Labour must fight for membership of the single market and customs union for the sake of the majority of Britons who do not want to be poorer as a result of Brexit, writes Christabel Cooper
The British Election Study published last week confirms what both anecdote and circumstantial empirical evidence had suggested – that not only did voters see Brexit as the most important issue facing the country, but that Labour’s increased vote share in the general election came almost entirely from ‘Remainers’ switching their vote to Labour. At the same time, the vaguely worded manifesto statement on Brexit together with the three-line whip on triggering article 50 clearly reassured enough Labour ‘Leave’ voters to prevent the widely-predicted meltdown in the Midlands and the north of England. In such a divided country, attracting Remainers whilst barely losing any Leavers was a substantial achievement.
However, Labour now faces a dilemma. We still did not gain enough votes in the general election to become the biggest party, let alone enough to win a majority. The study confirmed that the majority of former 2015 United Kingdom Independence party voters switched to the Tories and this was what allowed them to stay ahead of Labour in terms of seats and vote share. Many of those ex-Ukip supporters would have been Labour voters once upon a time and gaining a Commons majority depends on winning some of those voters back from the Tories. This will be not be easy – the study showed that Tory supporters were highly likely to prioritise controlling immigration over access to the single market in the negotiations with the European Union. To these voters, talk of ‘wholesale importation of underpaid workers’ (coming from a Labour leader who has spent his entire political career supporting open borders) will be exactly as convincing as Ed Miliband’s ‘controls on immigration’ mug. That is, unless there is the backup of a serious policy commitment to walk away from the single market and dramatically reduce migration.
But this would betray the trust of the millions of Labour Remain voters. Some have argued that people voted Labour for many reasons other than Brexit, including the sense shared by many on both sides of the Brexit divide, that the ‘neoliberal consensus’ has had its day. According to this school of thought, then if Labour delivers on a general platform of opposing austerity and ensuring a fairer deal for every generation, then less-than-full support for the single market will be forgiven.
This is naïve, as it completely ignores the economic impact of a hard Brexit. Leaving the single market and customs union would lead to decades of suppressed growth and higher unemployment. In a stagnant economy, a future Labour government would find it hard enough to fund existing promises to (for example) abolish tuition fees, let alone help the other half of young people who do not get to benefit from a university education. The fiscal policy set out in the manifesto was worryingly dependent on a small number of taxpayers to generate additional government revenue and if large numbers of high-earning people (who are generally the ones with the most transferrable skills) leave the country in the wake of a hard Brexit, then it will render many of Labour’s promises unworkable without dramatically raising taxes or reducing benefits for the general population. This might make Labour’s commitments feasible, but almost certainly make the party unelectable (note just how unpopular the dementia tax proved for the Tories).
While a recent YouGov poll revealed that depressingly large numbers of Leave voters would be prepared to see the economy sustain significant damage in order to achieve Brexit, we need to remember that the majority of Britons do not hold this view. Given that 48 per cent of people voted Remain, it would take 97 per cent of Leavers to be happy with being poorer (as opposed to the current YouGov of estimate 61 per cent) for this to be the case. The rightwing press may huff and puff as it likes, but the real ‘will of the people’ is that Brexit does not substantially hurt the country.
At the moment the Tories are (as ever) hopelessly divided over Europe. The Eurosceptic right of the party, which would have no qualms about throwing the British economy over a cliff-edge to get its way, draws its lifeblood from the lack of national consensus over what kind of Brexit we want. If the government cannot provide leadership on the most important issue of the day, then Labour must step in – making clear the necessity of staying within the single market and customs union, for the sake of the majority of Britons who do not want to be poorer, for the sake of the Remain voters who trusted Labour to protect them against a hard Brexit and because it is the only way to implement progressive policies in government.
Christabel Cooper writes a regular column on the Progress website. She tweets at @ChristabelCoops
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