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Chuka Umunna on why there’s a middle way through the Brexit divide

(AP Photo/Alastair Grant) - Credit: AP/Press Association Images

While one side of the political divide refuses to engage with the challenges of free movement and immigration, the other just wants to pull up the drawbridge. Labour MP Chuka Umunna finds another way

The Brexit vote showed a country divided in so many ways: by age, region, ethnic and socio-economic groups.

Yet despite the multifaceted nature of the result, Theresa May has extrapolated just one message.

Never mind that she – and 16 million others – voted Remain, in the vision she now projects, the ‘quiet revolution’ of June 23 saw the 17 million who voted to leave the EU, overcome a liberal elite who wanted to stay in.

In her characterisation, the vote was a howl of anger at the way that the world works well for a privileged few, but not for them. That may be a view of many – but not all who feel that way voted Leave.

My borough of Lambeth, which recorded the highest Remain vote in the country, is among the most deprived local authority areas in England. Child poverty in inner London boroughs is at 40% and we have higher rates of unemployment. So my constituents share that same sense of grievance but didn’t believe leaving the EU was the way to deal with it.

Neither side of the Brexit debate has 
a monopoly on grievance, at the 
uneven distribution of the fruits of globalisation.

May has even talked of this being a once-in-a-generation chance to change the direction of our nation for good. If she really believes that, then why on earth did she vote Remain? This isn’t leadership we are seeing from the prime minister, it is opportunism, pure and simple, and it is deeply disappointing.

Instead of seeking to unite a divided country – to bring together the 48% and 52% in common cause – she has sought to ride the wave and, in so doing, is further dividing our country. The challenge for those of us on the centre left of British politics is how to campaign for, and put pressure on the Government to achieve, the most progressive Brexit deal possible, and heal these divisions.

For whilst the result gives the Government a mandate to withdraw the UK from the EU, ministers have no mandate to speak of regarding the terms of our leaving.

It is simply not acceptable for the Government to seek to take the far-reaching policy decisions that will arise during that process, without proper parliamentary consultation and scrutiny. Those who campaigned to leave claimed their primary concern was to ensure parliament is sovereign – it is somewhat hypocritical for them to deny parliament its proper role in the forthcoming negotiation.

They appear to be relenting, with indications that there will be a vote on the final package, but that is tantamount to holding a gun to the head of parliament – daring MPs to vote down a deal which, if not accepted, will lead to the disaster of the UK trading on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms. Any vote must happen long before the date of departure, so adjustments to any prospective deal can be made.

So what kind of future relationship with the EU should the Government be looking to negotiate?

Several circles must be squared. The will of the people must be respected; the best parts of our EU membership must be preserved; and both Leave and Remain voters must be able to live with whatever is eventually agreed.

The starting point must be that we should seek to remain a member of the EU single market. Membership not only removes tariffs, customs duties and quotas on all goods traded within the EU, it provides employment protections, sets minimum consumer and environmental standards and more.

It also provides a guaranteed right to deliver services within the EU without national impediments, offering the best deal for Britain for services and manufacturing alike. The importance of single market membership is underlined by the commitments all the main parties gave to remaining in it at the last General Election.

If a hard Brexit model were adopted, it could mean trading with the EU under WTO rules, which would lead to tariffs in the order of 40% on exports of British lamb, 10% on exports of British cars and so on, leading to much higher costs for consumers here and challenges for our companies seeking to export into the single market.

Too little attention has also been paid to the customs union. Leaked Treasury figures suggest the cost of leaving the biggest free trade area on Earth could be an astonishing 4.5% of GDP. As the global mood moves against free trade, is it really wise for us to take such an economic risk in the hope of signing perhaps illusory trade deals with third countries?

And our continued partnership with Europe cannot be merely economic. We need to stay in Europol and the European Arrest Warrant, continue co-operation with our partners on countering common threats like Russia, and work together to fight the scourge of climate change.

But we also need to talk about immigration. It is a simple fact that without the levels of public concern about immigration that we have seen in recent years, the British people would not have voted to leave the EU. Any post-referendum approach by a pro-Remain politician has to take this into account.

After the referendum I went to Boston in Lincolnshire, the place with the highest Leave vote in Britain. People there are bewildered by the pace of cultural change brought on by immigration, and feel that jobs have been taken and wages undercut by newcomers from Eastern Europe. Immigration there has increased by more than 460% in the last 12 years.

It is no good waving graphs at the people of Boston, and telling them that the data shows the national impact of immigration has been negligible – they say, whatever the national data, immigration has posed challenges economically and to social cohesion.

Yes, for a minority, this view arises from straightforward anti-immigrant sentiment. But this was not the case for the majority who overwhelmingly had their concerns about the impact of immigration but were also strongly of the view that EU citizens already there should be able to stay.

At the same time we simply cannot throw our hands up and refuse ever to make a positive argument for immigration. Because it has been a tremendous advantage to Britain. There are 1.5 million Britons working in businesses owned by EU migrants; tens of thousands of our doctors, nurses and midwives come from Europe; and our culture has been enriched by immigration. Politicians who talk of sending foreign doctors home, and publishing lists of non-British workers, need to look themselves in the mirror and stop this poisonous rhetoric.

And the government must, unilaterally, guarantee the rights of EU citizens currently living in the UK to remain here. It is a disgrace that people are being used as pawns in this negotiation.

A solution would be to replace ‘free movement’ of people with the ‘fair movement’ of people. We should start by recognising that the status quo is hardly ‘free’: the UK is not part of Schengen, and EU citizens who arrive without a job looking for work are subject to the habitual residence test and cannot receive means-tested benefit within the first three months, after which they can be required to return to their country of origin. But we should be looking to do more.

This could include restricting free movement only to people coming here explicitly to work and study.

But would we be able to reconcile single market membership with fair movement? Well, some countries already do. Within the terms of EEA agreements, countries have been allowed to take unilateral ‘safeguard measures’ to address ‘economic, societal or environmental difficulties’ caused by being in the EEA. So, Liechtenstein has an agreed number of residence permits for EU citizens. Switzerland’s free movement deal allowed for an emergency brake for up to a year and, while overall quotas have been rejected, discussions continue over proposed sector-specific quotas. It has been reported that the EU are considering an emergency brake of up to seven years for the UK.

Britain is in a different position to other countries given it has the fifth largest economy in the world. So one cannot say what can be achieved with certainty, given the negotiations have not started yet and our EU partners do not have fixed positions – not least because their governments may change during this process.

It is not for us to make the arguments as to why they should refuse to give us what we want.

The challenge for us is to put enough of a big offer on the table – that goes beyond immigration and the economy – from which they would benefit, to secure the bespoke deal we seek. To deny it is possible to achieve any compromise is, in essence, to basically to make the case for hard Brexit, which makes no sense at all if you are pro-European and progressive. We must be realistic but also ambitious for what can be achieved.

Let me conclude by making an observation: our politics is caught between two stalls at present: a populism which refuses to acknowledge the challenges free movement can pose to local economies and community cohesion, and which too willingly puts anyone who see those challenges into the same bracket as bigots and racists; and a populism that wants to pull up the drawbridge altogether, places the blame for all the country’s problems at the feet of immigrants and wishes to turn post-Brexit Britain into some offshore tax haven with poor citizen protections.

Rejecting both positions may not be fashionable but is the right thing to do and the only way we can begin to heal the divisions in our society. Referring to some of this populism in the US and what our response as progressives should be, Michelle Obama said: ‘When they go low, we go high.’ The position I have set out above is a way of doing this, that is true to our values and can unite our country. It is now up to us to go out there and make the argument.

Chuka Umunna is a Labour MP and the chairman of Vote Leave Watch

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