If Leave gains a majority tonight, what should Labour do?
Up to now, no senior figure inside Labour has been prepared to say what the party would do if Leave wins. That’s sensible — but unfortunately, for many in the Labour centre it is also not something they’re even prepared to think about.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot — because the polls are close. Journalists should be able to do what politicians can’t — think the unthinkable in advance. So here goes…
[I’ve scheduled this to publish around 9pm UK time as I will be on a plane until just after the polls close.][Actually I just published it from the plane]
I hope, for now, a Remain victory tonight makes the issue academic. But here’s what I will be saying to Labour and the wider left if Leave wins.
1. The British people have decided to leave the EU. Labour should respect that and change its policies accordingly. It should not sabotage or delay the process. It should not seek a second referendum on the outcome of negotiations. It should not seek to rejoin the EU in its current form. It should seek to heal divisions, calm political language down and reassure migrant communities that they are safe and welcome here.
2. However, nobody has a mandate for any specific form of Brexit. For example while the Leave campaign wants Britain to walk away from the EEA many people who voted Leave would like to see us inside the EEA. Others just want to use a Leave vote to negotiate a reform of Lisbon.
3. Therefore there needs to be a general election within 6–9 months, at which each party proposes their concrete offer on the form of Brexit. The Article 50 process should begin immediately, but no substantive negotiations should take place until after an election.
4. Labour should devote its September conference to debating and voting on a wide range of options to shape the party’s new policy for a post-EU Britain.
5. At this conference I would argue for the following:
a. Leave the EU but attempt to remain within the EEA on altered terms; keeping all progressive legislation on workers rights, consumer rights, climate change and environmental protection; but rejecting restrictions on trade union action, nationalisation, state aid and city-level regulation of platform monopolies like Uber.
b. Declare Britain will remain an open, globally focused social-market economy which encourages inward migration from inside and outside the EU.
c. Seek an opt out from free movement, using the “emergency brake” procedure as an EEA member, placing future inward migration from Europe inside Tier 3 of the existing points based system.
d. Offer the Republic of Ireland an immediate enhanced bilateral deal aimed at keeping the border open for both trade and movement.
e. Create a migration board which proposes a flexible annual immigration target to parliament, for an annual vote, based on the predicted needs and requests of stakeholders, predicted GDP growth, likely refugee numbers etc. This is explicitly designed to achieve democratic consent for the levels of migration the UK needs.
f. In the interim, Labour should implement radical measures to reform the UK labour market, designed to deter cheap labour exploitation (see previous post for how this would work). That includes restoring the migration impact fund, raising the minimum wage, boosting workplace inspections and diversity laws.
g. In case of Brexit, Labour should offer all existing EU migrants:
i. A fast-track to either dual nationality or British citizenship.
ii. Plus the right to remain and work in Britain permanently with the same rights they have now (ie ditch Cameron’s tawdry opt out from benefit rules).
h. Offer Scotland a new referendum once the terms of EU exit are agreed, with a radical Home Rule proposal from Labour devolving everything except defence, monetary and foreign policy. If that is rejected, and Scotland votes to leave the UK, then it should be allowed to secede in a way that maintains its EU membership.
6. Beyond the issue of Europe, Labour should use the September conference to confirm the leadership and concretise the policies of Corbyn/McDonnell, in an alliance with anybody from the Labour centre and from the Blue Labour grouping who is prepared to take part.
7. Labour should demand an immediate fiscal and monetary stimulus to support the UK economy through the likely hit to growth, sterling and borrowing costs following a Brexit vote. It should support, on merit, any emergency measures Osborne has to take to stabilise capital flows. It should veto any attempt — as in Osborne’s notorious punishment budget — at further austerity.
If this scenario comes to pass, and I hope it does not, the knee-jerk reaction of the Blairite rump will be to try to depose Corbyn, on grounds that he didn’t campaign hard enough.
But in order to do what? Commit Labour to sabotaging the outcome of the referendum? To re-joining Europe at a future date? It would be delusional.
In fact, the reason I expect this post to be of purely academic interest is because Corbyn has campaigned in an intelligent way — as a critical Remainer with deep doubts about the EU as a neoliberal project. He has refused to take part in the fear campaign.
However, if I’m wrong, and Leave swings it, it will be an existential moment for the Labour centre — and most likely their Pasok moment if they can’t face reality.
For all of us who voted Remain it will be a shock if it goes against us, but once that is over — in this “if” scenario — the battle for the soul of the Labour movement and the broader Labour vote will be won by those who adapt fastest to the new reality.
In particular, tonight, if Leave wins it will be very important for Labour — not just the leadership but the councillors, activists and supporters — to make an offer to that large part of the politically-involved centrist electorate that will be in turmoil.
The key to that is the attempt to stay inside the EEA.
Staying in the EEA might be difficult, given the crass intransigence of Juncker’s eve of poll message, but it would be a concrete goal around which the left and centre of British politics — from Cameron and Farron to Corbyn and Sturgeon — could unite, to prevent the kamikaze brigade of UKIP and the Tory right steering us out of globalisation altogether.
For Labour the hardest part actually comes if Remain wins tonight: re-connecting with a large portion of working class voters who may have voted Leave.
Corbyn and McDonnell’s “remain and reform” stance lays the basis for it. But it will need early concretisation — above all an offer on renegotiating free movement, which McDonnell, Tom Watson, Yvette Cooper and Tristram Hunt (ie figures from left, centre-left, centre and right) have all called for.
I will write more about that after the polls close.
A Remain victory is the scenario I expect to be dealing with tonight, so the above only represents a thought experiment.
I’m off to vote now, and will vote Remain — and revolt!
*** Addendum. I voted in my local primary school. There was a sign saying “only citizens of the UK, Ireland, Malta and Cyprus can vote”. I hope the racists found this unsettling. No island is actually an island — especially one that’s colonised the world. Remain and revolt!