Corbyn’s ‘Peterborough Declaration’ provided the basis for unity and advance for a people’s exit from the EU, writes Robert Griffiths
It would be a shame if the labour movement misses the significance and importance of Jeremy Corbyn’s speech in Peterborough last Tuesday, January 10.
But, given the coverage of it by the pro-EU and right-wing anti-EU mass media, that would not be a big surprise.
Television and newspapers concentrated on his remarks, mostly made earlier in the day, on the possible need for a cap on company executives’ salary. This issue in particular was used to misrepresent the Peterborough media event as a shambles, with Corbyn and Labour yet again muddling along in a state of confusion and indecision.
Yet his speech was clear and bold. Most importantly, it offered a united way forward for the labour movement on the divisive question of Britain’s exit from the European Union.
It’s hardly a secret that the left and labour movement have been divided on the issue of EU membership.
Three trades unions, part of the Labour left, the Communist Party, the Indian Workers Association and the main far left parties campaigned for a Leave vote in last June’s referendum. They were clear about the capitalist, imperialist and anti-democratic character of the EU, which makes it incapable of fundamental reform.
The most right-wing section of the Tory Party, along with the United Kingdom Independence Party and racist and fascist groups also campaigned against EU membership for nationalist or xenophobic reasons, believing that Britain’s exit would severely reduce immigration.
On the other side, most trade unions and the TUC, most Labour MPs, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and the SNP supported a Remain vote.
They saw EU membership as being in our economic, social, environmental and security interests; some projected it as a model of international co-operation, albeit one in need of reform.
Others valued the EU as a guarantor of trade union and employment rights.
Many left and progressive Remainers campaigned agnostically, only too aware of the EU’s weaknesses and failures.
Like poor little Jim’s father in Hillaire Belloc’s verse, they wanted us to hang onto the EU hand for fear of being eaten by the Ukip lion: “And always keep a-hold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse.”
For most of the Tory Cabinet, City of London institutions, the Bank of England, the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors, the International Monetary Fund, the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and Nato, membership of the EU serves the interests of big business and imperialism and should be maintained.
Ever since Leave won the referendum with 52 per cent of the poll, powerful forces in political, media, business, Civil Service and military circles have sought to undermine the legitimacy of that result and frustrate its implementation.
If they cannot succeed in blocking Britain’s exit from the EU, their fallback position is to keep us enmeshed in membership of the European Single Market with its rules requiring the “free movement” of capital, goods, services and people across the EU. That free movement of capital must also extend across the world.
So it was important that Jeremy Corbyn reiterated Labour’s official opposition to a second referendum on EU membership.
Once again, he insisted that the people had spoken and their decision must now be implemented. He spoke up for the sovereignty of the people.
But this time he went further, declaring that “Britain can be better off after Brexit” and “Labour will build a better Britain out of Brexit.”
In setting out how this might be done, he addressed what he said were the four parts of a clear message delivered by the electors on June 23.
First, people want to leave the EU in order to “bring control of our democracy and economy closer to home.”
Second, they want the promise kept of extra investment in the NHS from money saved by cancelling Britain’s contribution to the EU budget.
Third, people have had enough of an economic system and an Establishment that work only for the few and not the many.
Finally, they want their concerns about immigration to be addressed. This was a refreshingly different and more accurate representation of why the majority of voters plumped for Leave. Too many EU supporters on the left and in the centre have spent the past six months smearing Leave voters as gullible, undereducated, narrow-minded racists. Some critics have become so unhinged as to accuse the Communist Party of being in bed with nationalists, racists and neonazis, although we conducted an anti-racist, internationalist campaign against the EU, wholly independently of all sections of the political right.
Moreover, detailed polling analysis shows that democratic sovereignty was the single biggest reason why people voted Leave last June — and that a slight majority of people who regard themselves as anti-capitalist (30 per cent of the electorate) also voted Leave.
In responding to the popular message, Corbyn identified the policies needed, some of which would be incompatible with continued membership of the European Single Market.
First, he argued that powers should be repatriated from Brussels in order to pursue an industrial strategy that would include state aid to protect and invest in key sectors of the economy.
National and regional investment banks together with a revival of regional economic development policies would create productive jobs, combat inequality and help rebalance the economy. Public sector contracts would restrict outsourcing to the private sector and discriminate against companies that use tax havens and in favour of those which narrow the pay gap between workers and bosses.
Most of the necessary measures in these areas would fall foul of EU rules on competition, public tendering and the free movement of capital.
He could have added that renationalised industries and services must, according to the EU Commission, be run along strictly commercial lines.
Most kinds of protection, preferential treatment and state support for public sector enterprise cut across the hallowed “four freedoms” of movement for capital, goods, services and labour.
Second, Corbyn demanded an end to underfunding and privatisation of NHS services. Some of the extra investment should come from money saved as a result of leaving the EU (Britain paid £10.3 billion more into EU funds in 2015 than it got back).
Third, in order to combat low pay, bene t cuts and poverty, the Labour leader proposed a major extension of collective bargaining, maximum pay ratios within companies (although executive income from every source should be linked to the company’s average wage), higher top rates of income tax and a preferential corporation tax rate for high-paying enterprises.
Here it would be relevant to note that outside the EU, British governments would be free to abolish or substantially reduce rates of VAT — a thoroughly regressive tax. No longer would we have to plead with EU Commission bureaucrats for permission to eliminate VAT on women’s sanitary products (“tampon tax”).
Fourth, the Labour leader upheld Britain’s treaty obligations to shelter refugees from war and persecution, and which Tory-led governments have lamentably failed to do. He was also right to demand that we welcome overseas students and guarantee permanent residency rights to EU citizens already here
He highlighted the vital contribution of migrant workers and immigrants to our economy and society. However, some of his proposals to legislate against the importation of super-exploited labour to undercut wages and conditions would be impermissible if Britain remains in the single market after leaving the EU.
A series of European Court of Justice rulings make it unlawful for national or regional governments and trade unions to take action to enforce equal terms and conditions for so-called “posted workers.”
Among other reasons, it impedes the “right of establishment” of multinational corporations to operate wherever they choose without facing Discrimination.
n Peterborough, Jeremy Corbyn said: “Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle, but I don’t want that to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it
out.” Staying in the Single Market will
mean accepting “free movement” and with it the capacity of big business to continue undercutting labour standards through the super-exploitation of migrant workers.
In order to be unambiguous and consistent, the Labour leadership needs to come out openly and unambiguously against post-exit membership of the Single Market.
“Open borders” is an unrealistic anarchist and semi-anarchist slogan that contradicts the socialist case for state power, regulation, planning and equal development.
Instead, Corbyn’s call for the “reasonable management” of migration after leaving the EU should be used to ensure equal immigration and settlement rights for non-EU citizens, in place of the current pro-European discrimination.
On all four fronts, the “Peterborough Declaration” provided the basis for unity and advance around a people’s exit, in place of continuing labour movement and left disunity on the issue of EU membership.
But it requires clarity and commitment on two fundamental prerequisites: respect for the people’s decision on June 23 and the need to leave both the EU and its Single Market, while seeking access to the latter on negotiated and mutually beneficial terms.
Robert Griffths is general secretary of the Communist Party and a contributor to 21centurymanifesto