The EU, Corbyn and the “Hollowing Out” of Labour’s Left Wing
16 April 2019
Brexit has exposed the fact that it is not only the Labour Party's right wing that has succumbed to neoliberalism. By embracing the European Union, so, too, has the party's left.
The key difference between Labour’s left wing and Labour’s right wing has been that the Left wish to create a new society whereas the Right seek to ameliorate the worst aspects of the existing one. Just over a century ago, the Left had a victory when the Party adopted a democratic socialist objective. In Clause IV(4) of its rule book, it committed itself to replace capitalism with a system which, in order to secure for the workers the full fruits of their labour, would be based on the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Democracy would be further reinforced by adopting the best possible system of popular administration of each industry or service.
The 1945-51 Labour government nationalised some 20 percent of the economy but its “Morrisonian” model of nationalisation, whereby publicly-owned companies were run much like private companies, with no over-arching national economic plan nor industrial democracy, failed to capture the public imagination. Thereafter Clause IV(4) was resisted by right-wing Labour leaders. Hugh Gaitskell fought against it in the 1950s, Harold Wilson ignored it in the 1960s and 1970s, and Tony Blair had it abolished, or rather replaced, in the 1990s. Under Blair the commitment to common ownership was abandoned. The current Clause IV(4), however, nonetheless commits the Party to ensure that “power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few” – an objective impossible to realise within a capitalist framework.
The irony of 1975
The Labour Left’s original stance on the EEC (now EU) was driven by desire to construct the new society envisaged in the original Clause IV(4). In the 1975 referendum on the EEC, the Labour Left opposed continued membership absolutely solidly. This was largely out of fear that EEC state aids rules would scupper a socialist economic programme as well as regional policy. The Left also favoured planned trade over free trade.
By the 2016 referendum things had completely changed. The majority of Left-identifying Labour Party members supported EU membership. Yet ironically EU law now contains far greater obstacles to the achievement of democratic socialism than in 1975. Back then, state aids law was rudimentary. Now it is a developed sphere of law which severely erodes national economic autonomy. Moreover, whilst EEC law in 1975 seemed not to interfere directly in the balance between public and private ownership in the Member States, this is no longer the case. EU law now virtually prohibits states from replacing marketisation of economic sectors with nationalised monopolies. We are compelled towards the conclusion, therefore, that something has fundamentally changed within the Labour Left.
The Labour Left and neoliberalism’s tsunami
In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s successive governments gradually established Thatcherism as the new common sense, at least among the political elite. The Labour leadership’s response was to initiate a policy review in the late 1980s to move its programme in a more capitalist direction. Three key policies pushed by the Labour Left – an alternative economic strategy, withdrawal from the EEC and a non-nuclear defence policy – were discarded. Eventually, even opposition to the extensive Conservative privatisation programme was jettisoned. With the Major, Blair and Brown governments supercharging Thatcherism rather than reversing it, the ideology outlived its political initiator and was redubbed neoliberalism.
The hegemony of Thatcherism-cum-neoliberalism plainly changed the Labour Right. Unlike in the social democratic era of 1945-1979, it became enthusiastic for privatisation. It also distanced the Party more clearly from working-class interests whilst consorting more overtly with the super-rich.
The effect of neoliberal hegemony on the Labour Left attracted far less attention, which was understandable given the Left’s marginalisation in the Blair-Brown era. Crucially, however, the Labour Left was not impervious to the profound domination of neoliberalism. From the 1990s onwards it quietly abandoned its commitments, especially to a transformed economy. The impact was to empty the Labour Left of its distinctiveness and deprive it of its purpose. The idea of replacing capitalism with democratic socialism was forgotten or redefined out of existence. Instead, much of the Labour Left retreated into left-liberalism. Left-liberal preoccupations came to the fore, such as faith in human rights and judicial decision-making, over-emphasis on identity politics, an excessive focus on struggles elsewhere in the world and a new tenderness towards supranational institutions. Such “radicalism” provided useful cover for accepting the capitalist status quo. As argued elsewhere on The Full Brexit, there was a pervasive abandonment of the interests of the working class (see Analysis #7 - Why Does the British Left Love the EU?, Analysis #12 - When the Left Abandons Workers, They Are Easy Prey for the Right, and #Analysis #16 - Understanding Leave Voters’ Motivation in Northeast England).
Psychologically the Labour Left in the 1990s needed to break out of its protracted state of marginalisation and isolation. Adopting stances closer to those of the Labour Right was a short-cut to doing so. The Labour Left chose to identify more with the Labour Party as a whole and less as a faction desirous of replacing capitalism. Accordingly, the Labour Left cultivated a mood of consensus-building, reflected in a shift against Left-versus-Right voting at meetings of the Party’s National Executive Committee. As for Labour Left figures, they increasingly enjoyed an aura based on hero-worship and ties of personal friendship with the rank and file Labour Left maintaining an uncritical, unquestioning stance towards them.
Against this backdrop of general ideological surrender, Labour Left fondness for the EU developed without any real analysis of its true nature. It is not the progressive organisation that many think. Its “Four Freedoms” – of goods, persons, services and capital – encapsulate a supra-political, supra-democratic devotion to capitalism. Its Fortress Europe policy involves running concentration camps for non-EU migrants within EU territory and outsourcing and funding other concentration camps in countries like Libya, Sudan and Turkey. The same policy makes it responsible for the deaths of several thousand Africans and other migrants in the Mediterranean Sea every year. Its treatment of the citizens of Greece, Spain, Italy and other poorer Eurozone countries has been appalling and racist. Similarly, the Labour Left pays no attention to the way in which the EU has fashioned a system in which EU institutions and national leaders work in constant cahoots with each other to entrench and constitutionalise neoliberal policies, cocooning them from the rigours of national contestation, democracy and accountability (see Analysis #1 - The EU’s Democratic Deficit: Why Brexit is Essential for Restoring Popular Sovereignty). For instance, the Blair-inspired liberalisation directives, which provide a permanent guarantee of privatisation in most public utilities, are routinely brushed under the carpet by the EU’s Labour-Left supporters. Despite the EU’s nature, however, the majority of the Labour Left either like it or are devoted to it. This only clearly emerged after the Party elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader in response to the disappointments of the right-wing Blair, Brown and Miliband leaderships.
Corbyn capitulation #1
Corbyn seemed like a breath of fresh air after Labour’s long years of neoliberal domination. He is, after all, ostensibly the Party’s first left-wing leader since the interwar years. But, in fact, despite all the spin his policy programme is modest and his commitment to introduce an unprecedented level of party democracy has resulted in only puny improvements.
Corbyn’s elevation coincided with the looming EU referendum. At hustings meetings, leadership candidate Corbyn repeatedly said that he would need “a great deal of persuading” to support EU membership, instancing the organisation’s various neoliberal activities. Once elected, Corbyn crumbled within three days: the decades-long opponent of the EU committed to campaigning for Remain in the referendum. So much for “honest politics”. His main justification for his volte face was that he’d suddenly discovered that relinquishing EU membership would mean a “bonfire of workers’ rights”. This stance is comprehensively discredited by Mary Davis on this website (see Analysis #13 - The Chimera of Workers' Rights in the EU).
Corbyn capitulation #2
It turned out that Corbyn had defected from the winning to the losing side. With the referendum over, the government and Parliament now had the choice as to what arrangement should replace EU membership. The Labour Left’s response was remarkable in its emptiness (see Analysis #17 - Labour Stands Exposed on Brexit). It did not fashion principled “red lines” for the negotiations on such matters as public ownership, state aids and public procurement. Instead, Corbyn committed a second capitulation: he started a campaign of denunciation against a No Deal outcome and in favour of “taking No Deal off the table”. He jumped on the establishment bandwagon of massively over-hyping the risks of No Deal, and is now regularly parroted in apocalyptic terms by Corbynista lieutenants John McDonnell and Rebecca Long-Bailey.
This has served to make the Labour Left a force of the status quo. In the present circumstances No Deal is the only outcome which would make lawful democratic socialist objectives of common ownership and state intervention in favour of the working class (see Analysis #15 - Is No Deal the Only Socialist Option?). Without No Deal, fundamental change will remain legally impermissible. This would actually cripple Labour in tackling far more serious economic problems such as the looming global debt crisis. More fundamentally still, it would prevent Labour from creating a more egalitarian society in place of capitalism. Moreover, “taking No Deal off the table” leaves a government with no bargaining power in negotiations with the neoliberal European Commission. So if a Labour government under Corbyn were still negotiating with the EU, it would have no alternative but to accept EU measures which make privatisation permanent and which give the EU power over UK industrial subsidies and public procurement. “Taking No Deal off the table” also opens up the prospects of a second referendum, which would not only have disastrous consequences for the Left but also represents a cliff edge for British democracy itself (see Analysis #20 - Parliament at the Cliff-Edge: Why a Second Referendum Could Destroy its Authority).
The hollowed-out Labour Left
If a Labour Left government cannot nationalise major sectors of the economy, cannot support them through industrial subsidies that are “incompatible with the single market”, and cannot deploy public procurement in a way which helps working-class people, then what exactly is the Labour Left? Its one remaining fig-leaf is its commitment to end austerity. But anti-austerity is vague. Moreover, it is precarious. If the Labour Left in office preserves the power of the economic elite then public spending will, as in the past, remain entirely dependent on the political goodwill of that elite. Since the late 1970s, the economic elite have been anything but tender towards the needs of the “lower orders”. If a Corbyn government confined within EU parameters increased corporation and income tax to finance public spending, this would almost certainly prompt capital flight on the part of powerful corporations and wealthy individuals. Labour would be powerless to prevent this, since capital controls are illegal within the EU. Marooned in a globalised, neoliberal economy which it has no intention of changing, how long would it take for a Corbyn government to buckle?
The Labour Left’s tenderness towards the EU therefore needs to be set in context. Far from being impervious to capitalist ideology, the tidal wave of neoliberalism had a profound effect upon the Labour Left. Bowing to the neoliberal dictum that “there is no alternative” the Left deprived itself of its distinctive commitment of creating a new society to take the place of capitalism. In so doing it largely abandoned the working class interest. It did this long before Brexit emerged as a pressing issue. The Labour Left’s attachment to the EU is thus a symptom, not a cause, of that political disarmament.
 See, e.g., Liz Clark “Inside the EU refugee camp driving people to suicide”, Medecins Sans Frontieres, 8 October 2018; Human Rights Watch, No Escape from Hell: EU Policies Contribute to Abuse of Migrants in Libya, 21 January 2019.
About the Author
Danny Nicol is Professor of Public Law at the University of Westminster and author of The Constitutional Protection of Capitalism (Oxford: Hart, 2010).
This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.