Political operative James Carville’s version of a classic political saying is: “When your opponent is drowning, throw the son of a bitch an anvil.”
So why is Jeremy Corbyn instead grabbing an anvil and jumping in the deep end of the pool too?
UK based readers who know the ins and outs of party infighting no doubt will have plenty more to offer, but the short version of the story is that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is now officially backing a hard Brexit.
During the Brexit referendum, Corbyn was a not-terribly-enthusiastic Remain supporter. In the tumultuous fight in Lords over the nowhere-near-as-important-as-everyone-made-out fight over whether the UK should try to stay in a customs union with the EU, Corbyn instructed Labour Lords to abstain. About 80 defied him and voted for a customs union.
Yesterday, Corbyn rejected the so-called Norway or EEA option, which is tantamount to supportig a hard Brexit. From the Guardian:
Jeremy Corbyn has told Labour MPs that a Norway-style option cannot be considered by the party, but faces a party split after rebel Lords passed an amendment to the EU withdrawal bill which would keep membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) as an option.
Speaking at a private meeting of MPs in parliament, Corbyn told them there were significant issues with the Norway-option, which could leave Britain as “rule taker” without influence at EU level. He emphasised the need to unite both leave and remain supporters, according to a senior Labour source.
EEA membership, often described as the Norway option gives countries full access to the EU’s internal market, allowing it to trade goods with EU states without customs fees, except food and drinks which are subsidised by the EU. Iceland and Liechtenstein are also members of the EEA, but the terms mean accepting freedom of movement and, as a non-EU state, the UK would have to accept EU regulations with no seat at the table in Brussels.
Due to the late hour, unfortunately I will not be providing the backup from Richard North’s voluminous work on Brexit, but he has roundly dismissed the idea that the UK would be a mere “rule taker” in the EEA:
Sadly, not only do we get this low drone of ignorance, it embellished by the the same tedious mantra, that the UK “also would have to fully implement EU laws and regulations – while losing any say in drafting or vetoing them” – again an egregious untruth.
For instance, in his Flexcit proposal, North contends that the UK would have quite a bit of control over immigration under EEA rules while still getting the benefit of Single Market access.
It is also important to yet again note, that the “hard” versus “soft” Brexit debate of recent weeks is completely unhinged from a policy standpoint. So I worry about reinforcing confused political and press discussions. So let us stop here and remind ourselves that the big fight of the last three weeks or so over whether Parliament can force May into negotiating a Brexit in which it stays in the customs union, is not going to produce the outcome its backers say it will, that of having frictionless borders. A customs union is just about tariffs. It does not get rid of non-tariff barrier like, “Chlorinated chicken is not on and we are going to inspect to make sure you aren’t trying to ship that in.” To have all of the various procedures in place way upstream before anyone gets near a border so as to make a border a nothingburger, you need to be in the “internal market” too.
But back to the main plot. It’s hard to know how much of Corbyn’s position is due to realpolitik versus misguided British old left positions.
A lot of the “left,” from old Stalinists to other doctrinaires, hate the EU as a neoliberal project and object strenuously to some of its core ideas, like freedom of movement (which creates the opportunity for wage suppression) and EU strictures against nationalization of industries.
While this is all true, the idea that the UK is or would be less neoliberal than the EU, particularly with the Tories having meaningful influence, is daft. Did they miss the memo that the big reason for UKIP and Tory enthusiasm for Brexit (outside the “little Englanders”) is they want to gut EU labor and environmental regulations, among other things, to squeeze workers even more? And did they also manage to miss that non-EU immigration to the UK is greater than EU immigration?
I also wonder the fact that Blairites, as allies of the City, favor a soft or better yet no Brexit, is clouding Corbyn’s perspective. Just because the Blairites are mainly wrong does not mean that they are always wrong. There are many young people who live in the Southeast who aren’t employed in finance jobs, vote Labour, and grew up with being able to visit and work in Europe and will miss that under Brexit, to the degree that some are emigrating.
Another Guardian story, an opinion piece by Rafael Behr, gave some additional theories for Corbyn’s move:
Three reasons stand out. First: a fear of being cast as Europhile saboteurs…Labour is not polling well enough in areas that voted for Brexit to risk letting off a remain-themed firework in parliament.
Second: squeamishness about immigration policy – EEA membership would preserve free labour movement. That doesn’t have to mean totally unregulated borders: there are mechanisms such as work permits for managing migration from within the single market. But to advertise them, Labour would have to take the initiative on a subject that is fraught with risk…
Third: there is ideological hostility to single market rules prohibiting certain forms of industrial subsidy. Those restrictions, it is argued, would obstruct a radical-left economic programme. Whether that is true depends on how radical and how left you want to go. Everything in Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto could have been implemented within existing EU rules. The leader’s office might be fizzing with more drastic anti-capitalist plans, but no one says what they are.
In the end, the debate over what kind of Brexit is likely to be seen with the benefit of hindsight as yet more reckless misrule. The UK is still in denial about the fact that there is no solution to the Ireland border problem save the politically explosive sea border solution, and the deadline for confronting that is fast approaching. What happens in June when it becomes harder and harder to ignore that the choices are crash out or what the UK would scream is capitulation? No one outside Ireland seems to be trying to prepare the public for this outcome.
So it isn’t at all clear if Corbyn giving May a break of sorts she isn’t entitled to matters in light of the bigger forces at work. Since the machinations of UK party jousting are over my pay grade, I hope you Brits will help educate the Statesiders.