We need to ensure that Labour understands the socialist arguments against the EU if it is to negotiate any new deal credibly, argues LAURA SMITH MP
When all the dust has settled, most expect Labour’s Brexit policy will end up as a commitment to negotiate an alternative deal with the EU and to then put that deal to the public in a “confirmatory vote” with Remain on the ballot paper.
This is an extraordinary shift. Only two years ago, we mobilised to fight a general election, promising to respect the referendum without even committing to a transition period, let alone membership of the single market or a customs union.
Yet, despite this shift, Jeremy stands accused of “betraying Remainers.” Sadly, our political discourse is in the grip of a culture war where anything Brexit-related is framed in this increasingly polarised way.
Labour MPs who suggest that we ought to leave the EU are accused of acting out of self-interest, of pandering to xenophobes simply to keep their seats. It often feels as though left-wing Euroscepticism has been scrubbed from our history.
The labour movement is certainly a long way from the 1970s, when most of the opposition to Britain’s EU membership came from Labour politicians and trade unionists. But there is a powerful left critique that needs to be heard, perhaps more urgently than ever before.
Even as recently as 2013, there was a “Labour for a Referendum” campaign group. In 2015, after the Tories unexpectedly won an outright majority with a promise to hold a referendum, Owen Jones was calling on the left for Britain’s EU withdrawal to be put on the agenda.
By this time, Labour had opted to support the government’s Referendum Bill and, soon after, a left-wing Eurosceptic and lifelong socialist would be elected as leader of the party.
Even Paul Mason admitted that the left-wing case for Brexit is strategic and clear, highlighting how the treaties lock in austerity and neoliberal policies.
Despite supporting Remain for other reasons, his 2016 article conceded that the EU provided the most hospitable ecosystem in the developed world for tax-dodging elites. The EU, he says, “is not — and cannot become — a democracy.”
Then came that historic vote. Leave won by a small margin but with the support of around a third of Labour voters. Significantly, the three lowest-ranking socio-economic groups are believed to have voted Leave by a majority of two-thirds.
If that result was anything, it was a resounding demand for change by those who benefited the least from our economic status quo.
Labour then voted to trigger Article 50 without a deal in sight.
All of this happened before I even set foot in Westminster, having promised voters that I would respect the referendum. To this day, I believe it is vital that the Labour Party has a serious offer for those who wish to leave the EU at the next election.
That general election campaign should focus on building a new Britain, one with full employment, a real living wage and advanced workers’ rights. Public ownership and progressive taxation would be just a couple of tools used to distribute both wealth and power fairly.
New technology would be embraced for the common good. High-wage, high-productivity jobs would be made available in transformed workplaces where a four-day week and true industrial democracy had become the norm. Full collective bargaining coverage would ensure that no workplace or community was left behind.
The renewal of our democracy at every level, with meaningful devolution through radical federalism, would make our government both more responsive and more accountable to the people. Well-funded public services would be run in the public interest and not for profit.
Racism and fascism would be decimated, not least by stamping out the conditions in which they thrive. This new Britain would not follow the US blindly on imperialist crusades in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world.
I am certain that this vision would have the support of the Labour Party membership and the vast majority of the public, too.
In a Westminster Hall debate last year, I set out the reasons why I believe we must leave the EU to realise this vision. Many others believe that “Remain and reform” is the route we should take.
Despite this difference, we can all agree with what Jeremy said in his Coventry speech: “We cannot be held back, inside or outside the EU, from taking the steps we need to support cutting-edge industries and local business, stop the tide of privatisation and outsourcing or from preventing employers being able to import cheap agency labour to undercut existing pay and conditions.”
In that same speech, he rightly pledged to “negotiate protections, clarifications or exemptions in relation to privatisation and public service competition directives, state aid and procurement rules and the posted workers directive.”
The Labour Party might feel it needs a second vote to settle the debate over whether membership of the EU helps or hinders (or even prevents) this vision being realised.
If this is the case, it is vitally important that Labour’s negotiating team is made up of people who understand the arguments that have long been made by left-wing Eurosceptics.
Perhaps even more importantly, that team should consist of people who are committed to campaigning to leave the EU in any subsequent public vote.
This is a defining moment for the Labour Party. We owe it to all those whose lives would be transformed by a radical socialist programme to get this right.
Laura Smith is the MP for Crewe and Nantwich.