Expert View

Now, a Labour rebellion against a hard Brexit

by Denis MacShane | 21.06.2017

In the first significant change of parliamentary mood music on Brexit, more than 50 Labour MPs, MEPs and peers have repudiated the official Labour line with a statement which says that Labour should above all campaign to stay in the EU single market so as to preserve jobs and send a signal to foreign investors that Britain will continue to have full, preferential access to the giant EU economy.

Organised by Chukka Umunna, the MP for Streatham, the Labour 50 argue that there would be ways of reducing European immigration by using internal labour-market controls rather than crude, probably complex, bureaucratic measures which will anyway invite reciprocal action against British citizens hoping to live, work or retire in Europe.

This rebellion against the party’s manifesto position will rock a boat that otherwise looked remarkably steady by comparison with the Conservatives. But it nevertheless could provide an opportunity for Jeremy Corbyn to set the political weather in a way that is more in the party’s interests. If the Labour leader is smart, he will work with the Labour 50 and turn the Brexit debate into a campaign to defend British workers’ jobs which will be lost if the government’s hard Brexit approach is followed.

Here’s how. The Labour 50 statement can now be fused with the so-called Great Repeal Bill process, laid out in today’s Queen’s Speech. Labour parliamentary tacticians are hoping to trip up the government during that process by tabling clauses defending worker and trade union rights and winning votes on those issues.

As it is constitutional, the Great Repeal Bill has to be debated in a committee of the whole House of Commons. This leaves plenty of room for ambushes, close votes, or even for asking May’s wobbly Democratic Unionist Party “allies” to vote in support of the Labour 50 line that the UK should stay in the customs union, which would thereby keep the Irish border open for DUP farmers’ exports.

Without a pro-customs union position, Labour will have no such leverage. Until now Labour’s post-election approach to Brexit had been conditioned by fear of losing white working-class votes. On June 8 Labour did well in London and other Remain constituencies but lost traditional Labour seats in Derbyshire and the West Midlands.

Much depended on whether UKIP stood or not in those constituencies, but the raw fear of Leave voters prioritising Brexit over traditional Labour loyalty has been a factor. On the other hand Labour’s repeated calls for immigration controls – little different from Tory-UKIP policies – proved to be no guarantee of support in those areas.

Labour has had 11 months to make the economic case against Brexit – and thus the case for protecting working-class interests – by explaining to voters the full impact of withdrawing from the single market and customs union. But instead the Corbyn high command focused on legalistic and parliamentary procedures and kept insisting Labour was as anti-immigration as the Conservatives.

The one exception was in London where Chuka Umunna and 12 Labour MPs produced their own manifesto saying that Labour should go for a softer Brexit by staying in both the single market and customs union – in contrast to the official Labour manifesto line drawn up by Islington lawyer MPs.

Now Umunna and his group have expanded to take in a number of Corbyn’s shadow ministers. Moreover, the Labour 50 are backed by the TUC’s general secretary, Frances O’Grady, and by the hugely respected former trade union chief, John Monks, now a Labour peer. 

This marks the beginning of a Labour fight-back against hard Brexit. The Labour 50 gives the party a chance to carve out its own policy on the EU rather than simply copying and pasting Tory lines that the referendum and an amputational Brexit must be the last and only word on Britain’s future in Europe.

Denis MacShane’s book Brexit No Exit. Why Britain (in the end) Won’t Leave Europe is published later this month by IB Tauris.

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Edited by Bill Emmott

One Response to “Now, a Labour rebellion against a hard Brexit”

  • Yes, pretty good from Denis on the parliamentary opportunities, but it’s not actually the start of the Labour fight for continued SM membership, even if you think that the official pre-power Labour position of “tariff-free” access is, ultimately, something wildly different from SM membership.

    Quietly, outside Westminster, stuff is happening around local control of negotiations. See https://medium.com/@Bickerrecord/where-labour-should-go-now-on-brexit-b37c8fb5b094 for details and join the fun if you want.