Friday, 28 September 2018

Liverpool Defies the Tories

The chief assumption of the commentariat in advance of the Labour Party annual conference in Liverpool was that Corbyn & co would find themselves on the back foot, fighting off the demand for a People's Vote and continuing accusations of antisemitism. In the event, they finished on the front foot with an offer to support the government in the Commons vote on the Withdrawal Agreement if Theresa May secures "a deal that includes a customs union and no hard border in Ireland, if you protect jobs, people’s rights at work and environmental and consumer standards". Despite the ecstatic welcome given to Keir Starmer's promise that remain remained in play, the People's Vote campaign is now effectively dead. Labour has not been bounced into the promise of a second opportunity to vote remain and the most likely scenario, should it manage to topple the government (still a long shot) and enact a further referendum (which wouldn't necessarily follow), would be a choice between no-deal and a revised deal that fulfilled the criteria laid out this week. In essence, Corbyn has called the remainers bluff by making it clear that the only (if remote) chance of a second referendum with a remain option lies through the election of a Labour government. For some remainers, that will be too high a price to pay.

While Corbyn will never be wholly free of the charge of antisemitism, it should be obvious by now that the accusation cuts little ice with the majority of party members (the demonstrative support for the motion on Palestinian solidarity was telling even if it meant that the interests of Palestinians themselves remained marginalised) and is not a priority for the wider public. In retrospect, the distraction from Labour's substantive policy evolution over the summer has been slight. I don't imagine this will prompt any reflection among the media, many of whom seem to have decided that the next big scare will be Corbyn's "threat" to their free-speech. You can expect this to be picked up at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham next week, though I suspect the major theme will be the trusty old standby of national security: Corbyn (and McDonnell) as the terrorists' friend, the apologist for Russia and Iran, the quisling coward who wouldn't launch ICBMs at Buenos Aires in defence of the Falklands etc. Despite Corbyn's antipathy to violence, we can also expect much pearl-clutching over Labour's plans for various tax bombshells, not to mention the jacquerie of industrial democracy.

Labour's evolving policy platform remains modest by historical standards (and even conservative by recent standards in the case of defence and policing) but it is clearly more in line with pubic opinion than the pro-business, pro-austerity, pro-rich programme that the Conservative Party has found itself defending, almost by default, as its imaginative energies are sapped by the rolling disaster of the Brexit negotiations and the much-delayed but still inevitable leadership challenge. The headline-capturing ideas floated by John McDonnell, such as the Inclusive Ownership Fund that would see workers having voting and dividend rights in their companies, should probably be taken with a pinch of salt at this stage as they are clearly still gestural. They are part of the war of position rather than the war of manoeuvre, to put it in Gramscian terms, the aim of which is to normalise the return of social responsibility to discussions about the workplace. Predictably, liberal commentators who have traditionally espoused pious hopes of just such a thing have been prominent among those quibbling over the practicalities. The free-market right have, to give them credit, correctly identified that this is really a debate about taxation. Their problem is that support for increased taxes on corporate profits and unearned income is "the new common sense".

The likely shape of a Brexit deal has been clear for some time as regards the future trading relationship: it's either Canada or Norway. But neither model would adequately address the issue of Ireland, meaning that any deal will necessarily have some bespoke elements: the "plus". A free-trade agreement is only feasible if Northern Ireland is treated as a separate regulatory jurisdiction. While this does not undermine the "constitutional integrity" of the United Kingdom, as some have fatuously claimed, it would mean a goods border in the Irish Sea and the continued oversight of the ECJ in Northern Ireland. Theresa May's get-out clause for a possible compromise is that she would be willing to accede to this if it were mandated by the Northern Ireland Assembly, but that presumes the cooperation of the DUP. That qualification has been interpreted as giving the DUP a veto on the "backstop" agreed with the EU last December, however it is just as plausible to see it as her attempt to manoeuvre the DUP into a position where they would have to take responsibility for the imposition of a deeply unpopular hard border.

Norway is currently a member of the EU Single Market via the EEA, but not of the EU Customs Union. Nor is it subject to the Common Agricultural Policy or Common Fisheries Policy. A deal that would avoid a hard border in Ireland would require membership of the (or "a") Customs Union at a minimum. Objectively, Labour's six tests can only be passed by a Norway+ deal in which the UK remains in the Customs Union and (with some minor variations) the Single Market. The issue of freedom of movement could be finessed by a strict application of the current rules (e.g. requiring EU citizens to find a job within three months or return home, which would probably necessitate an expanded ID card system), but this would be Brexit-in-name-only (BINO). Critics of this are right to say that we might as well stay in the EU as all we achieve is a paradoxical loss of control and sovereignty, making Brexit self-defeating in its own terms, however it remains the best outcome within the constraints of the 2016 referendum result and the Good Friday Agreement.

Essentially the two options are about the direction of travel after the end of the transition period. Canada+ would provide the platform for future divergence - a point that the likes of Michael Gove have been quite open about. What they haven't explained is whether they expect Northern Ireland's alignment with the EU to alter over time. Keeping that door open will be crucial to the support of the DUP, whose existential cause remains divergence from the Republic. Norway+ would provide a platform for future convergence, which means the door would be open to eventual re-accession. For this reason, remainers would be wise to start supporting rather than berating Labour, but that presumes they're pragmatists. Their track record suggests otherwise. Over the last two years, they have repeatedly played the wrong hand: questioning the legitimacy of the 2016 referendum; prematurely pushing an EEA amendment in the Commons; insisting on a People's Vote on the final deal with no thought as to how one might be brought about. In large part, this is because their campaign has been dominated by those whose day job is undermining Jeremy Corbyn.

Over in the blue corner, Theresa May grimly hooks her arms around the ropes as the blows rain in. The imminent Conservative Party annual conference may not be as awful as last year, but its shrill defiance of both the EU and Labour is unlikely to make attractive viewing for any but Tory loyalists. The Chequers Plan is now little more than a battered placeholder. The Brexiteers are pushing for a minimalist Canada free trade agreement but without any compromises on Northern Ireland, which will once more be solved by "technology". The lure of a no-deal flounce remains strong among the ultras. The pro-EU "rebels" are increasingly distraught that their preferred outcome will essentially be Labour's. Naturally they will balk at that and glumly vote with the government on a Withdrawal Agreement that is likely to be closer to Canada. If May can get the DUP onside (a very big if) then she should win the vote with a  bit to spare, avoiding the need for Chuka Umunna to bail her out by putting "country before party". Labour's hopes of a victory in the meaningful vote that might in turn lead to a vote of no confidence depend on May alienating the DUP, but while the DUP might "rebel" on the first they'd have nothing to gain by supporting the second.

The most likely scenario now is Canada for Great Britain and Norway for Northern Ireland, but this will have to be dressed up in such a way as to make a DUP rebellion difficult. While its core supporters are attracted to a deal that binds it more closely to Britain, reintroduces the border with the Republic and undermines the Good Friday Agreement, there are few votes for such a hard-line stance in Northern Ireland. If she has any sense, May will threaten the DUP with a local referendum on the acceptance of a special regulatory status, thereby bypassing the impasse caused by the suspension of the Stormont Assembly. The price the DUP may demand for their cooperation will be high, perhaps even including May's resignation. One of the themes of the Brexit drama has been the claim that "nothing has changed", both as a defence of the government's chaos and as an analysis of the fundamental balance of power in the negotiations. While nothing changed at Salzburg, and it is unlikely that anything of real substance will emerge from the Tory conference, something did change this week in Liverpool. Labour has defied May to secure a Norway deal in the national interest and thereby jeopardise the unity of the Conservative Party. As sure as eggs are eggs, May will find reason to put party before country.

No comments:

Post a Comment