Labour must embrace Brexit or it risks becoming irrelevant

Labour must embrace Brexit or it risks becoming irrelevant

To say that Labour is in a difficult place following its internal convulsions during the debate on invoking Article 50 is to state the obvious – but it could have all been far worse had Jeremy Corbyn not insisted on a three-line whip. His action has managed to restore some of Labour’s credibility with the working class and may avoid a defeat at the forthcoming by-elections in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent. Failure to do so could not be put down to Jeremy Corbyn but to the infantile behaviour of some Labour MPs.

There is a tide in the affairs of nations, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune and the EU referendum was just such a tide: a sea change craving for leadership. Recognising this, Jeremy Corbyn called for Article 50 to be invoked immediately after the result of the EU referendum was known on the morning of 24th June last year. At that time, the Tories were in disarray in the wake of the snap resignation of David Cameron and a nasty leadership election in the offing.

Unfortunately, Corbyn’s brave initiative was quickly thwarted by his shadow cabinet colleagues and most Labour MPs who failed to see the significance of the vote. Instead of providing leadership, they preferred to moan about the result, question its validity and, worse, call for a second referendum on the grounds that those who voted Leave knew not what they were voting for. This created a hiatus, giving time for the Tories to re-group, cut the leadership contest short and install Theresa May as PM who, in three simple words – ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – grabbed the initiative, putting Labour on the back foot. Ever since, the Labour Party has been playing catch-up.

When, three months later, John McDonell attempted to seize back the initiative telling a meeting in central London that Brexit was an enormous opportunity for the country, he was pounced upon and denounced by several Labour MPs including a ‘furious’ shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer.

Today, we are at precisely the position that Corbyn called for some eight months ago. Imagine the place Labour would have been in had Labour MPs heeded Corbyn’s call. They could have been chasing the Government instead of being chased by it.

It is ironic that while Tory MPs (with one exception) observed a discipline usually associated with trade unionists – namely that once a decision is made all efforts must go into making it a success – it was Labour, whose links with the trade unions go back to its very founding, failed to abide by these basic working class obligations with no less than 52 MPs attempting to stop the Brexit process by voting against invoking Article 50. Just as a branch representatives are expected to accept their union conference decisions, abide by them and, above all, take no action that may hinder their implementation regardless of which way their branches voted, so MPs should be under an obligation to vote to invoke Article 50 irrespective of the way their constituencies voted in the referendum.

Corbyn called it right again when he tweeted that ‘the fight starts now’ following the decisive vote to invoke Article 50 in the House of Commons. He was mocked by some on the left – Corbyn’s own supporters, the purveyors of doom – who obviously think that sitting back predicting a Brexit disaster is the way to garner support. ‘Vote for me and I’ll lead you to Armageddon’, seems to be their preferred slogan.

But Labour has to do more if it is to stand any chance of regaining the support and trust of the working class. It must ditch its attachment to the free movement of labour, not just because it has been roundly rejected by the British people, but because it is detrimental to the interests of workers, no matter which country they inhabit. As for those who scream ‘scapegoating immigrants’, controlling the number of immigrants crossing the border is as much ‘scapegoating immigrants’ as controlling the number of passenger allowed to board a boat is ‘scapegoating passengers’. Only a reckless captain would allow an unlimited number of passengers aboard regardless of its capacity and amenities. A nation is not that different.

Labour can campaign and make some inroads on issues such as the NHS, welfare, homes and elderly care, but the central issue, now and for the next year or two, remains Brexit. Unless Labour embraces Brexit in all its ramifications and projects a bright future for the UK outside the EU’s single market and Customs Union, it risks becoming irrelevant. As everyone knows, it is puerile to keep talking about the sort of kitchen you want if you’re not serious about owning the house outright.