Labour must be honest about Brexit

Following Theresa May’s shambolic elections, Labour is a government in waiting, and I would like to see that government take office. That is why it is time for Labour to be honest about Brexit.

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We all know and recognise that this is the most significant political shift in Britain’s global position since the Second World War, and it will affect the lives of citizens for generations, far beyond my lifetime and the lives of the generation who voted for it in their millions. It is therefore hugely important for those of us concerned about the future to speak out, frankly and forcefully if need be, and state the facts as we understand them.

I have been a strong and vocal supporter of Jeremy and his grassroots style of politics since his first leadership bid; I was one of only two Labour MEPs, along with Lucy Anderson, to officially support Jeremy’s initial nomination. The fight against austerity is one of the main reasons I came into politics, and I have campaigned for social justice together with Momentum and others on the left of the Party. I am a staunch socialist, and that means being an internationalist and a European by default. The three are necessarily interlinked and interdependent principles.

I am very glad that our anti-austerity social message got through to voters during the elections. It is the same message that I consistently promote in my work in the European Parliament, making alliances with other progressives on the left and winning in the voting chamber most of the time, although you won't hear about our successes from the Eurosceptics.

Back home Labour is now a government in waiting, and I would like to see Jeremy as Prime Minister. This is why we must tell the public exactly what Labour intends to do about Brexit, and so far, as a party, we have not been clear enough.

Before the snap election, we told voters that we wanted a “jobs first” Brexit, with the closest possible relationship to Europe and a minor change in arrangements on immigration. We said we would in fact prioritise the economy over immigration, and that we still wanted to maintain access to EU programmes like Erasmus and Horizon. Many of those who supported Labour voted in order to stop Theresa May’s hard Brexit, and this is especially true among young people, 66% of whom voted Labour, and 85% of whom think Brexit is a bad idea.

Leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, i.e. a hard Brexit, would not put jobs or the economy first. It would instead damage the economy in the immediate future, and most probably for years to come. This is simply because if we stay in the Single Market as members, we will be able to keep the existing trading and regulatory structures, citizens would continue to enjoy their rights on both sides of the channel, and business‘ would continue to have access to the European market.

Leaving the Single Market would throw all this up in the air, and will only be resolved following a CETA-style trade deal, which will probably take years to negotiate, potentially lower standards and cede power to large corporates. Leaving the Customs Union would mean having to negotiate more than 50 trade deals simultaneously with the rest of the world, including negotiating WTO membership. Committing to a hard Brexit without a clear understanding of this is extremely dangerous.

The economic upheaval that will follow a hard Brexit would mean more unemployment, greater inflation, falling wages, and reduced government revenue. In simple terms, this means more austerity in yet another form, a further drop in living standards, and less money to implement Labour’s manifesto commitments. This would hit the most vulnerable in our society, including the elderly, the disabled, women and young people, and we simply cannot afford to do this.

Contrary to Jeremy Corbyn‘s comments on the Andrew Marr Show recently, membership of the Single Market and Customs Union does not require membership of the EU, as demonstrated by Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Turkey and others. We can, in fact, be members of the Single Market and Customs Union, with all the economic benefits, without being members of the EU. It was good to see Keir Starmer and John McDonnell subsequently state that options must not be hastily swept off the table.

Some in Labour say that this so-called “soft Brexit” option would be a betrayal of what Leave voters wanted. But that is not true. Leave voters were promised, famously, we would be able to have our cake and eat it. The Leave campaign promised that we would keep our Single Market membership and be able to end freedom of movement and the jurisdiction of the ECJ. That is impossible. Indeed, we need to recognise that Brexit as a whole was sold on a pack of lies, calling into question the quality of the democratic process. Given that it was always going to be impossible to deliver on those lies, we now need to choose what will do us least harm. If we choose a course towards hard Brexit, those advocating such a future must be able to clearly outline the benefits they foresee, beyond vague assumptions of what certain voters might have wanted in response to the lies they were told. 

So then we must ask, what would be the benefit of leaving the Single Market and Customs Union? What would we gain? The Tories would like to do so in order to abolish workers’ rights, social and environmental protections, but what is in it for Labour?

EU state aid rules do not prevent Labour from fulfilling its manifesto promises. If we look at how Nordic countries, the Netherlands or Germany manage their economies, we see that there is a wide margin to manoeuvre. Indeed many of our previously state-owned utilities are now owned by other European state-owned companies who continue to run national infrastructure projects and public services very well in their own countries whilst also profiting from the UK‘s mass sell-off. Keeping public services public is a matter of political will rather than defaulting to a simplistic game of blaming the EU.

Moreover, any future trade deal between the UK and the EU would include sections on state aid and public procurement, and would bind the UK to an equivalent system. That means we will have gone through the pain of a hard Brexit only to have the same rules imposed another way.

We must always also remember that the EU is a political platform. If the UK wants to have these rules changed, the best way to achieve this is to work together with the EU 27 to change them, but that means having a seat at the table, and for that we must maintain the closest possible relationship with the EU.

Labour’s dalliance with “ending freedom of movement” is also hugely problematic. Labour has acknowledged that EU immigrants in the UK are not the issue, but rather exploitation and undercutting by unscrupulous employers. A Labour government would be able to address that without ending freedom of movement. The EU has been clear that ending freedom of movement would mean losing market access, which would then need to be negotiated. From a socialist perspective, this makes a lot of sense. How could we give rights to goods and capital that we then take away from people? That means that any consumer product, such as a tin of meat or a mobile phone, would have more rights than a British citizen living or traveling in Europe. That deprives British citizens, especially the young people who voted for Labour and against Brexit, of their ability to move around Europe. It simply cannot be right for Labour, the party of social justice, to act in such a way. Accordingly, along with Lucy Anderson MEP, and Labour MPs Clive Lewis, David Lammy and Geraint Davies I have given my support to a Labour Campaign for Freedom of Movement.

The public mood on Brexit is changing. At least 60% of the public now say that they think it is a bad idea. Even the former director of the Vote Leave campaign, who invested in the lie about the 350 million pounds for the NHS, has said Brexit may be damaging. The public now sees through the lies, and as more of the pain of Brexit is felt in all sectors, by all ages and particularly by vulnerable people and SMEs as well as as key industries such as car manufacturing, public opinion will change further.

Jeremy’s politics have always been about a principled approach to social justice, and that has always been my way too. Labour needs to make sure it is on the right side of history regarding Brexit, and as a champion of young people who are the future, I will continue to make the case for a better world for them. 

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