Despite the disappointment many of us feel after the vote to leave the European Union back in June, there is a path forward for the progressive left. We must hold the Conservative leave campaigners to account for the impossible promises they made during the referendum campaign, while pushing for a progressive Brexit deal with the EU.
First, it is important to say that our party must accept and respect the decision made by 17 million leave voters. But the form Brexit takes is up to parliament. Our party must play a full role in shaping it. And the deal that emerges must take into account the wishes of the 48 per cent as well as the 52 per cent.
Accepting the result does not mean accepting the way in which it was achieved. There is no getting away from the fact that Vote Leave ran a cynical and mendacious political campaign. It was a victory achieved on the back of myths, simple lies, and impossible promises. We must not stop calling them out for it.
So what were the Vote Leave promises made during the campaign? One everybody remembers – that exiting the European Union will mean £350 million a week extra being spent on the NHS. Many other pledges were aimed very specifically at Labour voters, such as spending more on reducing primary school class sizes, scrapping VAT on household energy bills, and increasing junior doctors’ pay. On immigration, the promise of an Australian-style points-based system was doubtless attractive. Aside from this, Boris Johnson promised 300,000 new jobs as a result of post-Brexit free trade deals. And they made reassuring noises that nothing would change in certain areas – for example, that the common travel area with the Republic of Ireland would be maintained, or that EU migrants currently resident in Britain would have the right to remain.
Apart from these promises, they furiously denied that leaving the EU, our biggest trading partner and source of inward investment, would have any negative impact on the economy. Institutions and experts that warned of lower growth, higher prices and greater unemployment were damned by the leave campaign for “scaremongering”, “talking Britain down”, and indulging in “Project Fear.” Even the widely-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies was said to be untrustworthy, as it had in the past done work for the European institutions.
In the weeks since the referendum, these promises have been shown to have been hollow. On most of them, nothing more has been heard. On £350 million a week for the NHS, leavers began backtracking on their commitment almost as soon as the result was known. It was not a promise, merely “an aspiration”, Chris Grayling said the day after the referendum.
On the economy, Vote Leave’s dishonesty is plain for all to see. The value of the pound has plummeted to its lowest level since the 1980s. The Bank of England is forecasting lower growth, higher inflation, and more unemployment. Surveys of businesses and consumer confidence have fallen to levels last seen during the great recession of 2008/09. “Project Fear” is starting to look a lot like Project Fact.
The opportunity for Labour is to make clear to the British people that it is the government which is responsible for this calamity. Theresa May has said “Brexit means Brexit” and put the three Brexiteers – Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – in charge of making it work. Andrea Leadsom and George Eustice, who promised during the campaign that the UK government would match the funding British farmers currently get from the EU, are now responsible for agriculture as ministers at DEFRA. Priti Patel, who talked of how Brexit would boost Britain’s partners in the developing world, is at International Development. A government that has created a DIY downturn, and is stuffed with people who made promises to the British people they cannot keep. That is a potent line of attack for Labour and the left.
Our focus should not be wholly negative, of course. We have a responsibility to campaign passionately for the best Brexit deal we can get; a deal that maintains as many of the advantages of our EU membership as possible. This means continued, full access to the single market; retaining vital EU legislation protecting our environment and working peoples’ rights; and close co-operation on counter-terrorism. It also means guaranteeing the right of EU residents in Britain to remain here. That the government has not definitively done so is a disgrace. People are not bargaining chips.
We must not stop from holding the leavers in government to account, and pushing our vision of a positive future relationship with Europe. That way, we can heal the wounds that have been created by the referendum, and deliver as positive a future for Britain as possible.
This piece originally appeared in the Fabian Society pamphlet "Facing the unknown: Building a progressive response to Brexit".