All Brexits are bad but what about Labour’s Brexit?

Wherever I appear at present, I find the same questions being asked of me: why is the Labour Party not opposing Brexit more forcefully? Why is Labour not attempting to stop Brexit?

It is worth observing that the questions are usually asked in such a way - and often through social media posts - that it is hard not to conclude that they are part of a Liberal Democrat strategy for the local elections that take place on 3 May. Soundbites of this sort are designed to filter out to potential supporters and those who agree with the proposition. Of course not everyone asking the question is a card-carrying Lib Dem supporter, but the fact remains that the General Election squeezed the Liberal Democrat vote, already at a low after the 2015 election, and although there are signs of a patchy recovery in by-elections it is a very long road back. Under the circumstances it is not surprising that the straw they have clutched at is Labour’s position on Brexit - after all, Labour is where the bulk of their remain supporting vote went.

So what really is Labour’s position?

In marked contrast to the Conservative Prime Minister, who has backed herself into a corner at every turn, Labour has never closed off options. The fact of a ‘leave’ majority in many Labour constituencies, the fact of a leave majority in most regions and the fact of a leave majority in the UK as a whole is a backdrop that it is simply not possible for Labour, as a party, to ignore. It was, therefore, important that Labour recognise the need for the UK Government to enter negotiations with the EU27 over the UK’s future relationship with the EU. And even though MPs are representatives, not delegates, it is also perfectly reasonable for Labour MPs at Westminster to seek to represent the views of their constituents if that is their judgement. The test is what those negotiations produce and whether or not the promises made to voters by those campaigning at the referendum can be met.

To measure that, Keir Starmer (pictured above with myself) who leads for Labour on Brexit, has put in place six tests against which any final deal should be measured and, should they not be met, commit Labour to voting against the final deal. They will ask of the deal:

  • 1. Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?
  • 2. Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?
  • 3. Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?
  • 4. Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?
  • 5. Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?
  • 6. Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?

Will these tests be met?

In my view it is already clear that these commitments will not be met. It is already clear that Brexit will cost jobs, remove rights, fail to deliver ‘the exact same benefits’ and, crucially, will fail to manage migration in anything like the way that many of those who voted leave will expect. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are very unlikely to have their particular needs addressed. Brexit will not deliver for working people and least of all for the least well off.

So what is my position?

It is clear to me that Labour must bear in mind the welfare of the country and the views of its own voters when considering its votes on a final deal. All of the serious evidence shows that the great bulk, as many as 70% of Labour voters, voted to stay in the EU. That represents a majority of the Labour vote in almost all constituencies - including those with an ‘out’ majority. The overwhelming bulk of Labour members are pro-EU and Labour’s ‘new voters’ that brought landslide victories in Bristol West and Oxford East and pulled off shocks in Portsmouth South and, for goodness sake, Canterbury are overwhelmingly pro-European. So voting against the final deal is not just the right thing for Labour to do, it is keeping faith with its voters and makes electoral sense.

My personal position in all this is simple. I and my predecessor were selected and elected on a pro-EU manifesto. I represent constituents in a region where the referendum vote reflected the very close national result but where six of the ten MEPs are anti-EU. The other four MEPs including myself are pro-EU and I see it as part of my role to represent Labour voters and those other pro-EU voters in South East England who would otherwise be ignored. Also, my support for Britain’s place in the EU, which I regard first and foremost as a means of maintaining peace in Europe, is a matter of principle. Simple as that.

However, I am also pragmatic, and there is nothing in my position that prevents me working to limit the damage that Brexit will cause. If Britain does finally leave, I want to see the closest possible relationship with the EU that protects our economy, the rights of our people and the dreams of our young people. All Brexits are bad but some Brexits are undoubtedly worse than others.