A new essay collection explores how progressives should respond
‘The Labour party could have hardly handled the referendum result worse.’
That’s the springboard for an edited collection of essays published today by the Fabian Society, presenting a range of Labour MPs’ plans and ideas for Britain after Brexit.
It’s difficult to fault this initial criticism, offered by Fabian research director Olivia Bailey in her introduction to the collection. Three months on from the result, Labour still lacks any clear, workable Brexit policy.
Instead, the party is torn between Owen Smith’s ‘wrong-headed calls for a re-run of the vote’ and Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘impetuous declarations about immediately triggering article 50’.
Indeed, the racket of the leadership contest has drowned out a key message of the referendum result — that the divide between Labour’s MPs and members, and its core voters, is wider and deeper than anyone had quite realised. As pollster James Morris puts it in his contribution:
“The left must now accept that immigration is a real issue, that patriotism is popular, that people want control of their lives and that the media matters more than delivering flyers”
Several MPs respond to this challenge with varying levels of policy detail.
Rachel Reeves puts it most bluntly, echoing the government line that ‘immigration controls and ending free movement has to be a red line post-Brexit — otherwise we will be holding voters in contempt.’ She calls for the UK to win ‘the greatest possible access that we can get to the single market without free movement.’
Stephen Kinnock makes a gentler case for immigration reform, resisting the idea that immigration is, in itself, a left-wing value.
“The referendum had a clear message: the limitless nature of freedom of movement, despite its proven economic benefits, is not socially and politically sustainable. Much of this is down to government’s failure to create an economic, social and political environment that could make it so. However, opposing freedom of movement isn’t the same as opposing immigration.
The managed immigration approach I am proposing is rooted in left wing values and anchored in the reality of post-referendum Britain. It will allow us to build an open and non-racist society, and will help rebuild Labour’s electoral coalition, staying true to the values and pragmatism that have been the basis of our historic successes and support. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself.”
Others, including Angela Eagle and Gisela Stuart, demand that Brexit be treated as an opportunity rather than a challenge. For Eagle, it’s a spur towards a dramatic rethink of democratic socialism in the UK and around Europe, towards a new political economy that can revive the communities left behind by globalisation.
“We need nothing less than a Marshall Plan for working class communities.”
Stuart, the leading voice of Labour Leave, says that a ‘kaleidoscope has been shaken, and when the pieces fall into place, we [Labour] had better make sure we emerge as a political force.’
Her approach is more outward looking than Eagle’s, calling on Britain to become ‘an actor on the international stage, not just a commentator’ and on the Labour Party to adopt a more pro-active foreign policy.
“We now need to return to a willingness to engage, act and when necessary intervene. The decision to go to war in Iraq and the subsequent developments must not stop us from articulating new principles – albeit ones shaped by the errors made over Iraq. What would today’s Labour party have said if faced with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda or the conflict in Kosovo? Would we be able to even begin to articulate a policy that could set out a series of actions that could save lives?”
Elsewhere, the more common Labour lines are repeated and explored. Chuka Umunna demands that leave campaigners be held to account for their ‘cynical and mendacious’ campaign, Ruth Davis calls for the EU’s environmental legacy to be protected and exceeded, Iain Wright demands continued protection for workers’ rights, and David Hanson stipulates that security cooperation with the EU must continue.
There is much agreement between contributors but while many of these ideas are complementary, others are mutually exclusive. Like the Conservatives, Labour will struggle to forge party unity on whatever deal is proposed or agreed to.
But the inevitably of disagreement isn’t a reason to shy away from important issues and, in the arid landscape of post-Brexit Labour Party discourse, this collection is a much-needed well of ideas, which will hopefully kick-start an overdue debate.
Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on TwitterSign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.