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‘Craven’ Labour has given Tories free ride over Brexit, says party grandee

Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015

In a devastating attack on his own party, former Labour minister Charles Clarke accuses the ‘incoherent’ Opposition of colluding in a damaging version of Brexit

Labour’s confusion and incoherence in response to the EU referendum, eight months ago, has given the Conservatives a free ride.

It must not go on. Labour’s starting point should be to accept the referendum decision for what it was, and not for what it was not.

It was a narrow but clear vote to leave the EU. It was not a vote about how we should leave, or about what the UK’s new relationship with the EU should be.

From the Prime Minister’s speech last October at the Conservative Party conference she and her media cheerleaders have tried to bully the rest of us into accepting that their approach to Brexit is what people voted for last June.

She asserts that no alternative can be contemplated.

At a difficult time she has behaved divisively rather than as a national leader, for example by seeking a common approach across Parliament.

Unfortunately Labour’s lack of any clear alternative has allowed her unfounded claim to become accepted.

It is beyond time for Labour to submit the Government’s approach to detailed and rigorous scrutiny, to challenge them at every turn and, most important of all, to put forward the realistic alternative which Labour would be following were it in government today.

Labour should not be colluding with government proposals, or even simply opposing from time to time. Labour has to make its own compelling case for the future. It must lead the national debate not follow it.

The Government’s approach is easy to summarise. It believes that, in order to try and reduce immigration from the EU, the UK should leave the single market and the customs union, accepting whatever economic and constitutional damage that causes.

Whatever their attitudes to immigration, the British people never voted for such an economically suicidal approach which threatens the constitutional integrity of our country.

Despite important differences of opinion, notably around immigration, Labour is in a much better position to put forward an agreed alternative Brexit strategy than many seem to think. And Labour’s victory in Stoke should reduce fears that UKIP is an existential threat to Labour.

We have more in common than divides us: the UK should remain part of both the European single market and the customs union; we should remain part of the European scientific and research networks; we should retain co-operation in security and European external policy; we would be happy to dump the Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries Policies.

On the vexed and tricky matter of immigration, there is general agreement that EU citizens should be able to come to the UK if they have a place to study or a confirmed job, particularly in the farms and factories which need the workers.

This should be Labour’s independent Brexit strategy. Labour should not be frustrating the referendum decision but nor should it be assisting the government’s highly divisive and damaging version of Brexit.

Such a Labour approach would be in the national interest. It would gain support from outside Labour ranks and would honour the outcome of the referendum more faithfully than the Government’s current approach.

It would better reflect the overall views of the population.

Such a strategy would also be far more likely to secure orderly agreement with the other EU member states. The government’s proposals are getting little support, or even understanding, from our negotiating partners.

And finally Labour would not need to resort to Theresa May and Philip Hammond’s incredible threat to impose Singapore-style economic reforms which could never be implemented in this 

So on any reasonable assessment, such a Labour Brexit strategy would be superior 
to the government proposals and would better implement the decision of the referendum.

The incoherence and riskiness of the Government’s approach has led them to try and avoid all parliamentary approval of their approach.

The Supreme Court predictably forced them to legislate before sending the Article 50 letter.

That Supreme Court decision is likely also to mean that new legislation will be needed after the negotiations are complete in order to authorise any final agreement between the UK and the EU, or indeed to withdraw from the EU if there is no agreement.

So the despatch of the Article 50 letter will by no means end parliamentary engagement with the Brexit process.

Labour must vigorously press its approach at all stages, including throughout the negotiations – there will be a running commentary despite the Government’s desire for secrecy – and through the final legislation.

It must be absolutely clear that it will support an exit from the EU which honours the Labour approach but it will rigorously oppose an exit which does not. Such a clear approach should have meant that Labour supported the Second Reading of the Withdrawal from the European Union (Article 50) Bill, thus formally accepting the outcome of the Referendum; but voted against at Third Reading unless the Bill then included clear amendments reflecting Labour’s position. The passionately held positions of individual MPs should have been respected by using a two-line rather than three-line whip.

And Labour should never, disgracefully, have whipped its peers to vote against amendments requiring the UK to stay in the single market.

In short Labour was absolutely wrong to submit cravenly to the government’s contention that its Brexit strategy was the only possible way to implement the referendum vote.

Labour should truthfully explain that its position is to support implementation of the referendum result but only if it is done in a way which minimises the damage to the country.

Finally Labour needs to consider its attitude if public opinion were to change, as the consequences become increasingly apparent.

Doubts about the competence of the Conservatives’ Brexit approach are likely to grow. At the same time the new economic and political realities of Brexit will replace predictions. It is thus entirely possible that, once the implications of Brexit are revealed, public opinion about the desirability of leaving the EU will shift.

The British people would certainly have the right to change their minds. They could express that view through either of the two legitimate sources of popular authority – a second referendum or a general election on the basis of clear manifesto commitments.

In such circumstances Labour would certainly have the right to consider including in its 2020 General Election manifesto a pledge to remain in the EU.

I do not expect this to happen but everything will depend on the attitudes of the people of this country as the consequences touch their day-to-day lives.

At this momentous period in British history Labour cannot walk by on the other side. If it did it would fully deserve to play no part in the future of country. It’s time to engage fully in this vital national debate.

Charles Clarke was a Labour MP from 1997 until 2010. During this time, he served as Home Secretary and Education Secretary

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