Labour must prepare for the premiership of Boris Johnson – with a Remain position

23 June 2019

Originally published on Labour List

Author: Alex Sobel MP
© Jess Hurd/Another Europe is Possible

une 23rd 2016, almost three years ago to the day, was a watershed moment in British Politics. Since then, our party has been on a journey. We had to interpret the result of a binary question put to the nation without detail and, in making Labour policy, attempt to square the result with our values and, in the case of parliamentarians, the best interests of our constituents.

The country, too, has been on a journey. A referendum framed almost entirely around emotion and sense of identity has had a head on collision with the reality of our economy, trade arrangements and national security. From this collision has emerged a divide in the nation; those who are extremely worried about our nation’s chances of prosperity outside of the EU, and those willing to leave at any cost.

There was a period, prior to the unveiling of the ill-fated withdrawal agreement, during which a compromise was possible. A ‘Norway Plus’ arrangement – signing the European Free Trade Agreement with the facsimile of the current customs union – could have gained wide support of the House of Commons, as well as wide support of a country in need of a swift resolution to a divisive referendum and narrow result.

But Theresa May, in an attempt to win over hardline Brexiteers on the backbenches, doubled down on Brexit. She redefined the result as a hard condemnation not just of the political union but of all the economic structures of the common market. Whilst the laying out of the ‘six tests’ was a good way of applying Labour values to our response to the actions of a rampant government, we were too slow to nail our colours to the mast of a soft Brexit. We did not endorse a clear line on the customs union or single market until the meaning of Brexit had been redefined and the appetite in the House of Commons for such an arrangement had passed.

The publication of the EU Withdrawal Agreement was a watershed moment. It ended the phoney war of negotiation strategies and potential deals and laid out the reality of leaving the EU, at least for the next few years. The failure of this agreement ended Theresa May’s tortured tenure as Prime Minister and has brought about what is likely to be the premiership of Boris Johnson. This will prove to be the next watershed moment and Labour must be prepared for it.

The recent special shadow cabinet meeting moved Labour one step further to the final position that we have been inching towards since the EU Withdrawal Agreement first saw the light of day – a public vote on an agreed deal against remaining in the EU. Jeremy Corbyn’s statement said: “It’s now right that any deal is put to a public vote.” The word ‘now’ in that sentence is important. It is an acknowledgement that things have changed, that the country has moved on significantly in the past three years. It is a recognition that a public vote is the only realistic way to stop Boris Johnson driving the country off a cliff and to move on from a political crisis that has dominated public discourse for the past three years.

Many Remainers have questioned Labour’s commitment to having ‘Remain’ as an option on the ballot paper. Jeremy Corbyn’s statement has settled this, confirming that “a ballot paper would need to contain real choices for leave and remain voters”. The only real choice for those like me who wish the UK to stay in the EU is, well, staying in the EU. The unresolved question for Labour Leavers is what a ‘real choice for Leave voters’ looks like. What can Labour offer Leavers that reconciles our commitment to Labour values, the six tests and the Irish border with the kind of exit that leave voters want?

It seems certain that the decision of the shadow cabinet will be reaffirmed by Labour’s national executive committee and at party conference. The only unresolved question remains how Labour would campaign in a public vote. At the Labour Business summer reception, hours after the shadow cabinet meeting, both Keir Starmer and John McDonnell said they would campaign to stay in the EU. John said: ‘If we have a referendum, we need to campaign to remain.”

I am with John on that. And conference will give members a chance to have their say. It is right that members get to confirm the decisions of the shadow cabinet and decide our final campaigning position in a public vote. There are several motions calling for us to campaign for Remain, including those drafted by Open Labour/Another Europe is Possible and Labour for a Public Vote. If you want Labour to campaign to stay in the EU, I would encourage you to look at these motions and to argue their case.

Labour must campaign vociferously for a public vote and then make the case for staying within the EU to transform it to fully reflect our values. It is the right thing to do for the country and the right thing to do for our party. As the voice for progressive social change, Labour must lead the charge.

Love Socialism Hate Brexit is a group of radical and socialist Labour MPs fighting to stop Brexit. We will be writing a column for LabourList every week until the Brexit crisis is over. You can find out more about us here, and follow us on Twitter here.