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 European Union. It was not a vote about how we should leave, or about what the UK’s new relationship with the EU should be. This important distinction has been insufficiently emphasized and needs to be properly understood.
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 summarize. It believes that, in order to try and reduce immigration from the European Union, the UK should leave the single market and the customs union, accepting whatever economic and constitutional damage that causes.
This plan is based on the manifest illusion that the economic benefits of any UK trade agreements outside the EU will exceed whatever the UK will lose. Moreover it risks the security of Northern Ireland whilst encouraging the Scottish National Party’s drive to independence.
And, 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.
And 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. There is no desire to abandon our legal obligations to genuine asylum-seekers. There might even be agreement to look again at identity cards, which Labour introduced in 2006, to offer reassurance that we can properly control immigration.
And of course over the next year or so the policy landscape on immigration in other EU countries will change. In addition the Conservative position is badly damaged by Theresa May’s hopeless failure to control immigration during her 6 years as Home Secretary and by recent Tory Cabinet ministers’ admissions that the country will continue to need significant numbers of migrant workers. And any country making a new post Brexit trade agreement will require freedom of movement for their citizens to the UK.
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 be realistic and coherent. It would gain support from outside Labour ranks and it 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 27 EU member states. The government’s proposals, which are based on a series of fantasies, 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 country.
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 authorize any final agreement between the UK and the EU, or indeed to withdraw from the EU if there is no agreement.
The former Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Lord Hope of Craighead, made this clear in a little-noticed intervention in the House of Lords. He was endorsed by the former Conservative Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the drafter of Article 50, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard and Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet Secretary, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster.
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 2-line rather than 3-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 minimizes 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. Theresa May’s pathetic wooing of “America First” Donald Trump, in the vain hope of a trade deal, may well become increasingly unpopular.
It is thus entirely possible that, once the implications of Brexit are revealed, public opinion about the desirability of leaving the European Union 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 European Union.
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.
By Rt Hon Charles Clarke, former Home Secretary under the Labour government. This piece originally featured in the New European.