Open Labour Brexit debate
By Emma Brennan and Sean Gainford, on behalf of Labour Against Brexit campaign
Last week, the House of Commons overwhelmingly supported the triggering of Article 50 to begin negotiations for the UK withdrawal from the EU. Amongst its supporters were the majority of Labour MPs, despite nearly all of them having supported the Remain campaign during the referendum. Only 52 Labour MPs fulfilled their duty as our elected representatives, using their conscience and informed judgment to do what is best for their constituents and country, and voted against the Bill. The Bill’s process has now moved to the House of Lords and we hope that they will pass some amendments, but we do not expect major changes.
So now we need to focus on how we – as a party, and as Labour members and supporters who oppose Brexit – move forward from here.
Labour Against Brexit states that the party should:
(a) Continue to make the case that Remain is better for the people of the UK, as the evidence shows that leaving the EU would be damaging for our economic prosperity and would hit hardest the very people that Labour has spent over a century trying to support. To also make clear that leaving would be a major retrograde step, away from closer collaboration with other countries on the biggest issues of the day, such as climate change, and that the Leave campaign was based on false promises and lies.
(b) Continue to fight for our core Labour values of equality, opportunity for all and social justice, and continue to be an internationalist, tolerant and outward-looking party, and make explicit the link between all of this and EU membership. Remain was our official party policy during the referendum campaign, as well as our policy for the previous 30 years. When we have lost elections in the past, we never just quit fighting and gave in to the damaging policies of the successful party. And that is despite dealing with policies that could affect people for only a few years, not a policy that will last a generation.
(c) Return to the party policy that was democratically decided upon by Labour delegates and affiliates at our Conference, that: “Unless the final settlement proves to be acceptable, then the option of retaining EU membership should be retained. The final settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through Parliament and potentially through a general election or referendum.”
Essentially, we are calling for no change to the long-term and democratically made party policy on membership of the EU. We are simply requesting that the Labour leadership demonstrates consistency and conviction with respect to the party’s long-held approach and beliefs, andfor democratic decision-making to be respected.
Unfortunately, our party has fallen down the route of short-termism, focusing on two by-election results over the long-term best interests of the country (including the best interests of those two constituencies) and has therefore decided that being pro-Brexit is the way forward. This is not the move of a principled party and takes us further away from our core values and beliefs. If Labour wins Stoke Central, it is likely to strengthen Corbyn’s belief that he has taken the correct stance. If Ukip wins, it could allow him to demonstrate that we need to be even more pro-Brexit. Bothof those beliefs would be false, and this is a no-win situation for Remainers in the Labour Party, although it goes without saying that the former possibility is far more preferable for all of us.
So could continuing to make the case for Remain really do us any harm? The polls are not on Labour’s side at the moment, and further polls looking at the public’s current view is that if the referendum were held today, Remain would win. So Labour essentially has now backed a losing side. We have lost thousands of members in the last few weeks over this issue, and many more thousands are angry. Additionally, approximately two-thirds of Labour voters supported Remain. Anybody who is a staunch Brexiteer will vote UKIP or Tory anyway, and many who are staunch Remainers are being lost to the Lib Dems or Greens. In Labour, we have the potential to earn back the votes of those Remainers, and also earn the votes of the millions of people who simply want to listen to a sensible party that speaks and acts with honesty, passion and conviction, not a party that believes in one thing but goes against its convictions and does the precise opposite.
In addition, Remain voters are the most likely to vote in other elections, therefore supporting Remain could give us the best chance of gaining those all-important marginal seats by taking pro-EU Tory-Labour swing voters. On the issue of calling for a second referendum on the final deal, with an option to Remain, we are slightly less enthusiastic than some others. On the one hand, we relish the opportunity for another chance to promote the benefits of EU membership. On the other hand, we fear that another referendum campaign would again be filled with lies and cause yet further divisiveness, and even danger for minorities and politicians. We also still maintain the position that matters which are so complicated and enormous should be agreed upon by Parliament, as our MPs are elected to understand the minutiae of detail that the rest of us are too busy with our lives to fully get to grips with.
Ultimately though, we understand that there is a popular argument for saying that Brexit was ‘the will of the people’. We can, of course, make a strong argument against this claim in terms of who was allowed to vote, lack of requirement for a minimum turnout or supermajority, and of course lack of the ‘type’ of Brexit sought being on the ballot paper or presented by the Leave campaign. Yet we recognise that the best way we will end this debate fully in the eyes of the public is through another referendum at the end of the process. This time, however, voters will have a much greater awareness of what Leave ‘looks like’ than they did last year. The result would therefore be much more conclusive.
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