings, then raising income tax on the top 5% of earnings is a simpler and more rational policy, than forcing debt on people 75% of whom will never repay in full.

The new campaign

We remain on an election footing, though opinion varies on how soon that will be.

We need to keep the spirit of the Manifesto, but develop the arguments better, strengthen on welfare.

Attach hope to a viable programme for government

Focus on equipping people to deal with an uncertain future

Talk a language that people understand (most people think “the market” is where you buy your vegetables!)

Andy Harrop’s five priorities:

  1. We need to attract “left conservatives” – left on economics but socially conservative
  2. We need to build on our good result in Scotland
  3. We need to campaign (again) “in poetry” but be better prepared to govern “in prose” (we did the first well)
  4. We need a story on Brexit
  5. We need to be civil, inclusive and united.

Yvette Cooper’s four priorities:

  1. Hold the new voters and go beyond them. Bear in mind the electorate is volatile (a high proportion of 2017 Labour voters had never voted Labour before)
  2. Chart a progressive story about Brexit
  3. Address the divide between cities (overwhelmingly Labour, remainer, educated) and Towns
  4. Prioritise a kinder, gentler, democratic politics. Avoid negative campaigning

Address older voters – we now have a majority of voters in all age groups under 45

Address C2s – our weakest social class

Talk up our track record

Continue to make the Tories look bad – Parliamentary opposition important

Demonstrate the competence of the whole team

Remain united.

Brexit

Much debate, but general view is that it is likely to happen, and that opposing in principle now wins no votes.

Party/Starmer policy was clever. Labour is the safest home for remainers, and not hostile to leavers. The LibDem policy of direct opposition merely provokes resistance, and has not convinced the remainers that it is feasible.

We accept the referendum result, but are clear about what people need – the six points. People did not vote to become poorer, but that is certainly what they will get.

Starmer’s six red lines command support from remainers and leavers (and much of this was promised by leavers during the campaign!)

Now is not the time to become the “Remain” party, but the time may come (?). Telling people they were wrong or stupid does not change minds. Public opinion may be changing (poll and focus group evidence not clear) and may change further as negotiations proceed.

Closing our borders may well drive up “illegal” immigration, which will drive down wages and conditions faster than current migration does.

The EU

Brexit is not the main concern of the EU – they have other more pressing issues to worry about, including the kinds of reform what we wanted to see, which they are pushing ahead with.

The 27 remain incredulous, but resigned to Brexit. They still think we are deluded about what we can get out of it, and the strength of our negotiating position.

Despite recent results in Austria, Netherlands and France social democracy is in retreat across the EU – the European left sees the UK 2017 result is seen as a beacon of hope.

There is agreement on the need for reform, but the Euro makes this (even more) difficult

Housing

Housing is a major issue – some think the biggest issue for the next election

All three forms of tenure (owner occupation, social housing and private rented), are in crisis.

Government policy to expand demand merely inflates prices

We need to shift from income taxes to land/wealth taxes

Does housing affordability map onto voting behaviour – a research question?

Time for us all to grow up

Brexit is a terrible indictment of our political culture. We have all, on both sides, refused to behave like grownups, to take responsibility for our mistakes and misjudgements, and to be prepared to spend time understanding the issues, and recognising that change takes time. Watching a video of a woman in Lancashire in tears, berating some Remainers with “my father fought a war against the Germans, and they are walking all over us” reminded me sharply that on both sides people are experiencing extreme distress, the issues are as much emotional as practical. We are a deeply divided society, and the Prime Minister’s assurance that “65 million people want us to get on with it” is a straight and deliberate lie.
Human beings naturally tend to take recent achievements for granted, and complain about the things which have got worse. Those who hark back to the time before joined the Common Market forget how cold it was, how limited our diet, how poor most people’s education was, and how (by today’s standards) feeble our health services. We lived with the real risk of a nuclear war which might destroy the human race. Life expectancy was much shorter, and much work was hard, dull and damaging to people’s health. We had polluted rivers and poor air quality, only two TV channels, six month waits for a telephone line, few foreign holidays,
However, although most of these things are immeasurably better for almost everyone now, we Remainers failed to pay attention to what was happening in many communities which lost their sense of purpose in the 1980s. For them, the past has looked rosier than the future for a long time (partly because we were all younger then!). We have had a long time to think about it, but when the economic and cultural tide was swinging in our direction it felt as if all was well with the world, and we failed to see the need to take action. This was not just about a fairer distribution of money (though that might have helped). Money matters, but meaning and respect matter more. What was needed was an idea of how we create meaning in the lives of individuals and communities which had been founded round a clear purpose – mining, fishing, manufacturing, seaside holidays – which was not longer there. We still have no clear answers, but Brexit will certainly not provide one.
On the other hand, the Leavers, and the political representatives of their communities, failed to recognise that change comes slowly, some changes are irreversible, and all change involves compromises with people we disagree about, or with different interests. Nothing our government can do can bring back coal and steel, and there are no simple answers. Demagogues and populists offer simple, easy to understand, recipes, but they never work because the world is not like that. In its Article 50 letter, the Government is already proposing a Brexit which offers much less than the leavers promised. The referendum campaign focused around two major issues: free trade with our biggest trading partner and nearest neighbours, and the control of immigration. It was always clear that we could not have both, and the Government is now proposing to abandon the first in favour of the second. On the first, the loss of free trade will affect everyone. On the second, either we have a significant reduction in immigration, which will cause severe economic and social damage, or we don’t (as the Government is now hinting) in which case the leave campaigners will feel betrayed.
At the end of March a YouGov poll suggested that most people believe that Brexit will reduce immigration, but also that they will be worse off, prices will rise, and the UK will have less influence in the world. The people of the “left behind” communities will not have more influence over a Conservative government in Westminster than they have over a combination of Westminster and Brussels. When Brexit brings recession, these are the communities which will suffer most. Putting it right means working at creating change, and putting effort into real politics – thinking about alternatives, and working to bring them about.
People have always distrusted politicians, and the right wing media actively campaign to undermine trust in political institutions, because when they work well, they constrain the power of the rich and powerful. But politics is how we bring about change, and it is more than turning out to vote for a party every few years. We have failed to treat political education seriously in our education system, partly because of a crowded curriculum, and partly because of fear of indoctrination. But if people don’t learn about how change happens, and how it can be influenced, the sense of powerlessness persists, and feeds resentment and anger. It is not about how many MPs there are, it is about understanding how to find the facts, how to make the arguments, and how to make change.
It’s time we tried to be more grown up and to do the real work which citizenship requires.

A dark day for the UK

Yesterday the UK Government served notice that it intends to leave the European Union. We are leaving the second largest economy in the world, severing links which have kept the peace and brought us together with friends and neighbours for over 40 years. We have created uncertainty and instability in the lives of millions of people who have moved here from other parts of the EU, or have moved from here to other parts of the EU. We have given up our influence, our friends, and our economic future.  We have abandoned the idea that we could work better with our neighbours to solve major problems like climate change, product safety and quality, and decent working conditions. We have abandoned the idea that it is better to have a single European Court to rule on the implementation of agreements between European countries

For 40 years we have been one of the “big three” nations in the EU, with a major say in policy decisions. Membership magnified our influence on the world stage, and not much ever happened in Europe without the agreement of Germany, France and the UK. That is one reason why the overwhelming majority of MPs of all parties voted remain. Those who want to “take back control” over laws and regulations can rarely identify any specific regulations which they actually want to remove except things like the working time directive, which protect workers’ rights. On many progressive issues it is our Government which has obstructed progress.

Opinion polls suggest that the most important reason for people to vote leave was to control immigration. However, almost all the people living here who have come from other parts of the EU are either working, or are students. So our economy needs them. Since freedom of movement of people, capital, goods and services is the fundamental principle of the Union, full access to the single market was never going to be compatible with controlling movement of people into and out of the UK. So we are throwing away our free trade with our biggest market (44% of all our exports go to other EU countries), and our vote on how the Europan ecoomy is managed,  in return for controlling immigration. But if we reduce it, labour shortages will severely damage our economy: if we don’t reduce it, we will have given up our political influence and economic strengths in return for nothing.

We are leaving on the basis of a referendum which was explicitly advisory, where a narrow majority voted leave, and the leave campaign claimed that leaving would not prevent us remaining members of the single market. The Government’s claim that “65 million people want us to get on with Brexit” is demonstrably untrue. 11 million are under 15 and have no vote. Of those eligible to vote in the referendum 37% voted to leave, 35% voted to remain, and 28% did not vote. It is reasonable to claim therefore that at the time of the referendum 63% of the electorate did not want to change the status quo and leave the EU. Opinion polls since show that few people have changed their minds in either direction. The Government, and the leave campaigners have consistently tried to maintain the myth that the referendum result was a clear and overwhelming decision.

As of March 2017, we have no idea what kind of settlement will emerge from the next two years.  The process has started, and no political party expects to reverse the decision until the position is much clearer. However, it is entrirely possible that the terms of our leaving will be much worse, economically, socially and politically than remaining members, and it is possible that the majority of the electorate will agree, when the picture becomes clear. This is particularly likely since most young people, and most people with higher education qualifications voted to remain and most old people, and people without qualifications voted to leave. Over two years the balance between these two groups will inevitably shift in favour of the former, as young people enter the electorate and older people die.

The Government has promised that at the end of the negotiation Parliament will have a vote on whether to accept the deal (just as the Parliaments of the EU and the other 27 member states will). However, this plan will be a binary choice, between the deal negotiated or leaving without a deal, in which case a mass of regulations will be left in limbo, and we will be trading with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms, which will introduce tariffs and customs checks on many of our exports and imports.

This does not need to be the only choice. There will, in reality, be four options at the end of negotiations:

  1. Leave the EU on the terms negotiated. At present we have no idea what those terms might be. We know something of what our Government is asking for, but we cannot know what the other parties might be prepared to accept. There are strong political reasons why this may not be generous to the UK.
  2. Leave the EU but remain in the European Economic Area (like Norway). This is possible, since we are members of the EEA under a separate Treaty. EEA membership includes full membership of the single market, but not all the regulations (Norway opts out of the Fisheries policy). EEA members can restrict the free movement of people in specific circumstances.
  3. Leave the EU without agreement, reverting to World Trade Organisation rules. This would mean the immediate imposition of tariffs on British exports to the EU and to all other countries. The economic consequences would almost certainly be worse than the previous two options.
  4. Remain a member of the EU on the current terms. This might be achieved by our formally withdrawing our Article 50 notice. Whether this is possible is unclear, since the EU Treaty does not specify a right to withdraw Article 50 notice but neither does it prevent this. The draft response to our Article 50 letter from the European Parliament explicitly says that we can withdraw our notice, and this is currently under consideration in the Irish Courts. It would ultimately be a matter for the European Court of Justice to decide. Alternatively we could ask the other 27 states to agree to us withdrawing our Article 50 notice. They might wish to do this, and if they all agreed, they could legally allow this (members of the EU make the rules).

I believe that the final decision should rest with Parliament, considering all four options. Since the Brexit decision was made by referendum, it might be wise to undertake a referendum on the four options, to advise Parliament. This would avoid giving disproportionate weight to “the will of the people” as expressed at a particular moment in 2016.  Such a referendum would be less divisive than the 2016 one, since there would be four choices on offer.

Where next for the Left – ideas from the Fabian Conference

These are notes of points I found interesting at the Fabian Society’s January conference. It is not an accurate account of the many discussions, nor necessarily my own views.

Labour vision – respond to anxiety

  • This is an emotional time, people are scared and politics seems irrelevant (even the US security guarantees are no longer reliable)
  • Labour needs a change offer that promises security and doesn’t scare people – do we want a “more equal” or a “fairer” society?
  • We must build hope and positive values based vision – Labour must be more than a set of grievances
  • Help people to cope with change and protect those who will lose
  • Labour needs a new patriotic alliance based on principle and mutual security
  • Recognise that economy is not everything – attend to people’s sense of culture and identity – recognise people’s attachment to place, strengthen devolution
  • Reinvent the mixed economy round fair markets with industrial and regional strategy
  • Refound the welfare state – a new model of social security – consider Universal Basic Income
  • Retain our international commitment – ask what the UK can offer the world
  • On immigration ask “what’s best for the economy?”, and manage local/sectoral tensions creatively. Focus on integration, not immigration

Strategy

  • We have been talking to ourselves for too long. We have not made an argument with anyone we disagree with for years
  • 33 elections since 2010 the centre left won 5 (some with support from less than 25% of electorate) In Stoke on Trent Tristram Hunt was elected on 19% of electorate (turnout was only 50%)
  • The Brexit dilemma – if we try to block Article 50 May calls a General election which we lose, because of a divided opposition and press/public perception of democratic betrayal. She then has a clear mandate for a very hard Brexit –is that better?
  • Make it clear what hard Brexit means for local jobs and businesses – remember that, whatever they privately feel, most businesses won’t ring alarm bells for fear of undermining confidence, and weakening their individual competitive positions.

Brexit

  • Keep reminding people that they didn’t vote to destroy jobs and the UK economy
  • Resist the race to the bottom in economic terms, workers’ rights and social welfare
  • Non-negotiable issues:
    – Access to single market
    – Confirm that EU citizens already in the UK have an absolute right to stay
    – Ensure that employment and welfare rights are not reduced by Brexit
    – Retain commitment to rule of international law and human rights
    – Seek cooperative., collaborative relations with EU states and EU
    – Recommit to internationalism and multilateralism (not Trump’s bilateral deals)
    – Insist on a Parliamentary vote/referendum at the end of Article 50 process

Constitution

  • Our economic crisis was/is a failure of governance, not of economics or politics. Politicians failed to put proper institutions and regulations in place, and to police the laws which existed
  • We need a People’s Convention to renew our constitution, including relations between the four nations
  • We need a more proportional electoral system to restore public confidence
  • Follow the Electoral Reform Society’s 9 recommendations on Referenda, including legislation that Referenda must require 2/3 majorities (like the Commonwealth countries whose constitutions were written by British lawyers)
  • Build networks not institutions
  • Create a job description for MPs so people understand what they do and why
    Introduce compulsory citizen’s juries
  • Make voting compulsory voting – this removes the incentive to minimise turnout, there are then no safe assumptions about likely results
  • Nottinghamshire “Power to the People” project?

A couple of notes on the inclusive society of Theresa May

  • Since 2010 Conservatives have cut £4.6b from social care, precipitating the crisis in the NHS – the current proposal to allow Local Authorities to raise Council Tax rise could restore 3% of this figure
  • In the Housing Bill, Tories voted down a proposal to make it a legal requirement for private rented houses to be fit for human habitation