THE BLOG
01/01/2019 11:51 GMT | Updated 01/01/2019 11:51 GMT

Labour Must Call A Special Conference So Members Can Decide Our Way Forward On Brexit

Whether we stay in the EU or whether we leave, our broken country won’t be repaired until we get a Labour government – but realising Brexit will diminish what Labour in power can do

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Top marks to former big top performer David Konyak for alerting us, as 2018 closed, to the fact that describing Britain’s politicians as a bunch of clowns is deeply offensive... to clowns. Quite right for the former co-chair of the Association of Independent Showmen to speak out against the denigration of fellow circus entertainers by comparing politicians in charge of Brexit negotiations to a bunch of clowns. Real circus performers are extremely organised and well prepared, says Konyak, who believes real clowns would have done a better job of negotiating Brexit than the sorry shower in government. How I really wish it was real clowns returning to Conservative benches in Parliament next week.

To be fair, I have enjoyed my fair share of chortling at the spectacle of Tories turning on and tearing at each other. But in letting us know that the motley Tory crew aren’t good enough to cut it as a circus act, Konyak reminds us too that Brexit now needs a serious political Houdini act if Britain’s workers are to escape the perils that will be unleashed if this Tory s**tshow ever sees the light of day. 

I have long believed any Brexit that would leave Britain’s workers better off was simply impossible to negotiate. It looks like even Ms May has come to agree, as she too is now prepared to postpone her always rather ridiculous 29 March leave-by date. But whether Departure Day is 87 days away or another 887, it will simply mark the start of a new tranche of protracted negotiations which will go on for many years to come, as Britain seeks to realign its relationship with the European Union. Leaving – whether in haste or at more leisure – is actually the easy bit. Brexit and its unnecessary consequences will be with all of us for our lifetimes. It will be repented by our younger generations, who do not want it for the duration of theirs. They will be the casualties, the refugees, exiled from Europe as a result of this dreadful Tory war game with our neighbours and closest trading partners. It’s why it’s incumbent on Labour to help them.

Brutal and honest accounting is now vital. Whether we stay in the EU or whether we leave, our broken country won’t be repaired until we get a Labour government. But realising Brexit will diminish what Labour in power can do – as its intense negative economic shock and aftershocks will be felt most acutely by ordinary people. The misery of the millions who have been left behind through decades of goofy, neoliberal economics will be compounded, not alleviated, by Brexit. Labour’s ‘For The Many’ polices committed to reinvesting, rebuilding and recalibrating our economy are the antidote to the causes of Brexit – not Brexit. Precisely because Labour is the only party with the solution means it’s still uniquely placed to be tough on Brexit itself. It’s why our union’s overriding priority is ridding Britain of May and replacing her with Corbyn as our prime minister, soon as. And pledging a Brexit amnesty as part of a new manifesto deal with the British people will both make an election more likely and jet propel Corbyn into office should it come. But, sadly, we have to game-plan for realpolitik too. And combatting their Brexit if the Tories cling to power does need recourse to giving the people the final say as a tactic. 

May’s deal is negotiated with the EU, not Parliament. Its true people are shocked that she really doesn’t get to negotiate the terms. And it’s true those terms are now disliked by the overwhelming majority, bringing a bizarre harmony to leavers and remainers. There is now panic-mongering afoot to lock us into May’s holding position indefinitely. But remember, it was Cameron’s gamble which propelled Tories to farm out our relationship with the EU to a referendum. How dare they now try and take back control of the negotiated outcome without returning that deal for sign off.

With all respected economists warning leaving the EU on whatever terms, will harm our economic well-being and with even Tories like Dominic Grieve demanding the public be given a final say, this government is wobbling very precariously. Lexiters must give them no succour. A good Red Brexit is no more possible than a good Blue Brexit. The false Lexit prospectus on EU rules preventing Corbyn nationalisation programmes must stop. It is a lie. Socialists do not lie to their own class.

Let me remind you, transport secretary Chris Grayling put the East Coast mainline back into public ownership in 2018. He would rather have crawled on his bare knees on broken glass. But forced to do it by market failure, he has faced no comeuppance from the EU. That’s because how EU member states run their own essential infrastructure and public services is, according to EU statute, a matter for nation states. So EU membership is no barrier to Corbyn’s vision for Britain.

It’s imperative Labour’s frontbench now lead the huge opposition to Brexit from our Labour people by incorporating their overwhelming wish for a popular vote into our set-piece response. Many of our current Labour leadership team were at the core of the just outcry in our Party against Blair’s folly of leadership over Iraq in 2003. It would be a tragedy too far if they too now choose to lock out the wisdom of their party membership who are pleading for a reprieve to this needless and damaging war with our European partners. ‘Give us a popular vote or give us an election, but let the people decide,’ should be our cry. Bringing down this flagship Tory policy is now the only way to prevent deeper austerity remnanting Labour’s legacy welfare state. It’s also the route map to a general election before 2022.

So it makes no sense for Labour to plough a Brexit furrow designed by the Tories. It has paralysed the functioning of a Tory government. With so much work ahead in our rebuilding Britain programme, we should avoid the pitfall of paralysing a Labour one too. Even most leavers are adult enough to recognise what was promised them in 2016 can’t be delivered. Let’s be adult enough to discuss with them Labour’s solutions for Britain. Let Jeremy deliver on his 2015 promise to be straight-talking and honest, and say Britain would be better off without Brexit.

Precisely because of the problem with ‘Brexit is Brexit’, I have called for a special Labour Party conference to let our party decide what we do next with Brexit. As Jeremy said in his Guardian interview just before Christmas, the party will decide, so we need to give them the means to do so. A one-day conference in the middle of this month will do the trick. Tony Benn was no admirer of the European Economic Community, but he knew in 1975 that the way to settle the disagreement in our Labour Party over Europe was to refer it back to a popular vote. This is the demand that Labour must now make of the Tories.

The Benn precedent is not just a noble and worthy, it is the best set-piece with which to oppose the majority soft-Brexit Tories. If they get their (Nor)way, Thatcher’s nasty vision of “no such thing as society” will intensify. Her long counter-revolution upon Labour’s creation of our welfare state will be what Brexit brings home. So it’s right that our party should decide our Labour way forward. Let’s bail ourselves out of governmental responsibility for negotiating what we know is unnegotiable, in an option put to a special Labour Party conference. That would be a Houdini moment for our Party. And it it would be the act of great political courage our country and its workforce now needs. For, liberated from our own Brexit straitjacket, arguing for a Brexit amnesty is the key to unlock the padlock on the chains of the straitjacket into which the Tories have buckled Britain. It’s what our Party membership wants, it’s what our country needs. Let’s leave the clowning around to the expert clowns. Let Labour razzle dazzle the public politically in 2019 with the Great Brexit Escape Story. It’s the sure way to a Labour government which will yield a better Britain beyond for the many.