If everything goes according to Theresa May’s plan, Britain will leave the European Union in less than 30 months. The British people have voted and, after a summer of silence, the Prime Minister has finally set the timer for negotiations. But whilst it’s true that the countdown has begun, it is clear that neither the government or the country have any cogent idea of what May plans for their future. Her incantation ‘Brexit means Brexit’ must surely be the most vacuous phrase in modern political history.
Despite that, there can be little doubt that the process of exiting the EU will confer on this government more power to re-shape Britain than any government has had since the Second World War – extricating us from forty years of EU law means dismantling a vast number of safeguards, rights and standards that are woven into the fabric of our economy, society and constitution. And we know that many Conservative ideologues would like nothing better than to turn the UK into a North Atlantic version of the Cayman Islands, with these hard-won safeguards, rights and standard becoming little more than bargaining chips in their drive to make the UK more ‘competitive’.
The “Great Repeal Bill” that was proposed by May will, in practice, give ministers carte blanche to change the law without parliamentary debate, primarily through the wide and prolific use of Statutory Instruments – a mechanism intended to facilitate the application of law but capable of being used to make law by stealth. Forty years of legislation – of rights, of standards, of protection – can now be changed without oversight.
At this moment where our democratic oversight is so vulnerable, and the tasks ahead – of re-building a vibrant, shared and open British society and economy with a new relationship to the world – are of huge magnitude, the scope for abuse is almost limitless. This is why the Prime Minister must deliver a balanced Brexit in process and in result. She must secure a Brexit that is driven by the national interest, not by her need to manage the various warring factions of her party.
David Cameron was a short-sighted gambler and a chancer; traits that led him to put our entire economy and place in the world on the table in order to stop his party from bothering him about Europe, rather than finding solutions to the challenges the country faced. Theresa May needs to demonstrate a decisive break from Cameron’s slogan-driven, party-before-country, ‘anything goes’ politics. But her first steps have not been promising: you don’t appoint David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson to be your key ambassadors to the world with the expectation of improving your country’s reputation. The Prime Minister must now level with the British people: she must be honest about what Brexit, in her opinion, actually means. From the Conservative conference, we can only assume that Ms May is steering us towards the rocks: into a harsh, intolerant Brexit.
Which is why we can’t simply leave it to the government. At this moment of national challenge, with such a fundamental change on the horizon, the Labour Party must stand up and be counted. It is therefore deeply dismaying that Brexit, which will shape and determine almost every issue for the next decade and beyond, has hardly featured in our party’s discourse in the last three and a half months.
Coming to terms with the Referendum result has been tough for those of us who campaigned passionately for Remain, but we must now accept the result, and move forward. The principle of democracy is at stake. Talk of a second referendum must be put aside - we have to engage with the world as it is, not how we would like it to be. Yes, the campaign was a horror show of dishonesty, and the realities of the consequences of the choice were obscured or misrepresented the future, but the final outcome was clear. We cannot re-run the campaign; it would damage trust in democracy and accountability at a time when we need to strengthen and assert both.
The challenge facing us now is how to build a society, economy and politics that will realise Labour and fundamental British values from where we are today, rather than from where we were on June 22. If it is to rise to this challenge, the Labour Party must represent and be the voice for all those who wish to see a balanced Brexit that respects our democracy, champions our values and serves our national interest. It is clear that this is the political leadership that the overwhelming majority of British people are looking for, and that our country desperately needs.
Therefore the defining question for the Labour Party today is this: will we stand by and watch the Conservatives dismantle, law by law, what successive governments over the last 40 years have built, shoulder-to-shoulder with our European partners; are we going to sit on our hands as this government destroys all those rights, protections, safeguards, standards and alliances that have been such a force for good, for so long?
Or are we going to rise to the challenge by holding the government to account in the national interest, setting a new, optimistic and patriotic vision for post-Brexit Britain, and earning the trust of the British people?
The choice is clear: we simply we cannot allow this government to inflict a One-Party Brexit. Labour must take a comprehensive approach, that I believe consists of these three strands.
First, we must require that the Prime Minister delivers control and full sovereignty to Parliament in Brexit, with full legislative and scrutiny powers. Using Statutory Instruments to ram through changes to fundamental rights, protections and standards would completely contradict the Referendum’s demand that Britain ‘takes back control’ through a fully sovereign parliament. The Prime Minister must now act to restore the people’s faith in our parliamentary democracy by setting out how the Brexit negotiation process and subsequent withdrawal from the EU will work, and how both will be subject to the full scrutiny of Parliament, every step of the way.
Second, for the Brexit negotiations, we must set the following tests for the Prime Minister:
Test 1: Deliver managed movement of EU citizens to the UK, and of British citizens to the EU.
No one can deny the central role of the desire to limit the freedom of movement as a key motivating factor in the vote to Leave. It’s an issue we, as a country, must tackle head on, because we’ve seen where ignoring it leads: exit from Europe, fractured communities, and the emergence of a publicly confident xenophobia and racist insults. In the last few weeks May’s government seems to only want to exacerbate these divisions, rather than heal them. However, heal them we must if we are going to create a future that offers hope to all. The challenge is to deliver a holistic system of carefully managed immigration that balances the need for control with the need for immigrants as vital contributors to our economy, public services, community and culture. To be pro-immigration means making it an economic, social and political success in the long-term: as much immigration as possible and sustainable, limited only by our ability to create the environment for all of Britain to thrive and feel valued.
So far, the short-termism endemic in British politics means we haven’t done this well, which has led to the current fractured state in which we are living. Therefore, we must manage immigration holistically and carefully, with a new approach to entry requirement, underpinned by a long-term strategy and purpose, and rooted in evidence and logic.
One way of doing this would be to create immigration skill and number requirements on a sector-by-sector basis, through a dialogue between industry, trade unions and government. This ‘gap analysis’ would be focused primarily on jobs with salaries at the lower end of the scale, and would enable the setting of credible targets for the amount of immigration required across each sector. This strategic, needs-based framework for immigration should then be underpinned by a points-based entry system, leading to the granting of work permits through employment contracts, which would be the pre-condition for entering as a migrant worker. This logical and contribution-related approach to entry would help to build public trust in the system, and in the government’s control over it.
In short, the movement of labour must be managed as a durable strategy instead of resorting to empty slogans.
Whilst the establishment of a credible system of managed immigration is vital, there must also be a full policy programme to create an environment that facilitates immigration and celebrates immigrants. A properly resourced Migration Impact Fund to sustain vital services and promote community cohesion; an adequately staffed HMRC to crack down on unscrupulous employers; a commission to advise on how best to encourage firms to recruit and train British workers (as opposed to Amber Rudd’s repulsive, self-defeating ‘badge of shame’ approach). These are just some of the measures that must urgently be put in place.
Being pro-immigration means not simply paying lip service to the ideal, but doing what we must to make it successful for all. It is only with such an immigration system that we can build a UK that reflects the values we hold so dear: compassion, openness, solidarity and civic pride.
Test 2: Deliver maximum access to the single market.
We have felt the first tremors of Brexit. The pound has dipped to a 31 year low, with repercussive effects on everything from food import prices to pension fund value. And we haven’t even left yet. To mitigate the negative impact and build for a prosperous future, we will need as much access to our biggest and nearest export market as possible. The government’s cavalier rhetoric on international trade grossly underestimates the importance of the EU market and the complications of expanding trade elsewhere, while giddily exaggerating the enthusiasm with which the rest of the world currently regards us. And the Tory push for a harsh Brexit appears to have forgotten the one promise on Europe from their 2015 election manifesto for which they do have a mandate, namely: “We are clear about what we want from Europe. We say: Yes to the Single Market” and “to safeguard British interests in the Single Market”.
Labour must relentlessly remind the Government of this undertaking and use all means to secure maximum access to the single market in goods, services and capital. Our economic future relies on that. After all, we know that much of the UK’s £17 billion of foreign direct investment depends on our tariff free access to a market of 500 million consumers.
It is clear that there is a tension between tests 1 and 2, as we know that the other EU member states are currently insisting that the free movement of goods, services, capital, people and labour must be treated as a single, inviolable whole. However, the fact is that there is considerable appetite across the EU for revisiting free movement of labour. Governments across the bloc would dearly love to formulate an approach that re-builds trust and cohesion, but they are constrained by a system that was set up in an EU of 11 – and then 15 – member states: in a far less mobile and fluid age.
The Prime Minister must seek to use this opportunity by adopting a pragmatic step-by-step approach to negotiations. She should present constructive proposals for the introduction of managed migration as a pan-EU solution, try to secure agreement across the EU, and only then open up negotiations on the goods, services and capital pillars of the single market. This sequenced approach is the only way in which it will be possible to secure the best possible deal, striking the right balance between border control and market access.
So far, the Prime Minister has appeared unwilling and unable to think creatively about the negotiations. At her party’s conference, she made clear her preference for the path of least resistance to her Eurosceptic backbenchers: namely, a harsh Brexit, which means ‘quit and damn the consequences’. That is not leadership. That is not standing up for British interests. That is defeatism, pure and simple, and it could end up causing deep and lasting damage to the British economy and people’s lives. We must not allow this government to take such a course. We must insist on a bold, ambitious negotiating strategy, for the achievement of a sane and balanced Brexit that puts the security and potential of the British economy first, and we must hold Theresa May to account on that basis.
Test 3: Deliver protection of standards and rights.
One of the EU’s greatest successes has been securing progress in standards and rights for:
- The Environment
With these now vulnerable to the whim of government ministers, the Prime Minister must provide a clear legislative programme to ensure that all our cherished and practical standards and hard-won rights don’t go up in a bonfire of deregulation. Labour must make it clear that these safeguards are sacrosanct.
Test 4: Maintain useful co-operative frameworks.
We are members of a range of EU-based groups and agencies that are vital to our security, health and prosperity - EUROPOL, the Air Safety Agency; the Medicines Agency; the European Investment Bank, and many others. To create our own agencies would be expensive and unworkable, so the government must develop and secure associate status for the UK, across the range of these agencies.
Test 5: Deliver on promises of global trade.
Given that our relationship to the EU will change, Liam Fox must deliver on the Leave campaign’s promises of a globally-engaged Britain. This will require significant, some would say super-human, effort. The EU negotiations will prevent meaningful interactions with non-EU countries until the break is complete, Britain has long lagged behind other countries in investing in and trading with countries across the rest of the world, and recruiting hundreds of expert trade negotiators will take time and money. It will be vital to quickly see a comprehensive plan from Fox as to how his Department will help transform our international trade over the next decade.
An important part of this is trade defence. Particularly relevant to my constituency in South Wales is the question: how are we going to protect our steel industry from the deeply damaging impact of Chinese dumping, when our leverage has been so dramatically reduced by leaving the EU? There is clearly strength in numbers in deploying trade defence instruments, so how does Fox propose to defend British industry from illegal practices such as dumping, when we are no longer a member-state of the 500 million consumer EU?
Test 6: Ensure EU-funded programmes are replaced and replenished on a like-for-like basis.
As a Welsh MP I am acutely aware of the role EU-funding has played in parts of the UK dealing with the pressures of de-industrialisation and regeneration. From our agriculture to infrastructure, to R & D and vocational training, there are not many areas that have not been supported by EU programmes. So far the government has made a few vague promises about guaranteed like-for-like funding until 2020, which at most will be a year beyond our actual departure from the EU. That doesn’t begin to be enough. The Leave campaign exalted the claim that the UK’s contribution to the EU budget would be clawed back and recycled in its entirety in the event of Brexit. Now they must fulfil that promise and we must ensure they do.
In sum, first Labour must ensure that Parliament has full legislative and scrutiny powers, and second we must hold the government to account on these six tests that will determine any possibility of making a success of Brexit.
And thirdly, Labour must develop a new vision and policy platform for the post-Referendum world, to show that we can be government-in-waiting. Some may wish to re-create the world of two or three decades ago. That is not viable. Nostalgia offers no constructive means of dealing with the transformative impacts of automation, digital technology, or the rise of self-employment and the gig economy.
The referendum result was in part fuelled by resentment, rejection of the unfettered free market and the backlash against the bulldozing impact of unmanaged globalisation. It has opened up the space for fresh thinking: a twenty-first century vision for Britain, which redefines the role of the state, redesigns our economic growth model, rebuilds our fractured country, and reconstructs our place in the world.
To achieve these aims we must challenge ourselves to work from where we are now, after the referendum. We must make a mercilessly honest assessment of the challenges and opportunities and, with resolute determination, develop a programme of solutions that are practical, credible and forward-looking. Radicalism is only useful when it is rooted in reality.
Brexit is plainly the beginning of a new era for the UK. It is a huge step into the unknown. But we do know that the challenges are greater than anything faced by the UK in the last 70 years, that this government has more power to re-shape our society than any before it, that it has no specific democratic mandate for the forthcoming negotiations and no coherent strategy for securing and advancing the wellbeing of the UK.
We also know – above all – that the impact of a One-Party Brexit would be disastrous for the people that we are elected to represent. It is a fate that we can and must avoid, but we will only do so if we take concerted action to defend the sovereignty of Parliament, hold the government to account on the basis of our Brexit tests, and shape a radical, coherent and realistic vision and programme for our country.