This article was first published on Huffington Post.
The Labour Party is in turmoil. Its ideology, policies and future are all unclear. The vast majority of its members and MPs campaigned for ‘Remain’ in the EU Referendum, despite a third of its voters backing ‘Leave’. This has resulted in accusations of snobbery, and a view in the forgotten communities of this country that Labour is out of touch and no longer represents them. However, the Labour Party can be saved by taking the bull by the horns over Brexit.
This will not be done by rejecting the clear will of the people, but through shaping the Brexit deal. Calling for a second referendum is politically naive and will lose the party so much credibility it will be unable to influence the terms of Brexit.
The Liberal Democrats are unequivocally pitching themselves as the party of the 48% who voted ‘Remain’, but Ed Miliband is right when he describes any attempt by Labour to do the same as “nonsense”. He further explained his position: “I don’t just think it’s nonsense electorally, but it is incidentally because more than 400 seats in the country voted for leave, but it’s nonsense in principle because it buys into the same problem people were objecting to in their vote, which is the old: We’re right, you’re wrong.”
Surprisingly, the Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn has called this policy decision correctly – by ruling out a second referendum
The Fabian Society, a left-wing think tank, recently released a paper about Brexit. It argued for the Labour Party to pledge ending the free movement of people in any Brexit negotiations. The rationale is to understand the concerns of those who voted ‘Leave’ and accept legitimate concerns over large scale immigration.
Former Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Rachel Reeves, argued the ‘Remain’ campaign failed to communicate or offer solutions to the drag on workers’ wages as a result of the free movement people principle. Reeves said “Immigration controls and ending free movement has to be a red line post-Brexit – otherwise we will be holding the voters in contempt. Subject to that, we need the greatest possible access that we can get to the single market without free movement.”
Reeves’ position on immigration is tactically the best for the Labour Party. It isn’t a policy premised on turning back the clock or hating people born in other countries. It would be a policy based on control, to ensure immigration benefits all of society and treating people exactly the same, regardless of whether they were born in an EU Member State or not. This would be an internationalist policy worthy of the Labour Party, while simultaneously addressing the concerns of millions.
The corollary of this immigration policy means Labour would have to support access to the Single Market rather than membership of it. Membership of the Single Market requires the free movement of people, but access does not. Single Market access is a sliding scale, the closer the trading relationship the more likely free movement is required, but free movement is not required per se. This is the most common factual error made in modern politics, a mistake made by John McDonnell at the Labour Party Conference. The words ‘access’ and ‘membership’ are not interchangeable and should not be used as such.
Corbyn has made some clever tactical decisions regarding Brexit such as the UK’s relationship with the Single Market, but there are key errors in his immigration policy. Insisting there should be no changes to the current immigration policy risks further alienation of Brexit voters.
Arguing for the “best and closest” access to the Single Market while not being a member of it, or accepting EU State Aid rules is tactically astute. This would allow him to pursue his popular policies in the traditional Labour voting communities, with a programme of re-nationalisation. This is what McDonnell calls a “manufacturing renaissance”. Calling for the closest possible access while achieving control over these policy areas, will also give the Labour Party a boost on economic credibility – something it has struggled with for many years.
Further, campaigning to protect workers’ rights, discrimination laws and the rights of EU migrants currently living in the UK is certainly the correct approach. As policies they are very uncontroversial and will prove popular in the country.
Another sensible pledge was made by Emily Thornberry, Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, who promised a future Labour government will guarantee all post 2020 EU structural funding if elected.
Unfortunately, the Labour Party did not be debate Brexit at its conference. It picked eight subjects for discussion and none of them were Brexit. However, a motion was passed which said “the final [Brexit] settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through parliament and potentially through a general election, or a referendum.” The Labour Party must take and must be seen to be taking Brexit seriously.
Electoral oblivion can be avoided, but only if Labour embraces Brexit and stands up for its core voters. These policies will fit with Labour’s ideology and will appeal not only to Labour Party members but to the wider public. The Labour Party must heed Get Britain Out‘s advice, or be out power for a generation.