Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Changing the course of Brexit requires a general election, not a referendum

The will of the people is best expressed through general elections. For a radical change in direction, pro-Europeans should focus on bringing down the Tory government, argues Michael Edenborough

The referendum on Britain’s the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was cynically proposed, negligently conceived and incompetently executed. Despite those failings, 48 per cent voted in favour of remaining in the EU. No doubt, a significant proportion of them were lukewarm about the EU: recognising its shortcomings and in some cases advocating for radical change. Yet, it is important to remember they were in favour of the EU in principle, if not in detail.

We cannot draw the opposite conclusion for the 52 per cent. There was undoubtedly a significant number who opposed the European Union in principle. They looked to regain sovereignty, to avoid the jurisdiction of a ‘foreign court’, to retain an accountable link between the people and the legislature, to have greater control over the UK’s external borders, and to stop paying large sums to foreigners. However, it is likely that many voted to leave for reasons that were not so ideological. Some were protest votes: either against David Cameron personally, or against the Tories or ‘the establishment’ more generally. Others were motivated by more nebulous fears, such as a loss of identity; depressed wages; job scarcity; the dissolution of society (both within the inner cities and rural areas); pressures upon public services such as education and health; wealth inequality; and, and the devil-take-the-hindmost attitude that seemed to prevail. Although many of these thoughts were not explicit, they expressed themselves in a vote against the status quo. These people were not necessarily against the EU, but they wanted something to change. There were enough of these people to swing the vote for Brexit, but really they were voting for change, not to leave the EU.

The result of the referendum has led the government to embark upon Brexit.

To satisfy the purist leavers, this would require the UK to quit the single market, the customs union and the oversight of the Court of Justice of the European Union so that the UK can ‘take back control’ of its borders, trade and laws. It places self-determination above the possible benefits of having a say, but not a determinative voice, in the creation of regulations that govern the largest trading bloc in the world. The government appears to be waking up to the conclusion that this interpretation of Brexit would be incredibly dangerous for the economy, and so the government is seeking to compromise in certain areas, typically by mimicking some of the arrangements that exist currently.

These compromises might include the UK complying with the current, and maybe any future, trading regulations put forward by the EU. This would ensure that the free flow of goods and services would not be disrupted. However, this has raised particular problems associated with the Irish border that are difficult to resolve. Likewise, the UK’s relationship with the remaining members of the EU would be overseen by, and be subject to the jurisdiction of, the CLEU in some areas – for example with respect to the rights of EU citizens that remain within the UK or any trade disputes that might arise. Yet, the UK would no longer have any say in the development of those regulations. The EU has made it plain that whatever relationship the UK has after Brexit, it will be less accommodating than the one it has now.

Therefore, in this version of Brexit, the UK will lose sovereignty. It will have no say in the formulation of the regulations that it has to follow, it will be bound by the CJEU in at least some matters, it will lose the present accountable link of electing members to the European Parliament and having representatives at the European commission, and it will have to pay significant sums of money to have some access to the customs union and the single market. All of these restrictions in return for having greater control over its borders, which it could have obtained in any event under current EU regulations if it had wished to invoke them. Yet even this result of having greater control over immigration is now being watered down, as the government realises that the economy needs migrant workers to function.

Thus, as a matter of logic and economic reality, Brexit makes no sense. It is clearly a worse deal than the current situation, and it delivers none of the supposed advantages of a clean break as envisaged by a purist’s Brexit. Brexit is a false hope for all concerned.

Some have suggested there should be a second referendum to resolve this dilemma. Yet, if the first were flawed, why would a second be any better? Instead, there needs to be mechanism to change fundamentally the direction in which the country is being led. The traditional way to do that is through a general election.

At the moment, Labour appears to be trying to avoid upsetting any particular part of the electorate by having a policy of creative ambiguity. However, this fails to confront current policy failings and to address the big issues facing the EU.

Labour needs to acknowledge that Brexit in any form will damage the UK economy. Importantly, Brexit will also weaken the EU (both economically and politically), and that is only to the advantage of such states as Russia and China, at a time when the EU is under political strain from immigration and the resurgence of nationalism. What is needed by the UK is a policy that will honestly acknowledge the problems faced by both the UK and the EU, and proposes a solution that works in the UK’s best interests.

Part of the solution should be to withdraw unilaterally the Article 50 notification. By declaring that the UK will stay in the EU, stability will return, the dissipation of effort on Brexit will stop, further damage will cease and investment will return. Next, the UK needs to lead the EU on the big issues such as immigration, corruption and organised crime, exploitation of the people by non-tax paying corporations, an enhanced social chapter for improving workers’ rights, improve of consumer’s protection from big business (in particular the tech companies), and social cohesion. The latter, ironically, might require a loosening of the centralist controlling tendencies of the commission to allow greater expressions of individuality within the EU. These policies would address the concerns of many of those who voted to leave because of their dissatisfaction with the status quo. This reforming agenda for the EU would also appeal to the ‘48 per cent’, as it would address some of the problems of detail that were highlighted.

Such a radical change in direction can only happen as a result of the will of the people, and that is best expressed through a general election. Labour should act to bring down the government and then fight a general election with a manifesto that advocates these changes and reforms.

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Michael Edenborough is a QC

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Photo: Bankenverband, licensed under Creative Commons

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Michael Edenborough

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