Labour must call for a Brexit that can unite people, not fight the battle for Britain’s future on the Conservatives’ terms, argues Stephen Beer
It is hard to escape the impression that Labour has got Brexit wrong. If we carry on as we are, we will struggle to keep up with the debate. We seem to believe that tactics are all, when we need a clearer strategy and sense of purpose.
The government overwhelmingly won the House of Commons vote on the bill to invoke article 50 and begin the formal proceedings to leave the European Union. That was no surprise. It was right that parliament was required to give approval. The supreme court victory won by the courageous Gina Millar, who made a stand when others, including the Labour party, would not, will go down in history. Nevertheless, it only took our politicians to where they should have been anyway. What was needed was some politics.
No amendments were carried. Did we realistically think they would be? Sure, we won some moral victories, such as over the lies about more spending on the National Health Service, but nothing has changed. The government announced it would consult parliament over the final Brexit deal, probably forcing acquiescence just before the deadline. We hailed it as a major concession. It was, we maintained, an example of how we were successfully chipping away at the government’s position, which we would continue to do for the next couple of years. On this basis, if the Brexit debate was an extended court case we would be happy to celebrate daily victories on points of law while hardly ever challenging the other side’s fundamental case.
Surely one lesson to take from the referendum is that to get anywhere you have to focus on the wider politics to persuade people to agree with your point of view. That is what Labour, a political party, is supposed to be about. So we are worried that our shrinking support base is split, with city dwellers pro-EU and everyone else leavers? Fine, so reframe the debate in a way that unites people. Focus on our values. Share a patriotic vision of a prosperous nation in whose future every citizen has a stake. Define and call for a Brexit that helps make that happen. Oppose those who would take us down a harder route. Ask why Conservative governments have done so little for our deprived areas and show how we will be radical (and credible, please) and transform the economy. Respect the referendum result but call out the government for betrayal it if it takes wild risks with people’s futures or insults our European neighbours. For Labour, there seems little to lose and much in terms of integrity and national interest to gain.
The alternative is to concede and let the government and more extreme voices frame the argument while we win debating points. All our battles will be on their terms, not helpful for victory. Our overall aim will be undefined and people will soon notice that we are relying on the Conservative party to define it for us. That, unfortunately but with some noble exceptions among our members of parliament, is what we appear to be doing.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.