With politics turned on its head, Labour sticks to Brexit ambiguity | Financial Times

With politics turned on its head, Labour sticks to Brexit ambiguity

Hard, soft or left? One year on and theories abound, but politicians are yet to define their vision for the shape of Britain’s post-EU futu...

Hard, soft or left? One year on and theories abound, but politicians are yet to define their vision for the shape of Britain’s post-EU future
Theresa May
 Theresa May has been so badly mauled that she may not survive as prime minister much longer. Photograph: Xinhua/Barcroft
Few predicted it at the time, but the real effect of the EU referendum a year ago has been political rather than economic. One prime minister has resigned and another has been so badly mauled that she may not survive much longer. Britain is closer to having a Labour government with a radical leftwing agenda than it has been for decades. 
All this has been going on while the economy has been growing at a respectable, if unspectacular, rate, averaging growth of 0.5% a quarter since the Brexit vote. The recession so confidently predicted by the Treasury ahead of the vote has not happened.
There have been economic consequences of the referendum. The pound’s fall has made imports dearer and contributed to a squeeze on living standards, but it has helped manufacturers who, according to the CBI, have the strongest order books in three decades. Britain’s unbalanced economy needs higher exports and less reliance on consumer spending, unpopular though that combination is.
Some in the remain camp have taken heart from the fact that France is growing more quickly than the UK, hopeful that this might engender the much-anticipated buyers’ remorse. There is not yet much sign of this, perhaps because voters are smart enough to realise that one quarter does not make up for decades of slow growth and high unemployment in France, and perhaps also because countries are sometimes willing to accept some short-term economic pain for a political objective. Germany at the time of reunification is a case in point.
The Tories own Brexit. It was their decision to hold a referendum and it is their responsibility to deliver it at a time when there is a distinct lack of a feelgood factor. In one sense, this is good news for Jeremy Corbyn because he can watch the Conservatives struggle. But it is also a challenge, because the possibility of another election will focus attention on what a Labour Brexit would look like.
Labour’s approach has thus far been one of studied ambiguity. To put up a decent show in the general election in June, Corbyn needed to hold together a coalition of leave voters in the north and Midlands with remain voters in London and the other big cities. So the line was that Labour accepted the result of the referendum but would seek to secure access to the single market in any negotiations. Despite the loss of a handful of seats where the leave vote was strong, the strategy worked.
One option for Corbyn would be to say that the result of the referendum was a terrible mistake and that the whole Brexit thing should be called off. What might be called Labour’s hardline remain faction says Britain could have the best of both worlds: it could have the political upheaval caused by Brexit, which has weakened the Conservatives, while at the same time maintaining the economic status quo. The UK would be back where it was before the referendum, only with Corbyn and John McDonnell running things instead of David Cameron and George Osborne.
There are, though, one or two drawbacks to this approach. One is that quite a lot of the 17 million people who voted leave in the referendum were cheesed off with the status quo and don’t want it resurrected. A second is that many of the measures that a Labour government might want to introduce to remedy Britain’s structural weaknesses – increased state aid, infant industry protection, public ownership – would be harder to implement, or actually prohibited, inside the EU. A third is that it would be profoundly anti-democratic. The liberal left’s approach to the Grenfell Tower fire has been to demand that poor people have a voice, yet this sits oddly, to say the least, with the idea that the result of the EU referendum should be overturned because the poor people who voted for Brexit didn’t know what they were doing. Giving people a voice means giving people a voice. It doesn’t mean only giving them a voice when they agree with you.
A slightly milder version of hardline remain is the one canvassed by the TUC: to retain the option of staying in the European single market. This would be Brexit but the mildest Brexit possible. 
Moving leftwards on the spectrum, there are those who think Britain should stay in the EU but only if it is reformed. This gets round the problem of simply turning the clock back to the state of affairs that existed before the referendum and also recognises that the shortcomings of the eurozone – the one-size fits all single currency, the austerity imposed on Greece, Ireland and Portugal, the ingrained unemployment and the perpetually slow growth – might have had something to do with last year’s result.
Those who say a different Europe is needed are right in their analysis. The problem they have is in explaining how this different Europe comes about, particularly given that the direction of travel for decades has been entirely in the opposite direction, towards a destination where budgets have to balanced, where countries have to deflate their way back to growth, where the nation state must bend the knee to market forces and competition and where neoliberal ideas hold sway. A Corbyn-led government could make a success of reform and remain, but only if it could win the support of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and a Council of Ministers, none of which are exactly awash with kindred spirits. It would require treaty change to bring about a different Europe, which seems unlikely.
Finally, there are those who favour left exit or Lexit, a group that sees the EU as anti-democratic, pro-big business and steeped in conservative economics. Lexiteers see Brexit not as a threat but as an opportunity to use trade, procurement, tax, ownership, and public investment to transform the economy along socialist lines. 
So that’s the choice. At one end of the spectrum are those who want Brexit to be as soft and messy as possible to prevent what they fear will be serious economic damage from leaving. They think the EU has been a success, the single currency’s travails are simply teething troubles, that Emmanuel Macron heralds a new dawn for European social democracy and that socialism in one country is a fantasy.
At the other end are those who think the EU embodies neo-liberalism, that the euro should be broken up, that Macron will deliver more for his former employers at Rothschild than for the French working class, and that radical socialism is possible even in the teeth of violent opposition from the financial markets. With a different leader, Labour would almost certainly be heading in a more soft Brexit direction. But before 2015’s leadership contest, Labour’s hard Lexiteers would have been able to count on support from Corbyn and McDonnell. Hence the ambiguity.
Kenny Harper - Financial Analyst

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Financial Times: With politics turned on its head, Labour sticks to Brexit ambiguity
With politics turned on its head, Labour sticks to Brexit ambiguity
Financial Times
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