A united Labour party, working with other willing MPs, is the only feasible option for stopping a hard Brexit, writes Mary Creagh
Like David Cameron before her, when it comes to the European Union, Theresa May is putting her own career ahead of the national interest. She is doing everything she can to appease a few hardline backbenchers, concerned more about surviving Conservative party conference than doing what is right for the country. In seeking to take Britain out of the single market and customs union she is prioritising her own job over those that could be lost as result of her reckless approach to Brexit. Some people have suggested that standing up to the Tories’ over Brexit requires a new centrist pro-EU political party. That is neither necessary, nor helpful. By working together within Labour, we can stand up to the Tories.
Staying in the single market and customs union offers the best hope for British jobs, growth and investment. When countries work together economically, they create jobs and prosperity. We in Labour know that when we work together we achieve more than we can alone. The risks of wrenching apart 40 years of economic and political cooperation with Europe are crystallising. The government’s approach to the negotiations is proving toxic to investors. Chancellor Philip Hammond has warned the prime minister that failure to make significant progress in the Brexit negotiations by the end of the year would trigger a business exodus as companies implement contingency plans for a hard Brexit. The environmental audit committee, which I chair in parliament, heard that one in five chemical companies are investigating moves to Dublin to minimise the risk of a hard Brexit. Jobs, growth and investment are draining from our economy.
Brexit is the single biggest issue facing Britain today. We on the left should be fighting to remain in the single market. Members of parliament from other parties recognise the danger of leaving the single market, and we should be prepared to work with them. But trying to form a new party from scratch would squander our chance to stop the government’s reckless approach to Brexit.
First, a new party would struggle to make any progress in a general election. Under first past the post, small parties are squeezed and struggle to win seats at all. Our voting system means fielding a progressive candidate against a Labour and a Tory candidate would probably help the Tories. At the last election Labour did well at winning the votes of people who voted ‘Remain’. The Liberal Democrats stood on an anti-Brexit platform at the general election. They gained four seats.
Second, there is no evidence of any appetite among voters for a new party. At the general election 82 per cent of voters supported either Labour or Conservatives; the highest combined level of support for the two main parties since 1970. In Wakefield, 95 per cent of people voted for either me or the Tory candidate. People are not looking for a new political party.
Third, just as the United Kingdom Independence party’s success has been its downfall, a new single-issue pro-EU party would likely not survive in the long-term. Having achieved its sole aim, Ukip has collapsed. It won less than two per cent of the vote at the general election, compared with 12.6 per cent in 2015. What would a new pro-EU party do if it achieved its aims? Political parties must be founded on a bedrock of values which are for all time, not single issues or policies. Ukip has fallen apart because there were no values underpinning its existence – it was just a loose coalition of people who believed in the fantasy of Brexit.
Fourth, the Tories’ reliance on the Democratic Unionist party for their majority in parliament means there is a real chance to extract concessions from the government. But that can only happen if we get as many MPs as possible to work together. Splits and divisions make it harder to agree on amendments and put pressure on the government.
The government’s EU withdrawal bill, which will be debated by parliament after the conference recess, received a chilly reception from Tory backbenchers. They share Labour’s concerns about the sweeping powers the bill would grant ministers to scrap and create laws at the stroke of a pen. By working together, and welcoming the fair weather friendships of MPs from other parties on the issue of Brexit, we can force the government to make concessions and change their approach to Brexit.
Never has Britain been in more need of a strong united progressive voice. Brexit is the defining issue of our age, but we have a prime minister who is unable to show the leadership our country needs. After a humiliating election result for the Tories, we in the Labour party have a historic chance to shape the future of the country, and to prevent Brexit becoming a catastrophe. But we can only do this if we work together – within the Labour party.
Mary Creagh is member of parliament for Wakefield. She tweets at @MaryCreaghMP
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