As a Labour member and supporter, one thing I have been increasingly frustrated with the narrative of the party’s stance on Brexit has been portrayed. It’s confusing, it’s too complicated, they’ll argue against their own Brexit deal or they are not a Remain enough party. These are all criticisms that have been levelled at the leadership.
It is understandable. Whether you have for example Emily Thornberry on Question Time saying she’d campaign to remain in any future referendum leaving Fiona Bruce and co aghast, or Joh McDonnell on Peston refusing to say which way he’d campaign, it doesn’t add to a coherent picture. That’s why I was personally delighted to hear Jeremy Corbyn clarify it on the BBC Question Time Special debate a couple of weeks ago [Pictured above, image from ITV] when he said…
‘My role and the role of our government will be to ensure that the referendum is held within a fair atmosphere and we will abide by the result of it and I will adopt as Prime Minister, if I am at the time, a neutral stance so that I can credibly carry out the results of that to bring our communities and country together rather than…a comtinuing and endless debate about the EU and Brexit’.
There we have it guys. Jeremy Corbyn would not back leave or remain in any fiture referendum, he would remain neutral. There is the answer. It is not enough for some with the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisting how could he negotiate a deal if he is going to be neutral and not back it while the Liberal Democrats are astounded he has not picked a side. Then again when one party is the party of ‘Get Brexit Done’ and the other is ‘Stop Brexit’, that was always going to happen. However, it is a credible position and I will attempt to explain why.
For Labour, the 2016 EU referendum was a major vote splitter. It is thought between three and four million Labour voters voted leave in 2016 but at grassroots level, the party membership supports the idea of a second referendum and 65% of Labour voters also voted Remain in 2016. For example, 61% of Tory voters backing leave in 2016 it has been easier for them to advocate. For Labour to provide the role of opposition to the government and to stand still on those voter numbers, they have to tap into both remain and leave camps simultaneously.
Balancing the difference between the grassroots which backed Remain overwhelmingly to the traditional labour voting areas such as the North East which backed leave is something Labour has had to grasp with when it comes to Brexit. So, this policy of giving the people the final say in the form of a second referendum is a compromise between the two.
Let me explain that. There is something in that policy for a Brexit backer and remain backer. If you are a Brexit backer and still want to Brexit, then you will still turn out to ensure that Brexit happens and win that referendum. If you want to remain, this is your best chance to achieve it democratically. If you have changed your mind, you would vote accordingly. If you voted leave you could choose to vote remain. Likewise, if you voted remain last time and think we should leave then you can cote leave. It is the final chance to have your voice on Brexit and what it looks like.
Bringing the country together has been central to the discourse of this snap December General Election. Let’s face it, Brexit has been divisive. It has caused arguments between friends and families; it is the one thing me and the rest of my family will never agree on for example. The scenes between protestors clashing have also been ugly. But then, so too has the discourse of the argument which has descended to new lows with headlines such as ‘Enemies of the People’ or ‘Crush the saboteurs’ or labelling opponents as ‘corroborators’. The debate has become toxic. Remember, we are a democracy. Democracy has debates, arguments and disagreements but not to the point it has got to.
Can it bring the country together? There is, of course, a good chance that it might not. A second referendum might be as close and as inconclusive but then the same can be said of this General Election, especially if it produces another hung parliament and remember we have had two of them since the Brexit vote. Technically, we should not have had one until May 2020. What is clear though is that the other options will not unite the country.
Boris Johnson is banging it home in his campaign messages that getting Brexit done will unite the country. It will not. He says his deal is a good one and is oven ready. Yet, if it is such a good deal as he claims then why would he not put it to the people? He won’t because it is a bad deal. By all accounts, it is a worse deal than the one Theresa May negotiated with the EU and that was beaten in Parliament three times. His deal puts a border down the Irish sea, something Theresa May said no British Prime Minister could ever agree to and something Johnson himself told a DUP Conference he would never allow. Yet, here we are and he agreed to it with the EU. Northern Ireland will not be happy with it and neither will Scotland when they see Northern Ireland getting different treatment.
Then, there is the trade deal. A No-Deal Brexit is still a possibility. The implementation period of the Withdrawal Agreement was not changed with Johnsons deal and remains set at the end of December 2020. Under his agreement, only a Crown Minister can propose an extension, not parliament. Johnson is thought to be aiming for a Canada style agreement with the EU. It took Canada and the EU 7 years to come to that agreement. He is aiming to do it in just over 12 months. It is folly.
There is also the proposed trade deal with the United States which Donald Trump has been building up. Trade negotiation are not done overnight. Just look at the past few years with Brexit negotiations which were supposed to be the easiest in history for proof of that. It will take time. Then all the while, we will still be comparing our economic performance to if we had stayed in the EU. Purely on that side of it, getting Johnsons deal through does not as he says ‘get Brexit done’.
The Tories accuse Labour of scaremongering about the US trade deal and what it could mean for the NHS but I have to disagree with them. No British politician would freely admit to the NHS being for sale or even being used for discussions as they would face electoral oblivion whether that be in this election or when the next one comes along. However, privatisation has been slowly creeping into the NHS for years now with even Richard Branson suing the NHS for not being awarded a contract. Now, add in Brexit and if the economy is doing that badly after Brexit then you have to wonder just how desperate would a Tory government be to get a trade deal over the line and quickly?
There have already been secret meetings between US and UK officials regarding trade talks and health care has come up. Corbyn held up a secret document released under a Freedom of Information Request while on the ITV debate last week and now we know what was redacted out. The details of it are so much more worrying than the NHS as well. Food standards pop up according to Nick Deardon, Director of Global Justice Now who made the initial request. He told James O’Brien on LBC that they want fewer food warnings. The documents do state, ‘the US view the introduction of warning labels as harmful rather than as a step to public health’. So, that would potentially mean chlorinated chicken…
While the document is dated to between July 2017-2019 and for the most part under Theresa May’s Premiership, Johnson did serve as Foreign Secretary in that time. He will know what was discussed in a few of those meetings, surely. If you do not want to read the 451-page document that is understandable but a link is here if you want to. I will leave you though with what came from the horse’s mouth.
‘Look, I think everything with a trade deal is on the table. When you’re dealing in trade everything is on the table. So NHS or anything else, a lot more than that, but everything will be on the table, absolutely.”
Those were the words of Donald Trump when on his state visit back in June. Everything is on the table, that includes the NHS. While he corrected himself a couple of days later and has since distanced himself from those comments going so far as to say he wouldn’t want it even if it was offered on a silver platter. It is clear the President let the cat out of the bag here as he also denied any knowledge of where the so called ‘rumours’ originated from.
There we have it, Johnson’s Brexit deal which puts a line down the Irish Sea and separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and threatens the NHS. It is no wonder the DUP could not support it but, what would a Labour alternative agreement look like?
Throughout the Brexit process, Labour has been committed to giving assent to a Brexit agreement which secured 6 tests as set out by Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Kier Starmer:
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?
Those tests have not been met by Theresa May or Boris Johnson hence why they have not supported either agreement. Instead, Corbyn would attempt to negotiate a new agreement within three months which would maintain a close trading relationship with the EU that would include staying in the Customs Union and close alignment to the single market. Consequently, the union would be secure in that there would be no need for customs checks and new borders either down the Irish sea or on the island of Ireland. Northern Ireland would not be treated differently and on that front, it is something the DUP could support.
Could it be done in three months? Well, I will give Boris Johnson credit for this but he did get an agreement within three months of becoming Prime Minister when the EU said they would not open up the withdrawal Agreement but only when he had to. The fact there was no evidence he was actually trying to get a deal until Parliament voted to block no-deal through the so-called Benn Act, indicates that a deal, when conducted in the right manner, could be achieved in a quick timescale. Corbyn’s offer is something closer to what the EU could agree with easily. It maintains the single market and its integrity, the UK leaves the EU. It is not the purist version of Brexit as the ERG members would tell you I am sure but it gets us out.
By staying with the single market, it blocks off the free trade agreement with the US under the Trump presidency which could hurt the NHS. When Theresa May attempted to align closer to EU food standards at Chequers Plan, Trump’s team described it as the ‘worst-case scenario’. That would mean no chance of the NHS being risked in any discussions nor the watering down of food standards to suit big US companies. That is a win for the UK. Then, to top it off you get the option to vote on whether you want this sort of Brexit, which is the best-case scenario with no economic cliff edge or Remain.
All this and I have not touched on the Liberal Democrat stance. While it is summarised by the ‘stop Brexit’ slogan, the method to achieve that aim has changed more often than not Originally, they were a key component of the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum but the stance changed when Jo Swinson became leader. She is more ambitious than her predecessor Sir Vince Cable when she declared her self as ‘your candidate to be Prime Minister’’ during the Conference season and going so far as to say the Lib Dems would simply revoke Article 50.
That is how you stop Brexit by revoking Article 50 but by skipping the whole second referendum. The reasoning for that could be that if the Lib Dems formed a majority government then they would have a democratic mandate from this general election to do that, especially under the current first past the post system. However, it is problematic. The legitimacy of that decision would depend on how many votes they achieved. You would always have the ardent leave backers sprouting the 17.4m voted to leave and that is a fair point. It would only be legitimate in my eyes if the Lib Dems formed a majority government with more than 17.4m voting for them. That is extremely unlikely.
In fact, the polls suggest they are unlikely to gain many seats or retain the numbers they have after all the defectors they gained this year. They seem to be accepting that reality by changing the stance slightly to accepting a second referendum. However, as far as Swinson is concerned she will not be putting Corbyn into number 10 in the event of a hung parliament. That leaves only a coalition with Johnson and the Conservatives even though they are polar opposites on the issue of Brexit.
That is where Corbyn’s stance of neutrality will put him in good stead. If a second referendum were to happen and it is a Johnson-Swinson coalition, could you trust the government to stick together through it? It is entirely conceivable the loser would not accept the result and could undermine their own coalition agreement to a terminal point. In such a case, the rhetoric of such a referendum in that circumstance would be extremely toxic.
Despite the outcry from the Lib Dems and the Tories of Corbyn remaining neutral and having no credibility on Brexit with his stance, there is a precedent for it. In the 1975 Referendum on the European Economic Community (EEC), then Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson grappling with the same internal issues within his party (divided remain and leave) adopted a largely neutral stance. He did not remain entirely neutral and chose ‘In’ at the final moment but he did not publically campaign to keep his integrity on the issue intact. However, there was a pamphlet handed out to every household in the nation insisting…
‘We explain why the Government, after long, hard negotiations, are recommending to the British people that we should remain a member of the European Community’.
Should people be bothered about what his opinion is on the matter? I don’t think they should. You look at the past few years with Brexit and what we have seen is politicians trying to grapple with Brexit being tainted by their view. David Cameron did not set the ball rolling in the right direction by resigning in the immediate hours after the referendum in 2016 but he had the dignity to say he could not lead the country down this path. That is the first Prime Minister casualty. Then, came in Theresa May who attempted to deliver Brexit with the whole ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mantra; do we even know what it means yet? It became unstuck when she could not get her withdrawal agreement through parliament with unprecedented defeats.
Fast forward to Boris Johnson, a leave backer for all intents and purposes which are his own. If you look back at his record, he seems largely pro-European until he decided that Brexit could advance his own political ambitions. Coming in in June, he set an artificial deadline to ‘get Brexit done’ which he missed in October despite saying he would rather be dead in a ditch. By remaining neutral in any second referendum, Corbyn would not be constrained by any of this nonsense if it does not go the way he votes.
You have someone who can credibly carry out the ‘will of the people’. You get a chance to decide if you want Brexit in a single issue vote, without other important policy areas coming into play. Crucially, the people should decide how Brexit ends and whether you like him or not, the only leader offering the people that voice is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.