Brexit from the Centre Left

So the great Euro referendum debate has finally started and with the opinion polls pretty evenly balanced. I suspect in actual fact the chances of Brexit are relatively low but that the fight will be long and hard none the less.

One of the major problems faced by the Leave campaign is the perception that most mainstream political positions are in favour of remaining within the EU. The Leave campaign is seen as populated mainly by the right with the levels of enthusiasm for leaving increasing the further to the right one goes. On the other side of the political debate, this is balanced only by opposition to Europe from a small minority mainly on the harder left.

The Remain camp have so successfully monopolised the centre and especially centre left ground that they have reduced the political space for Leave.

In reality perfectly valid arguments for both positions (Leave / Remain) can be presented from almost anywhere on the political spectrum. From a Remain position one could argue the standard centre position but one could, albeit with difficulty, in the current setup argue for the EU as a prototype for a putative centrally controlled international socialist state on the hard left. At the other extreme one could argue for to a largely white European state on the extreme racist right.

As an aside the lack of discomfort or embarrassment when “European values” are mentioned as an unalloyed positive is interesting. Over the centuries and even in the last one hundred years the continent of Europe has been home to both some of the most progressive and liberal but also most regressive and repugnant values and actions in world history.

Amongst the most interesting – because they are rarely aired nowadays, of mainstream views, are the left of centre arguments against Britain’s membership of the EU. Once these were actually the default values of the left in British politics but during the long years of Thatcherism the left gradually surrendered opposition to the EU along with most of its other real left wing policies. Now, whilst Corbyn and his supporters may be reinvigorating many traditional left wing positions, he has (actually in what might be seen as a rather hypocritical stance) played down his and the left’s honourable anti EU credentials. It is interesting that Corbyn has changed his views on practically nothing since the 1980s but either has changed his mind on the EU or else is not prepared to state his actual views.

One of the leading political thinkers of the anti EU tradition of the left in relatively recent times was Peter Shore (once described thus by a Tory journalist: “between Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, Peter Shore was the only possible Labour party leader of whom a Conservative leader had cause to walk in fear”). Shore was one of the few who might have been able to take the fight to Thatcher and ironically for the Tory Eurosceptics and phobes would have campaigned for Brexit whilst she would have supported Remain.

Shore’s argument was made in detail in “Separate Ways” but he did warn that deepening European Integration and that the nature of the Euro would lead to an erosion of democracy, the imposition of austerity and mass unemployment long before almost anyone else on the moderate left saw it.

Some of the left argument against Europe is shared with others from the centre and right: that Britain’s economy and interests are too divergent from the rest of the EU to make a fit work. Similarly the argument that all the different EU states are too diverse can be made with validity by many political positions. In addition both left and right can share the honest concern that however far removed from direct election Westminster’s power brokers are they are positively local and immediately answerable as compared to EU potentates.

Much of the traditional left scepticism towards the EU and indeed much of its inherent problems can be traced back to the EU’s foundation. People tend to focus on the idea that one of its aims was somehow to avoid demagogues, wars etc. but actually the beginnings of the EU and therein the problem for the left is far more prosaic.

Initially the progenitor of the EU was a confederation of Iron and Steel manufactures on the continent. This, the genesis of the “European Project” was actually a cartel of steel making big business. The EU has never lost that bias in all its activities towards big business which helps explain the tendency of large corporations to support it. It is that pro big business position which has helped underpin many developments. The power of the German manufacturing industries is helped by the Euro and much EU legislation.

The ability to threaten to move to cheaper EU countries helped the likes of the German car plants massively increase productivity during the 1990s and 2000s. This productivity gain was often about freezing workers wages and reducing overtime, benefits etc. For all the much vaunted worker and union representatives on the boards of German manufacturing businesses the fact remains that they are run to benefit their shareholders. Amongst the most important of these share holders are a small coterie of oligarchs such as would make their Russian counterparts green with envy. As examples: the Porsche family own 30% of the vast Volkswagen conglomerate whilst two individuals: Stefan Quandt and Susanne Klatten between them personally own 46% of BMW.

The increases in profitability of VW were driven in large part by the threat that unless its workers accepted erosion of their position, VW would move more of its manufacturing to other parts of the EU.

To change tack: It is extremely ironic that despite being set up to support Iron and Steel production EU rules now prevent a perfectly reasonable left wing approach to the crisis facing the steel industry in the UK. Steel being such a vital part of manufacturing it might be considered in the national interest to discriminate in favour of British steel in construction or indeed to offer state aid up to and including nationalisation of the steel industry. That again would not be permitted under current EU rules. Those rules might also place stumbling blocks in the way of the renationalisation of GB railways which has consistently been shown by polling to be a popular policy amongst almost all shades of political opinion.

It is true that the EU has also supported some workers rights legislation much of which has been objected to by the political right in the UK. However, as compared to the support for parts of big business the workers of the EU states have received thin gruel indeed. Furthermore the net effect of migration from poorer EU states has been to hold down wages for those in the richer nations. Prior to the Eastern Europeans working in the fields, the turnips were still harvested in Norfolk but the farmers and businessmen simply had to pay more. There is a debate to be had by both left and right about levels of benefits and incentives for work but the simple fact is that migrant labour from poorer parts of the EU has kept down the wages of the working class in richer countries such as the UK.

There is also a specifically internationalist argument on migration (the left often being internationalist). Although freedom of movement has been granted to all EU citizens it is a sad day for the left when it supports discrimination in favour of Europeans (largely white people along with previous out of EU migrants) and against workers from the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. Pulling up the drawbridge on the vast majority of the world would usually sit ill with the left. That is seems wrong if the border is at Calais or Dover and manned by British guards but somehow fine if it is at Lesbos and personned by a pan European force is hypocrisy of the first order.

The most overarching argument against the current EU status quo, however, is simply the lack of ability to enact radical left wing democratic change inherent in the EU. This has already been seen in Greece where a left wing government was gradually beaten down to surrender to a centre right or even right wing austerity agenda despite winning two back to back democratic elections. One can argue the toss about who owed whom money in that relationship going back to the Second World War but the reality is that the Troika enforced a change from democratically chosen policies. Closer to home we have also seen in Ireland Europe’s unwillingness at an institutional level to tolerate countries disagreeing with its chosen direction and simply deciding countries need to keep voting till the get the “right” answer. All too often that “right” answer is also to the right of the economic spectrum.

The nature of the EU is both a centripetal force pulling all countries towards its right of centre pro multinational business policies and an gravitational pull resisting change antipathetic to its views. This combination makes enacting true left of centre polices as opposed to minor dilution of a centre right big business friendly ones extremely difficult. As such attempts to create not a Communist State nor even a Venezuela style socialist state but simply a mixed economic model like Britain had from the 1940s to 1970s is practically impossible within the current EU.

There are of course arguments from a left of centre position in favour of remaining within the EU just as there are right wing arguments in both directions. Therein lies the point. This is a national question for the UK and one can adopt almost any position on the left right spectrum and simultaneously hold to either Leave or Remain. The Remain camp is unlikely to want the leftist Leave argument to be heard: that is what political campaigns do – try to reduce the political space open to their opponents. Furthermore since most of the Leave camp is to the right they are unlikely to be able to make the Left Leave case convincingly – pulling George Galloway out of a hat does not really count.

Whether this will sway the vote is unlikely: when all is said and done I suspect the Remains will have it but the position of Shore, Foot and their intellectual successors on the centre left Leave case should not go unrepresented.

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  • Turgon


  • chrisjones2

    Sorry but I suspect that its even more complex.

    This is not an easy left / right split. As you say …there are arguments on both side and the left political establishment arguments seem to be that the EU offers workers more protections. That’s akin to telling animals in a zoo that they are better off because the nice keepers feed them every day!! Unfortunately as Jeremy is finding the animals dont buy the recycled 1970s twaddle and are increasingly drifting to UKIP

    Its all a complex mix of balanced choices seasoned with a good dash of simple nationalism and the desire for some that as a state we control or own future. At times there is little logic in this. Isnt it incongruous that having just fought a referendum for freedom the SNP propose now to subjugate themselves in an EU state even more remote than Westminster, for example!

    My own position is that I actually agree with Peter Shore but we are now in a different time and context. The Euro debacle has shown that the inherent contradictions in ever closer union remain unresolved. The EU Plutocrats are keen to press on, collecting ever more power in Brussels – all for the advantage of us citizens of course (whether we want it or not), But the democratic controls lag far behind that. Without a huge transfer of wealth from North To South the economic strains will continue to be unsustainable and sooner or later there will be more and more demands for independence within Europe as citizens realize where they now are and how little they can now do about it. The UK is just the first.

    Looking ahead I therefore dont see the developing EU as a viable entity on say a 25 year horizon.I see only two two options – it fissions with an almighty bang or the core in central Europe consolidates into an imperial centre with effectively the disenfranchised and politically neutered vassal states hanging around on the periphery.

    Neither option looks attractive so best to get out now and position ourselves for our future making our choices and holding our politicians to account

  • murdockp

    I think a no will deliver a united Ireland as unionist will finally realise that the only way to sustain thier benefits and handout culture is to sign up to an EU affiliated country which provides the cash.

    That said, it could be Scotland but it will be some one

  • Graham Parsons

    Has Corbyn actually ever said we should leave the EU? Ambivalance towards the EU is not the same as saying we should leave.

  • chrisjones2

    Sorry…dont project onto unionism your own feelings / standards

  • chrisjones2

    I believe he did campaign for it many years ago. Now its all in the triangulation and what the handlers allow him to say and in line with the general policy of not having a rational plan beyond being against the Tories

  • Greenflag 2

    Good post and you cover the main ingredients . What is different since 1973 when the UK and Ireland joined is that the world economy has changed and what is called globalisation and the information revolution have clouded the simpler economic world of the early 1970’s . Whether Britain stays in or out the cloudiness will remain as governments in developed countries lose remaining powers over their economies and tax raising capabilities to the forces of stateless international capital/finance .

  • murdockp

    Wow. For the record I am happy to remain in NI. But the comment still stands if Britain leaves the EU the economic shock will be so great it will have no choice but reduce NI spending. The farmers will loose thier subsidies, factories will close and the sight of border posts being erected will be unsettling.

    The people of NI will quickly realise how much financial support the EU provided and the tide of opinion will turn.

    As I said it could be Scotland we buddy up with as they will achieve independence of a Brexit occurs but the NI / England and Wales union is doomed to failure.

    To quote 1980s bullseye, “I have had a lovely day Jim, but I think I will take the money.”

  • Graham Parsons

    I don’t see any triangulation. 1975 is completely different to today. Labour are sensibly now taking the view that staying in poses less risks to the economy and security than leaving.

    The EU has mostly been a minor issue for Labour. Unlike the Tories Labour doesn’t have an issue with foreigners.

    Corbyn has bigger issues to grapple with. Time to kick back and let the tories rip themselves to shreds.

  • Turgon

    Outstanding idea. Then if by chance he does get elected he can suddenly realise that the attempt to help the likes of the steel industry and create a mixed economy is impossible because of EU rules.

    Still he will have been able to laugh at the Tories and which is more important achieving something in politics or a good dose of schandefreud.

  • Graham Parsons

    Ha ha. Love these crocodile tears for the steel industry from the out camp. Good luck changing EU rules from outside the EU. Funny that the unions are very much for staying in the EU.

    The EU referendum is only taking place because of party management issues within the Tory party. Labour should stand well clear especially considering Remain will win quite easily.

  • chrisjones2

    ” Unlike the Tories Labour doesn’t have an issue with foreigners.”

    Your problem is that in some communities former Labour voters DO feel overwhelmed by an influx of people from the rest of the EU and asylum seekers and refugees and they feel that Labour will not admit that the pressures on local services are an issue

  • chrisjones2

    “Funny that the unions are very much for staying in the EU.”

    Of course they are. They want more money, more time off and more more power

  • Turgon

    So if Britain were not in Europe we could nationalise the steel industry.

    In 1971 Rolls Royce was bankrupted by the investment needed for a new generation of commercial turbofans. It was nationalised and then returned to the private sector (rightly or wrongly). Now it is one of the world’s two major commercial jet engine manufacturers (and a major manufacturer of military engines and other turbines). Under EU rules it is much less likely that that 1971 rescue would have been possible.

    The tears over the steel industry are not crocodile tears. It is the realisation that it is a vital core manufacturing industry for an industrialised nation.

    Your refusal to understand that there are left of centre arguments against Europe is dishonest. Indeed even some on the right might argue that keeping the steel industry justifies defying the market especially as the market has been perverted by steel dumping from other countries.

  • chrisjones2

    “The people of NI will quickly realise how much financial support the EU provided and the tide of opinion will turn.”

    Every pound we get costs the UK £1.50

  • Graham Parsons

    And the counter argument is that we need to improve local services, increase affordable housing, increase the minimum wage and ensure enforcement of workers rights, not create a hostile atmosphere towards immigrants.

  • Graham Parsons

    Doh! How would nationalising the UK steel industry address the dumping of Chinese steel? Where would the market for UK steel exist outside your imagination?

    The outers really should just stick to their immigration arguments. There are few economic reasons for leaving the EU.

  • Graham Parsons

    This evil must be stopped.

  • Turgon

    Well let us see. We could maybe mandate the use of British steel for state construction projects and such like. Maybe we could incentivise British manufacturing industry like the car industry (still a large British industry albeit foreign owned) using British steel.

    Indeed we could do the sorts of things the mixed British economy did from 1945 until Thatcher got control of it. Things bumped along surprisingly well. Do not let the right convince you that all between 1946 and 1979 was failure.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The left, often here means the British left I see. I would like to see if this left is familiar with the International left wing movements where left wing values were discussed across nations not simply in a one nation context.
    When Cameron was meeting the EU leaders, Corbyn was meeting the European Socialists. International networks achieve more than cursing the darkness you read on a political blog. The EU is ultimately what the Europeans made it. It will remain that way until the left present a creative alternative which values not just freedom but fair and feasible responsiblity.
    What ground do you want the pro-EU British center left to concede and why? That there’s no point in international networks, common rights and trade laws or partnerships between nations?
    Are they supposed to just suck up the lie that the UK with a Lords full of non-doms and a government elected by only 30% of its people is social democracy in action? How can they say they believe nations should run themselves and then present the case that only the UK should dictate treaties other countries have to sign up to? How can they say Westminster will protect the British people from foreign threats and not realise they may as an unintended consequence deny the British people the freedom to make networks

  • Graham Parsons

    All well and good talking about renationalisation but let’s be realistic do you really see a Tory led UK doing any of this? We need to think of the much bigger number of employees in other industries who’ll be put a risk with a britexit.

  • Kevin Breslin

    People feel there are too many welfare claimants so you get tough populist welfare reform.

    The rest of the world isnt going to spoil the UK with sweetheart deals simply because it feels down.

  • Turgon

    Sadly a New Labour led UK tried to privatise Royal Mail (then the Tories succeeded). I agree renationalisation is unlikely with the Tories.

    The point is that within the EU nationalisation etc. is very difficult whoever we have in Westminster. In an independent UK, however, if that is the will of the government then we can enact it. Within the EU it is practically impossible: outside the EU it is possible.

  • Kevin Breslin

    People dont read EU law so I guess it is very easy for British right wing politicans to stay in the party which privatised steel and use an EU it dislikes as a mudguard to explain why the government cant borrow the money to renationalise them. Article 345 TFEU states “Treaties cannot prejudice the governing of property ownership”. Germany has nationalised public ultilities, Britain nationalised Northern Rock. If EU law prevented state nationalisation closer to home, NAMA would not exist.

    British law or rather political culture is the thing that prevents nationalisation, how long before that feeling sinks in.

  • Turgon

    That is interesting thank you. Could we insist that British steel be used preferentially in British state construction projects?

  • Mirrorballman

    Might cost the UK 1.50 but it certainly doesn’t cost NI that. And getting UK money out of the EU seems to be a lot easier than getting it from George Osborne…

    NI as a region benefits a great deal more than we contribute.

  • Angry Mob

    There are no economic arguments for remaining in the EU; especially when you come to understand the simple concept that the EU is not the single market.

  • Angry Mob

    Rob Peter to pay Paul, just don’t ask any questions or make a fuss and you’ll get your cut.

    Again, if we can understand the simple concept that the EU is not the single market we can advance the debate.

  • Graham Parsons

    You would seriously put at risk hundreds of thousands of today’s jobs in the hope that in the future we might get a labour govt who will renationalise a few industries? Better surely to stay in Europe and work with other socialist parties to improve conditions and opportunities for all.

  • Turgon

    I would take the risk of Brexit: yes I think so. In actual fact had Cameron achieved some sort of associate membership status I would had been happiest with that but this deal I would not accept.

    Do not worry I suspect Remain will win but my Ulster Prod thranness will keep me happily supporting a likely lost cause.

  • Kevin Breslin

    If you want other nations to be free to discriminate against British steel and other private companies in their ability to access public procurement from other nations I don’t see why not. These are the same rules the UK signed up to in EFTA too.
    This could be done in a renegotiation treaty.

    You are effectively talking about a country directly subsidising a private sector company without open transparent competition. UK companies benefits from public sector contracts in non-UK EU countries too, under the same laws.

    Nationalise the steel companies as opposed to subsidising a steel company is fine.

    Imagine the future of British steel if the glorious free trade (open competition) with China and Russia and Korea etc. are opened up.

  • Sherdy

    Will we actually have our SoS and the DUP campaigning for Brexit with the slogan: BRITS OUT?

  • Kevin Breslin

    Sorry Germany nationalised Utility companies to make them public utilities. Also UK has effectively nationalised nuclear waste management from private hands.

  • Kevin Breslin

    That is assuming a couple of things:

    Firstly UK manufacturing/assembly plants deal explicitly in the production and use of steel components and that British steel manufacturers have the capacity to manufacture the type of and quality of steel to standards of these cars requirements.

    Secondly UK regulations, costs on imports of parts as well as the decisions made under the state control of steel manufacturing ultimately suits the business models of these companies, alternatively the UK creates its own “Folk’s Wagon” and has to fund/find the supply of parts and labour that are not onshore.

    Other than that it’s straightforward.

    Construction isn’t really exportable to non UK domains without deals that can allow the import of construction or some equivalent.

  • Kevin Breslin

    How is the forced deportion of migrants, many of whom fill skills shortages, create companies, marry Britons or fill vacancies that British companies and say they can’t find locally, many of whom jumped through hoops to get into the UK going fix low production of goods and high consumption of public services disparities among local Britons, some of whom are very miserable and would feel bad no matter what?

  • Discuscutter

    What ever happens it will not change that with NI someone else will always have to pay the bill.