Labour needs to set out a vision on Brexit that the whole country can get behind, says JOHN LEHAL
Parliament may have risen for recess, but the Brexit secretary is already heading back to Brussels. This summer could well see the government’s chickens come home to roost. Far from a relaxing recess, the next few weeks will be about the government clearing up after the PM’s unforced errors: the hard Brexit red lines; hiring Boris and David Davis; triggering Article 50 prematurely; the unnecessary election; and the mantra that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, despite its risk of chaos and economic slowdown.
The Brexit clock is ticking, and ministers and officials are under intense pressure to accelerate negotiations. As the government stares into the abyss, Labour is focussed on election preparation.
The October EU Council must sign off a deal ahead of votes in Westminster and the European Parliament, but what if no agreement with the EU is reached? Or what if Parliament rejects the final deal? Will the deal be palatable to those ministers still in government, or will we see further destabilising resignations? What if that deal means further surrendering to the EU, prompting the 48 votes required to trigger a vote of no confidence in Theresa May? In the weeks ahead, we will never be more than a crisis away from the government collapsing.
Labour cannot wait for its next manifesto: its new Brexit position needs to be set out now. Keir Starmer’s six tests have served us well, but Labour needs to shift from critiquing the government’s Brexit to setting out a real alternative.
At party conference in Liverpool, we can’t afford another ambiguous discussion. Labour must define a clear position and then use conference, an unparalleled annual media moment, as a springboard for a national conversation on the party’s vision. On this issue, it’s time to be bold, brave and reforming. If Jeremy Corbyn is to follow in the footsteps of Attlee, Wilson and Blair to become only the fourth Labour Leader to win a majority at the ballot box, then he needs to use Brexit as the catalyst to win back Conservatives dismayed at the PM’s handling of Brexit. If people-powered democracy means anything, we must allow Conference 2018 to define our position around three strategic priorities: Article 50, the future trade deal, and a People’s Vote.
Article 50 was triggered long before the Withdrawal Agreement and Transition deal negotiations began. The government spent 15 months talking to itself before finalising a position on a future trade relationship that already seems unworkable. History, it already seems, will look favourably on the 52 Labour MPs who were criticised for breaking the whip to vote against triggering Article 50 in the first place. As the clock ticks, the grim reality of May’s promise that ‘no deal’ would be better than a ‘bad deal’ is becoming all too clear. Brexiteer ministers are talking about stockpiling food and medicines: something they never put on the side of a bus. Crashing out is simply not an option, and would hit hardest the very people who can afford it least. For Labour, the starting point therefore has to be extending Article 50. Agreeing this with the EU27 resets the timetable, and gives the party breathing space to negotiate.
Next, Labour needs a clear set of negotiating priorities. There can be no hard border in Ireland, technology alone is not a viable alternative, and the ‘blue skies’ Facilitated Customs Arrangement was dead on arrival in Brussels. Securing tariff-free access to the Single Market through the EEA is the only way to continue the journey Jeremy Corbyn started when he signed up to membership of a customs union. The Single Market does not stand in the way of delivering our manifesto promises – quite the opposite, a contracting economy would harm our public services and anti-austerity investment programme. It protects Labour’s hard-won Good Friday Agreement by averting a hard border. There is no other way to get access to the Single Market on the same terms as present, no other option for frictionless trade, and no other candidate for a ‘jobs-first’ Brexit. An unambiguous negotiating objective to remain part of the EEA will of course mean accepting freedom of movement, which is why Labour also has to re-frame the debate on immigration. As proud internationalists, we must make the positive case for immigration and reiterate the value that migrants bring to our economy, to our public services, and as an essential part of the UK’s modern workforce.
Finally, Labour must commit to a People’s Vote. Whatever the final deal and whoever it is negotiated by, we need to take what’s on the table back to the country and allow the public a say on the terms of our withdrawal. But a People’s Vote needs Labour’s support. Neither a besieged prime minister, nor a coalition of Lib Dem, Green and SNP MPs, can achieve this alone – only Labour can unlock the deadlock and shape history on this. We all had our own reasons for voting Leave or Remain, but now further facts have emerged, a sustained public debate has taken place, and the promises of 2016 have been translated into the realities of 2018, we need put it back to the people for a final say.
We are entering a decisive period. The Tories have never looked more precarious, and with the PM unable to command a Parliamentary majority for her Brexit vision, we’re in gridlock. Labour has to step up, put members in the driving seat, and set out a vision for the future that the whole country can get behind.
John Lehal is a board member of the Labour Campaign for the Single Market and serves on the executive of Labour Business. He can be found tweeting @JohnLehal