Should the UK left be optimistic about our future outside the EU?
Did membership of the EU help British people find work or undermine our political system? Two people from opposite sides of the Brexit divide discuss
No – Alison McGovern
The process of Brexit has always been about a series of choices. But in the coming year the hardest choices are not those being faced by politicians but those that confront our constituents. Let me explain.
This is a true story. It happened in my constituency in December. I am sitting in the back of a minicab and the taxi driver is telling me about his friend who has already taken the redundancy money. The cash doesn’t sound like a lot to me, but then what would anyone do, faced with this choice? Everybody who chooses to go saves another person from having to walk. And if enough people choose to go, we might keep the factory open. This was Brexit in 2017.
Who would be a car worker in 2018, with Tory Brexit on the cards? And it’s not just the manufacturers. Who would be the person who cuts hair in the car factory town? Who would be the person who runs the sandwich shop? Those of us who grew up in factory towns know this much: close down the factory and there is not much town for all of us in the end.
Unemployment, Harold Wilson said, above all else made him political. And anyone who has ever known mass redundancies in a town dominated by one employer knows exactly why. It is for this reason that Labour’s view on Brexit is not merely a minor question of political positioning, not just one issue on the political spectrum. A party founded to protect jobs, rights and standards of living across this country cannot be neutral when all of those are put at risk by our opponents.
Labour’s political priority, therefore, must be the economic health of those areas of Britain that have most to lose from Brexit. And as Philip McCann, an economist at Sheffield University has shown, it is not London and the south-east that we should be worried about, where trade is already global. It is the industrial areas, like the north of England, where trade is European.
This means Labour simply has to focus on what keeps this trade working: having a border that goods can cross with zero bureaucracy, and having rules and regulations that allow us to be part of the EU single market. Dress it up how you want, but that means membership of the single market and customs union. It is what keeps my constituents in their jobs, and it is what Labour must fight for in 2018.
And we should go a step further. Democracy did not come to an end in June 2016. We have had a general election since then, and the public failed to back Theresa May’s version of Brexit. Who knows where we might be if another election came along? If the British public decides the cost of Brexit is too high, and the benefits too cheap, then no options should be ruled out that could save jobs or stop austerity.
Across the country, people are already making the hardest of choices because of Brexit. In 2018, it is time for their representatives to step up and choose a better path for our country.
Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South
Yes – Jonathan Rutherford
We voted to leave the EU to safeguard our democracy and sovereignty. Hardcore remainers predict disaster. Diehard Brexiters promise a golden future. Brexit will be neither.
Membership of the EU underpinned mainstream politics. Brexit has shattered its centre ground and the extremes now dominate. Hard-right Tory Brexiters fantasise about a British version of Singapore. Labour’s hard left wants state socialism in one country. Both offer unaccountable concentrations of power, either in the market or in the state. The British public know it, and trust neither.
Brexit happened because Britain failed to put right our deficiencies. Our governing class has lost its meaning and purpose and looks incapable of achieving a successful Brexit.
Success has two mutually necessary requirements. First, our future relationship with the EU must be based on reciprocity. There is a mutual interest among British and EU companies in avoiding barriers to trade. We must achieve an optimal balance between our democracy and sovereignty, and economic integration.
The more economic integration Britain seeks, the greater will be the judicial integration. Neither the European Court of Justice nor British courts can be the sole arbiter of disputes in a new relationship. The practice of reciprocity can enable a mutual pooling of interests and sovereignty in a new judicial body to provide arbitration. Where it proves insufficient, a political process can be agreed.
The second requirement is that Britain embarks on a new economic and political settlement to heal our divisions. The government needs to redress the power of capital and put working people and wages first. England needs genuine devolution of political and economic power to spread prosperity and opportunity to its towns and counties. And we need a new geopolitical strategy for Britain’s defence and our role in the world.
There needs to be a political response to the coalition of counties, towns and the working classes of England who have taken Britain out of the EU. The English are both radical and conservative. Our fondest institutions are the NHS and the monarchy. We value modernity and our traditions. We are open to the world, but we want strong borders. We value cultural differences but we want a common life that defines who we are. Which political party speaks for this England?
It should be Labour. This should be its historic moment, as it was in 1945 when it recognised that the Labour interest was the national interest. It laid the foundations of Britain’s postwar settlement at home and its role in the new international order.
But Labour today is in danger of becoming the party of the cities and the liberal middle classes. To be the party of the national interest, Labour must build a broad coalition by marrying together the economic interests of its supporters in a politics of belonging.
Labour can build this coalition and so begin restoring Britain’s standing in the world. Or it can listen to its sectarian ideologues and fulfil the predictions of the declinists. The future of the country is in our hands.
Jonathan Rutherford is a writer and part of the Blue Labour movement