Brexit: where now for Labour?
Richard Rawles considers what Labour’s response should be to the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, and notes that Scottish Conference, unlike UK conference, will have the chance to debate and vote on Brexit policy next weekend.
Mrs May’s speech at the Mansion House seemed to me deluded. It’s still a list that seems to be designed to make it impossible for the rest of the EU to agree. The UK wants to reinvent selected key aspects of the single market as bilateral arrangements between the UK and the EU as equal partners, rather than with the UK as one of 28 member states, supervised by a host of new arbitration mechanisms to reproduce what the European Court of Justice does already — but why on earth should we expect the EU to agree with that?
The UK wants it to be possible for parliament to decide to diverge from the EU’s standards as and when it pleases (curbed, or not, by the knowledge that this might reduce market access for the UK) — but who could possibly expect the EU to sign up to a deal which virtually guarantees a repeated British crisis every few years and gives to the UK a kind of flexibility afforded to none of the member states?
This still reads as fantasy. But mixed in with the fantasy there are moments of honesty. May makes no very serious proposal concerning the Irish border, but (unlike e.g. Rees-Mogg) she concedes that the Irish border is our responsibility and it cannot be blamed on the EU if we do not provide a proposal that makes the border work. She accepts that the UK’s financial services industry cannot have the same rights of market access as before: ‘We are not looking for passporting because we understand this is intrinsic to the single market of which we would no longer be a member.’ This is likely to be something on a spectrum between bad and terrible for the City of London (and for other centres in financial services like Edinburgh), and thus for our public services which rely on taxes levied on their profits and their bankers’ high pay: she said the Chancellor of the Exchequer would have more to say about this soon.
And more broadly she also concedes that we must ‘face up to some hard facts’ and that ‘In certain ways, our access to each other’s markets will be less than it is now.’ With these words she gives the lie to the absurd claim made by her own Brexit Secretary David Davis in the House of Commons on the 24th January 2017, that we could have ‘a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement’ that would deliver ‘the exact same benefits’ as we have through membership of the Single Market.
This phrase (‘exact same benefits’) was picked up by the Labour Party, and rightly so. Almost a year ago, Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, made an important speech setting out the tests by which Labour would determine its voting in parliament on the Conservatives’ deal with the EU. He made clear that ‘no deal’ would not be an option; he also said that, in order for Labour to support a deal, that deal would need to provide ‘the exact same benefits’ as membership of the Single Market and Customs Union. The six tests, of which this was one, informed our manifesto section on Brexit and they remain Labour policy today.
So: now even the Prime Minister concedes that it is impossible for her to reach a deal which will meet our six tests, and which Labour can support.
So what should we do? And what can we do? By our own stated principles we must oppose the kind of Brexit that the government is negotiating; by our own stated principles we must oppose ‘No deal’. It seems to follow that, if we cannot support Brexit on the deal negotiated, and we cannot support Brexit with no deal negotiated, we must necessarily oppose Brexit, and seek to find a way to support the UK’s continued membership of the EU, whether by way of a second referendum, or perhaps a general election with a very clear manifesto commitment.
This is fantastically dangerous and troubling, even to a committed remainer like myself. Is Labour to oppose the result of a referendum? Is Scottish Labour to oppose the result of a referendum and demand a second one, all the while opposing the SNP’s demands for the same thing? It may yet be the only possible course of action we can take.
However… When Starmer set out his six tests, he must have anticipated one of two possible circumstances. Either Labour would be in power, in which case the principles outlined in the six tests would be the principles governing our approach to negotiation, or Labour would be in opposition, in which case these would be the tests by which we would measure the success or otherwise of a Conservative government.
The circumstances which have come about are ones which probably weren’t predicted: a Conservative government with no majority in the House of Commons. These circumstances give much more power to parliament to constrain the government and to influence its policies and actions. The government has already been defeated in parliament several times, and has changed its policies pre-emptively to avoid defeats. It may well be that the government is defeated on the amendment in the name of Anna Soubry, demanding that the UK aim to remain in a customs union with the EU.
For as long as parliament has the power to exert influence over Brexit, it has the duty to do so. Labour MPs cannot be in a position where they did not do what they could have done to prevent damage to their constituents’ jobs and public services. Where the government has no majority, Labour is obliged to try to make Brexit work in the least harmful way possible. Now that the Prime Minister herself has already conceded that a deal based on withdrawal from the single market cannot deliver the same benefits of that market, Labour needs to campaign on retaining the ‘exact same benefits’ that we are committed to by the only remaining means: by seeking to build a majority in parliament for continued membership of the single market and customs union through the EEA or an analogous arrangement. If this cannot be done, we may yet need to try to seek a second referendum or general election which would result in the cancellation of Brexit. But we should be able to say to the voters that we have done everything we can to make Brexit work with the least harm possible.
This is not ‘Brexit in name only’. Norway is not an EU member state and its rights and duties vis-à-vis the EU are substantially different from those of a member. It will not please every Leave voter (of course not!) — but that is impossible to achieve. The idea that membership of a customs union and single market is somehow not really leaving is a recent one, a troubling sign of the influence exerted on our politics by the xenophobic right: in the recent past a model of this sort has been proposed by figures including Daniel Hannan and Liam Fox. This would represent an attempt to fulfil our responsibility to our voters and to act on our commitment to a jobs-first approach to Brexit.
Labour is a democracy of its membership. Since the referendum, because our last conference chose to debate other matters, we have had no occasion to generate policy on Brexit. However, very soon one part of the Labour family will have an opportunity to discuss this question: the Scottish Labour Conference will debate a motion brought by Edinburgh Southern CLP, advocating that Labour should support continued membership of the Customs Union and Single Market. Scottish Labour cannot dictate UK Labour’s position. But we may try to influence it and to give more force to arguments such as I have made above. In my view, this motion should be supported.