I backed a People’s Vote, but Labour must accept the Brexit debate is over

Labour needs to show it has moved on from the Brexit debate ahead of the vote on Johnson's deal, writes Omar Salem.

Brexit is a historic mistake. The Brexit trade deal is terrible. Yet Brexit has happened and the trade deal is a certainty. The big question is what comes next. It is for good reason that Scrooge said he most feared the ghost of Christmas future.

For the Tories, the Brexit trade deal is likely to be the limit of our cooperation with the EU. Domestically, the Prime Minister says that he now wants to focus on his “levelling up” agenda, which will be anything but.

Keir Starmer and the shadow cabinet have decided that Labour MPs will be whipped to vote for the deal. There are reasonable arguments that can be made for voting for the deal, abstaining or voting against it.

Changed minds

My initial view was that Labour should abstain so that we could not be said to be trying to facilitate a no-deal Brexit but also make clear that we thought the deal was bad. Yet, abstaining can be criticised on the basis that it looks like Labour cannot make up its mind.

Voting against would make clear that Labour opposes the deal, but it can also be construed as irresponsible support for a no-deal Brexit. Those who advocate Labour voting against the deal argue that there is no chance of this resulting in a no-deal Brexit. That raises the question: why vote the opposite way to how you’d vote if it made a difference?

While many of the those advocating that Labour vote against the deal argue that this is the internationalist position, it is difficult to square this when the deal is supported by every EU member state and the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament.

Voting for the deal could be characterised as the responsible thing to do when the realistic alternative is no-deal. It also would show that Labour was not still trying to block Brexit despite the general election result.

No easy choice

Some will argue that Labour will be held responsible for a poor deal that will unravel rapidly. In the words of the Another Europe is Possible and Labour for a Socialist Europe statement urging Labour MPs not to support the deal, voting for it would be falling “into the trap of rallying around this rotten deal.”

So the question of how Labour should vote is complicated and not clear-cut. However, it is a much less important question than what alternative Labour should put forward for our relationship with the EU and for the type of society we live in. Rather than wrangling over how Labour votes tomorrow, efforts would be better spent spelling out how a Labour government would cooperate with the EU and build a more equal and inclusive society.

The position that Labour should take in future on the UK’s relationship with the EU is a difficult one. Some will want Labour to campaign for the UK to re-join, although this currently seems like a distant possibility. Others will advocate for a Norway type arrangement. Still others will want something in between a Norway arrangement and current deal. All this will also depend on the appetite within the EU for a future renegotiation of the deal.

A new vision

Regardless of the precise position Labour takes, it needs to develop proposals for deeper and broader cooperation with the EU, covering, at a minimum, areas such as greater provision of cross-border services between the UK and EU, cooperation on security such the European Arrest Warrant and participation in Erasmus. We also need to put in much better and more accessible protections for EU citizens resident in the UK. The new status quo created by the Brexit deal should not be permanent.

Domestically, Labour needs to set out a clear stall against Tory efforts to deregulate, whether in relation to consumer rights, environmental protections or workers’ rights. The deal requires both sides not to lower the overall level of labour and environmental protections in a way that impacts trade or investment.

This means that the UK could deregulate in these areas so long as this does not impact trade and investment. The deal also provides limited protections for consumer rights in the UK, much of which derive from EU law.

Labour should be arguing not just against deregulation but for increased consumer, environmental and labour protections. Labour should throw down the gauntlet to Boris Johnson and challenge him to put in place Labour’s policies that would actually level up, whether on labour rights, building social housing, progressive taxation or a benefits system that supports people rather than mistreating them.

The battles over Brexit and the Brexit deal have been lost. The question is what Labour does now. As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, quoting TS Eliot, “what we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning.” Labour needs to stop worrying about the end and start worrying about its new beginning.

Omar Salem is a member of the Open Labour National Committee. He writes in a personal capacity.

UPDATE: The initial headline from LFF implied Omar Salem believed Labour should back the Brexit deal. This wasn’t the case and has been amended.

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