Approaching B-Day

As we approach Brexit-Day Mike Davis says Labour needs to both embrace its public vote commitment and ensure reform and remain becomes the beating heart of its campaign

The clock continues to tick down to March 29th when Britain is due to exit the European Union. Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal deal with the EU has been resoundingly rejected by Parliament by a 230 majority. This is the biggest ever defeat for a government. What is Labour to do?

Chartist has long argued for remain and reform. Initially, like Labour’s shadow front bench we urged respect for the narrow 2016 referendum result. We are now over two and a half years down the road from that vote and the Tory coalition has failed to come up with an acceptable deal. With two Brexit secretary leads and resignations, and a pro-Brexit foreign secretary at the helm for most of that period it’s now time to recognise that the Tories cannot negotiate their way out of  paper bag yet alone a complex Brexit deal.

It is time for Labour to move on from its ‘respect the referendum’ position and begin preparations for a people’s vote on the deal. But that vote must also contain the option of remain. Yes, of course the ideal option is for a general election. But this is the least likely of these two main options. The Tories would have to undergo a new leadership election and are desperate to avoid a Corbyn-led left government, as likely to be demonstrated in the closing of ranks against Labour’s proposed no confidence vote.

For Labour either option poses the big question: will we commit again, as in 2015, to a remain and reform position on the EU? 75% of Labour’s membership want this and a chance to decide on the May deal. Delivering for the many is only possible if Labour gets and wins a general election. We can only win that election with a commitment to remain and reform from within.

Theresa May admits that remaining in the EU provides a better future than her deal. Most serious analysts acknowledge that prospects for jobs, the environment, human rights, science and cultural development, trade, peace and prosperity are all better through staying in the EU. For Labour this means the internationalist road working with European socialist and green partners for greater democracy and economic and social justice.

Labour’s Liverpool conference last year clearly spelt out that any deal had to meet six tests that included the same benefits that working people currently enjoy through EU membership. The agreed motion also explicitly called for our leadership to keep a public vote on the table.

The time has come to firm up that commitment and to clarify what Labour would do and say in a people’s vote campaign or a general election. The best way to do that would be for a special party conference, to be held before March 29th.

This would also involve Labour MPs voting to rescind Article 50 (which does not require the agreement of the other 27 member states). Jeremy Corbyn must move swiftly to head such a move in order to create time for the people to decide. Agreed parliamentary votes suggest there is no majority for a ‘no deal’ scenario. The numerous defeats of the government and the current impasse indicate that at a minimum Parliament needs to put a brake on the withdrawal process. The people need a chance to take stock, review and decide which direction to travel: over the cliff edge or stay put. Labour must lead the call for a people’s decision in one form or other.

Delivering for the many is only possible if Labour gets and wins a general election. We can only win that election with a commitment to remain and reform from within

A ‘no deal’ scenario would be catastrophic, opening British people to the dire consequences of a race to the bottom on tax and public spending, a siege economy and trade wars against the machismo free-wheeling protectionist nationalism of the US and China. Division on every level would be the name of the game.

Rejecting a ‘no-deal’ scenario also means Labour has to be clear about our view of Britain in the world. Labour cannot go into a new general election or a public vote campaign with the same position as in the 2017 general election. This time there must be a commitment to reform and remain. 

Neither can Labour afford to be part of a project fear campaign that animated the pro-Remain case in 2016. Labour must lead project hope: a campaign that highlights the benefits of being part of a wider European community and a movement within that which seeks to curb and control the negative impact of globalisation.

A campaign that seeks to bury neoliberalism and the politics of austerity.  A campaign that welcomes free movement of British and EU citizens in and out of the EU with the development of shared criteria for others to move for work, leisure and protection. A campaign which seeks to genuinely devolve power and decision making to accountable bodies (local & regional government, national assemblies, Westminster and Strasbourg parliaments) and workplace and community organisations. A campaign which argues people can take control of their own destinies by joining with other working people across frontiers.

Britain’s place in Europe will continue to frame politics for a considerable time ahead.  A special conference would enable representatives to forge a clearer policy upon which a Labour campaign for a people’s vote or a general election could be built. Time is short. Let the people decide. Let an internationalist banner for an economy that works for the many not the few be the one we march behind.

Mike Davis

Mike Davis is editor of Chartist.