Brexit: Labour’s options

Peter Kenyon reviews what’s at stake for the nation before 29 March 2019

Hyperbole has ruled. It’s time for truth. And there is not much time left. Labour is finally engaged in rigorous parliamentary opposition to the Tory government and its Brexit plans. By the time you are reading this article the Meaningful Vote (MV) on the Tory deal may have already taken place. A defeat for the Tories is only the first step along an uncertain path with unwelcome consequences. A rearguard action is reportedly underway inside Prime Minister May’s cabinet to change course. On 15 December last year the Daily Mail led with:

Cabinet at war on Brexit: Amber Rudd and Philip Hammond are among five ministers ‘swinging towards second referendum’ while Sajid Javid and three others urge PM to make No Deal government’s top priority

This demonstrates the Conservative Party is still irrevocably split over the UK’s relationship with the European Union. This belated flirtation with a second referendum by the likes of Rudd and Hammond will no doubt be welcome news to those who have been campaigning for a Second Referendum across the political spectrum.

I should declare an interest as a member of Labour Business (a Labour Party affiliate aiming to make Labour the party of both business and labour), and chair of its Brexit Policy Group. Labour Business supports a People’s Vote, or ‘public vote’ (as official Labour Party policy now refers to another referendum). But that was a policy formulated over six months ago. There are now less than three months before the UK is legally committed to leave the European Union unless the law is changed.

Not unreasonably after so many UK electors went to the polls on 23 June 2016 to vote Leave or Remain there is a consensus among Members of Parliament that the only democratic means of deciding May Deal or Remain in 2019 would be through another vote. Questions have been posed about the legalities of the 2016 EU Referendum mainly arising from the investigative journalism of the Guardian newspaper group’s Carole Cadwalladr. In addition, the Electoral Commission has ruled expenditure by the Leave EU campaign illegal. But to date that has had no bearing on the disposition of the Tory government or the official opposition Labour Party. Further discussion about that or the circumstances under which Labour ever allowed itself to become embroiled in an irreconcilable Tory spat are probably now best avoided.

It is the future of the country and the opportunities for its 65 million-strong population that should be at the forefront of all our minds. There has been much self-congratulation since its September Annual Conference within the Labour Party about its ability to debate policy publicly and resolve significant differences in its Brexit stance. But the practicalities remain unaddressed. Apologies for repeating myself, but this cannot be said too often: as UK law is writ on the Statute Book, the UK leaves the European Union on 29 March 2019.

At the time of writing no formal request has been made to the European Union Council of Ministers (EUCO) to extend the Article 50 deadline to enable a referendum/public/People’s Vote to be held. Provisions for such an option were ruled out in Labour Party Conference preliminaries (prosaically known as Compositing). Such a request would require unanimity among the EU-27, as opposed to a qualified majority necessary to approve the draft Withdrawal Agreement Treaty and Political Declaration.

So at this very late stage in the Brexit process our elected representatives aka Members of Parliament need to be asking themselves a serious question: Is leaving the EU in the national interest? Apart from the European Research Group in the Conservative Party and a handful of unreformed Lexiteers in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the vast majority of MPs would surely vote NO.

Can the political noise surrounding this issue be filtered out to achieve that necessary focus? Those of us actively engaged in trying to encourage clearer thinking have our work cut out. Ambiguity on the part of the Labour Party leadership has served a purpose over the past two and half years, it has helped keep Labour Leave voters onside. But there is a trail of debris in the UK political discourse concerning immigration and inequality of economic opportunity. Chartist‘s small voice has sought to contest the twin myths that leaving the EU will assuage voter concerns about the ‘other’ or bring new investment and job opportunities to towns and villages left to the mercy of free markets and neoliberalism.

Shortly before Christmas, Labour’s shadow education secretary and possible leadership contender, Angela Rayner MP, caused consternation on BBC Question Time by challenging current thinking about a second referendum suggesting it would be divisive:

“Saying that we’ll just have a second referendum and everything will be fine, I think, is a very serious position and it undermines democracy in itself……..People made the decision and you can’t keep going back saying: Would you like to answer it a different way?”

Those are quite genuine concerns and echoed by known Remainers in the Shadow Cabinet like shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott MP.

With tempers being sorely tested in Brussels and the other EU-27 capitals the threat of an upsurge of support for right-wing policies and parties is real. But so is the haemorrhaging of jobs and investment if business uncertainty persists for another day. Far too little attention has been paid to this over the past 30 months, not helped by the supine disposition of so-called business representative organizations like the Confederation of British Industry and the City of London, on behalf of the financial services sector.

Labour should have more confidence in its economic and social policies in development since prior to the 2017 General Election seeking to offer hope and address those concerns of the ‘left-behind’. To give them real credibility they need to be recast in the context of the UK remaining a full voting member of the European Union, with its budget rebate, full voting rights and veto in the Council of Ministers, yet outside the EuroZone and Schengen. In the event of the Conservatives managing to cling on to office as the government of the UK albeit in name only, then the options for Labour between now and 29 March can be narrowed down to the European Economic Area (EEA)/European Free Trade Association, another referendum or revoke Article 50.

Both the EEA and another referendum options are riddled with uncertainties. Revoking Article 50, now that the European Court of Justice has ruled it can be done unilaterally, offers decisiveness: it ends business uncertainty at a stroke, enables the UK to recover leverage in its relations within the EU-28 and, for Labour, provides that opportunity to reshape and reform EU policy. How would such a move be received by the public? One suspects with overwhelming relief. For the Lexiteers there is a backstop. If their claims about the EU being able to veto Labour’s plans to borrow, halt privatization and embark on renationalizing public services, then there is always Article 50.