Labour must hold Tories to account for the Brexit disaster

Labour need to be clear with the public – the only reason Brexit is still here is Tory party politics.

Union Jack and European flag

The transition period may be almost over but Brexit is not going away. The scale of the economic harm coming next year, combined with damage to policing and standards for workers, the environment and food, means that Brexit will rarely be out of the news. 

Labour need to be clear with the public – the only reason Brexit is still here is Tory party politics. Their choices alone have brought us to the hardest possible Brexit and the harshest outcomes. 

Johnson’s deal will meet neither Keir’s tests nor Johnson’s own promise of a ‘great deal’. The deal put before voters last year promised an ‘ambitious’ trading relationship, with deep regulatory and customs co-operation and a level playing field for fair trade. Commitments on services, data flows, fishing and financial services equivalence have been ditched as Johnson has pushed for an ever harder Brexit. 

Brexit caused economic damage will hit the poorest households and regions hardest, whatever Johnson and Sunak say about levelling up. The Red Wall and Northern Ireland, already among the poorest regions of the UK, will suffer the greatest harm. 

The automotive industry, relatively spared in the pandemic, will face layers of red tape and fall foul of rules of origin requirements. A car manufactured in the UK but with components from abroad – essentially all automotive manufacturing – will be treated as a foreign import by the EU and taxed accordingly. 

Despite the expertise evident in the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine the pharmaceutical sector faces particular challenges. It is our third largest industry, employing 73,000 people, yet post Brexit it will struggle to sell abroad following the Tories’ decision to create a new regulatory framework. Many employers will simply move abroad.

Jobs lost will extend to suppliers and the hospitality and transport industries that support them. For regions like the West Midlands, highly dependent on the automotive industry, the South West, with its high concentration of aerospace jobs and the North East, highly dependent on tech manufacturing and pharmaceuticals, this is existential. Johnson knows all this but carries on regardless.

We have a responsibility to explain clearly to the country where blame lies for the lost jobs, businesses and industry coming our way. The Tories will seek to blame anyone but themselves – the EU, Remainers, the pandemic. It is up to us to ensure that the public understand that and direct their frustration accordingly.

By defining their party with Brexit the Tories have laid a trap for themselves. It has always been a flawed project, made worse by pushing the hardest possible form. If the public understand that their jobs and livelihoods, and the public finances, have been sacrificed for the sake of Eurosceptic dogma they will rightly be angry, and judge them accordingly. 

On this the public are ahead of us. Voters long ago decided that the decision to leave the EU was the wrong one – at last count YouGov found 51% believed it to be the wrong decision, versus 38% right. 59% believe the Government are doing a bad job of negotiations. Many Leavers have become Brexit sceptics. A Leaver in eastern England told his focus group he lost a German company as a client because of Brexit, another asked ‘Don’t you think we’ve shot ourselves in the foot?’. 

Labour should be confident that calling out Brexit impacts is the right thing to do to build a winning electoral coalition. Our voter base has been majority pro-European for decades. Last year even with our pro-referendum position we lost significant numbers of voters to the Liberal Democrats. In the local elections earlier in the year we lost many more. Without uniting our base we have no hope of success. 

Winning will mean reaching out beyond our base. Some argue that our Brexit position cost us the Red Wall last December but the evidence does not support this view – the number one reason among voters for not voting Labour was our leadership. As pollster Chris Curtis makes clear, any position other than backing a second referendum would have had a worse outcome. We should recognise too the marked difference between Tory and Labour Leave voters – the former motivated to vote Tory primarily by Brexit, the latter by domestic promises on nurses, hospitals and police numbers, ground where Labour can compete. 

We are already entering the largest downgrade in the public finances since the Second World War. The UK economy will contract close to 11 per cent in 2020, the worst annual performance for more than 300 years. Whatever deal Johnson returns with will layer long-term damage on top of the lasting hangover of the pandemic. Adding this further economic damage to an already weakened economy is simply irresponsible – and Labour should say so. 

If Johnson gets a deal and puts it to a vote he will be praying for Labour to vote for it, sharing responsibility for the harm to come. Labour should refuse to vote for a deal that is bad for the people of Britain and explain its negatives to the country. Doing so will give Labour the space to criticise Johnson’s negotiating failure and ensure that the Tories own the political damage next year and beyond.

Mike Buckley is the director of Labour for a European Future. Sam Alvis is a senior advisor of the Tony Blair Institute and has worked for Labour.

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