The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain
Week commencing 2 March 2018

Corbyn's gamble

JEREMY Corbyn last Monday set out the Labour Party’s policy for Britain leaving the European Union (EU), and his chief stated aims are the defence of jobs, living standards and the economy.

The main point of contention was his new line on a staying in a customs union with the rest of the EU. Previously Corbyn and Labour’s main spokesperson on Brexit, Keir Starmer, had appeared to oppose staying in the existing customs union because that would leave Britain subject to EU rules and regulations on trade deals and practices without having any say in forming those rules and regulations. It would rule out Government investment in trade and industry as an unfair interference in the ‘free market’.

Corbyn’s plans for regional development banks and re-nationalisations would be in jeopardy, and we could become hostage to giant trans-Atlantic trade deals such as TTIP if they were to arise again — which they almost certainly will.

But Corbyn says he wants a separate bespoke customs union deal, which he says will not include these restrictions. He pointed out that within the EU, currently including Britain, production lines and supply chains for many manufactured goods cross borders, and having to pay customs tariffs every time components crossed the Channel would make many of the processes impossibly expensive — damaging economies and losing jobs on both sides.

“We are leaving the European Union,” he said, “but we are not leaving Europe. We are not throwing up protectionist barriers, closing the borders and barricading ourselves in. And we want a close and cooperative relationship with the whole of Europe after Brexit.” He promised to keep and expand European standards on human rights, food safety, environmental protection.

He also pointed out that a customs union would eliminate the need for a hard border between the north of Ireland and the Republic. It is a policy that should appease the anxious Remainers on his own back benches whilst appealing to the Tory backbench Remainers, led by Anna Soubry — so much so that in a vote in the House of Commons he may win their backing away from May’s confused and contradictory line. This is a policy that could bring down May’s government sooner rather than later.

But there is also a risk that Labour supporters of Brexit will feel let down and this could damage Corbyn’s support. He went out of his way to try to reassure that the bespoke customs union he wants will, after all, leave Britain with the freedom to carry out the rest of his policies.

He has won the support of the big trade unions and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) — and a large section of the press that favours keeping close ties with the EU — for his plan of a bespoke customs union.

But many are sceptical that the EU will not accept such terms — all the benefits of EU membership with none of the drawbacks. Corbyn admitted that the EU has a “democratic deficit” and said he had previously hoped to be part of an EU-wide campaign to reform that. The Common Market, which evolved into the EU, was created by capitalists for capitalists. The EU has been one of the main drivers of privatisation and playing off workers from one place against others, to lower wages and living standards, and to increase exploitation and profits. It cannot be transformed into a workers’ paradise.

Corbyn’s team of negotiators in Brussels would have the skills of experienced trade union negotiators. They would cope far better that May’s chaotic team. They would have to convince the EU negotiators that their ideal ‘customs union’ would, for the EU, be preferable to a complete break in trade and co-operation. The danger is that union negotiators, when stuck, start to look for compromises. We can hope that Corbyn succeeds in dividing the Tories completely and precipitates a general election. And in that election, he will need to win a big majority to carry out his ambitious programme of policies to restore British manufacturing. We must get rid of the Tories and we must leave the EU. But our work to secure a big enough majority may be harder if many voters are left feeling betrayed on Brexit.