Wednesday, March 14, 2018

We need to talk about Jeremy

It's been an interesting week or so for Jeremy Corbyn. I was not surprised by his presence in a secret anti-Zionist Facebook group. (I refuse to call this bunch pro-Palestinian, as they don't give a toss about real Palestinians. They see them in narcissistic terms as a cause to be rescued, victims of the wicked Jews/Zionists, and think that their future oppression by nasty theocrats or corrupt movements is a form of liberation.) Visceral hatred of Israel has long been an animating feature of Corbyn's politics. The way conflicting explanations were given for his departure from the group was embarrassing.

Then there was his response to the Skripal poisoning. He called for dialogue, his usual remedy for any conflict, though this time at least it was to be "robust." He also pointed to the Russian money that had found its way to the Tory party. This caused the usual media outrage. It shouldn't have. It should have opened a debate on the extent to which money looted from the Russian people has corrupted the UK. Unfortunately, the Labour leadership is also compromised - politically rather than financially. They have a track record of apologism, non-confrontation, and even outright support for Putin. Then there is their penchant for appearing on the RT propaganda channel. To his credit, John McDonnell's response was considerably better than Corbyn's. There has been a continuous collective misjudgement on all sides, and on more than this one issue.

Finally, there was Corbyn's dismal speech on Brexit to the Scottish Labour conference. It was depressing. Even more depressing was the fact that he won the, mainly begrudging, support of the conference. The speech was riddled with contradictions and misapprehensions. In calling for Scotland (where 62% voted to remain) to respect the result of the referendum, he was solemnly asking Scots to submit to rule by England. That will win back SNP voters. Then there were the usual fantasies. A customs union will solve the Irish border - no it won't and given the conditions he laid out for one he won't get one anyway. Regulations on state aid in the single market rule out "rebalancing the economy" - they don't. He insisted any free trade agreement must give us control of regulations, etc, etc. All impossible conditions. And he didn't mention Gibraltar, nobody does.

I don't know whether he is positioning himself for a possible u-turn by setting unrealisable conditions, or whether he is being utterly consistent with the Euro-scpeticism that he has espoused for the past forty years and is gunning for a hard Brexit. Whatever, he has set himself up in diametric opposition to the vast majority of the party members (though the diehards appear to be remarkably pliable), and, more importantly, to the majority of Labour voters. Labour's better than expected showing in the last general election was partly down to them gathering up remain voters. If he hopes to retain them by promising them a better Brexit than the Tories can offer, he is making a classic political error - mistaking opposition to policy as discontent about performance.

There was one bit of the speech that got more attention than others - immigration. It was an obvious dogwhistle to UKIP voters, implying that problems are down to there being too many foreigners in the country. But he did hit on a real issue about the exploitation of posted workers. The standard brush-off by his opponents was a dismissive comment that this is a marginal issue affecting small numbers. This is true, but irrelevant. His opponents are wrong, the margins matter. These are real people being exploited. We have a choice of solutions:

Either there is the one Corby appears to favour, to restrict immigration by pulling Britain out of its preferential membership of the EU single market, which is the source of the bulk of its earnings, thereby damaging the economy, making people poorer, increasing bureaucracy, weakening employment rights, reducing the power and standing of the nation, breaching the Good Friday Agreement, and stripping all 64 million Britons of their rights as EU citizens to live and work anywhere in the Union.

Or, we can close the loopholes in the Posted Worker Directive (as is already happening).

What a dilemma.

Let's get this straight. The cause of exploitation is not immigration. The cause of exploitation is exploitation. Just as stagnant wages and declining public services have nothing to do with the EU, but are the result of the dubious decision of our own government to remove the post-crash stimulus and restrict spending and demand - austerity for short. Exploitation can be fought using all the familiar tools of left governments - enforceable legal employment rights, strong trade unions, industrial democracy, investing in public services, a political economy that promotes growth and employment, and building a strong welfare state. There is nothing, absolutely nothing at all, in EU membership that would prevent this. There is much in it that would make it easier.

The curious thing is that on all three issues - the Middle East, Russia, and Brexit - the Corbyn left is siding with the far right. They are making excuses for and lining up with ultra nationalist theocrats, kleptocrats, and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

These are not marginal issues. They are some of the great questions of our day with the most profound consequences. On all three, the Labour leadership has got it wrong. If they persist, this will not end well.

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