Economics and politics - comment and analysis
21. September 2016 I Will Denayer I Countries and Regions, Europe, General Politics

The Brexit proceedings. The Tory plan to defeat Labour with the help of themselves

I do not believe for a moment that the Tories have no strategy. The fact that Boris Johnson as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs is ultimately responsible for the Brexit negotiations provides a crucial insight into what they are up to. It is true that there is a Brexit Secretary and an International Trade Secretary  in the meantime which leaves the Foreign Secretary as a figurehead with few powers. This can mean many things. It may mean that May wants to keep Johnson close, but not too close. As a Secretary of Foreign Affairs, he will be often out of the country and therefore perhaps unable to organise a rebellion. It may also mean that May is setting Johnson up to take responsibility for problems caused by the Brexit or it may be an attempt to save his great talents of ruining things for an even better occasion.

If it is about brokering the best possible deal with the EU, no one would ever dream of appointing Johnson to the cabinet. While most incompetent people try to hide their shortcomings, Johnson made it into a hallmark of his political brand. A new book just came out about him. The London Review of Books review is hilarious – the title is ‘Sinking Giggling into the Sea’ (see here). So, if, as May chants that ‘Brexit is Brexit,’ why are ‘disaster Johnson’ and David Davis responsible for it?


Picture 1: Boris Johnson taking back control (Source: Google Images). 

The Tories know that Johnson and Davis will not do. Everybody knows it. Lord Carrington said it openly. Ken Clarke, one of the most influential Tories of the older generation went a bit further. He said that ‘the referendum will not do.’ Clarke wrote that most politicians “paid lip-service to the supposedly democratic nature of the (referendum) exercise”, but that he would do his best “to contribute to mitigating the disaster that this decision on 23 June might otherwise cause” (see here). To the Tories, the whole situation amounts to squaring the circle: remain in the single market, satisfy the anti-immigration lobby and not lose too many voters or even win some. How can this be done? By failing grandiosely (hence Boris Johnson) and putting the blame on the opposition. That, to me, seems to be the plan. Let me explain.

Many factors play against the Brexit. Reports suggest that the ‘divorce’ from the EU could be delayed until the end of 2019 or even longer, until 2021. One of the greatest divisions in the referendum was generational: the young overwhelmingly voted “in,” the old “out” (see here). Many adolescents, who were not of legal age to vote in 2016, will be able to cast their vote in 2020. This means that the population is becoming more pro-EU. The longer the delay, the greater chance Brexit is delivered to a Britain that no longer backs it – if this is already not the case now. Recall that the Leave won by 1.27 million votes. According to Lord Ashcroft’s polls, 73 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds who voted opted for Remain and turnout was 64 per cent. As Rosamund Urwin writes in the Evening Standard, let’s now make some reasonable assumptions. If the 2.2 million 15, 16- and 17-year-olds voted in the same proportions as their slightly-superiors, the gap would narrow to around 600.000 in favour of Leave (see here). There is another half of this equation. Old people tend to die in greater numbers than young ones. Assuming that Leave and Remain voters die in the same proportions, that means that more Leavers are on a one-way ticket out of Brexit Britain. In other words, the demographic base for the Brexit is eroding (see here).

To the younger generations, freedom of movement is valuable, if not essential, but the Erasmus scheme may now close to Brits. They can forget about Horizon2020 and other programs to fund their beginning scientific careers and cooperate with European researchers. As companies rein in hiring in response to slower or no growth, youth unemployment will rise. If they find themselves a European girlfriend or boyfriend – a not very uncommon feat – they may be in for a lot of trouble. It’s also about identity: no one under 30 remembers blue passports and many see themselves as European. Exiting the EU and the possibility of needing visas to travelling to the continent will undermine that. This group will not change its views, but their numbers will grow and this is where the votes lie (see here). This is trivial. On the other hand, what is close to being incomprehensible is why Labour fails to grasp it (see here).

The political base for the Brexit is also shrinking. Many Leavers wanted to kick Cameron out and they succeeded, now they have May, a most wonderful improvement. Some Leavers believed that the NHS would get £350 million a week if we left Europe. ‘Sorry,’ said Boris Johnson, ‘this was a mistake.’ Of course it wasn’t, it was a brazen lie. Farage also apologised, so it is okay then (see here). Many who voted for Leave comprehend in the meantime that they have been lied to. The immigrant workers do not ‘steal’ UK jobs. The Muslim refugees are not raping women. The church of the world famous economists who consider the Brexit a ‘victory for the working class’ is running empty. The Keynesians are not now governing the Bank of England. Manufacturing did not recover. Absolutely nothing got any better, as anyone can see. The BBC is getting tired of inviting them.

It is now not even unthinkable that in the rather short term an epidemic of common sense will break out. No one needs a degree in political science to see that the whole situation is now more absurd than the best ever showing of Yes Minister. The Independent reported that the UK head of a trade negotiating team, if hired as a consultant, would cost around £750.000 a year –this is five time more than that of the prime minister, who earns £ 143.462 per year (do not worry, she is a millionaire anyway, just as anyone else in her cabinet, all 23 of them) (see here). A top Tory also announced that the ministry had established a trade working group with India in a bid to “look at barriers to trade”. Never mind that the UK cannot negotiate bi-lateral free trade deals until it splits from the EU. European Council President Tusk has urged May to establish negotiations ‘asap.’ But May has ruled out triggering Article 50 this year. One wonders why if ‘Brexit is Brexit.’ May also distanced herself from Brexit Secretary David Davis for suggesting the UK remaining in the EU’s single market was ‘improbable’ (see here). Clearly, games are being played. But which games and with which purpose?

How short sighted and devoid of integrity and political courage all of this is was made clear last weekend by Nick Clegg, who has just published his version of the coalition years that wrecked the Liberal Democrat vote in last year’s general election. Here we are, with the biggest housing crisis since the second world war, and Clegg tells us that either David Cameron or George Osborne (he can’t remember which, but does not really matter) told him that “I don’t understand why you keep going on about the need for more social housing: it just creates Labour voters.” Clegg found Osborne’s behaviour “very unattractive, very cynical (…) Welfare for Osborne was just a bottomless pit of savings, and it didn’t really matter what the human consequences were,” it was all about votes, nothing else (see here).

The ‘revolt’ (sic) against ‘London’ and the establishment and their nasty austerity programs, their failed economic policies in general and their disgraceful attacks on the poor was the real factor behind the Brexit vote. The drama is that the establishment (and UKIP and circa the whole of the British press and the BBC, in one word, everybody except Labour and the Greens) succeeded in transforming it into a vote about immigration. As the Oxford economist Andrew Graham wrote in the course of the referendum campaign:

“One of the more unedifying aspects of this campaign is observing Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, both members of a government that has been imposing cuts in public services, having the gall to blame (the pressure on public services) on immigration” (see here).

Exactly. For the moment, May has ruled out not only a second referendum, but even a parliamentary vote on article 50 – and Corbyn agrees! But Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, made the point last week that, as the public wakes up to the realisation that leaving the EU is a “calamitous situation that our children will pay for”, the prevailing belief that a second referendum is out of the question may be challenged. He said he respected the result, but that the British public should be consulted again once there is a clearer idea of what Brexit will look like (see here). An honourable position if you ask me.

Another factor is the immigrants themselves. The chances of EU citizens settled in Britain retaining all their rights to live, work and retire in the UK after Brexit have been rated as zero by legal experts (see here). Professor Alan Vaughan Lowe said in the House of Lords this was the price millions of people – some 1.3 million Britons abroad and 3 million non-Britons living in the UK – were likely to pay for the victory of the working class. All of these Britons abroad (or most of them, because this is complicated too) have the right to vote in a general election. Who do you think they will vote for? The stress on all these people is very high. No one has any idea what their rights will look like in the future. Such is the uncertainty surrounding negotiations and the demands of other EU states, Lowe said, that the British government might have to consider compensation for British citizens abroad if some rights, such as access to Spanish or French healthcare, were lost (see here). Which ‘compensation’ would that be? Is the UK going to pay for healthcare of Britons abroad who cannot access the NHS?

As Lowe also told the Lords justice subcommittee, what worried him most was the lack of knowledge about the issue at government level. “There is very little evidence of people knowing what they are trying to do.” Legal entitlements such as the right to work, reside, retire, vote in local elections and have access to welfare and health systems come automatically from Britain’s membership of the EU. Only a limited number of rights, the right to own property and contractual rights, would be protected by international law. EU rights would fall away unless specifically protected under new British law, but how will this work? Will, say, the Spanish government, agree to ensure that the Britons who live in the country keep their rights, while at the same time Britain will restrict the rights of Spaniards to work and reside in the UK? This is complete fantasy.

The position of the Labour party and falling into the trap

Corbyn has insisted that Parliament should accept Brexit will happen and “work with it”. During last week’s Labour leadership debate Corbyn referenced Norway as a country to look at when shaping the UK’s future, in order to protect its access to EU trade deals. I referred already to the Norway scheme: it is irrelevant to the UK position. “We trusted the British people on departure, in the referendum in June,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. “We need to respect their choice” (see here).

Labour is going to fall off a cliff if they continue like this.

According to a new Fabian Society paper, written by influential Labour figures, ending the free movement of people from the European Union should become a key demand from Labour before the Brexit negotiations. According to the paper, Labour must accept that people who voted for Brexit had ‘legitimate concerns’ over the scale of numbers arriving in Britain from the EU. Gathering contributions from nine Labour MPs, as well as others within the party and from elsewhere in Europe, the report is billed as “a chance for the party to start shaping its own post-Brexit narrative, rather than let the Conservatives dominate the debate” (see here). The result is an utterly shameful miserable failure.

In her contribution Rachel Reeves, the former shadow work and pensions secretary, noted that one study had found migration into the UK exerted a “slight drag” on workers’ wages, but that Remain campaigners had refused to acknowledge this effect (see here). Yes, one study found that and it is true (and so what does this disadvantage mean compared to the advantages?), while many other studies over the years have consistently found that the impact of immigration is positive and that – and isn’t that absolutely crucial for a social-democratic think tank and party? – putting restrictions on foreign workers will not improve the employment rate or the working conditions of UK-born workers, but that the contrary is true, that it will harm them. With these publications of think tanks it is always the same. They are all lobbyists, forget about objectivity. Some studies are taken as irrefutable scientific proof for what they argue for, while other scientific studies which go against their irrefutable proof are being ignored. This happens, needless to say, all in the name of fostering democratic discussion and information, of course.

Instead of standing up for workers – because workers are workers, aren’t they? – “The remain campaign – and Labour in particular – had little to say to working class voters with whom we, above all the other parties, should have been able to communicate,” Reeves wrote. “We did not offer any solutions to those who felt locked out from opportunities.” Reeves added: “Immigration controls and ending free movement has to be a red line post-Brexit – otherwise we will be holding the voters in contempt. Subject to that, we need the greatest possible access that we can get to the single market without free movement” (see here). UKIP and all racists all over Europe will be happy to hear this.

Emma Reynolds, Labour MP for Wolverhampton North-East, writes in her paper, which is titled ‘Facing the Unknown: Building a Progressive Response to Brexit,’ that free movement must end even if it meant settling for a worse trade deal. “My constituents in Wolverhampton voted overwhelmingly for leave, and their principal reason was immigration” (see here).

Let’s fight immigrants in the name of ‘progressive’ (sic) policies because, for the last twenty five years, you have been too docile to confront the Tories. Reynolds is one of these Blairites, promoted by Ed Miliband as Shadow junior Foreign Office Minister under Yvette Cooper, who ran against Corbyn for the leadership last year. Later on, Reynolds became Shadow Europe Minister. She resigned as Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government following the election of Corbyn as leader of the party. She abstained in several crucial votes on human rights, benefits cuts for the disabled, DWP (social welfare) policies and housing benefit cuts. These people go wherever the wind blows. In an interview of 2012, Reynolds asserted that “Britain’s membership of the European Union is in our national interest” and called for the eurozone countries to integrate more closely. But now the wind has changed direction. Now they have the temerity to complain about immigration. And so it goes on. In another chapter in the report, the Aberavon MP, Stephen Kinnock, also said Labour needed to reshape its approach to large-scale immigration because it had been rejected by voters. He argued that a post-Brexit immigration policy was likely to involve work permits for EU nationals (see here).

Here, then, is the real crux of the matter. Corbyn made clear that parliament should not be consulted and there is a need to a rethink immigration policy. There is no shred of evidence that restrictions on immigrant workers will be advantageous to UK-born workers – the contrary is true. Labour should refrain itself from pulling this card and, indeed, fight it. If they do not – and they aren’t – it is guaranteed that they will lose the 2020 election. The young metropolitan, well-educated, multicultural voters will not accept it. This important stratum of the electorate is not turning to Labour because of its ‘socialist’ policies. A lot of these people presumably do not know what the social welfare state is because they have never lived in one. They are also presumably not won over by proposals to re-nationalise some of the services, such as the railroads, although there seems to be widespread support for this. The younger generation is – or was? – moving to Labour because Labour campaigned for Remain. I cannot count how many times I read on Facebook the last couple of days that ‘if this is Corbyn’s position, I will not vote Labour, I will vote for the Liberal Democrats instead.’ Note that Labour lost the elections in Bristol yesterday.

How will it pan out? It’s difficult to predict the future, just as it is difficult to believe that the Tories are so clueless that they have no plan at all. The Brexit negotiations will go on for many years, regardless of when Article 50 is being invoked. In the meantime, the social base for the Brexit is eroding. At some point, May, pushing hard for the Brexit, especially with Johnson on her side, will have to announce, undoubtedly with extreme regret, that the Brexit negotiations are way more difficult than anyone ever anticipated.

What will the political fallout be? The Conservatives will be made to look as hard working victims of European vindictiveness, stubbornness and idiosyncrasy. The Liberal Democrats will make a come-back in the 2020 elections, another reassurance – if the Tories would ever run into trouble, which unlikely, they can always form a new coalition government with Nick Clegg. It is true that UKIP will also win, but this damage is bearable (at the moment, UKIP has only one MP in the House of Commons and three in the House of Lords). Corbyn, on the other hand, will find himself with his back against the wall. His position will have become insupportable. He will be the one repeating that the will of the people has to be respected, although the social base for it evaporated. He will have alienated some of the young, urban, multicultural voters for whom being European is a part of their identity. At the same time, he will have managed to alienate voters from the old industrial relics, the old base of which many went to UKIP and some, recently and reluctantly, came back to Labour, because he cannot deliver. He will have alienated most of the Britons who live abroad. How many hundreds of thousands of votes is Labour potentially going to lose? Add some obstruction from the Blairites along the way and the Conservatives can sleep quietly at night. And Reynolds can have her end to free movement even if it means setting for a worse trade deal. Paper is patient and it does not matter anyway. What matters is that Corbyn will be gone and the Leftist fraction with him.

This is way bigger than Corbyn. If Corbyn would be a real statesman, he would in my opinion speak differently. He would say that the result of the referendum is wrong. It was not democratic. The population was lied to by almost every mainstream politician in the country, by almost every newspaper, by the BBC and by everybody else (the exceptions are Labour, the Greens and some of the Liberal Democrats). The referendum was a defeat for democracy. The newspapers could go on, day after day, for months in a row, spouting racist nonsense and disinformation about work and immigration – and, although it is against the law, no one pressed charges. This is not democracy, this is politicians being afraid of the populace and hoping to gain from it. The real enemy is austerity, economic governance in general, tax evasion, etc. The remedies are public investment, wage growth, social welfare, industrial restructuring, re-nationalisation of former public services, a wealth tax, climate change policies. Corbyn should unapologetically campaign for a new referendum. He would win it too.


Picture 2: Jeremy Corbyn (Source: Google Images). 

It is true that the results of some political science research show that any politician demanding a new referendum would come close to committing political suicide. I do not believe a word of it. This is beyond measuring attitudes. It is a chance for Corbyn to write history. If he had the courage and the will, here is his chance to get to Downing Street. The Fabian Society proves it black on white: Labour is accepting the dominant – conservative – discourse on the Brexit and immigration. Instead, it has to defend free immigration and talk about the issues that really matter. The young voters and the older voters from the industrial relics have to be united in one big anti-Tory front. Otherwise, Labour will be defeated in 2020.

I realise fully well that I am constantly singing the same song. If only the social democrats would be social democrats! The same is happening all over Europe. In Germany, the SPD is losing in every election. It is not the SPD’s role to defend Hartz IV and it is not their mission to push for the TTIP and CETA. Social democracy will regenerate the day that this nonsense stops and not before. And they are running out of time. Fight the political battle. Keep the UK in the EU. Improve the position of all workers. Win the elections. Push for reform within Europe. You will find allies everywhere. The sad reality is that most of these people are career politicians. Even losing an election is not a drama. There are still meetings to go to and commissions to be a member of. Some will make a bit less and some will make a bit more. In the meantime, let’s not do anything radical.