Brexit: what should Labour commit to?

Boris Johnson’s speech has more political significance than its detractors claim. A Cabinet in which Johnson sits will never sign up for a ‘jobs first’ Brexit that gives business the access to the single market that Britain presently enjoys. Nor a deal that entrenches the worker protections, social rights and environmental safeguards that our EU membership guarantees.

In other words, he has ruled out Labour’s central objectives for the Brexit negotiations. With Johnson in the Cabinet, there are only two possible outcomes: a ‘Hard Brexit’ or a ‘no deal’ breakdown. What more evidence does Labour need to come out of the closet as a party opposing this Tory Brexit? We shall soon find out when Jeremy Corbyn makes his speech today.

Labour should reject Johnson’s central argument head-on. Better to be a ‘rule-taker’ of European laws and regulations with a progressive European vocation at their heart, than a theoretically sovereign ‘rule maker’ that in practice will only make use of its ‘new freedoms’ to break free of EU regulation and the potential for a ‘better regulated capitalism’ that it represents.

Labour should now commit, at the very least, to neutralise Brexit’s most economically and socially damaging aspects by remaining in the EU single market and customs union. This will prevent the Brexiteers achieving their central goal of deregulating and disarming the human rights, social, environmental and consumer standards that EU membership has embedded in Britain’s governance.

Labour should work closely with pro-European Conservative rebels, the Liberal Democrats, and even the SNP to build a majority in the House of Commons for a Norway-style ‘soft’ Brexit.

If the choice becomes between a hard Brexit and ‘no deal’ chaos, Labour should now have the courage to argue for the status quo. Neither of these outcomes are the ‘will of the people’, as expressed in the 2016 referendum.

Suspending or extending Article 50 to facilitate the development of a more coherent and inclusive national strategy, including the option of remaining in the EU, is far preferable to such self-mutilation.

Up to now, Labour’s position has been tactical, not principled. To want room for manoeuvre in face of the complex unknowns of Brexit is understandable. Public opinion has yet to move decisively, though, but it is becoming increasingly evident that Brexit is not proving as easy as Vote Leave claimed.

The Brexiteers may bluster that the EU27 is holding Britain to ransom, but the primary responsibility for the looming Brexit calamity rests with the Cabinet’s inability to make up its mind.

Labour faces difficult choices on Brexit, which are at root ideological not tactical. They raise existential questions about the party’s identity and mission. They are difficult because there are no easy answers. Behind the different viewpoints lie contestable interpretations of the referendum result as a victory for the ‘left behinds’ and myths about the 2017 general election, which grossly underplay the extent to which anti-Brexit feeling boosted Labour support.

Does Labour seek to remake itself as a workers’ party, delivering controls on migration?  For ‘Blue Labour’ sympathisers and  many others who believe Labour is and must be ‘the party of the working class’, the 2016 referendum result was the confirmation of all they had warned of, in terms of their view of Labour’s cosmopolitan arrogance towards its working class base. For them, freedom of movement is impossible to defend: and if that means leaving the European single market, so be it.

Nobody should ignore genuine concerns about migration, nor dismiss those that hold them as racist. But they are not exclusively working class. Many working class people voted to remain, particularly those within ethnic minority communities and in cities like Glasgow, Liverpool and London. On any objective analysis, immigration is not the root cause of the problems of the so-called ‘left behind’.

To address these issues, Labour needs innovative policy thinking, and in my new paper for Policy Network, Seizing the Argument, I explain the need to develop a ‘Marshall Plan for the left behind’. There are options for tightening migration control within EU rules that the Conservatives have chosen not to take.

Domestic policies can address reform of business models that rely on too ready an availability of low skilled migrant labour. To make immigration control a centrepiece of Labour’s renewed appeal to its traditional working class base would be an appeasement of populism, not faithfulness to – as Gaitskell put it – the quintessentially social democratic “pursuit of truth to the bitter end”.

From a different perspective, Labour is today is in search of a new political economy. The priority is to generate new thinking on how the economy can be managed to deliver broadly-based growth while addressing  growing inequality, in place of the flawed New Labour assumption that markets would deliver a ‘rising tide that would lift all boats’.

The Corbyn leadership worry that a greater role for the state in managing the economy will come up against EU rules. The answer depends on how statist and interventionist Labour intends to be.

John McDonnell apparently accepts that nothing in the 2017 Labour manifesto would fall foul of EU rules. Should Labour contemplate import, capital and exchange controls, the position might be different.

Surely, a modern Labour party should work within the European consensus for the ‘social market’, but this need not mean the status quo. A deeper social market requires tighter regulation in areas like tax, corporate governance, and a stronger pillar of social rights, with Britain backing reforms more wholeheartedly than at times New Labour showed.

Full British membership of the single market and customs union would be the most economically beneficial option for Britain, with the greatest egalitarian potential for our society. It ties Britain’s long term future to the EU, which for Labour, unlike Boris Johnson, should be a big plus.

The closer the economic ties, the less will be the risks of mid-Atlantic disengagement and competitive dumbing down, and the more will be the wider possibilities of political cooperation with our European friends whose values and interests we share.

Labour in opposition should set a bold agenda for a reformed EU, a more positive vision than the miserably constricted one vision the Cameron/Osborne government presented in 2016. My preference would be for Labour to seek a democratic mandate in a general election for its new European policy.

Some take the view that the 2016 referendum can only be reversed by holding another referendum. I do not rule this out, but it is not my first preference: referendums have been shown to be “the device of dictators and demagogues”, as Clem Attlee prophetically warned. They settle nothing, as the current confused debate on the meaning of Brexit amply demonstrates. But if a referendum is the only way, so be it.

This is the right policy for the party and, as it happens, the right choice for the country as well. On Brexit, partisan interests need not be in conflict with the national interest. As the Conservatives quarrel and divide, Labour should stake a bold claim to be the party of the national interest.

By Roger Liddle, Policy Network chair and Labour member of the House of Lords.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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