Brexit has been a Marmite issue since David Cameron so recklessly played the referendum card. His mistaken belief that the country had more remainers than leavers has left us in a political turmoil. Not since the disastrous folly of signing our country up to the Iraq War has British politics been committed to such a perilous adventure without regard for an exit strategy.
Despite it’s silly soundbite of a name, Brexit is not an endgame or an exit strategy at all. In May’s incapable hands, Cameron’s folly has turned to disaster and the Tories’ mired negotiations with the European Union have made their Brexit an unalluring entrance to decades of economic uncertainty. As she wages this unholy Tory war of attrition against the EU, May creates only more hostile environments for our workforce, with yet more awaiting us the other side of this nasty party’s very nasty EU divorce project. Inward investment is stalling, jobs are being lost, manufacturing is shrinking, the skilled and unskilled workers our economy and NHS need migrate away from us, or they are no longer bothering to come to our unwelcoming shores. The immigration that has served Britain so well for so long and is an underlying indicator of the economic health of a nation, is shrivelling.
The Labour Party rejected Tory Brexit posturing around the EU from the beginning. My own TSSA union fought hard for remain, not because it was a socialist utopia but because it better protected workers and their rights than any Tory plan would have in store for us. So for the life of me I have no idea why now, when the real costs and consequences of splitting up with the EU are apparent and with the polls and the local election results showing, our Labour Party is not now refusing en masse to swallow this poisonous Tory prescription for our country. A Labour script promoting the alternative but, comfortably Corbynesque, mantra of peace, mediation and reconciliation with Europe is the remedy now needed to prevent damage being done to Britain and Ireland for generations if this shotgun Tory divorce goes ahead.
Our Labour policies are at their best when they are guided by our socialist principles. And our original remain principle remains the right one. For us to win government those principles do need to be guided by the art of what is possible. And an exit strategy from the chaos of Tory Brexit is opening up to Labour as the deep, looming concern over what type of Brexit reaches our statute book now grows. Labour’s leadership must be bold enough to rise with the turning tide and restate our remain case to Britain. As long as we are honest, events will let us keep playing hard for a Corbyn-led government.
The Tories last week suffered their tenth defeat in the Lords over their EU Withdrawal Bill. The legislation returning to the Commons for its third reading this week now looks very different to one the Government just managed to squeeze through. Had Labour not instructed its Peers to abstain on a vote on a referendum on the final deal, the Tories would be in even deeper trouble. We must not repeat this mistake on Tuesday. As the clock ticks relentlessly towards ‘make your Brexit mind up’ time, our Tory government has never been more clueless or divided. Labour peers must be instructed to vote for Labour peer Lord Waheed Ali’s cross-party amendment to Brexit legislation that would instruct the government to begin negotiating future UK membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) and enable us to strike our own deal on freedom of movement while being inside the EU internal market. I don’t want an EEA, as you’ll see below, but Labour abstentions in the Lords on Tuesday night mean the government win. We should be digging the Tories’ political grave not lending them the shovels to prepare ours.
May and her ministers are, as Emily Thornberry told Radios 4’s Any Questions audience this weekend, “fighting like cats in a sack. ” They have no have clear economic strategy for our country, never mind the necessary negotiating guile to reach any accord, Brexit or otherwise, with our European partners to safeguard our jobs and our livelihoods in Britain. The Cabinet is so bitterly divided that once again it has postponed agreeing what post-Brexit customs arrangements they want to see with the EU. Their complete ineptitude has turned Britain into a wounded animal and their Brexit will turn the EU into a predator who can decide our fate.
May’s administration is in final decay. Transposed to a general election, Thursday’s swing would have made Labour the biggest party in Parliament - they they would gain 21 extra seats, with the Tories losing 38. That’s a good result but more can be done to decisively shift public opinion in our direction. Our country needs the prosperity policies of a Corbyn-led government way more than it needs us to be a continuation of Tory Brexit party policy. The political turn towards “constructive ambiguity” by Labour has served us well but we must become the anti-Brexit as well as anti-austerity party. The next Labour government must quickly establish the national and regional investment banks to kick start the big investment in infrastructure programmes which will really rebuild Britain. So, why commit to bog ourselves down trying to maintain this Tory-driven desire to disestablish our relationship with Europe?
The local elections show the Tories are galvanising Ukip leave supporters while remainers chose the clearer anti-Brexit policies of the Lib Dems, the Greens and various nationalists parties. We know what happens when Labour sits on the fence - under Miliband, the austerity lifeline versus the real thing allowed the Tories to win the 2015 election. Keir Starmer’s Brexit-lite approach is no longer pleasing anyone. But worse still, it now puts both the potential of a whopping Labour majority in a sooner-rather-than-2022 general election at risk.
If Labour whips against every single one of this government’s future Brexit votes in the Commons and the Lords, this wretched government will be brought down. There are enough Tories who will vote with us putting the interest of the country over their own party interest, clearly indicating Labour as the patriotic choice whatever your country in Britain. Labour’s manifesto for the many, in a Europe for the many, trumps the Tories diminishment of Britain agenda.
Cutting ourselves loose from with the right’s political Brexit strait-jacket is now as necessary as dumping their political embrace of the austerity agenda. There is just no good that can come for our people from Brexit. Like the £350million a week for the NHS, to say otherwise is to lie. The Labour Party have a responsibility to tell it as it is. The least damaging of the Brexit scenarios sees us becoming a rule-taker like Norway - vassal statehood in return for preventing economic calamity. The most unhinged, simply walking away and trading under World Trade Organisation Rules will create such hardship that the recent Great Recession will be remembered with fondness in comparison. And that’s why, in the spirit of the plain speaking new kind of politics ushered in by Corbyn, we in Labour Party must make it crystal clear to our country that the price of Brexit is not worth paying. Any juice promised by anyone from May to Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson to David Davis, just ain’t going to be worth the economic squeeze. In the spirit of the plain-speaking, new kind of politics Jeremy Corbyn ushered in, we in the Labour Party must make it crystal clear there is only something in Brexit for an elite few and nothing in it at all for the many we care about.
The time for abstaining or ambiguity on Brexit has now passed. As David Lammy so eloquently put in when he rightly hammered the Tories over the Windrush scandal: “when you lie with dogs, you get fleas.”. After the ‘Go Home’ vans, our heartless asylum policies, Grenfell, the ‘hostile environment’ and the xenophobia of the Brexit referendum, it’s time to create a fairer, more equal, more welcoming Britain. People are yearning for it.
And Labour’s front bench - particularly Jeremy, as the great narrative changer of our time - can seize this moment to detoxify immigration once and for all. Jeremy can inject hope back into the Irish peace process by telling it to voters as it is. To maintain our obligations under the Good Friday agreement, a customs union with the EU is imperative and is then only way around a hard border. His frankness with the British people has won our party new respect and turned it into the largest political party in Europe. The Tories made Brexit a binary choice - we in Labour must now whip our Lords and our MPs into rejecting it. Our party to power, our implementation of a manifesto for the many now demands it. No ifs, no buts, no abstentions about it.
Manuel Cortes is general secretary of the TSSA