The result of the European Union referendum was devastating for everyone who passionately believes that Britain is stronger, safer and better off as part of the EU. I know that the vast majority of us in the Labour family feel deeply disappointed. But we should be proud that we fought the good fight in making a principled and distinctively Labour case for Britain’s place in Europe.
But the people have spoken and it is up to us to make the best we can of the situation.
So what now? Can Labour contribute to the debate and ensure that all our communities benefit from what follows? Notwithstanding the difficulties the leadership situation has imposed, the answer is undoubtedly yes. Labour’s post-referendum strategy needs to be based on two related pillars, which allow us to stay true to our internationalist and pro-European convictions; do what is best for Britain; and take the fight to the Tory government.
First, we must hold the Tory ‘Leavers’ who dominate the new government to account, never allowing them to escape from the blithe claims and impossible promises they made during the campaign. And we must put forward a positive, progressive, Labour vision for our new relationship with Europe.
What were the main policy commitments of the ‘Leave’ campaign? Spending an extra £350m a week on the NHS – the big red lie on the big red bus – was of course the most high-profile one. But there were others. Boris Johnson’s promise that leaving would create 300,000 new jobs through trade deals. Free trade agreements with the EU and with third countries like the United States. Maintaining the EU funding currently received by British farmers and universities. No change in status for EU migrants currently living in Britain, and no hard border with the Republic of Ireland. Scrapping VAT on household energy bills, increasing junior doctors’ pay, and expanding primary school places.
In fact, on immigration they sought to cynically ride both horses at once. To the public at large they said they wanted to cut the numbers; at the same time they insinuated to Britain’s ethnic minority and diaspora communities that they wanted to massively increase Commonwealth immigration if only they did not have to allow EU citizens to come to Britain. This, of course, was not true.
In the eight short weeks since the vote to leave, we have ample evidence to show how hollow these pledges were. Almost the minute the result was known, Chris Grayling called the £350m pledge an ‘aspiration’, rather than a promise. Member of the European parliament Daniel Hannan said there would not be a ‘radical decline’ in immigration. And EU migrants remain betrayed by a Tory government which will still not guarantee their continued right to live in the United Kingdom.
But it is on the economy that Vote Leave’s promises have been most spectacularly broken. The Bank of England’s unprecedented cut in interest rates was, as they said themselves, a response to the damage to the economy caused by the Brexit vote. They forecast a collapse in the growth rate, and higher unemployment and inflation. The pound has fallen to its lowest level in 30 years. Most surveys of both consumer and business confidence have found falls sharper than at any time since the Great Recession. The signs all point to a downturn that will make working people worse off.
Labour has the opportunity to pin these broken promises on the government. Theresa May’s cabinet consists of people who misled the public and have taken the economy into the mire. Johnson, Andrea Leadsom, David Davis, Liam Fox, Priti Patel – these are the guilty men and women of British politics. We must be ruthless in making clear their responsibility for the trouble the nation finds itself in – which is what our new campaign, Vote Leave Watch, is doing.
What about the second pillar – Labour’s plan for Britain’s new relationship with Europe? As progressives, we should unite quickly behind two vital principles.
First, EU citizens who already live in Britain and contribute to our national life must be told explicitly that they will have the right to remain here. People are not bargaining chips, and using them as such is against the best traditions of our party and our country.
Second, we must try to maintain as many of the advantages of EU membership as possible. Workers need the protections that are currently guaranteed by EU law to stay in place, not be cut back by the Tories. Businesses need full access to the EU’s single market, the destination of almost half our exports. To keep us safe on our streets, we must continue to cooperate as closely as possible with EU countries on counterterrorism and data-sharing. For the sake of students and universities alike, we must opt into the Erasmus and Horizon 2020 schemes. And we must fight any attempt by the Tories to water down EU environmental legislation.
Ignore the protestations of rightwing ‘Leave’ backers that the only way to respect the will of the people is to carry out a destructive ‘hard Brexit’. A deal that both carries out the will of the 52 per cent while assuaging the disappointment of the 48 per cent will be the best outcome for Britain. Whatever divisions there have been in our party following Brexit, this should be something around which all in the Labour family can unite and fight for now.
Only Labour can now speak for Britain on this issue. The Conservative party ripped itself apart during the referendum, and, while the wounds may have been bandaged, they have not healed. A large faction within the Tory party and the current cabinet are responsible for a DIY downturn that will cut jobs, hammer growth, and see prices rise. By opposing this incompetent government, and putting forward a positive agenda for Britain’s relationship with Europe, Labour can move on from the disappointment of the referendum result with an optimistic vision for our future.
This article originally appeared in Progress magazine