Labour and Brexit: time to get real

While the Tories created the Brexit shambles Labour’s line on getting a better deal is unworkable. It’s time to come out openly and say the best deal is to stay in the EU, says Duncan Bowie

Labour leaders have stated that the proposed withdrawal agreement is bad for Britain and will make people poorer and that the worst off are likely to suffer most. Labour however has to recognise the EU position that a substantial renegotiation is not possible – the other 27 EU countries have their own interests to protect. It is not a matter of them bullying us. This means that there is no chance whatsoever of any Labour government negotiating a better deal. If you resign from a club you lose the benefits of club membership and the idea that any withdrawal agreement could meet Labour’s six tests is clearly a nonsense. You cannot keep the benefits of the EU without paying the membership fee, and the idea of  a customs union  which follows EU rules over which we have no control hardly meets the mantra of ‘taking back control’.

Labour leaders also have to recognise that the notion that somehow a Labour government could achieve socialism in one country through trade protection policies, apart from being isolationist, ignores the reality of the globalised economy within which the UK has a central but not dominant role. The notion that Britain can be great again outside the EU because we are so resilient (and apparently won the First and Second World Wars on our own), is romantic nationalistic nonsense. The Labour leadership seems to be as much convinced by the ‘have your cake and eat it’ fantasy as the Tory leadership. It is time to move on. If Labour believes that leaving the EU will make Britain and Britons poorer, and all the evidence supports this, we should publicly state that having examined the deal on offer, staying in the EU is the best (or least bad) option. As we say, no one voted to be poorer, and most of the leading Brexiteers are so well off that their suffering from a hard or soft Brexit will be relatively minor.

For Labour to go into a general election with the current policy that Labour could achieve a better Brexit deal would be catastrophic, as Leavers would not believe it was possible, while Remainers would be reluctant to campaign for Labour candidates

Clearly, there is no majority in parliament either for the withdrawal agreement or for leaving the EU without an agreement. The outcome of this position is that if the agreement cannot be renegotiated to the satisfaction of a parliamentary majority (which requires Labour to support such an agreement, as the DUP, SNP and Liberals will never vote for it) that the Article 50 notice should not just be deferred but revoked. As there is no agreed basis for leaving the EU, we should stay in the EU. So, what about the legitimacy of the referendum? Leaving aside the issue that binary referenda are always a bad idea, given that political decisions are rarely a simple yes or no, we can make two arguments: that two years on, the electorate has changed significantly; and that in a second vote, if held, we would know a bit more about what we are voting on. For Labour to go into a general election with the current policy that Labour could achieve a better Brexit deal would be catastrophic, as Leavers would not believe it was possible, while Remainers would be reluctant to campaign for Labour candidates (and many Labour MPs would not stand on this platform) and would be tempted to vote Lib Dem.

This leaves the question about how Labour actually deals with the real issues in the constituencies with strong majorities in favour of Brexit. Over the last two years (and in fact much earlier) Labour should have been arguing that the problems of disadvantaged areas of the UK and the suffering of their residents is little to do with whether or not the UK is a member of the EU. The Party’s ambivalence means that we have done little to challenge the arguments and fabrications of the Brexiters.

Labour has to develop a policy to support the disadvantaged regions. This is both about public investment and about directing economic growth and employment. London is seen as the centre of wealth and the Westminster government (and the Westminster political village) is seen as disinterested in the lives of ‘real’ people. Labour has to do more than just make rhetorical statements about how it opposes austerity – it has to demonstrate a real commitment to improving the quality of the lives of the most disadvantaged residents through practical policy proposals and through demonstrating they are deliverable.

This means both having a national plan for regional economic management and for refunding and re-empowering local government. This means we need public sector intervention in the private market at all levels of governance – national, regional and local (as well as using our role in the EU and other international organisations to improve management of the global economy). The UK is a wealthy country – Labour has to argue for a progressive taxation policy and make this popular. Labour has to redirect the anger of the provincial disadvantaged  from anger against the EU, anger against the privileges of London, anger against migrants, to anger against the abuses of the wealthy and the Government which facilitates these abuses.

I am not arguing that Labour should become a party of class war, but a commitment to at least reduce the inequalities of wealth and income and opportunity,  which are to a large extent spatially distributed. Inter-regional inequality has increased over the last decade since the 2008 Global Recession. This could be electorally popular at least with those who are not well-off and would at least get us back to the issues that really matter. Brexit has been a disastrous diversion which has dominated British politics for too long and it is about time that the Labour leadership, if they really are committed to a more egalitarian society, actually said so. We were once a party that argued for international socialism. This retreat to a near Trumpite isolationism is not part of our tradition or our ideology, and will do nothing to help our main constituency.

Duncan Bowie

Duncan Bowie was a senior lecturer at University of Westminster. His most recent books are Radical Solutions to the Housing Supply Crisis (Policy Press) and a history of the Left in Oxford. He is Chartist Reviews Editor.