Brexit beyond the election

This article was written by Professor Graham Room, University of Bath, in response to Brendan Donnelly’s blog Brexit: The end of the beginning. Please see below for Brendan’s reply.

Brexit Beyond the Election

Professor Graham Room
University of Bath
20th December 2019

There is wide agreement that the UK General Election held on 12 December was of major significance.  At the very least, it saw the arrival of a Conservative government and a Prime Minister with a commanding majority, ending the fine balance of forces within its predecessor and the resulting stalemate.  Nobody now questions that the UK will leave the EU in January 2020.   What will happen in the subsequent 12 months – and what sort of future relationship between the UK and EU is negotiated for the period beyond that – is however now the big question.  This is not because of the balance of Parliamentary forces, but rather because it is hard to guess at Johnson’s psychology and gamesmanship, and his readiness gamble right down to the deadline, on leaving with a very limited deal.   

The General Election was of major significance in a second sense also.   It saw major losses by the Labour Party in its traditional industrial heartland and a corresponding advance by the Conservatives.   Some saw in the former an existential crisis for Labour, notwithstanding its success in attracting lots of young people to its banner.  Even so, there were also – at least prior to the election – those who warned that the Conservatives faced no less of an existential crisis, having become the party of the middle aged and old. 

It remains to be seen whether the generational divide between Labour and the Conservatives proves more or less significant than the loss – perhaps temporary – by Labour of much of the industrial working class.   And that in turn depends on what interpretation one puts on that latter shift.   Did working class voters of the midlands and north reject Labour because of its support for Remain; or because of dislike for Corbyn and Corbynism?  Or indeed, was it the very simplicity of Johnson’s promise to ‘get Brexit done’ that appealed to voters unable to judge the value and practicality of Corbyn’s socialist manifesto?   What seems clear is that Corbyn’s wish that the election should not be all about Brexit, but rather about the social and industrial policies that would take the country in a new direction, was one which voters in general did not share.       

The General Election was of major significance in a third sense also.   It may prove to have been the moment at which the UK began to break up, with both Scotland and Northern Ireland leaving the UK rather than the European Union.

To repeat therefore, an election of major significance, although as yet we cannot say in precisely what sense.   What is more, the three lines of development sketched out above – in terms of the post-Brexit deal we strike with the EU, the future of the major political parties and the future of the Union – will impinge on each other in a variety of ways, multiplying the range of possible trajectories that the UK and its constituent parts and parties will face.  To attempt to forecast the outcome would be folly.

Already in the immediate aftermath of the election, many commentators have sought nevertheless to address these multiple conundra.  One example is Brendan Donnelly, the Director of the Federal Trust.   In the latest of a long series of highly insightful commentaries on the politics of Brexit, he offers three main lines of argument (https://fedtrust.co.uk/brexit-the-end-of-the-beginning/).

First, Corbyn and Jo Swinton for the LibDems failed to exploit the opportunities within a hung Parliament and were incompetent in allowing Johnson his Brexit election.  Corbyn also mishandled the majority support for Remain among Labour voters and left the anti-Brexit vote to fragment.  The result was a shattering victory for the Brexiteers.

Second, the negotiations during 2020 around the future relationship with the EU will nevertheless expose the ‘fraud and fantasy’ of Brexit.  Johnson will hope that the public will be resigned to whatever Brexit brings and that the damage can be blamed on the EU.   Nevertheless support for Remain is still strong; and once the cracks appear in Johnson’s project, ‘the reversal of public opinion could be dramatic’.

Finally however Donnelly recognises that what grows out of this will depend critically upon the positions taken by the political parties and in particular by Labour. He places no hopes in Corbyn or the Corbynites.  However, ‘it is entirely conceivable that an effective Labour leader, working with the SNP and Liberal Democrats, will prove able to expose in coming years the damaging compromises that Johnson will be forced to accept if he is to have any longer-term agreement on trade and security with the EU’.  Sooner rather than later, the UK will rejoin the EU.  

Such optimism may be commendable in these dark times.  Nevertheless, while vesting such hopes in an ‘effective Labour leader’, Donnelly says nothing as to what this means, beyond shining a light on the damage that Brexit is causing and watching the public rise, in indignation and in hope. Political leadership is much more than that; and it will need to articulate a compelling alternative to that damage, justifying another long (and no doubt acrimonious) public debate over ‘remain out’ versus ‘re-join’.      

Here Corbyn’s legacy is of key relevance.  What he did was to reaffirm that our society should work ‘for the many, not the few’.  He insisted on the importance of common public institutions of social and economic security, in the spirit of the post-war welfare state.  This was a message resonating not with Soviet Communism, as his enemies frequently alleged, but with Scandinavian social democracy.  If Corbyn had reservations about championing our EU membership, it was because he feared that membership would constrain such national policies, both by limitations on state aid to industries and by corporate influence on future EU developments.  

Such common public institutions of social and economic security are no less essential today than in the 1940s; indeed, with the insecurity of a globalising economy, they are arguably even more essential.  For the mass of the population, with few reserves on which to draw, such institutions can provide stability and allow people to embrace change.   This is however a message that has been drowned out over the last decade or more, at European level as well as in the UK.   Since the financial crisis, austerity has ruled; social and economic security has been the cut back; the Eurozone has left its weaker economies in a public expenditure straitjacket, with rising unemployment, poverty and enforced migration to north.  

Corbyn’s domestic message was in tension with this European order, no less than with the austerity policies that have been imposed in the UK for the last decade.  His message is however one that is needed no less at the European than at the national level.  And indeed, among the left of centre parties across Europe, there are potential allies for just such a change of direction: not least in the new leadership of the German SPD, demanding an end to the ordo-liberal fiscal policy of always  balancing the federal budget, to allow for more spending on infrastructure and welfare programmes. 

The new Labour leadership could build on the legacy of Corbyn but develop it into a message of European reform; and a message to UK voters not of ‘re-join’ but of ‘re-join and reform’.  This is a message that might resonate in particular with the old industrial communities of the midlands and the north of England, which have forsaken Labour, but which are likely to suffer disproportionately the damage that Brexit will bring.   It could also resonate across the EU at large, in a programme of social and economic reform with three key components:

  • Rejuvenate the European economy, with public investment and a positive industrial strategy for all regions;   
  • Re-think free movement, by reference to communities that are losing their population, because of economic desertification, and others facing large influxes of newcomers, without the infrastructures they need; 
  • Empower local and national communities to work together across national boundaries, forging their own scenarios of development, with real political choices and trade-offs. 

In the lead-up to the UK referendum in 2016, Prime Minister Cameron engaged in negotiations with the EU over a modification to UK membership, which he could bring back and recommend to the British people, prior to the vote.  Such modifications involved various forms of opt-out, reducing the exposure of the UK to the regime of the EU and its future evolutions.  Not since Margaret Thatcher, and her championing of the Single Market, has the UK been an enthusiastic promoter of EU integration and played an active role in its economic and social evolution.   It could be again.

It may seem that ‘rejoin and reform’ is impracticable and may even be counterproductive as a slogan.  It is after all only established members of the EU who can contribute significantly to its ‘reform’.  Nevertheless, we will continue to be intimately involved with the EU in a whole lot of ways:  both formally, as we negotiate our future relationship with them; and practically, as we come up against a multitude of practical problems and opportunities where both sides find they can benefit from joint action. These interfaces and mutual abrasions will inevitably involve us in the EU’s self-examination of its social and economic policies. 

In addition, the cultural and political conversation across Europe is one in which UK political parties, institutes and pressure groups will continue to be involved.  And if people like Steve Bannon are not slow to move around Europe, trying to shape the direction in which the EY is ‘reformed’, the new leaders of the Labour Party and the LibDems should and could make this no less a part of their own modus operandi.       

About the Author

Graham Room is Professor of European Social Policy at the University of Bath.  He was Founding Editor of the Journal of European Social Policy and is a member of the UK Academy of Social Sciences.  His publications include From Brexit to European Renewal, Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath: https://www.bath.ac.uk/publications/from-brexit-to-european-renewal/attachments/ipr-from-brexit-to-european-renewal.pdf


Response by Brendan Donnelly

Dear Graham

Many thanks for your comments. I thought (as people often say before they start kicking lumps out of each other) that there was a lot we seemed to agree on. Perhaps I could start my response by taking up your just observation that I did not specify, in a wide-ranging piece, what I thought the qualifications for an “effective Labour leader” would be.

I fully understand and sympathise the desire of many in the Labour Party to emancipate the Party from the thrall of New Labour, with its spin, triangulation and self-congratulation. But the choice of Jeremy Corbyn as a vehicle for this emancipation was an electorally counter-productive one. I am interested to see that Len McCluskey now  thinks the manifesto for 2019 was ill-conceived. The “Christmas tree” nature of that document played into existing doubts about the political seriousness of Jeremy Corbyn as an individual. An”effective leader” of the Labour Party would be for me somebody who in his or her political persona seemed a more plausible Prime Minister than Corbyn; and who possessed much more in the way of intellectual and political focus than did Jeremy Corbyn. In my own view as an outsider Keir Starmer possesses these qualities. A number of others whose names have been mentioned do not.

More generally, I think that Corbyn’s hesitations about the EU were, even from his own political starting-point, much exaggerated. They would have had more validity if the U.K. had been a member of the Eurozone. There is much more flexibility than he allows for regional and industrial policy by national governments within the EU’s single market.

I agree that the U.K. should and probably will wish in due course to rejoin the EU. I fear however that “rejoin and reform” may be a counterproductive slogan. It is only established members of the EU who can contribute significantly to its “reform.” Applicant countries are setting themselves up for disappointment if they try to do so.