Labour can unite on Europe — but centrists must be open to debate
‘Not since I became politically active four decades ago, has clarity of thinking been in such urgent demand or such short supply,’ Tony Blair writes in this week’s New European, before calling for a continuation of the debate on Britain’s relationship with the EU.
His core argument is not, as the right-wing media suggests, that a new referendum should be called in order to overrule the first, but rather that the first referendum should not be seen as the end of the conversation.
“The British people ‘have spoken’ we are reminded. That is true but no reason for us now to shut up and go along with whatever version of Brexit we end up negotiation, good or bad. We can carry on speaking and debating. That is democracy.”
On that much, it’s difficult to take issue with Blair’s argument. However, there are questions about what kind of debate he is endorsing, and among whom.
In particular, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s resounding re-election as Labour leader, Blair remains disdainful of what he calls ‘the Hard Left Labour Party’ — implicitly rejecting the idea that Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters can make a valuable contribution to the Brexit debate.
There are two major problems with this.
Firstly, Blair affiliates ‘the Hard Left Labour Party’ with ‘the Hard Brexit Tory Party’, claiming that ‘the centre is being pushed to the margins by a virulent populism of left and right.’
By identifying the two with each other, Blair falls into same trap as his opponents to the left — failing to recognise that whatever the fractures within Labour, all of its constituent part are better than the Tory right flank.
This plays out on both sides. Corbyn supporters must recognise that despite its faults, Blair’s administration was vastly better than the Tory ones that preceded and succeeded it. But in turn, Blair must recognise that pro-Corbyn members of the party are not comparable to the hard right ideologues currently driving through a hard Brexit.
This week, for example, Corbyn opened his remarks at PMQs by welcoming child refugees from Calais to the UK.
‘They are obviously deeply traumatised young people,’ he said, ‘and we should welcome, love and support them in the best way that we possibly can.’
Whatever your view on Corbyn’s economic policies, his agenda for Labour or his electoral prospects, statements like these demonstrate that his approach cannot be affiliated with that of the Tory right, which have done everything it can to seal Britain’s borders against refugees and, in recent weeks, has cynically fomented distrust of those few children who have arrived.
As Labour attempts to reunify, its former leader must not shun the effort to find common ground and common purpose. And on Europe, there is a great deal of common ground, which brings us to the second problem with Blair’s perspective.
We know that the overwhelming majority of Labour members and affiliated supporters, including Corbyn supporters, voted Remain.
Indeed, Corbyn’s ambivalence towards the EU did not only frustrate his parliamentary colleagues, but also many of his young, urban, pro-European supporters. It was the first major issue on which Corbyn fell out of step with the Corbynistas.
This offers an avenue for cooperation across Labour, for a squarely left-wing debate about how to proceed following the vote to leave. But Blair’s dismissal of all those pro-European Corbyn voters as the ‘virulent’ hard left, and his insistence that the answers to this crisis must come from the centre, can only exacerbate tensions and prevent open dialogue.
As an example, Blair could look to Keir Starmer, whom he praises in his article. While the meta-debate about what Brexit means rages on, Starmer is getting on with the job, holding the government account, and attempting to represent the totality of Labour’s divided party and voters.
That is a near-impossible task. From the disenchanted, anti-immigration Leave voters in the north of England, to the vehement Remain voters in the north of London, Labour cannot appease all its supporters.
Nor can it currently bridge the gap between MPs, like John McDonnell, who believe the party should focus on building a ‘people’s Brexit’, or others, like Owen Smith, who believe the party should pursue a second referendum.
Only a vigorous debate, in which all sides recognise the legitimacy of the others, can bring about any kind of consensus.
‘I am Labour, I will remain Labour,’ Blair told the BBC this morning. He must uphold that statement by working with, not railing against, those in his party that disagree with him.
Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.