Our party is still running scared on Brexit issues

PUBLISHED: 12:05 28 September 2017 | UPDATED: 12:05 28 September 2017

Heidi Alexander and Alison McGovern

Heidi Alexander and Alison McGovern

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Labour MPs HEIDI ALEXANDER and ALISON McGOVERN on why their party cannot continue to brush Brexit under the carpet

Like the German word schadenfreude there is doubtless a compound noun somewhere that perfectly encapsulates a dilemma you pretend to grapple with whilst never really dealing with it in any serious or honest way.

If it doesn’t exist, then British politics needs to invent it and bring it to bear in every discussion on Brexit.

Sunday’s decision at Labour Party conference to avoid a priority debate and a meaningful vote on permanent membership of the single market, was a huge disappointment and a massive missed opportunity.

As pro-EU campaigners marched in their thousands outside the Brighton conference centre, party delegates were voting in a ‘priorities ballot’ which determined the issues to be debated and voted upon during the annual week of political debate.

Ludicrously, Brexit was not chosen after an effort by the Momentum pressure group to sideline the issue. Whilst Keir Starmer still got to deliver a short speech and a handful of delegates got to outline their views in a general debate, there was no motion and no means of taking any action at the end of the debate; it was simply an airing of views. The inescapable fact is that the prospect of a motion on Brexit prompted a feverish arm-twisting operation to prevent a full and proper debate that would have given members a say on Labour policy.

This is exasperating for the thousands of us involved in the Labour Campaign for the Single Market (www.labour4 singlemarket.org) because we know that the country is crying out for honesty and clarity on the biggest issue of the day.

We don’t disagree that the other priorities chosen for debate at this week’s conference – the NHS, social care and housing – are all critical, but they will all be hugely affected if we don’t protect our economy and the public finances.

The difference between staying in the single market (outside of the EU) and no deal could be, according to Treasury analysis, £25bn. Crashing out of the EU on WTO terms is estimated to cost £45bn compared to the status quo. This is five times the amount we spend each year on GPs. It is three times annual local authority expenditure on social care for the elderly and disabled.

These are massive figures and yet they may be hard to grapple with if you don’t spend your time interrogating public expenditure statistics. We do. And it is precisely because we know how desperate the NHS, schools and councils are for proper funding.

Tentative and imperfect though it is, Starmer has edged Labour towards a position whereby we seek to retain the economic benefits of remaining in some form of single market arrangement and customs union, subject to negotiations. So with those benefits accepted what is holding us back? John McDonnell was explicit when talking to Peston on Sunday; it is difficult to see how we can remain within the single market because of the four freedoms. Immigration illusions are set to make us poorer.

This is a peculiar state of affairs. We currently control immigration from countries which make up 90% of the world’s population. Even within the EU we have the power to tighten the rules about immigration from the remaining 10% but we have chosen not to.

Instead of accepting the premise that immigration is something to be drastically curbed, we should be honest about the drawbacks of decreasing immigration. Fewer migrants will leave us with fewer workers to plug gaps in the labour market brought about by our ageing population. Fewer EU migrants will means fewer taxpayers and fewer people spending money in our shops.

A close but devastating Brexit defeat based largely on alarmist populism should have shaken us out of our stupor and made the case for a frank debate with the immigration myth-makers more urgent. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, whose real views on immigration are both welcoming and welcome, should have added impetus to that.

The Labour Party’s extraordinary decision to reject a debate and vote on Brexit demonstrates we’re still running scared rather than facing immigration concerns head-on.

When a quarter of all motions submitted to conference party this year were on Brexit, it is wrong this debate has been stifled. We won’t be silenced through a procedural sleight of hand and if we can’t have the debate on the floor, we will take it out into the country.

In the next 12 months the Labour Campaign for the Single Market aims to have this debate in each and every one of the UK’s 650 constituencies. If you are a party member or know someone who is, get in touch and help us to ensure the campaign for Labour Conference 2018 starts today. Next time we can’t allow Brexit to be brushed under the carpet.

Heidi Alexander is Labour MP for Lewisham East; Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South; to support their campaign, sign the petition at www.labour4singlemarket.org

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