First published in Fabian Review on 07 August 2017
It was clear from the Queen’s Speech that the government has not seen its disastrous performance in the general election as a sign that it needs to reflect and reconsider its approach to Brexit.
The speech claimed that Conservative ministers “are committed to working with parliament, the devolved administrations, business and others to build the widest possible consensus on the country’s future outside the European Union”, and the accompanying notes said there have been ‘hundreds’ of meetings between government and stakeholders.
Yet my experience suggests that this is far from the truth. Many people I have spoken to have struggled to get meetings with government. Those who have got through the door have found such meetings to be largely unhelpful, with ministers only wanting to hear about the ‘opportunities’ arising from Brexit and not the risks. Not surprisingly, this is a difficult ask for the many sectors where the latter outweigh the former. Ever since the referendum result was known, I – along with several others – have been urging the creation of a nationwide Commission on Brexit, bringing together businesses, trade unions, religious bodies, political parties and others. Such a commission would increase transparency and engagement, ensuring all parts of the country felt involved in this momentous process, and would ensure the diversity of thinking we desperately need if we are to get the best possible outcome.
Depressingly, over a year on from the referendum, it may now be too late for such a commission to play a meaningful role. As Keir Starmer has noted, if Theresa May continues in her secretive, autocratic manner – barely consulting with anyone in her own party much less beyond it – then any commission may end up being little more than a figleaf for poor government policies.
If the Tories are going to let the country down, and the scope for a government organised national conversation has all but disappeared, then the Labour party must step up. First, that means acting as a tribune for all those who struggle to get a hearing from the Tories: from young people to those working in manufacturing, and from university students and staff to those engaged in the tourist economy. We must be their champions, and their defenders – protecting our communities from economic decline.
Second, we need to be the voice of 21st century diplomacy. The Conservative approach to Brexit is totally ignorant of the reality of modern-day international negotiations. When I was a Labour MEP, I saw at first-hand – with the EU-Canada CETA agreement – what happens when you try to conduct a modern-day trade deal behind closed doors. It does not work. You lose all moral authority and public buy-in because you are keeping your citizens out of the process. And you fail even on your own terms because the nature of modern communications means that these things make it out into the public domain anyway. The same will be true of Brexit. Labour must push for an open, collaborative approach that allows citizens to have sight of, and the chance to contribute to, the final deal.
Finally, Labour must be the voice of expertise when it comes to the EU itself. As an avowedly pro-European party, Labour has been at the heart of EU decision-making for the last 40 years. We are trusted and respected by our European allies on the centre-left but also beyond. The Tories, on the other hand, have turned their back on their traditional centre-right allies and spent years alienating almost everyone on the continent. Again, the Queen’s Speech exposed how limited the government’s grasp of our relationship with the EU actually is. It intimated there would be seven ‘policy area’ bills, seemingly plucked from thin air, to cover those sectors most likely to be affected by Brexit. The missing policy areas are conspicuous by their absence: nothing on workers’ rights, nothing on the environment, nothing on compensating for the EU structural funds which go to the most impoverished areas of the country, and nothing on the jewels in the UK’s crown, so heavily dependent on our EU membership – universities, science and research. Labour must force these vital issues onto the agenda.
The Labour party must assume the responsibility the Conservatives are ducking. We must speak up for our constituents and those who so far have had no voice in the debate. We must advocate for a mature, transparent approach to the negotiations. And we must use our EU expertise and connections to push for a deal that works with our European neighbours and not against them. Without that strong Labour voice, Theresa May and the Tory lemmings behind her will take our country off a cliff.