Protectionism’s winds of change are blowing, but the left can make it work


Published in The Guardian

Colin Hines

By prioritising protection and rebuilding of local economies the left can find a positive answer to voters’ concerns while challenging the extreme right

Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the White House was largely on the back of protectionist economic policy.

Next week will see protectionism take centre stage globally as the Davos elite gathers to vent about its rise, and the Twitter protectionist Donald Trump becomes US president.

Yet there is a left, green alternative that could effectively challenge the rise of the extreme right, while giving voters hope for a better future. In my new book Progressive Protectionism: Taking Back Control, I detail why progressives should endorse the controlling of borders to people, capital, goods and services, but not as occurred in the 1930s, when governments attempted to protect domestic jobs while still wanting to compete and export globally at the expense of others.

Progressive Protectionism, by contrast, aims to nurture and rebuild local economies in a way that permanently reduces the amount of international trade in goods, money and services and enables nation states to control the level of migration that their citizens desire. This approach can return a sense of optimism to the majority through championing policies geared to achieving more job security, a decrease in inequality and protection of the environment worldwide.

Jeremy Corbyn could play a key role here. His first tremulous steps towards endorsing “managed migration” are, of course, welcome. However, his fantasy that the UK can prosper out of the EU and protect domestic industry ignores how vulnerable a go-it-alone UK will be. Big business will threaten relocation and investment strikes should the government have the temerity to try to significantly improve social, employment and environmental conditions.

Instead Corbyn should use next month’s London meeting of European socialist parties to discuss how all EU member states can cooperate to reverse the present political, social and economic instability that haunts the whole continent. This should prioritise the protection and rebuilding of local economies and so provide a positive answer to voters’ concerns. To achieve this, a debate needs to be started about why Europe needs a progressive protectionism to replace the increasingly discredited Treaty of Rome with a “Treaty of Home Europe-wide”. Cross-border issues such as responding to non-European migration, climate change, pollution, crime and military security would still of course require intra-European cooperation.

This might sound far fetched, but such an approach by Europe’s left would belatedly allow them to play catch up with the extreme right and Trump. The latter at present has the political monopoly on policies for curbing high migration and protecting local jobs from imports. Given the key elections looming this year in the Netherlands, France and Germany, addressing immigration and insecurity is something the left will have no choice but to do anyway.

For this huge transition towards the protection of local economies to be achieved would also need a large scale, coordinated campaign by those who will eventually benefit from such changes. This will involve the constant reiteration of how the “Treaty of Home” will benefit domestic economic activity and services as compared with the present adverse effects of the four so called freedoms. These have included foreign steel and other imports hurting manufacturing, overseas companies snapping up domestic ones, foreign landlords leaving investment homes empty, the gig economy increasing job insecurity and inadequately controlled immigration growing alarmingly.

Under pressure from angry, disadvantaged citizens and extreme right parties, European Governments of every political hue are increasingly being forced to take border controls seriously. Those of us who last June voted for remain, but to reform Europe, were frequently told that the political elite would never change direction. However as the complexity, long timetable and costs of Brexit become clearer, once controlling the free movement of people across Europe is on the table, then a second referendum, or a parliamentary vote on the Brexit on offer, could lead to a very different result. It could unite the huge numbers of remainers and Brexiters who want both controls on immigration and a mutually beneficial relationship with our European neighbours.

Huge changes are coming in 2017. The successes achieved by Trump and Nigel Farage, the gains expected for Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, and the crumbling lead of Angela Merkel will make those who still claim that globalisation and large scale immigration are irreversible appear as quaintly passé as those who once asserted that the sun would never set on the empire.

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