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Chuka Umunna on why he’s leading anti-Brexit charge

British Labour politician Chuka Umunna spoke to Matt Kelly about his opposition to Brexit. Picture: Isabel Infantes / EMPICS Entertainment. - Credit: EMPICS Entertainment

New European editor MATT KELLY spoke with Chuka Umunna about why he’s decided to front up the grassroots charge against Brexit.

Chuka Umunna is leading a rebellion against Brexit, the Grassroots Coordinating Group.

It’s an alliance The New European has joined, together with several other leading anti-Brexit groups. The idea? Campaigning against our exit from the EU has so far been splintered and confused. By co-ordinating our activity, we can make more progress and get our message across to a public understandably weary of political in-fighting and obfuscation. We spoke to Chuka about what’s driving him, and why he’s decided to stick his head above the parapet.

Earlier this month, plans were revealed to unite the main groups opposed to a hard Brexit – representing more than 500,000 members – under the leadership of the Labour MP Chuka Umunna. Here, he answers questions from The New European on the precise aims of the new Grassroots Co-ordinating Group (GCG), Jeremy Corbyn’s apparent ambivalence on Brexit, and media coverage of the issue.

MK: Chuka, why you? Why are you the ideal person to bring all these disparate groups together?

CU: Its not about me, its about how ‘we’ build a majority in Parliament for the people to have a final say and win the argument for a change of course. I’ve been involved with most of the grassroots pro-European organisations for a long time now – whether as a supporter, one of the main spokespeople for Open Britain, or as chair of Leave Watch. I was approached by leading figures in the biggest grassroots pro-EU organisations to try to better co-ordinate our efforts and build a bridge between the campaign in parliament and the campaign in the country. We are more effective if we are unified.

MK: What’s the ultimate goal of this new organisation? Are we clear on that?

CU: The ultimate goal of the Grassroots Co-ordinating Group is to ensure that the people have the final say on the Brexit deal. For some that is by ensuring that their MP gets a meaningful say on the deal; but, for most in the movement they – like me – want the people to get the final say on whatever the Prime Minister returns with from Brussels at the end of the year, with the option to remain in the EU and fight for reforms to the European economy to help build a better Britain.

Some argue that politicians are an obstacle to achieving these goals when, unless you build a majority in parliament to legally provide the means for the people to have the final say, you cannot achieve your goal; equally, unless we move and animate public opinion, we won’t persuade sufficient numbers of MPs to put country above party. So bringing together the campaign in and out of parliament are actually two sides of the same coin.

There is also another school of thought which says we should be an exclusive movement only engaging those who want no Brexit as opposed to those opposed to a hard Brexit. I think we should adopt an inclusive approach (the opposite to the extreme Brexiteers driving government policy) because we are stronger working together. I also believe that many of those who are not quite in the no Brexit place, will move there once they see how dire the final deal will be.

MK: What scares you most? Theresa May staying or Theresa May quitting?

CU: Both are a terrible prospect if we have a Government pursuing this rotten Brexit, as outlined in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech. If we are going to leave the EU – which is not inevitable – then, at the very least, we must stay in the single market and the customs union in order to secure jobs, hold global capital to account and pursue social justice, both in the UK and overseas. But, personally, my goal is for us to stay in – and we need to do all we can to persuade people to have an open mind as to what happens at the end of this process, particularly the soft Leavers who are amenable to changing their minds once the reality of Brexit is spelt out in the Withdrawal Agreement.

At the end of the day, this isn’t about the PM or other personalities. This is about the national interest and what is best for our country’s future.

MK: Hard, soft, red white and blue, jobs-first, whatever you want to call it… Is any sort of Brexit acceptable?

CU: No. I’m anti-Brexit. I’ve been pretty clear about that. But I recognise that we will only be able to change course and stay in the EU if the British people decide that is what they want – by parliament deciding that the final say on this process must be referred back to the British people.

I do not see how you can thwart the will of the people if they are the ones who get the final say in the process.

MK: Given what happened with the referendum in 2016, is another one a good idea?

CU: The referendum in June 2016 was a choice between hypotheticals and predictions of what would happen if we voted to stay in or leave the EU.

A new vote will be based on fixed propositions that will be clear, not hypotheticals.

It would be between whether to accept the Brexit deal that the government negotiates, or whether to stay in the EU and work for reform and modernisation within, as is already being advocated by many European leaders including Emmanuel Macron.

This is not about having a ‘second referendum’, and asking the same question again. It is about giving the British people the final say in this process. A final say based on the facts not fantasy.

MK: Neither main party is clear about what it wants from Brexit. With the Tories, it’s clear why. They are split by doctrine right down the Brexit fault line. But Labour’s ambiguous position is harder to understand. What’s your message to Jeremy Corbyn, who seems ideologically opposed to the EU but also keen to keep the two-thirds of Labour supporters who voted Remain on side? Isn’t he trying to have his cake and eat it?

CU: Those of us who are driven by the Remain cause are not doing so in order to attack Jeremy Corbyn – I don’t make decisions based on the personality of whoever is my leader. This is far more personal than political – I have a Danish nephew and niece, I’ve got French and Spanish relatives, and I’m a quarter Irish. For me, this is about my family and the fact I am proud to be British and European. And my family is like so many in my constituency in Lambeth, where we had the highest Remain vote in the country. At the 2017 General Election I stood on a clear promise that I would fight for the UK to, at the very least, stay in the single market and the customs union.

I was elected with an increased majority and with people on the doorstep telling me that that’s what they wanted me to do. So I’m speaking up for my community.

The best way to put Labour’s values into action is to stay in the single market in order to protect workers’ rights, fight for social justice globally, and protect jobs and the environment.

The pro-EU movement reflects the whole of the Labour movement from across Europe, with the General Secretary of the TUC Francis O’Grady, General Secretary of the TSSA Manuel Cortes, and the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis calling for the UK to remain in the single market. Recent polling also shows that Labour members, particularly our younger supporters, are pro-European and against Brexit.

Given how outspoken Jeremy
has been on giving a voice to Labour Party members and internal party democracy, I’m sure he will want to listen to their voice. So many young voters came our way last June in anticipation that we would fight this Tory Brexit
– we will never be forgiven if we betray them.

MK: A big part of this new umbrella group you’ve created is to counter the constant stream of hard right misinformation that gets published across the pages of some of our biggest-selling newspapers. How do you plan to do that?

CU: Yes, of course, the people need to know the facts as they become clear and these negotiations go on. We have more than half a million people following our various organisations on social media, so we have both the online and grassroots networks to make the case and get the argument out into all communities and corners of the country.

MK: What about the BBC? Do you feel they are doing everything they should to keep the public engaged with the facts?

CU: Broadcasters don’t always get the balance right, it’s very difficult to do and they achieve it more often than not. I think they need to be careful, when trying to give balance and show impartiality, that they do not give a platform and a prominence to extreme views that do not fairly inform the 

All broadcasters and news outlets have a responsibility to provide the public with the facts and information so that they can make their own minds on these important issues.

I also think it is disgraceful and dangerous, when we are all working in the national interest but might have different views on what it is, for newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph to brand people mutineers or a traitors of the British people.

MK: Are you in contact with politicians in Europe? If so, what’s their attitude to the UK’s position right now?

CU: Yes, it is being made clear that the view of the British government is not the same as collective will of parliament. Parliament is not going to be an idle bystander in this process, we are active and holding the government to account as best we can.

They are keen to hear from us and they understand Theresa May does not speak for all in our country – she has no majority.

I have met and spoken with heads of government, foreign ministers and ambassadors from the other EU member states.

They have all been clear that from their perspective Britain is welcome to change its mind at any point and we would be welcomed back with open arms. They have been clear that Article 50 can be both paused and revoked.

They would like us to stay but recognise that is a decision for the British people.

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