Labour’s dilemma is that Brexit isn’t about economics – it’s about democracy

As the leadership prepares to budge on Brexit, any change must deal with the big questions of identity and our constitution.

Labour party policy may be about to shift in a big way on Brexit. But will it be grounded in the right reasons? 

Jeremy Corbyn recently hosted a summit with senior shadow cabinet colleagues to weigh up a potentially major change in its Brexit policy.

As reported here, the impetus behind the consultation is to see off a rebellion by dozens of Labour MP’s who seek permanent membership of the customs union and Single Market. Their position is strengthened by an an Opinium poll for the Observer, which found that Labour supporters now back permanent membership of the single market and customs.

Then followed fresh documents by Whitehall officials, highlighting the steep economic cost of leaving. All of this can only lend force to a proposed policy u-turn.

The obvious conundrum for Labour is this: how does the party respond to changed public opinion, particularly among its own supporters, without betraying its core working class members, a substantial proportion of whom backed Brexit?

But there’s a deeper question of democracy and identity: how does Labour avoid undermining its credibility as ‘the party for democracy’ if a policy u-turn is seen as a rejection of the referendum vote? 

Lied to and misled by both sides, the vote was nevertheless a landmark exercise in direct democracy which pitched popular sovereignty against the will of Parliament – most of whose members voted to remain.

As much as anything, the referendum result was a vote against the political status quo – a  Westminster establishment that appeared no less remote from the lives of ordinary people as an unaccountable Brussels bureaucracy.

This is why Labour’s rethink about Brexit must look at the wider context. Brexit is about power, identity and belonging – not just about our relationship with the EU.

Policy calculations cannot be narrowed to an accounting exercise on jobs and trade. Merely restoring the status quo when Brexit was a vote against the status quo could backfire badly if issues of a failing democracy, a sense of powerlessness, loss of identity and enduring regional inequalities  are not addressed.

To do this, Labour must move on all fronts and embark on the no less vital enterprise of initiating a new democratic settlement between people and government. Local people and communities must be allowed to ‘take control’ and shape their own future.

In practice that means profound constitutional reform which delimits the power of parliament and places local government on an independent footing – beyond the meddlesome reach of central government.

The devolution settlement must also be secured, and proportional representation introduced to replace our present broken election system, so that people can genuinely feel – as they did with the referendum vote – that every vote counts and no vote is wasted.  These are major steps but by no means a complete list.

None of this can be achieved without the protective framework of a new written constitution. The obscure workings of our present archaic unwritten constitution – with its royal prerogatives, reserve powers and unelected Lords – provide easy cover for an over-powerful executive to dominate the legislative process on behalf of narrow vested interests.

Labour must live up to its claim to be  the party of democracy. Let it begin the task of re-invigorating our democracy and bringing about a written constitution – one that transfers real power from the centre to the regions and nations of the UK, allowing local people and communities to make their own decisions and shape their own future.

By restoring a sense of agency and connection to others, constitutional reform will do much to lance the boil of a polarised politics and increasing extremism that draws strength from the sense of alienation and disempowerment that so many feel.

Nothing less than this can assuage the growing resentment and rancour that millions feel about a broken politics.

Whatever direction Labour’s Brexit policy takes next – it must be rooted in this: democracy.

Gavin Barker is a writer and campaigner based in Cornwall.

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10 Responses to “Labour’s dilemma is that Brexit isn’t about economics – it’s about democracy”

  1. Brian M. Leahy

    Gavin Barker wrote, “As reported here, the impetus behind the consultation is to see off a rebellion by dozens of Labour MP’s who seek permanent membership of the customs union and Single Market. Their position is strengthened by an an Opinium poll for the Observer, which found that Labour supporters now back permanent membership of the single market and customs.”
    The political reasoning that persuaded me to vote Brexit have not changed and neither can the utterly undemocratic nature of the Common Market. Quite frankly the utterances of the Blairite rump and the hysterical support from the Observer/Guardianfor remaining merely reinforces my Brexit opinion

  2. Richard Stevens

    Good stuff!! But it can be done best within the context of the EU and staying in Europe. That will give us the stability needed to make such radical changes.

  3. john shale

    In the referendum 37% voted to escape the EU, 35% voted to stay with Project Fear and 28% didn’t vote.
    The debate at the time was clearly for a Hard Brexit. Ever since, the majority of MP’s have been fighting this vote, claiming that in a second referendum, the vote would be to remain.
    This is correct, because most Brexiters would give up in disgust, especially Labour voters.
    In the GE15, Labour refused to allow a referendum, if they were elected… they weren’t.
    Labour attracted voters back under Corbyn, who promised to support Brexit.
    Since then we’ve been told that referenda are merely “advisory” and could be ignored by MP’s.
    Many members of the PLP, notably Chuka, have made it clear that they reject the notion of voters having any say, unless they agree to Remain.
    Why bother to vote, if it has already been made clear that those voting to leave will be ignored?
    Why bother to vote Labour, at all, when many of the policies in the Manifesto will be over-ruled, or weakened if we stay in the EU.
    Many Labour MP’s need to realise that no-one believes them anymore and the only votes they’ll get are the “anything but Tory” votes. If it looks like Corbyn will yield to the careerists and effectively keep us in the EU, I, for one, will find it very hard to vote Labour.

  4. Jim Lockie

    Very difficult political problem. Our muddled constitution is clear; The people elect Parliament. Parliament (or the Queen in Parliament!!) is supreme. Referendums are advisory. The June 2016 vote was very, very close. All the facts were not available. People on both sides lied.
    It simply is not true that staying in the EU would stop Labour carrying out a Corbyn manifesto. Look at Poland or Hungary. This is the most important political decision for the UK since the second world war. Labour should NOT be supporting the Tories into dangerous isolation, reduced wealth for our people, lower food, environmental standards and workers rights, a lower tax take that will scupper our redistributive plans. And YES we want greater devolution to Nations, Regions and local communities.

  5. Martyn Wood-Bevan

    I SO DISAGREE!!!! The EU would make it IMPOSSIBLE!

Comments are closed.