The Labour party has to take a hard look at its Brexit policies
Labour is struggling to find a coherent voice on Brexit, Gisela Stuart fears. As she leaves the Commons after 20 years, the ex-Vote Leave chair reflects on the challenge facing her party – and calls for a debate focused on national renewal
Harold Wilson achieved something few people thought possible. He won a referendum on the UK’s membership of the Common Market without tearing his cabinet or his party apart and he knew how to keep a secret. His resignation in March 1976 was greeted with as much surprise as Theresa May’s call of a snap election.
Today, the Tories, having been deeply divided over Europe, have discovered that their common instinct for sovereignty and power has allowed them to come together. Labour, instinctively internationalist and supportive of co-operation, finds it difficult to have a coherent voice in the wake of the referendum.
Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer approaches this difficult task in a measured and thoughtful way. In his speech last week he re-affirmed Labour’s outward looking approach. We do not want to sever our ties with Europe and whilst we will no longer be members of the EU we will remain being partners. He argued for maintaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union, entrenching worker’s rights and environmental protection.
He said Labour would not just make the rights of EU citizens a priority, but would make a unilateral offer to set the right tone for the negotiations. Labour’s negotiation priorities would be jobs and the economy, with stress on there being no new tariffs, as well as granting parliament a meaningful vote on the outcome. All this whilst respecting the outcome of the referendum.
It all sounds very middle of the road, and therein lies the problem. For those Labour voters who wanted to leave it’s not enough because it doesn’t touch on the core principles of how we shape the policy areas over which we will take back control. And for those who voted to remain, it’s not enough because they just don’t want anything to change.
Immigration policy perfectly demonstrates the dilemma. Remaining a member of the single market and retaining free movement of people means an immigration system based on geography not merit or economic need. The prime minister talks about ‘tens of thousands’. But shouldn’t we start with broad principles? The longer Labour avoids the issue the more of a problem it will become.
The moment for offering unilateral rights of EU citizens in the UK without having gained reciprocal agreements for UK citizens in the EU has passed. We should now fight for a new category of ‘Right to Remain’ for EU citizens, with a simplified administrative procedure and the charge capped to the cost of a passport.
Labour nationally voted to Remain, but the core heartlands, the places and communities which gave rise to the Labour Party as a movement, representing its historic and political roots, they voted to Leave.
Just as the country will have to engage in a debate of national renewal to define its priorities as the next parliament votes on which EU laws to enshrine in UK law and which ones to change, so the Labour Party has to take a hard look at its policies.
It has to do that to inspire voters in the general election. But Labour also has to have a voice in the national debate which will shape the country for a generation. This will also guide decisions when it comes to votes in parliament on what to oppose and what to support.
Our parliamentary democracy doesn’t find it easy to implement the outcome of referendums. Labour should embrace the 2017 election as an opportunity to re-set the political landscape. One that moves beyond what side of the referendum anyone was on. All the legislation in the next parliament should be seen as part of a national renewal.
Our communities and Labour heartlands need to be more resilient. Let’s make sure worker’s rights are protected, whether the legislation comes from the EU or the UK, but let us also give clear signs that as a party we are shaping the future.
Gisela Stuart was Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston from 1997 to 2017, and is editor of The House magazine
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