The local election results should be a wake-up call for Labour to stop obstructing Brexit

The local election results should be a wake-up call for Labour to stop obstructing Brexit

For me, about the only thing going for the Prime Minister is her stated determination to implement the result of the referendum; and for that she was rewarded with a share of the vote equal to that of Labour in the local elections – not a mean achievement, given the difficulties her Government has had from Cabinet resignations to the Windrush scandal and the never-ending NHS crisis.

Theresa May captured the prevailing mood of the nation with her “Brexit means Brexit” and “no deal is better than a bad deal”. Contrast that with Sir Keir Starmer’s “no deal is not an option” approach to negotiations: it is like a tourist going into a shop in the old Medina souk in Casablanca loudly declaring that leaving the shop without buying the orange kaftan he had his eye on is not an option. The shopkeeper, who knows a pushover when he sees one, immediately quadruples the price. Such a haggling technique is more suited to Monty Python than to any sort of serious negotiations.

Last week’s local election results are a wake-up call that Labour must heed: Brexit casts a very long shadow and Labour better realise that before it’s too late.

In the next couple of months, all eyes will be on Labour to see what they do when the amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill passed in the House of Lords come back to the House of Commons. More than anything else, Labour’s attitude to these amendments will shape their public perception. Judging by the way Labour conducted itself in the House of Lords, the impression so far is of a party eager to obstruct progress towards a clean Brexit, erecting so many obstacles as to make Brexit all but impossible.

Amends are being made with Labour peers being whipped to abstain today [Tuesday] on a cross-party amendment that would instruct the Government to join the European Economic Area, thus keeping the UK inside the EU Single Market; but more need to be done.

The stated aim of the Lords amendments is to get a better deal for Britain as we leave the EU, but the process chosen to do that belies its stated purpose. The Lords want the option of sending the negotiators back to the negotiating table if Parliament finds the deal that the Government comes back with unacceptable. It is not uncommon for negotiators to be sent back to force some concession from the other side. But to have any success, such a move must be accompanied by some sort of threat – a stick that can waved to persuade the other side to move.

That, however, is decidedly not the case. The Lords deliberately chose to deny the negotiators the most poignant threat they can deploy: leaving the EU without a deal – something that would be equally, if not more, damaging to the EU as it would be to the UK by virtue of the fact that the EU exports more to the UK than the UK does to the EU. Having disarmed the negotiators, the negotiators would thus be sent back to the negotiating table not with a stick but a begging bowl; and the EU’s response to begging bowls is well known – just ask the first Greek national you meet.

In reality, the aim of the amendments from the House of Lords is not to get a better deal, but to get a different deal, a deal that departs from the essence  of Brexit, that of taking back control.

The issue of the border between the two parts of the island of Ireland continues to be used as a ramming rod to rapture Brexit, which is both cynical and insulting: cynical because those who continuously bring up the spectre of a return to the Troubles have something altogether different on their mind, namely blocking Brexit; and insulting because it conjures up a dystopian island of Ireland inhabited by warring tribes eager to maim and murder each other at the drop of a hat.

To listen to Remainers, one could be forgiven for thinking that if a lone camera were installed on a lamp post in a country road anywhere within a mile of the border,  violence would spontaneously erupt with marauding gangs going round slaughtering people at random. One must remember that while the signatories of the Good Friday Agreement were politicians, the driving force behind it came from the people who lost faith in the paramilitaries of both sides and demanded they stop. It is not the absence of structures at the border that stops a return to the violence of the past, but the people who inhabit that island.

With the exception of Sir Keir Starmer and his team, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership have been clear on Brexit: respecting the result of the referendum, leaving the EU, leaving the Single Market, leaving the Customs Union and ending the freedom of movement. Labour Party members are coming to be aware of the impossible position a future Labour Government would be in if it attempts to implement Labour’s stated economic, industrial and social policies while the UK remains wedded to either the Single Market or the Customs Union.

On the trade union side, a similar realisation is taking place: at the Scottish TUC earlier in the year, a motion calling for the UK to remain in the Single Market was defeated while in April an attempt to get support for continued freedom of movement of labour was decisively thrown out by delegates at the CWU national conference in Brighton.

Labour must come clean and Corbyn must bring to an end any talk of remaining in the Customs Union either directly or through “a customs union” which Paul Blomfield, shadow Brexit minister, told Radio 4’s Today programme last Wednesday “would work much in the same way as the Customs Union” – which begs the question as to why we should  be bothering to leave the Customs Union in the first place.  

So far, workers have paid little attention to the shenanigans played out in the Lords, including the part played by Labour in passing the House of Lords’ amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill. But it will be a different thing if Labour plays the same destructive role in the Commons. If Labour MPs play fast and loose with Brexit, the party will not only fail to get the support of those who voted UKIP in the past, but it will haemorrhage support all round; Nuneaton will be the norm.

Saying that you respect the result of the referendum and then going on to sabotage it, is not the way to endear any party to anyone.   

If Labour play fast and loose with Brexit, Nuneaton will become the norm