Brexit: Labour calls to ‘look before you leap’

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Geoffrey Harris

The UK’s opposition Labour party is divided over Brexit, as unity is limited to supporting an increasingly unlikely vision of a soft Brexit, writes Geoffrey Harris.

Geoffrey Harris is a former European Parliament official. His 40 years at the EP included 12 as a political adviser to the members of the Socialist Group, as it used to be called.

The British Labour Party is now the largest political party in Europe but is confronting the most successful political party in Europe, the Conservatives. Up until her speech to her party conference in Birmingham the new British prime minister seemed to be on a roll with the main opposition party seemingly irreparably divided. It is now clear that her provocative speech has opened a new stage in the national debate which she is desperately trying to close down in parliament and the media. Pressed to explain her Brexit plans, she rejects the questions as just a front for those who were on the losing side (as she herself was) on 23 June.

The first effect of her speech was to provide a basis for unity not just in the principle opposition party in the House of Commons but beyond that to provide a basis for parliamentary cooperation with the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party.

The second effect has, apparently, been also to unite the EU 27 behind the rather blunt and uncompromising message from President Tusk that Brexit is not good for Britain or the EU. Maybe Boris Johnson really has ways of having his cake and eating it but, in reality, he seems to be asking his country to ‘eat shit’ blithely ignoring broken promises and the dramatic effects on the economy on living standards.

On 23 June most Labour voters supported the party’s position in favour of remaining in the EU but as the voters in the constituencies held by Labour MPs voted for Brexit it seems rather unlikely that Labour MPs would support efforts by the Liberals or Scottish Nationalist to initiate a second referendum or refuse to initiate or conclude the Brexit process. For the moment the unity is limited to supporting an increasingly unlikely vision of a soft Brexit and on the need for parliament at least to be aware of the government’s broad lines of the Brexit negotiations.

The consequences are that the agenda, by the Conservative government acting on a successful insurgency initiated by UKIP and taken up by anti-EU Conservatives, is being challenged at home and abroad. Labour, like the Conservatives in advance of the last election, is mesmerised by the prospect of losing votes and seats to UKIP. Cameron won the gamble in the 2015 election as Ed Miliband held the line against any commitment to hold a referendum at all. Although some Labour MPs have already taken up the call for a new vote by the people on the real issue now: the real terms and consequences of Brexit in the procedure to be negotiated in the two years from March 2017. This is not, however, the party’s policy.

David Cameron won the gamble in the 2015 election as Ed Miliband held the line against any commitment to hold a referendum at all. Although some Labour MPs have already taken up the call for a new vote by the people on the real issue now: the real terms and consequences of Brexit in the procedure to be negotiated in the two years from March 2017. This is not, however, the party’s policy.

Most likely blithely unaware of the signal being given to the dark forces gathering together around Europe these days, Theresa May seems set to launch the country’s exit procedure just as the French Presidential elections are coming to a head. Not surprisingly, within days of the 23 June vote Marine Le Pen, the extreme right leader, issued her call for FREXIT, promising a vote by the French people.

Similar calls are heard from the far right in Italy and the Netherlands. Academic experts on European integration are now switching attention to the prospects for European disintegration a prospect seemingly welcome to Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. The presence of Nigel Farage at a Trump campaign rally was no more quirky than Trump’s own visit to the UK, neatly timed for the day the referendum results came in.

The left in Europe has always wanted Labour to play its part in the EU and welcomed, from 1975 onwards, Labour MEPs joining what was then the largest, best-organised party group in the European Parliament. Times have changed, the centre-right EPP is now the dominant faction including in its ranks a sitting prime minisnter, who – like Farage – admires the Russian president. Hungary is not planning and whilst not planning for exit from the EU and has joined forces with Poland where the governing conservatives currently sit in the same EP Group as UK Conservative MEPs.

Hungary, whilst not planning for exit from the EU, has joined forces with Poland where the governing conservatives currently sit in the same EP Group as UK Conservative MEPs. Their joint call is for a cultural revolution against the Brussels elite. The chances are that without a Labour delegation the European socialists and Democrats in the EP will not be strong enough to stand up to the rising populist tide.

Whilst Labour’s re-elected leader is not readying himself to help block the road to Brexit he has, rather bravely, refused to let immigration take centre stage in the negotiations in the way that the government seems prepared to do so. This contrasts with the absurd approach of ministers parading themselves before Conservative activists with messages of xenophobia and imperial nostalgia.

The Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told his party members that “As I sit at the desk of George Nathaniel Curzon I sometimes reflect that this was once the nerve centre of an empire that was seven times the size of the Roman empire at its greatest extent under Trajan and when I go into the Map Room of Palmerston I cannot help remembering that this country over the last two hundred years has directed the invasion or conquest of 178 countries- that is most of the members of the UN.”

He accepted that this era was “gone forever”, but he could not resist making fun of the French whose diplomatic reach he considered inferior and costly.

No wonder President Hollande also called for an uncompromising response.

With the promise that Brexit generates extra resources for the NHS long forgotten, May has set the target of reduced immigration as the litmus test of a successful Brexit negotiation.

This is an approach which Labour clearly will not be supporting. Indeed, far from trying to unite an evidently divided country, the Conservative government is putting its own unity above all other considerations. Just as the PM and foreign secretary convince no-one with their protestation that post-Brexit UK will be as European as ever, so May rejects any thought that the 52%-48% Brexit vote was anything other than “emphatic.” Even her own chancellor was reduced to speaking in code – pointing out that voting for Brexit did not mean that the British people voted to become poorer or less secure.

Reports of racist attacks which have been widely documented since 23 June have not diminished the government’s insistence on putting immigration centre stage. Ministerial visits from Poland and the Czech Republic have not been met with convincing expressions of concern. The dark side of European politics has every reason to feel empowered and the left in Europe is clearly on the defensive. Massimo d’Alema of the FEPS think tank has made a timely call to “keep calm and rewrite the rules of the European Union”. A new approach to the stagnant eurozone economy seems evidently urgent to him and many others. Britain should be part of this debate not retreating to the sidelines.

Labour’s difficulty was apparent at its own part conference in Liverpool at the end of September where Brexit was virtually off the agenda. Its position on a second EU referendum seems clear for the moment. Party conference delegates chose not to prioritise discussing Brexit at all. A motion was, however, passed on employment rights that included a line calling on Labour to demand that the outcome of the negotiations be put to the British people, possibly via a general election or by referendum.

The party’s leadership then issued a subsequent clarification: “Conference policy on Brexit has been misinterpreted in some reports as committing Labour to a second referendum on UK membership for the EU, so for the avoidance of doubt we want to make clear that it is not our policy. We have called for the government to be transparent and inclusive in their process and to respect rights at work and other protections that the EU provided. Those issues will be our focus in holding the Tory government to account.”

Labour strategists have been trying to unite around a pragmatic approach based on concrete issues rather than the principle of membership. A rich and timely Fabian Society pamphlet came out recently entitled: Facing the Unknown: building a progressive response to Brexit.

Contributors with different points of departure looked at all the angles, with the current approach of most Labour MPs summed up by a self-styled passionate pro-European Emma Reynolds who wrote that “as progressives we have a moral duty to listen to the people and respond to their concerns.”

She called for parliament to vote on the triggering of Article 50 (as do many Conservative MPs in fact.) Labour should not, she insisted, let Conservative ministers set the agenda with an ideological approach, but as May seems set for a hard Brexit approach a clash is inevitable and, as in 1972, the House of Commons will take centre stage. In 1972 a Conservative government only got its way in favour of joining the then EEC because dozens of Labour MPs rebelled against the party line. History may not repeat itself as Brexit provides an opportunity for Labour to build its recovery on an issue of such importance.

The central, increasingly urgent issue now is for the government to decide what Brexit terms it wants. It seems committed to avoiding a British parliament vote on the launching or outcome of the Brexit process.

Perhaps the saddest consequence is that the country which set the gold standard for parliamentary democracy around the world is now in danger of putting its destiny in the hands of the European Parliament and the other EU 27 after disdainfully renouncing their most important political project.

The UK could end up having failed to take back control of anything apart from immigration and having lost its leading role in European and international affairs. By surrendering her party to the far-right May has undermined her ability to lead a united country and left the leadership of the EU with no choice but call her bluff.