The long road ahead: Brexit, the negotiations and progressive politics
Brexit is a process which will no doubt involve many twists and turns along the way, and thus numerous opportunities for the opposition to debate and influence the outcome. As I have said in the previous article, the course of action that will be pursued on the UK side of the table is ultimately in the hands of Parliament. Prior to the start of the formal negotiation process, what are some of the principles that Labour, and progressives more widely, should seek to stand for? Here are what I think are some of the main themes.
Insist on a fair and balanced approach to the negotiations
From the initial aftermath of the referendum, to the legal challenge on Article 50 to the Bill in Parliament, most of the debate in the UK has been internal, perhaps sometimes to the point of navel-gazing. Progressives need to turn their attention to understanding the approach and attitude of the EU institutions and the other Member States (the EU27) at this juncture. Their frustration with the UK has some justification. For years, the UK (most fervently under Conservative governments) complained and criticised, insisted on opt-outs and exceptions but remained in the club. Faced with the rise of UKIP, whose leader Nigel Farage always seemed to have a platform, David Cameron promised reform and an in-out referendum. His renegotiation pushed for a ‘better deal’ for Britain, and the outcome stretched the limits of some of the EU’s fundamental principles. Some politicians and indeed many newspapers criticised this as not being enough. I remember vividly the Sun’s World War II appeasement headlines at the time. During the referendum campaign, the current Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson compared the EU to Hitler, with such distasteful tactics rightly seen as pursuing cynical political gain. Then the British electorate voted narrowly to leave.
Much of the Leave campaign argument marches on that now we can truly ditch everything we don’t like about the EU and maintain all or most of the benefits. The frustration on the other side in the face of this is real. Progressives should understand this and spell that out to the public rather than simply joining in the increasingly reactionary approach of ‘our national interest against others’.
Show respect for our EU partners and demonstrate, in words and deeds, that we want the EU to flourish and succeed
This follows on very naturally from the previous point. I disagree profoundly with all Brexiters and Brexit enthusiasts, but I do think there is a dividing line amongst them here. We know that Farage, and now more worryingly Trump (along with Putin, Le Pen, Wilders and others) are either ambivalent about the fate of the EU or actively want to see it implode. They see Brexit as part of a ‘domino effect’ starting the process that leads to the glorious reassertion of nationalism in Europe and beyond. This is probably the single most dangerous outcome that all progressives and liberals must guard against and fight with vigour. But one major lesson to be taken from recent electoral campaigns (including the referendum) is that their arguments (not their personalities) must be challenged and the debate on the key issues, including immigration, not avoided but taken head on and won.
We can contrast those above with at least the words of the Government going into the negotiations. In the preface to the White Paper Brexit Secretary David Davis says “The UK wants the EU to succeed. Indeed it is in our interests for it to prosper politically and economically and a strong new partnership with the UK will help to that end.” The Government and all its members should firmly and continually be held to these words as the negotiations get underway and develop. The EU has historically been a hugely successful project for peace and prosperity, and with the right steps forward in challenging times, can continue to be into the future. All progressives must insist on this in the face of hostile and threatening remarks by some, and ambivalence from others.
Stand up relentlessly against racism and xenophobia
Many Brexit voters, and Brexit supporting politicians, are not racist or xenophobic. But the referendum campaign and aftermath of the vote have unleashed a new surge in hate, whether online or on the streets. This phenomenon, closely documented, should be confronted head on. Where the government fail to stand up to this, as shown in their initial reaction to the US Executive Order travel ban, their lack of conviction should be fully exposed. The section in the White Paper on immigration starts with “We will remain an open and tolerant country, and one that recognises the valuable contribution migrants make to our society and welcomes those with the skills and expertise to make our nation better still.” At this juncture, much more must actively be done to ensure that this is the case.
Fight for a fair deal on the economy, for living standards, employment rights and protection of the environment: fundamentally for the post-Brexit political economy
There is much debate about the expected departure from the single market and the negative effect this will have on the economy. This is likely to be the case. In the referendum campaign, voters were effectively asked whether they would prioritise ‘the economy’ or ‘control’ (over immigration and law-making). This reductive choice was partly due, in my view, to the overly narrow strategy of the Remain campaign. But the answer given by the electorate gave a modest but clear victory for control. It may be that people did vote for the country as a whole to be worse off. People’s attitudes to the economic benefits of the single market understandably varied according to whether or not they had any direct experience of it.
This is an area in which I disagree with the successor to the Remain campaign, Open Britain, and others arguing for continued membership of the single market. It is hard to refute that at least part of the reason the Government ruled this option out is that it listened to its representatives in Brussels and other Member States, and decided to respect the position of the EU27 that the four freedoms are indivisible. I honestly don’t think that a ‘fudge’ deal on the single market/free movement is in anyone’s interest. By voting for controls on immigration from those from other EU countries, the country did vote, in effect if not in intention, to leave the single market (of which free movement of persons is a key aspect). As hard as it may be to say, if people vote for something, they should get the result along with the consequences that arise from it. Anything else risks increasing the cynicism in politics that is already far too widespread.
But a fair deal on the economy, which I think can bring together Remain voters with many who voted Leave, goes beyond cross-border market access. If the UK is going to ‘regain’ unilateral control over more of these policy areas, which direction they go in really matters. Many progressive protections that the Labour Party and trade unions saw as a key argument for the EU as it developed in the 1980s and 1990s are precisely those that turned many Conservatives so vehemently against it. As a result of Brexit, progressives may have to engage in a number of defensive battles in these areas, and so should be prepared and ready for them. And the continuing argument that on policies such as climate change, we are stronger and more effective working with other countries than on our own must be heard.
Start to develop a compelling but practical narrative to the public on how the genuine issues facing them can be tackled
Labour can rightly criticise the fact that Theresa May’s pledge to work for everyone and not just the privileged few may well have little substance behind it. It can point to the fate of those ‘just about managing’ whom continued austerity and now higher inflation hit the hardest. But it must also offer a compelling and credible alternative about how the UK’s political economy should develop in a way that combines sustainable growth with genuine reductions in inequality in a post-Brexit climate. This should cover the vital areas of housing, jobs and wages, skills and productivity, and a modern green manufacturing base. It should also look at how the UK acts on the global stage in the modern world, making the argument for why multilateralism is the best way for countries to provide genuine security to their citizens in volatile times.
To be clear, I don’t believe there is a ‘good Brexit’ on the cards. If everything is going to be fine then by implication the arguments for Remain in the referendum were wrong. They were not! In this sense I find the debate about ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit misses the point. Of course Brexit will be hard! It will be difficult. It is with great sadness that pro-Europeans naturally look to this period of unwanted change and uncertainty ahead. But the right approach now is to dust ourselves down, be both realistic but wholly committed to our principles and seek to shape the way forward in the direction we want to see. Just as Labour has sought to make its timeless values relevant to a changing world in the past, so it must do again.