Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

I want our party to lead

The lack of a ‘Marshall plan for the left behind’ allowed the seeds of anti-immigration populism to be sown for the unscrupulous to exploit, says Roger Liddle

This is the text of Roger Liddle’s speech to the House of Lords on 31 January 2018, as part of the debate on the EU withdrawal bill. You can watch a clip of the speech here.

This miserable bill is a a dagger to my heart. I am overcome by three emotions.

The first is a sense of shame that many in this House must share – that over decades our political leadership failed to make the case for Europe. The referendum should never have been called, and Leave should never have won.

The second is a very personal sadness. I am proud to represent on Cumbria county council, a town called Wigton, whose most famous son, my noble friend Lord Bragg, has just been awarded the Companion of Honour.

Wigton voted strongly ‘Leave’.

I love my Leave constituents. Yes, they voted to take back control. They are no fans of European Union remoteness and bureaucracy – and nor am I, incidentally.

But their revolt was against an economy that is grossly out of balance, against a world of work that no longer offers self respect, and a lack of opportunity that means that over half their children leave their home area after school and never come back.

Their grievances have for too long been allowed to fester. The seeds of anti-immigration populism were sown for the unscrupulous to exploit.

But where now is the modern regional policy, the new deal for the north and midlands, the ‘Marshall plan for the left behind’ that England needs? Nowhere under this government that is suffocated by a pursuit of Brexit that can only make Wigton’s problems worse.

But frankly my third emotion is determination: that the bunch of scoundrels who propagated their Brexit lies are not going to get away with it.

As a citizen and Labour activist, I will fight Brexit to the last. Yet, as a member of this House, I understand our role.

Yes I will work hard for amendments to this bill that soften the impact of Brexit, safeguard essential rights, weaken the extraordinary powers this bill grants the executive to override the legislature, protect our devolution settlement, and give Parliament a meaningful vote on no deal as any deal.

But does this response to a highly technical measure up to the scale of events and our constitutional responsibilities?

This clueless government is pursuing a ‘I haven’t got a clue’ Brexit.

The only basis on which the prime minister can unite her party is pursuing a Brexit that knows not where it leads. In December the prime minister signs up for ‘full alignment’ to keep the Irish quiet. Last week, to hang on to her job, she attacks her chancellor for having the temerity to suggest that Brexit will only lead to ‘very modest’ changes.

In Brussels, the prime minister pleads with our EU partners for a ‘deep and special partnership’. Back home she assures the Brexiteers it will only be ‘deep’ for as long as they want it to be. Britain will have the freedom to diverge whenever it wants – in Michael Gove’s case, I should imagine before the ink is dry on the signature of the treaty!

‘Deep and special’: I call this ‘shallow and perfidious’, and as a negotiating strategy, it is a totally unrealistic fantasy.

What has been striking about this debate is the lack of any positive vision for Brexit. Yet how can Britain proceed with the most momentous decision on its future since the second world war when no one is seemingly capable of explaining what that Brexit future means.

Ah, they say – the people have decided and the ‘will of the people’ must be obeyed.

This is thin gruel. In a democracy the public is entitled to change its mind and the rest of Europe keeps telling us article 50 can be reversed at any time. The Leave option that seemed so simple and pain free in June 2016 is now so complex – and the only question is how big the Brexit damage will be.

The job of parliament to challenge the vacuum into which the government is leading us. But how do we make a real difference?

The first is to press the Commons relentlessly to vote to stay in the single market and customs union.

Better to be a rule taker of European laws that have a progressive European vocation at their heart, than a theoretically sovereign rule maker that in practice will only be driven to use its new freedoms to break free of decent standards in pursuit of a deregulated mid-Atlantic tax haven.

I say to Jacob Rees-Mogg: better to be what he derides as a ‘vassal state’ than a ‘failed state’.

Second, if we cannot win the single market, let us help bring on the storm that could reverse Brexit by forcing a general election or another referendum.

I agree so much with Lord Higgins’ magnificent defence of representative democracy: but it may be that a referendum can only be reversed by a referendum and we should with a heavy heart accept it.

This brings me to Labour. Europe is in category of its own in terms of its impact on future generations. It transcends any party manifesto or party whip.

But I do not want to be a rebel. I want our party to lead. To seize this opportunity to demonstrate that in contrast to this wretched government, we can live up to our national responsibilities and internationalist heritage. I say to my colleagues on these benches. Let us do our bit to make this happen.

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Roger Liddle is a Labour peer and co-chair of Policy Network

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Like this? Now listen to Roger Liddle on the Progressive Britain podcast:

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Roger Liddle

is a peer, a former adviser on European affairs to Tony Blair, and chair of Policy Network

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