Kicking the Brexit consequences down the road will not work. Only the realities of leaving will change people’s minds, believes Bridget Phillipson
As March 2019 edges ever closer – and with it, Britain’s official departure from the European Union – one of the habits we need to get out of is talking in terms of ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ constituencies. People vote, not places, so speaking in terms frozen by the geography of the referendum helps no one except those for whom it legitimates any and every government position. I can think of few events which would be more disastrous in the medium term for my constituents than a reckless Tory Brexit in 14 months. My duty as a Labour member of parliament is not fulfilled by nodding along to the nonsense that the hard right pretends is a necessary consequence. Instead, we must focus, as Labour always should, on the needs and aspirations of working people and their families. After all, it is they who will suffer most from the price that the Tories want to pay.
If we are to shape the future, we need to be taking a great deal of care over how we express ourselves and how we sound to those people who voted Leave but trust Labour or share our values. Every time I hear complaints about the lies upon which the referendum campaigns were conducted, part of me dies inside. Frustrated though I feel as I look back on that time, we will not win the battles of the future by re-enacting those we lost in the past. All that does is entrench people in positions which are increasingly irrelevant, and which we know were not enough to win last time. For much as I believe that telling the truth matters in public debate, the Remain campaign hardly covered themselves in glory either.
Instead, the challenge in areas like my constituency and the wider north east is to be framing the choices and context of the debate so as to move people’s opinions. A general election or a referendum fought today is unlikely to change the result unless people have already started to change their opinions about the direction of our country and our future relationship with the European Union. As the referendum in 2016 demonstrated all too clearly, a short campaign is no place to change long-held views. Only the threat implicit in ever worse public polling will cause the government to find a spine and face down extremist backbenchers. To avoid a damaging Tory Brexit we need to think about the pressure outside parliament as much as the arithmetic within.
Just now it seems that the difference between the Labour position and that of the government has turned out to be about whether Britain will face up to the enormity of what we have done at the beginning of a transition period or at the end. We still hear a little too much about the notion of being a member of ‘a’ customs union rather than ‘the’ customs union, as if on divorcing one could remain a member of ‘a’ marriage but not ‘the’ marriage.
My fear is that strategically this is the wrong approach. Kicking the consequences down the road does not conjure up a coalition keen to shape them. We must ensure that every failure of our public services and every economic headwind which Brexit brings is labelled for what it is. We should keep our focus on the scope and impact rather than the timing. As the National Health Service cracks under the pressure of departing doctors and nurses, and real terms cuts in spending per head of population, we should focus on how leaving the EU is making staffing harder and supplies costlier. The simple fact is that resourcing the NHS both financially and in terms of skilled staff will be harder not easier outside of the EU. We should make that clear now rather than fail to deliver on promises in power. Voters will not thank us for holding our tongues when the results become clear.
Similarly, as economic indicators suggest our growth is slipping behind that of our European neighbours, we should be making clear why that is. When last month the French president Emmanuel Macron arrived in London, both to deliver the £44m bill for immigration controls in Calais and to make brutally clear that there will no deal on financial services, we should have set out in no uncertain terms what that meant for our people. We should spell out what the demise of the UK financial sector would mean for our country’s tax take. To his credit, Sadiq Khan has consistently made the case for the importance of financial services to London’s economy, but the job losses will be felt far beyond the M25. Instead we find ourselves distracted, perhaps by the foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s unexpected announcement of another new bridge – this time without a garden but made wholly of dead cats.
We need to make the argument day in and day out to Labour voters that leaving the single market puts their jobs at risk, that leaving the customs union sends prices higher, that the end of free movement will see services collapse, and that every day without a deal increases the chances of businesses and investment leaving. We have to be clear that the Tories are not only botching Brexit but neglecting everything that we care about. One of my new year’s resolutions is to get the phrase ‘all the Tories care about is Brexit’ into as many appearances as possible. We need people to see an obsession with the referendum as a Tory failing, not a failing of those of us who lost that vote. We need to let the Tories bang on about Europe, while we change the terms of debate. We need to ensure that we have permission to be heard when we talk about the decisions ahead. Every discussion should start with what is happening to the jobs people hold, the prices people pay and the services people depend on; only then can it move on to how we might change this by changing the approach on Brexit.
It is a truism that telling people they were wrong and were lied to does not cut the mustard, but just as importantly nor does telling people things – especially about immigration – that we think they might want to hear but which simply are not true. The UK economy cannot thrive in its current form without skilled immigration, and I do not believe skilled immigration is acceptable to the British people unless we face up to the impacts that that it creates in specific communities and in particular sectors. Rather than calling for public debates about immigration, or acknowledging legitimate but unspecified concerns (too often leaving it unclear which concerns exactly are illegitimate), we should propose proper solutions and own up to our own shortcomings. We should be clear that our pre-2010 migration impacts fund, scrapped and then relaunched by the government as the ‘controlling migration fund’, was not nearly adequate to the challenge. £50m or £100m is a tiny fraction of government spending, especially when building a new health centre and a new primary school for a community can easily absorb £10m together. The politics that go with the challenges that immigration brings should be about ensuring public service provision is sufficient for everyone, regardless of who they are and where they live.
And to me, that is the broader answer to how we might change the debate around Brexit. Britain has been too unequal a country for too long, despite the tremendous achievements of Labour governments. In my constituency, there have been no passenger train services for over 50 years, nearby court buildings are falling apart, Sure Start centres have closed as child poverty is rising, and spending on transport is a tiny fraction of what it is in London. The distrust many people in Sunderland have for our current economic arrangements, and the anger about how the government distributes resources is not only ‘understandable’ and ‘legitimate’: I share it. The answer is not about the location of decision-making, but the nature of the decisions. I despair of the belief that devolving within Britain the choices on how to structure inadequate spending will solve problems rather than shift blame, but the same is true for those who give the impression that adherence to Brussels is salvation enough.
If, like me, you believe that membership of the single market and the customs union are a key part of how we fix those problems and how we build a prosperous future for every part of our country, we need to relate the failings of the present, and the problems to come, to the Conservative focus on Brexit to the exclusion of all else. We need at all costs to avoid starting discussions by talking about Brussels and Europe, or sounding bitter about the referendum, or talking of Leavers and Remainers. Politics, after all, is about the future, not the past.
Bridget Phillipson is member of parliament for Houghton and Sunderland South. She tweets @bphillipsonMP
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