Labour’s Brexit pain needs to become a plan

Karl Pike

It is tempting, as the Fabian Society general secretary has suggested, to hide beneath the duvet for hours, perhaps days, maybe weeks, as a pillar of Labour’s internationalist identity is smashed apart.

From a political and Westminster perspective it is also tempting to stand and point as the campaign teams wither away; ambitious pledges are reproduced with an added question mark; and those accused of having no plan begin to moderate their promises.

Undoubtedly feet should be held to the fire for promises made. And urgent assistance to stabilise the country and its economy should be provided by the opposition with haste. But neither are sufficient as Labour’s supporters, and the country as a whole, begin to navigate a new political and economic landscape.

For the Labour supporters who voted Remain, and the many others who are now concerned about the fallout, Labour needs to be full of ideas on how to ensure Britain’s relationship with Europe is as close and progressive as possible in the negotiation that follows. And it then needs to work with the government to try and make those ideas a reality.

First, a shadow cabinet team should be established for Brexit, formulating the party’s response and its position for the negotiations. Ideas will be needed, across Westminster and Whitehall. Parliament needs to assert itself, with dedicated committees taking evidence from the civil service, EU diplomats and others before recommending paths on everything from financial services ‘passports’ to fisheries. Having worked for what has turned out to be Labour’s last minister for Europe with Britain as a member of the EU, I can imagine the Foreign Office officials’ trauma. They will be setting out the requirements and options of the EU treaties and finding any precedent for special relationships, but what the future looks like really is a matter of negotiation with the other 27 member states. There’s no roadmap.

Second, on immigration in particular Labour should be insisting on a government-supported, cross-party national exercise in establishing what Brexit is a vote for. In short, as many people in Britain as possible need to be part of a process that affirms what kind of immigration system the country wants to adopt. Aside from the tremendously high hurdle of negotiating controls on movement while attempting to access the single market – perhaps the biggest fundamental that needs to be talked about – a truly consultative process needs to embrace the complexity of immigration. In considering the EU students who will want to study at UK universities (a sector that wants to grow), or rules for UK citizens falling in love and settling down with EU citizens, the national debate needs to engage with what migration really entails. As Jonathan Portes has said, only after that exercise should Westminster consider what that means for numbers. The former shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has made a similar proposal for a ‘commission’. This is a chance to reset the migration debate.

Third, within the Labour movement there is much accepted wisdom, oft repeated with little attempt at persuasion. ‘Britain’s place is at the heart of Europe’ is an example. A lack of passionate argument for a subject can be the result of its mundanity, and in Labour commitment to Europe has been a given, an unremarkable sentence in a conference speech, the unthinking clap line. Social democrats must, if nothing else, realise there are no longer any givens. Everything needs to be argued for, with feeling.

Much of the above may seem a bit practical at a time of soul-searching. People want to know why this vote went as it did. We have already seen analyses on what we know about where and who voted Leave, and more will follow. Of course, none of this yet provides the ‘why’. That will remain a matter for judgement, hopefully one that resists ideological convenience. Understanding the ‘why’ will take time. For now, all political parties owe it to the people they serve to bring our country together and plan its future.

Image: Kevin Dooley

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