Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

In Corbyn’s gift

If Jeremy Corbyn gives Labour MPs the room to act it could mean staying in the single market without losing the ‘left behind’ voters to Labour’s cause, believes Hilary Armstrong

The challenge for the Labour leadership in the coming weeks and months around Brexit is clear. We have two very distinct strands, those more working-class, traditional Labour voters in the north, who were attracted by the United Kingdom Independence party and voted to ‘Leave’, and those in the south who clearly saw their lives and futures linked to Europe, and voted to ‘Remain’. What is the most effective strategy to pull together the interests of both? My view is that clearly, the only way to make sure that manufacturing – which is so linked to European markets – is able to prosper in the north and Midlands is within the single market. This is also crucial to meeting the expectation of those in service and finance industries, which dominate the economic lives and prospects of the south.

Jeremy Corbyn can approach this in a totally different way; the 2017 general election gives him the mandate to work in new ways to bring the interests of these two groups together.

I grew up in Sunderland, the city that became a symbolic early victory for the Leave campaign on referendum night. I still have a home in the north-east, in the county Durham constituency I represented until 2010. I have spent considerable time talking with and listening to those who voted to leave, as well of course sharing lots with colleagues in the Labour party and in parliament who have a very different perspective.

As a member of the European Union committee in the House of Lords, I asked David Davis at his first appearance as secretary of state for exiting the EU how he and the government intended to consult with those who had voted Leave – especially in areas like the north- east – so that they understood what their expectations of Brexit were. He said he was not sure how they could do that, and for reasons I totally understand, he never found time to discuss it further with me. Apart from the fanatics, people just felt that things were so bad in their lives, why not vote to leave?
So, why are people like me doing supporting the UK’s membership of the single market and the customs union? Is it just that we wanted a different result in the referendum and are bad losers?

I know that people in the north-east do want to continue to trade with Europe.They want Nissan to continue to sell cars made in Sunderland into the EU market, they want Hitachi to be able to sell trains put together in Newton Aycliffe to our European neighbours, and for BMW to keep its engine plant in the region. They want manufacturers to continue to be able to import ‘friction-free’ parts to be put together locally from across Europe without having to pay huge tariffs.This means the UK must have staying in the single market as a core negotiating position.Without it the hat-trick of stagnated wages, poorly-paid work and declining prospects for young generations will become entrenched by Brexit, not removed.

Our democracy looks unstable.The country is more divided now than at any time I can remember, and trust in politicians is low. How can we, in these circumstances, work in such a way as parliamentary democracy is enhanced, not further diminished?

We know that we only face the issues thrown up by Brexit because of the vicious divisions in the Conservative party, but if it descends further into a traditional intra-party bunfight people on both sides will feel frustrated and disillusioned. We have to act in what we see as the best interests of the country, while continually engaging with the electorate around their views, aspirations and real life challenges.

In the usual run of politics, parliament moulds and shapes governments. Governments are defeated at general elections and only rarely in parliament between general elections.

I start with what seems an obvious piece of constitutional truth, but its important to the debate about how parliament shapes Brexit over the next two years. If those of us that want strong protections for workers – derived from a close relationship with the EU – set out simply to defeat the government over the next two years, we will almost certainly lose. Seeking to win for our tribe will lose for our cause. There is some simple physics here. Bashing the government head-on in order to defeat it, drives government backbenchers into their frontbench’s arms. Trying to defeat ‘the government’ forces those Tories that share our position into the government ranks. The last thing a disillusioned Tory backbencher wants right now is the government to fall and a general election to follow.
Between now and the next election, we need a more subtle approach to politics which wins people over and allows members of parliament to stand up for what they believe in beyond the normal noise of political parties.This is far from easy.

It starts with the House of Commons. If you look at the positions that MPs took at the referendum, you would find a clear majority support staying in the single market. Normally, the Labour whips office would be spending a lot of time finding out what possible challenges to the government might work with nationalists, Liberal Democrats, and others who would usually be helpful – as well as Tories who disagree with the government. I am sure this is happening, but we will need much more work outside of the normal means of working in the Commons. If the only amendments put are from the official frontbenches, the government will defeat them. If too many amendments on any issue are put, then the government will be able to move dissidents around to support different amendments, and win.The government chief whip will already be doing this. As a former chief whip, I have been there.

Tories who are not happy with their government’s position will not work with the Labour whips’ office. There will need to be a range of different groupings with people from Labour who the Tories can trust, who can have grown-up discussions with nationalists and Liberal Democrats, who can act without accusations of betrayal and lack of loyalty towards the Labour leadership. They need to be able to act without this being used as another excuse to threaten them with deselection. This will be challenging for the Labour leadership, but not only will this be in the interests of the country, it is the main way Labour can position ourselves effectively to bring together Leavers, who want a bright future for their communities and their families, and Remainers, who are looking to our party for leadership. This is how you win elections. By definition it is hard, not easy.

To keep Britain in the single market – and deliver for the young people who gave the 2017 Labour campaign a surprising tonic and the members of Unite, GMB and Community who desperately need it for their sectors to thrive – it will need the Labour leadership to be generous and fleet of foot. The Labour frontbench must give Labour MPs and peers the room to work with other parliamentarians in order to get to get a majority. Letting off the leash those who wanted to vote for Chuka Umunna’s amendment to the Queen’s speech on the issue could work for both the Labour leadership and the country. But be in no doubt, giving the opportunity to parliamentarians to engineer staying in the single market is in Corbyn’s gift. At the same time as caring about worker’s rights, he can be seen to be prepared to do politics in a different way.

This might leave Corbyn in the bizarre position that the more he steers clear of traditional party discipline on Brexit the more he can please those young Remain voters. Allowing others to take the lead will win him plaudits and get the desired outcome. This in turn will damage theTories in the eyes of Bill Cash et al and Ukip and enhance Corbyn with the voters.

Then there is the Lords.There will continue to be debate about whether the Salisbury convention, which normally means a government will not be defeated on business that is the result of a successful manifesto, will stand when there was no successful manifesto.The reality is though, that in the Lords the party whip is based around the frontbench position in the Commons. It is, of course, possible to beat the government in the Lords – as we have shown time and again in the past two years. The views on Brexit are also much stronger in the upper house, with former EU commissioners and diplomats who are horrified with what is going on.The cross-party EU committee has also produced a raft of reports on the details of potential Brexit changes, all of which reiterate what the benefits of the single market and customs union bring. Paradoxically, the government might have a lower house majority against single market membership if the proposal originated in the Commons, but may not have the same majority if it comes in the form of the Lords amendment that needs removing from a given bill. Corbyn may find success if he allows the Lords frontbench some leeway and lets the Labour group ride its instincts.

However, if we are to get changes through parliament, there will have to be a lot of work between backbenchers of both houses. It needs to be more subtle than we are used to, and alliances made with new and different people.This needs a new approach from the leadership of ourparty,butalsofromthosewewillneedtoworkwith.Thebenefits could be enormous. If we just look to defeat the government without appreciating the complexity of the negotiations, and the disillusionment with our craft of politics, we will not prosper as a party or a parliamentary democracy, and those people who are fed up and ‘left behind’ will have their vengeance.


Hilary Armstrong is a peer and former government chief whip


This article is part of a series of pieces for the September 2017 edition of Progress magazine on the United Kingdom’s membership of the single market being ‘In Corbyn’s gift‘. Please check out the other pieces now and support the Labour campaign for the Single Market while you are at it

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Hilary Armstrong

is a former government chief whip and a member of the House of Lords

1 comment

  • Staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union during the transition period is the merest trifle compared to staying in them forever, as advocated by Theresa May and Peter Hitchens. Single Market membership is absolutely incompatible with key points of this year’s Labour’s manifesto. So a Corbyn Government would have to leave in the end. At the end of the transition period, in fact.

    Whereas a May or other Conservative Government would never have any reason to do so. Everything about it suits them down to the ground. By the end of 2019, it will have required even the privatisation of the French and German railways, the public ownership of which is cited by the illiterate as some sort of riposte to the fact that the EU forbids the renationalisation of anything that has ever been privatised, including the British railways.

    Today, the Labour Party stated the obvious: that, in accordance with the clearly expressed views and the obvious interests of the Labour heartlands that delivered the Leave vote, a Labour Government will eventually withdraw from the Single Market and from the Customs Union. But the Conservative Party has never given any such assurance, and it never will. Why should it? Its heartlands mostly voted Remain in what was, 33 years late, the Labour victory of 1983, when the areas that had been mostly badly damaged by all Governments since that point finally got their well-deserved revenge.

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