Three weeks ago, at the British Labour party conference in Brighton, I spent a few days trying to explain to delegates and visitors the impact Brexit would have on Ireland.
In the weeks before the conference, Keir Starmer had worked to develop the Labour position, making it clear that the UK should stay within the single market and the customs union for a two year transition period. The Labour party now has such an influence on this debate, that Theresa May had no choice but to match that position in her Florence speech. For those of us on the other side of the Irish Sea, we saw real hope for the first time that the debate could be shifted.
So it was disappointing to get to Brighton, and discover that there would be no meaningful debate on Brexit on the conference floor, and that the shadow Northern Irish secretary would not address conference.
That initial disappointment was put to bed by the strength of debate around Brexit that happened at fringe events around conference.
The Freedom Rally organised by TSSA and LabourList saw a fine list of speakers including Manuel Cortes, Tulip Siddiq and Sadiq Khan – each one of them making clear and compelling arguments for continuing freedom of movement. A fringe event hosted by the European Parliamentary Labour party saw hundreds of delegates listen to Keir Starmer leave the door open to further movement, while the Irish reception was addressed by Owen Smith, who showed a deep understanding of the potential impact on Ireland North and South.
My message in Brighton was a simple one. At many of the events I attended, I spoke alongside Colum Eastwood of the SDLP, whose message was similar. During the Brexit referendum, there was practically no public debate around the impact on Ireland. The peace process, such a priority for the Labour party 20 years ago, stands at risk of being torn asunder. The €1.2bn of trade in goods and services between our countries each week could dry up, crippling whole regions of Ireland. The 110m border crossings between our countries each year bring cultural and social as well as economic benefits to both of us – building walls and borders will only damage us all.
For the British Labour party – the party that has gained so much from and given so much to Irish communities in the UK, these factors must matter.
The British people were sold a fable during the referendum debate. And the results are already in. You are seeing anaemic growth, wage killing inflation and a capital flight underway. And it’s going to get worse. I have said for over a year now that, when the terms of the exit have been negotiated, the British people should have their say once more. I suspect they might think very differently about it at that point.
At the fringe event organised by the Fabian Society in Brighton, we enjoyed a broader debate. Alongside Emily Thornberry MP, Gerhard Stahl and Stephany Griffith-Jones, we teased through Britain’s place in Europe, and in a globalised world. Emily argued strongly for Britain to retake a position as a leading nation fighting for human rights across the globe, while Gerhard took us on a journey from further European integration to the state of the Chinese economy. In the middle of that discussion, I could only note how odd it was to be an Irishman appealing to Britain not to leave us!
Leaving Brighton, I was reassured that there were voices within the Labour party that wanted to put a stop to Brexit. And I found it encouraging that there seemed to be a willingness to continue developing the Labour position. The clear statement by Keir Starmer last weekend that Labour will not support a ‘no deal’ Brexit is evidence of that. But I still had plenty of concerns.
I understand the dynamic here. Labour must be seen to respect the referendum outcome. In response I’d say that membership of the single market and the customs union weren’t discussed during the referendum. These factors may not pull at left-wing heart strings, but an NHS without access to a wider labour market is an NHS in trouble. If social democratic Sweden can exist within the single market, and Emmanuel Macron can nationalise ports within the single market, then I cannot see why a Labour government could not deliver on its programme within the single market.
An OECD report published this week has made clear that a no deal Brexit would cost the British economy £40bn in 2019. A Labour government would have a much better chance of implementing their programme with such resources than they will without them. The OECD, hardly a left-leaning body, has called for a second referendum to prevent this economic destruction. I hope that’s a cause that others can get behind.