A Labour vision for Brexit

Attribution: Kevin Thant, Flickr

Since the EU referendum result last June, I have sought to argue that firm acceptance of the public’s decision to leave the EU and a pivot to championing a ‘soft’, sensible Brexit that can unify the country is the only way forward for Labour. It is the right course democratically and also the only politically viable one, and I do feel the decision Jeremy Corbyn took to whip Labour MPs on Article 50 was broadly correct.

However, the facts on the ground are nevertheless clear. Labour is losing significant numbers of Remain voters to the Lib Dems, who have found a new raison d’etre in the false comfort of continuity Remainism and are mounting somewhat of a fightback at the local level. At the same time, Labour’s post-referendum acceptance of Brexit is not yet sating Leavers. Though Labour held off Paul Nuttall in the ‘Brexit capital’ of Stoke, the UKIP and Tory votes both ticked up slightly while Labour’s fell, a weak showing for the main opposition. And the overall polling picture is similar — most of the kind of voters Labour lost between 2005 and 2015 and would need back to govern again voted Leave in 2016, and there is no sign of us making inroads with them at all. Instead we continue to leak with them.

The warning signs that we risk falling between two stalls on a question of national identity — the fate Scottish Labour has already suffered — therefore flash ever-brighter. And so while our basic ethos is unquestionably the right one and must be robustly defended from the assault we now face on both flanks, our execution of it needs urgent consideration — this is what I write about today (on a similar theme, pro-European Labour activist Douglas Dowell recently penned a long read on the pitch a Labour leader could give in this direction, which I’d also strongly recommend).

Our coalition

Let’s start with who we start with, in terms of building an electoral coalition behind a uniquely Labour stance on Brexit. The common argument that the country is split half and half with Labour speaking for no one is actually somewhat of a simplification. Notably while 48% of the country voted to Remain, only around 25% want the second referendum the Lib Dems are promising and as many as 68% of Britons feel Brexit should be implemented (59% told YouGov they believe a second vote would be illegitimate). A belief that the government has a duty to implement Brexit from people who themselves backed Remain — Labour’s position — is the mood of roughly a quarter of the country, with the Lib Dem pitch more aimed at the half of Remainers that were always more staunchly pro-European and are still holding out.

Moreover, while an overwhelming majority of those who went Leave are currently of a ‘hard Brexit’ disposition (agreeing with the Tories and UKIP about the absolute prioritisation of immigration cuts), research tends to suggest a decent minority are amenable to putting the economy first, with some willingness to retain budget contributions and potentially even single market membership if absolutely necessary. Here is it important to remember that the emotional distance between ‘soft Remain’ and ‘soft Leave’ voters isn’t that wide — both favour substantial immigration reductions, but their votes simply rested more on differing calculations about economic risk. Some looser questions also show that if the public are asked to choose between “reducing the amount of immigration into Britain” and generically “doing what is best for the British economy”, they pick the latter by as much as 65%.

This means there is a coalition that can be assembled across the middle of Britain — those who voted either Leave or Remain who expect to see Brexit happen, but who ultimately can be persuaded to prioritise protecting the economy (and if all Remain voters accepted the referendum outcome and set their minds on shaping Brexit, this is a majority). The ideal result of building this coalition is of course the election of a Labour government to implement that approach, but even in the short-term, resurrecting a coherent electoral threat to the left of the Tory party is essential to create a space for their ex-Remain and liberal Leave MPs to moderate Theresa May from within, as she currently faces pressure only from her right. The tragedy is that the current landscape is suppressing both a potential majority among voters and an overwhelming one in parliament for a more sensible Brexit than the one this government is pursuing.

Meanwhile, if Labour either fails to articulate this stance or wilfully champions the outright oppositional line on Brexit favoured by Remain hold-outs, this puts a clear ceiling on the audience Labour gets a hearing from and would push even the softer Leave voters into the arms of the Tories and UKIP, empowering the right to define and ram through Brexit on the hardest possible terms. If we down turn the chance to mobilise the middle and instead insist on a binary battle between hard Brexit and staying after all, we will lose. Badly.

Attitude and message

One barrier to building this coalition has been Labour’s demeanour on Brexit — even those of us not calling outright for a continuity Remain stance are emotionally half in and half out, and it shows. One group of Labourites want to keep their options open on whether we shape Brexit or oppose it altogether, but these are strategically incompatible — any suggestion of the latter alienates moderate Leavers, squandering our chance of achieving the former. Others are clear Brexit must happen based on respect for the referendum outcome, but struggle to actually articulate an independent and proactive Labour case for it, alienating both fearful Remainers and Leavers who can opt for more passionate advocates of their own cause. Margaret Beckett’s remarks on her Article 50 vote were widely ridiculed as an example of the worst of all worlds on this:

May I say at once that although I deeply regret the decision made by the British people, including in my constituency, to leave the EU, I do not seek to challenge it?…Although I accept that decision and I will vote for the Bill, I fear that its consequences, both for our economy and our society, are potentially catastrophic.

The Labour message instead has to be forward-looking, distinctive and confident — “Brexit will work for Britain, but only with Labour’s plan”. We need a “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” for our time, elegantly cutting through false binaries with common sense.

To bring Leavers into the fold, we must summon patriotism and national self-belief, not mock it and cede it to the Tories (the inevitable Twitter derision aimed at Theresa May’s “red, white and blue Brexit” remark is a textbook example of where we go wrong here). In both the Scottish and EU referendums, I remember senior politicians on the status quo side toying with a rhetorical distinction, one between saying the country ‘couldn’t’ or simply ‘shouldn’t’ take the leap. Tony Blair nodded well to this again in his recent speech:

Of course Britain can and would survive out of the EU. This is a great country, with resilient and creative people. And yes, no one is going to write us off, nor should they.

Blair did then add a caveat (“but making the best of a bad job doesn’t alter the fact that it isn’t smart to put yourself in that position unless you have to”), but our opportunity to make that case was in the referendum, and continuing to attach it now renders the rest of the sentiment hollow if we now refuse to give our all to trying to make the country’s decision work. This is again why May’s “Brexit means Brexit and we’ll make a success of it” shtick strikes a chord with the national mood, however much it may make liberal eyes roll. A majority of the public believe that though it may not be easy, Britain can leave the EU and continue to prosper as an influential, enterprising trading nation — so must Labour.

Our terminology also needs to change. While I myself use it generally and throughout this piece because it has entered common usage since the referendum, Owen Jones and James Morris have warned that “soft” v “hard” Brexit is bad framing (“hard” may inadvertently sound firm and resolute, “soft” weak and “wishy-washy”). Labour’s ‘People’s Brexit’ v ‘Bargain Basement Brexit/Banker’s Brexit’ dichotomy is probably better, but I wonder whether it means much beyond Labour true believers (the leadership’s “Education not Segregation” line on grammar schools reportedly baffled focus groups). In a nice flashback Peter Hain recently demanded a “One Nation Brexit”, but perhaps simplicity ultimately beats overwrought attempts at creativity in political messaging. Think ‘Better Brexit’, ‘United Brexit’ or simply, ‘a Brexit for the many’. As for what we dub the Tory version, the left’s instinct is always to signal that the Tories lack compassion, when it is actually effectiveness that is both their eternal USP and May’s existing Achilles heel on Brexit. I want to hear ‘Bodged Brexit’ or some variant thereof from the mouth of every Labour politician every day until it rings in the country’s ears.

Meanwhile, with sceptical Remainers this case needs to come down to a mixture of principle, pragmatism and confidence. The principle is that it is right to respect a free and fair result that 72% of the British electorate including Remainers participated in, especially as the feeling of being marginalised and ignored is already what motivated many Leave voters. Labour politicians who accept it and move forward are acting honourably and honestly. The pragmatism is realising that with soft Brexit, the half of the loaf we can still get is worth grabbing onto with both hands, while we still can. But confidence is also needed to unlock that sense of pragmatism — it can’t just be beaten into them. Many Remainers are in a pattern of thinking similar to that of a lot of Labour members who voted for Jeremy Corbyn — a fatalistic sense that embracing another compromise option is only worth it if it actually seems viable, or else you may as well go down swinging for the thing that comes most naturally to you. This means we must make a different vision for Brexit seem credible and realisable.

The single market and immigration

Critical to that vision is clarity. In January 42% of YouGov respondents could not say what our stance on Brexit now is, including 45% of Remain voters (a quarter of Leave voters also thought we still want to stay in). Insisting that our Brexit is different from the Tories’ without being able to articulate how is not passing muster with sceptical Remainers, while voters on the whole will pick the party they see as a safer bet to deliver if they do not see a clear difference (to them right now, that is overwhelmingly the Tories).

On this point, the most straightforward and practical policy distinction between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexits is single market membership through the EEA/EFTA. Many Remainers in particular see this as their marker and Labour’s current line of demanding meaningless “access” to the single market is wearing thin. May and the Tories are not signed up to it, but the right-wing do at least have an economic plan for what Britain outside of the single market looks like, such as it is — ripping apart Britain’s social safety nets to create a low-tax, low-regulation Singapore-style economy in a vain attempt to keep Britain competitive. Labour, meanwhile, has no equivalent vision yet. Contrary to the wishful suggestions of some of the left, it is hard to see how liberation from state aid rules will be a short-term economic game-changer, in and of itself.

Therefore, even if Labour were to defend it only as an option or a transition measure while we seek to foster separate trade agreements, backing single market membership would grant us credibility and definition while accepting the public’s mandate to leave full political union. While Labour’s overall Article 50 stance is right, we must renounce the decision to whip against the Hain amendment in the Lords on single market membership. It was and still may be the preferred model of liberal Leavers and soft Remainers in the Conservative Party, something that would come to the fore if they were feeling more effective external pressure to challenge their party’s rightward drift. And it deprives the Lib Dems of the ability to say they are the only option for single market retention, instead leaving them in the extreme position of having to admit they want to reject the referendum result outright.

It is also an off-the-shelf model we can refer to that nearby countries already have — leading Brexiters made reference to Norway, Iceland and Switzerland in their campaign arguments for a reason, as Open Britain has helpfully documented. In those countries it serves as a longstanding compromise between their pro-EU and Eurosceptic viewpoints, something we can work to forge in Britain. Former Remainers will have to get used to distancing ourselves from the aspects of political union we are leaving behind (to sweeten this pill for Britain’s minority of passionate self-identifying Europeans, Labour could back the proposals for opt-in individual EU citizenship). But the shift is worth emphasising to offer reassurance to Leave voters we need to win over and to anchor our economic stability. Any lingering concerns about Britain being enveloped into the Euro, an EU army or ever-closer union are banished forever. We will no longer elect representatives to a European Parliament we never truly understood. We will be out of the Common Agricultural and Fisheries policies, and our contributions may be reduced. Of all people, it is Nigel Farage who we can cite:

The Norwegians have no ties in terms of foreign policy with the European Union. They have no ties in terms of their fishing industry, where they have a 200 mile limit. They are opted out and exempted from all the things that really make the British mad

That quote of course leaves out the EEA’s requirement for us to keep Freedom of Movement, which the hard Brexit forces emphasise now that it is more advantageous for them to do so. Many Labour MPs understandably fear this would be seen to amount to honouring the ‘letter not the spirit’ of how their constituents voted, a measly politician’s dodge — many Leave voters would not automatically view EEA as a ‘true’ Brexit. A group of 29 Labour MPs led by Chuka Umunna has just backed the single market, but this means little as the bulk of them represent metropolitan Remain areas or rebelled on Article 50 — it is MPs from Leave areas like Stephen Kinnock and Emma Reynolds who are feeling the pressure to call time on FoM. Other Labour politicians have been trying to square the circle by claiming we can stay in the EEA while working with European partners to fundamentally change FoM — they must accept that there is no substantial desire for reform on the continent (tension elsewhere in Western Europe focuses more on Muslim migration and the Syrian refugee crisis, because these countries retained maximum transition controls during EU enlargement). But in the short-term, a hard Brexit for the sake of ending FoM would not substantially reduce immigration and would do grave damage to the economy, particularly those already struggling. So we must stand our ground and argue perceptively on immigration, or else we will face the economic (and political) consequences.

In his Brexit speech Tony Blair laid out a factually astute case for how little ending FoM would actually address legitimate anxieties over immigration, but this is not the way forward. As Owen Jones has argued, when the right appeals to the gut and the left to statistics, the left loses. Instead, we must get to grips with the nuances of public opinion on immigration and work with them. As on most things, Britain is a nation of moderates here, and James Morris has done illuminating research and analysis in this area:

Progressives can happily answer people’s concerns about immigration without accommodating negative views of migrants. Most voters think immigrants tend to work hard and contribute to our country, most are in favour of a tolerant country where people of different faiths and cultures have equal rights, most think EU migrants already here should have the right to stay. Areas with high levels of immigration were not more likely to vote leave — it was rate of change that mattered, not absolute levels. The key is to accept, and have a credible plan for, a system that is able to control migration. Two thirds of the country thinks as long as the system is well managed, migration can be good for Britain

A start will be language — a left as uncomfortable with the phrase “controls on immigration” as it was in 2015 will not be one capable of holding a conversation with a public for whom a sense of control is the pivotal factor for being able to feel at ease. It is no coincidence that that very word was in Leave’s slogan. Another phrase that we need to get to grips with will be “we got it wrong”. For all that we in Labour fall over ourselves to ravage the inadequacies of New Labour, with rare exception we are curiously silent on one of the legacies voters felt most visibly in their communities, the scale and pace of Eastern European immigration. This fed into that perceived loss of control, and Labour needs to own that to regain permission to speak.

Another problem is priority — immigration is a top three issue for the public, but for Labour members it barely registers. It flows from there that even our attempts to address it come across as half-hearted and inauthentic, a distraction from what we see as the country’s real problems. I remember a Miliband-era PEB that featured him declaring “if people are concerned about [immigration], then the Labour Party I lead is going to be talking about it” — better than nothing, but still the detached and conditional voice of an aloof politician. If we are truly the people’s party, we need to ask ourselves why an issue that concerns the public at large and the working class in particular doesn’t feel like a burning concern for us too.

The “we need to talk about immigration” trope is also thoroughly hollow when not backed by concrete ideas. Bold suggestions such as regional immigration management show the centre-left is starting to think, though workability may be an issue. Other sensible ideas mooted by Labour likely never ‘cut through’ and could do with sustained emphasis. When people call for a Points-Based System, remind them that we introduced one in government in 2008. Crackdowns on wage undercutting by rogue employers and on migrant-only agencies are consistent with our values, upholding a labour market that is fairer for UK nationals and migrant workers alike. Investment in border security would offer the public reassurance. Prioritising funding for language education over the short-termism of translation services puts migrants on a better footing to integrate fully and avoid exploitation, while also assuaging the cultural concerns of those already here. Waiting periods before migrants can claim benefits and a Migration Impact Fund that highlights the net contribution migrants make to public services would both emphasise the contributory link, critical to the public’s sense of fairness. And we should also robustly defend the rights of EU nationals already here, along with categories of immigration such as foreign students that are overwhelmingly popular and critical to a world-facing UK economy, but nonetheless being sacrificed in pursuit of Theresa May’s hopeless net migration target.

Leadership, trust and competence

As with almost all things, Labour’s perceived ability to deliver on Brexit is contaminated by general perceptions of us. Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to go soon, but the reality that the public will not trust him to oversee an enterprise as complex and tough as Brexit is unavoidable, leaving Theresa May in pole position by default. This is deeply frustrating, as there is a case to be made that the zealousness and denialism of the Tory right is actually what renders Brexit a doomed endeavour, rather than a merely challenging one. They are prone to ignoring inconvenient facts, overestimate their hand and refuse to understand the priorities of the European partners that we are dependent on for a successful deal. They are the worst people you could choose to plan for every contingency and mount the unprecedented charm offensive now required. A grasp of realpolitik and British common sense are nowhere to be seen, and it is that that will see to it that the public’s desire for a clean, sensible Brexit will not be fulfilled. This could all underlie a Labour message of “this can work, but only our way”. But that rides on there being any existing faith in our own strength and competence — we alone are responsible for building that.

A further problem is that the Remain voters that make up the bulk of Labour’s current support do not trust Corbyn’s motives, as he is a lifelong Eurosceptic and did not fight for us adequately in the referendum. This is why he has struggled to articulate the party’s line on Article 50, as he lacks the credibility to serve as the ‘Nixon goes to China’ figure required to transform us into a party that fully accepts the referendum result and grapples with the real choices of Brexit. A new figure is needed to seek permission from more of the tribe.

This means whenever a change comes, Labour must next be led someone reassuring and articulate who was unimpeachably committed to Remain — preferably someone high-profile — but who later voted for Article 50 and is now arguing for a Labour vision of Britain outside of the EU. Chuka Umunna, Lisa Nandy or Keir Starmer are obvious choices. If the party insists on a Corbynite successor, I would also suggest that Rebecca Long-Bailey or another would be preferable to Clive Lewis. Though Lewis’ rebellion on Article 50 was popular with members, it would be a profound mistake to reward it — it would represent a regression from Corbyn, who has at least sought to look outward and demonstrate to the public that Labour is moving on.

National renewal

The final component of a Labour vision for Brexit must speak directly to what led the public to vote for it — a sense that that the nation’s fortunes need to change and something radical was required. Exit from the EU will free Britain from the trappings of political union, but to meet expectations we must do far more to grab hold of our destiny and rebuild an unbalanced and insecure Britain from the bottom up.

While we will be out of the EU, Britain can be confident in its place in both the world and our continent. Remain and Leave voters alike want us to be a vanguard for free trade. And with Trump’s America no longer a reliable ally and Putin’s Russia moving aggressively to undermine the West, Britain can and must stand as an anchor for liberal democratic norms. Through NATO, we will continue to be critical to European security, and should lead the way in ensuring that our defence spending is at least 2% of our GDP. But in truth we may need to be prepared to invest more than that, given the scale of the uncertainty now facing us and our European allies — this is no time for us to have a stingy Tory government that oversaw the farce of aircraft carriers without aircraft. Championing such a stance would also pay dividends for Labour at home. If we truly wish to embrace patriotism, rebuilding our military — and with it local economies for which bases and defence plants are a lifeblood — should be part of our national story. Clement Attlee’s Labour knew to celebrate the armed forces as a unifying national institution, to be held in the same high regard as the NHS he built, and in the last seven years they have been as ravaged by Tory austerity as any other public service. 30,000 servicepeople have been laid off and skilled civilian contractor jobs are compromised by uncertain demand from the MOD — we need a Keynesian injection here as much as anywhere else.

Massive investment in our communities and infrastructure will also be needed, funded from borrowing on the capital markets at the preferential rate a government can secure — this is again something that first requires a trusted and effective Labour leadership to make the argument. Non-dom abolition, reform of corporate tax reliefs, reversal of inheritance tax cuts and fresh wealth taxes could serve as additional revenue raisers. This is all necessary first of all to replace lost EU funding, preventing regions like Cornwall and Wales from being betrayed by the right-wing Leave campaign they placed their trust in. Likewise, though the Tories have made clear beyond doubt there was never any real intention to find extra money for the NHS, Labour must fund the service at European levels and invest in reforming it for the future, integrating health and social care to create a seamless service and initiating a needed shift towards community-based provision.

But more far-reaching even than that, fundamentally realigning our economy will require upfront support. We should establish community banks to seed start-ups and vocational education institutions of the kind that underpin Germany’s robust industrial model — New Labour’s greatest failure was allowing Britain’s economic fortunes and hopes for social progress to rest on neoliberalism and short-term bubbles, as Chuka Umunna argued eloquently in his recent essay. And as Lisa Nandy says, devolution and fresh powers for towns and regions must enable them to take control of their own futures and chart a separate course from London. This is the ‘One Nation’ agenda Labour toyed with under Ed Miliband, but ultimately retreated from — post-Brexit, it may now be Labour’s silver bullet.