Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour should have the courage to come out for Europe

Adapted from his speech to the House of Lords, Roger Liddle argues that despite its faults, the time has come for Labour to proudly stand with the European Union 

We are living through a political crisis without equal in our post-second world war history. Labour’s frontbench in the Commons has to play a decisive in the outcome. Without their support it will be difficult for any option to carry. Yet their present stance comes across as a supine unwillingness to declare their hand.

Jeremy Corbyn wants a general election, but we have been waiting for weeks for the motion of no confidence. For him such an election would be as much about issues of class and inequality as it would be about Brexit. He aims to unite working people on a mandate to negotiate a so-called ‘jobs first’ European Union withdrawal. If his effort to force an election fails, he would still prefer a negotiated Brexit to a People’s Vote.

A Labour government could of course abandon the red lines that have so unnecessarily and counterproductively constrained the prime minister. Listening to Sir Keir Starmer, and his unequivocal commitment to a customs union and full participation in the single market, such a decisive shift would be entirely realistic.

However Mr Corbyn, and those closest to him in his office, favour a more qualified policy. In their customs union, Britain and the EU have an equal say on future trade deals. For them, the single market avoids border barriers, except that their policy is to break free of competition and the state aid rules that are fundamental to the whole concept of a level playing field.

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There would be no willingness in Brussels to entertain what for the EU would be an extraordinary set of propositions: to give a non-member state a veto over the union’s autonomous trade policy and to license Britain to act as a competitor rogue state.

In practice, there are now three and a half alternatives to ‘no deal’. The half choice is full membership of the customs union. It is only a ‘half’ choice; for without alignment of single market regulations there will be a hard border in Ireland, despite all parties stated wish to avoid one. Why? Because the World Trade Organisation requires it. The customs union requires a Northern Ireland backstop of some kind to be permanent.

‘Norway’, or a Common Market 2.0 as Nick Boles calls it, is highly problematic. It requires a level of trust on the EU 27’s part that Britain has squandered in the last two years. The EU fears that Britain would not behave responsibly like Norway and that, as a much larger competitor, outside the EU we would not constantly push against the limits and exploit the loopholes of the European Economic Area rulebook. And domestically, would a great nation such as ours live happily ever after as a rule-taker?

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The third possibility is that without decisive progress towards a comprehensive alternative, Mrs May’s deal staggers on – on life support – in the hope that sufficient backbench Labour MPs from strongly ‘Leave’ constituencies, in fear and fright at the prospect of no deal, will eventually back her deal as the only option available. This would a disaster for Labour.

Whole swathes of progressive opinion would never forgive us for the betrayal of their European commitment. To avoid this Labour must move decisively to back a People’s Vote.

Some argue that Labour cannot be seen to betray Labour supporters who voted Leave. Frankly it is the leadership of the Leave campaign who have betrayed Leave voters, with its extravagant and undeliverable promises and lies. Support for ‘Remain’ has strengthened significantly among 2017 Labour voters since the referendum.

The EU has many faults and needs much reform. But uniquely in the world, and however imperfectly, it offers a means of cooperation between countries that can be used to advance progressive values: to promote human rights and democracy; to work for peace; to advance economic justice for the poorer nations; to tackle climate change; not to just to manage migration but to address the injustices that drive its fundamental causes; to ensure that big corporations pay their fair share of taxes; to bring the digital monopolists to heel; and to prevent a race to the bottom in workers’ rights and consumer and environmental standards, which is crucial.

There is a way forward. Labour should back a People’s Vote now. The party leadership must listen to the overwhelming view of Labour members and supporters. We must gain the courage to come out – for Remain.


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


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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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