We cannot keep letting people down
Since the article 50 vote last week, with peace and relative quiet of recess, I have had time to reflect. And I have arrived at a difficult conclusion.
We have let everyone down. I was a front bencher during the last parliament. And whilst flagellation has little point now, I’ll take my share of the blame. And let’s be specific here. Clearly the childcare pledge Labour made ahead of the 2015 general election wasn’t nearly radical enough to put serious cash back into the pockets of struggling families. And I was the shadow childcare minister. I didn’t see it then. I see it now. I take my share of the blame.
That election loss led directly to the EU referendum we lost. Cameron’s manifesto pledge could not be resisted once we lost in 2015, hence the Brexit mess we are now in. A mess in which we cannot even say for sure that the UK government will not be reduced to deporting EU nationals resident in our country for decades. It would be ludicrous if it weren’t so horrific.
I take my share in the blame for the Brexit vote too. Albeit, it was the Tories, not Labour, who conspired for decades to run down the European Union, building up a eurosceptic vote bank from which they could draw down as necessary. And it was the Tories who, cynically, believed that they could get people to vote for the institution they themselved had maligned, as long as they made the alternative sound a lot, lot, lot worse.
But I was there too. And I know that our arguments were nowhere near good enough. Labour towns felt like they had nothing to lose except a Prime Minister they despised. Why could we not offer something better?
I understand it. We have let people down who believed in Labour as a force for good in our country. We have made our supporters feel desperate, and in some cases, politically homeless. It’s not good enough. British people deserve better.
But give me a moment of your time, and let me explain why, even though Labour’s poll ratings are dire, and even as Britain crashes out of an institution that has served working people valiantly, and even though we are faced with a special relationship with a US President who is - at very best - careless about the rights of anyone who is not a rich, white man like himself, even despite all of these reasons to despair, let me explain why now is the time for all of us Labour people to step forward and offer some leadership.
Theresa May has one policy, and one policy only: cut immigration. From that all else follows.
She has written the plan for post-Brexit Britain entirely on the basis of this goal. We look set to leave the single market, the customs union, and create, of our own volition, administrative and financial barriers in the way of 44 percent of our exports. It is a crazy situation. Many of my constituents work for multinationals like Airbus, General Motors or Unilever, or they work for a supplier company. This is true for much of Britain. And multinationals make goods across borders, with parts crossing European country lines many times before the end product is finally sold. Turning our back on that European co-operation, even as we leave the European Union, is a profound mistake.
The Government have completely misread our role in global trade. Modern manufacturing, modern trade, requires co-operation with other countries, not competition.
And in any case, even on its own terms, the Leave logic was flawed. Twenty million Australians could never provide a replacement market for a European market thirty times as large, and on our doorstep. And even then, countries that provide easy access to their markets will want something in return. Most likely access to the UK labour market for their citizens. In other words, more immigration. The very policy Theresa May has set out to reverse.
And as a consequence of this broken logic, we have no direction. Our economy will stagnate further into this decade as it has done since the crash.
It isn’t just crazy. It’s a complete disaster.
But from the Tory vantage point it can at least be demonstrated that the Prime Minister is prepared to give people what she says they voted for.
Smart, you might think. That would be popular in places that voted Labour for years. Places where working class Labourites have watched the purchasing power of their wage packet shrink for decades, and are looking for someone to blame. Low wages has left fertile ground for the vitriol of the hard right to grow.
And so, if it were the case that Theresa May could actually raise wages just by cutting immigration, I would not necessarily blame her for the attempt. If there were evidence that it would work, that might be one thing. But the problem for Labour is bigger because the absence of any evidence that this will work doesn’t make people any more likely to listen to us. People are angry and they do not want to be lectured about evidence.
Worse still, I know that criticising May’s plan leaves Labour people like me open to the charge that, because we say, 'it won’t work’, what we mean is, 'there is no alternative' to the status quo.
There is no alternative. A brutal Thatcherite mantra that left thousands out in the cold.
A bitter dilemma. You might think.
It would be a bitter dilemma, if it were not for the reality. There is no dilemma, in reality.
Just a country, in need of leadership.
Birkenhead, possibly the Leave-voting town that I know best, will not be changed for the better by a cut in immigration. In fact, because of lower taxes coming in, the situation for Birkenhead could worsen still, as the Government bears down on the collective spending capacity of areas where low pay clusters. Freezing benefits - locking the low paid out of any growth our country does see - will take its toll if the Chancellor does as he has promised, year after year.
If Labour were ever to blame for the fortunes of Birkenhead and places like it, it’s not because of past immigration. It is because we did not necessarily rebuild and regenerate absolutely everywhere when we had the opportunity. But still, it wasn’t Labour that stripped local authorities of the resources to invest. It was George Osborne.
Take a walk down any high street in a Labour town like Birkenhead, and you’ll see the Osborne legacy. Opportunities everywhere, not taken because of a lack of cash in the right places. Insufficient development capital that has blighted the places that needed saving post the crash. Empty shops. Rough sleeping on the rise, as the safety net fails. Untreated mental illness that represents itself as street drinking, and far, far, too many off licenses as people look for an escape at the end of a vodka bottle.
None of these problems have anything to do with the European Union, or immigration, but given the opportunity to vote against those in charge of running down the place where you are from, why would anyone not take it?
So here then, too, are the possibilities for our country.
These are all fixable problems, in truth. There is nothing wrong with Britain that a Labour government couldn’t fix with different priorities. Invest in childcare, or raise tax credits, instead of cutting corporation tax. Spend early on mental health treatment, to stop people turning up at Accident and Emergency, and having to pay a costly hospital bill when they fall into crisis.
These problems are all fixable by a Labour Government with a mandate to lead.
The only question is how long it takes us to recover from the current malaise, to win an election, and get on with it. How long are we prepared to watch a series of flawed Tory Prime Ministers run down our country. Is two enough? Will there be more?
It cannot be more.
If you are a Labour member or supporter reading this, first, please understand how guilty, how sorrowful, how horrified I feel watching Theresa May argue that the single biggest priority for our country is ridding ourselves of the opportunities our membership of the European Union provided. I understand that our arguments have not been strong enough, nor our determination to lead clear enough.
Second, and more importantly, please see that we can only win this argument on immigration if we are prepared to be radical about what we will accept on behalf of our fellow Brits. Never the status quo. There is an alternative.
We cannot just let British towns fail, as the cities move on. We cannot let the north of England fail as the south continues to rise. We cannot let low paid women and men fall back as others make progress. Never can we accept the way things are just because they are the way things are.
All of which means you have to forget the idea that this is too hard, too far gone, or that our ideas are done with. With sorrow and guilt comes responsibility to put it right. With failure comes the responsibility never to give in.
If you believe that everyone in life deserves a fair chance - no matter where they are from, their background, or the money in their pocket - you now have one job.
Get behind a Labour campaign. Elect a Mayor. Elect a councillor. Elect a Member of Parliament. Or a Labour campaign for something. To fund social care properly. For childcare. For abandoned refugees. To end rough sleeping. Find some part of the Labour movement you believe in and help move it forward. Help us get going in the right direction. Help us be proud of who we are.
The past few years have demonstrated that those of us in politics need more help to get this right, not less. For all our failures, I am truly sorry. For the future, help us learn the lessons, get involved and be part of the answer.