British politics is experiencing an unprecedented upheaval, and it is important for progressives and socialists to come together and navigate a path through the fallout from June’s disastrous referendum result.
The message recently coming from the Labour leadership that Brexit must happen because ‘the people have spoken’ and that ‘we must do as we are told’ raises some serious concerns. John McDonnell said on Question Time that “much as I regret it, we must accept the outcome, we must very quickly now create a new relationship with Europe”. Then, a Fabian Society policy paper was published with many Labour MPs urging the Party not only to “accept that Brexit means Brexit” and to “make the best of it”, but that progressives should ”open their ears and listen” to what Leave voters want, and demand limits on immigration and an end to free movement.
Not only would such a strategy be an immoral betrayal of our social democratic values, but it would be an electoral catastrophe for Labour. It is not just that the referendum itself was a flawed process surrounded by fabrication and deceit, which excluded UK citizens abroad, EU citizens here and young people. It is not just that the result itself, a 1.8% majority, is far from conclusive. It is also a misunderstanding of how political debate must happen in a healthy democracy.
Treating the ‘will of the people’ as a foregone conclusion is not what democracy is about, as John McDonnell must know full well. Rather healthy democracy is about quality debate and persuasion by honest means, standing up for what we believe in the hope that others will want to join with us.
I joined the Labour party relatively recently, in 2012, when I decided to join in the fight against the waves of rising xenophobia, against Tory austerity, and in defence of social justice and a multi-cultural and diverse European Union that I want my country to be a part of. Those are values I will continue to fight for come what may, because I believe that social democratic victories have always come about through tenacity and determination. I have supported Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership from the moment he was first nominated because I recognise that tenacity in him, and remain convinced he will not sell out our ideals.
However, I do expect Labour to put out a strong and united message on Europe: that any deal on Brexit needs further democratic approval because the referendum was flawed and the government still has no plan at all. That Labour will reject any bad Brexit deal and will prefer remaining over selling out our European social rights or market access. That freedom of movement and immigration are good things that have brought us economic prosperity and vital cultural diversity. That Labour continues to be a part of the European Social Democratic movement, and will continue to fight for social justice not just in Britain, but in Europe and around the world.
To do that, all of us in Labour need to remember how a democracy works: when an election happens, one side wins and becomes a Government, and the other loses, and becomes Opposition. It is the duty of the Opposition to continue speaking out to show the voters why they should have voted differently, and convince them to vote the other way next time.
In both the 2010 and 2015 general elections, British citizens voted for an agenda of austerity and cuts. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell did not respond then by saying “as much as we regret it, we must accept the outcome and support austerity”. They proceeded to argue, across the country, that austerity is wrong, unworkable, and unjust. That was the right democratic course of action, and it succeeded in transforming public debate in the country, to the extent that even this Tory government has now abandoned its draconian fiscal targets.
We would do well to remember the uproar after the 2015 election, when the acting Labour leadership decided to abstain on welfare cuts, and we need to understand why that decision was a serious mistake.
Labour must remember who it represents, and who it must persuade. Labour must stand up for those who voted for it, who gave their vote in order to see the Labour manifesto and values put into practice. By arguing its case, exposing the government’s failures and proposing a clear viable alternative, Labour must shape the debate, and persuade those who did not vote for the Party to vote for it next time around.
The authors of that wholly unfortunate Fabian paper seem to suggest instead that Labour must always abandon its position at every election it does not win and adopt the positions of the winning side. “Have people voted to Leave? Let’s advocate leaving then...” “Did they vote to end immigration? Let’s say we’ll end immigration”. This flip-flopping attitude is not that of the Labour Party that embraces diversity, welcomes others, speaks out against the demonisation of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, but the Labour Party that sells coffee mugs with anti-immigration slogans.
There could not be a more disastrous political strategy. How could any voter trust the Labour party if it reversed its position at any opportunity? How could voters who hold Labour values expect to be represented, if Labour politicians go out pandering to Tory voters with Tory policies? If we adopt the gibberish sound-bite that Theresa May keeps repeating, that “Brexit means Brexit” and that we should “make the best of it”, what is that if not actively telling people to go out and vote for the Tories? At least they’re more enthusiastic about their own message.
What we must do, therefore, is set out clearly where we stand and what we stand for. Labour stands for inclusion, openness, tolerance, fairness, solidarity and diversity. Labour must now represent the 48% who voted to Remain (the Labour position), based on the understanding that many moderates who voted to Leave will oppose a failed Brexit, that young people overwhelmingly voted to Remain, that Britain has nothing to gain from Leaving and everything to lose, and based on the fact that the Labour party shares the core values of the European Union of democracy, human rights, and social solidarity.
Young people are being mobilized and politicised by the crisis that they see unfold, and which is likely to harm their future. Organisations like RECLAIM and SLYNCS give young people a platform to engage, and it is important that these kinds of initiatives grow and expand. As these young voters come of age, they must be able to see Labour as a clear voice that speaks for them and fights for what they risk to lose: openness, tolerance, inclusion, and mobility.
Apart from all that, there is another reason for Labour keep its pro-EU, pro-immigration stance: Britain is already rolling down the slippery slope of xenophobic nationalism, and we all know that what is at the bottom is ugly and dangerous. The wave of xenophobic hate-crime we have seen following the referendum should be a serious wake-up call.
The case against immigration and free movement is based entirely on deception. Study after study have shown that immigrants from the EU and elsewhere make an enormous economic contribution paying more into our coffers than they take out, and that without immigrants working in our public sector, our NHS and other essential services would collapse. “They” are not “stealing our jobs” because there is no finite number of jobs, but a dynamic economy where one job created in one place leads to more jobs being created up and down the line. Working people are harmed not by immigrants coming in, but by public services being underfunded, neglected, and privatised, and by big businesses exploiting and abusing immigrant labour at locals’ expense, and pitting one community against another.
Saying this does not mean that I do not listen to the concerns of my constituents in the North West, many of whom are traditional Labour voters who voted to Leave, and want to limit immigration. I listen to their concerns, and it is my job to fight to alleviate their plight. But it would do them no good to hear nationalist deception from me. It is my responsibility to tell them the truth as I see it: that tabloid press tycoons, big business, and the xenophobic right are lying and exploiting them, and that the plight of the immigrant they demonise is similar to their own. It is my responsibility to tell them that the solution is not an end to immigration, but greater investment in their communities.
If Labour accepts that immigration is a problem and it must be stopped, then UKIP have won. If the ultimate priority is to stop people coming in, then the only solution is to build a wall, and then Farage, Trump, and Le Pen are the most forceful advocates of that wall. How could we possibly hold the Tory government to account if we simply parrot right-wing platitudes and do not offer a clear alternative? Luckily for Labour, the facts point to the contrary, and there is no need to try and assimilate populist jive.
Supporting freedom of movement of people is at the core of a social democratic vision because we believe that workers are at least as deserving of rights in a marketplace as capital, goods and services. We know that migration is economically beneficial and we believe cultural diversity makes us richer. Labour has always been an international socialist movement working towards social justice, and high social standards, and European Freedom of Movement has been the greatest tool for achieving that here and across the continent.
In these difficult and challenging times, we must all remember the determination and endurance that it took trade unionists, activists, and campaigners for the right to vote, for fair wages, for education, healthcare, and all the rights we enjoy today. We must find the courage to stand up for what we believe, and make the case for it.