At a recent LSE Fabian Society event, we on the panel were asked to pick an advantage of Brexit.
This was a good and important question, especially for committed Remainers. In all likelihood, we will be out of the EU in 18 months’ time. Even while many of us battle to remain in the single market — the bedrock for Labour’s future achievements — we must also prepare for a hard exit.
The best I could do to answer the question was to point to what former MP Natascha Engel once argued at Labour Party conference (Engel sadly lost her seat to the Tories in Labour’s much-overlooked Midlands Misery in June this year). She argued that there was too much of a sense that many of the things Labour stood, and had fought, for had been handed ‘upwards’ to the European Union. Too much by way of workers’ and equal rights was enforced Europewide and not ‘owned’ enough by the Labour Party in power.
But not without the protective umbrella of the EU, Labour may once again be obliged to put the battle for rights more visibly at the heart of what it talks about. Not least if the Tories continue to allow themselves to be run by their Farageiste wing. The social democratic settlement that the EU represented, particularly in the wake of the Delors speech to the TUC which marked the beginning of Social Europe, may continue across the Channel and the other side of the border in Ireland. It will fall to us to rebuild it here in the UK.
There is a quicker way, of course. And that is to back continued membership of the single market and customs union. As a Labour Party in power, to the extent we were giving thought to the future of Europe (it is clear now we were not) we would have agreed that it is right that that a common set of rights be enforced Europewide. After all, we are internationalists. And we continue to support rights for the oppressed across the world; freedom is not something solely for Europeans to enjoy.
So, the battle to restate a rights-based Labour politics should be a battle for right now, not post-March 2019, hard exit or not. It should of course be accompanied by a politics of responsibilities too, one which it is clear Labour figures like Clement Attlee would have recognised. And the importance for jobs and public services of staying in the largest trading area in the world should run through this new Labour politics as through a stick of rock.
Labour is inching its way towards such a position. When we finally get there we must be full-throated in our support for it. The Labour Party should never support something that harms jobs, the NHS and our rights. It is in our DNA and once we rediscover this it will ring true with the public — and with ourselves.