Standing amid the wreckage of her government and her authority Theresa May has got one thing right. The UK Parliament is clear on what it does not want but doesn’t have a clue what it does want. But unhappily that also seems to be the position of the UK Government. Openness and flexibility do not make a policy. And neither are these laudable ambitions a substitute for a policy.
Somehow in a little over two years we’ve moved from a debate on Brexit which is rooted in more cash for the NHS to martial law, food shortages, empty shelves and drugs running out. From the sunlit uplands of new and open trade but closed borders to a situation where the UK Government is hiring every ferry – and even ferry companies with no ferries – simply to keep our people from starving. And whilst they are hiring these ferries every day brings another announcement of another business leaving the country. Even the Brexiteers are on the move. And the Government that has presided over this catastrophic failure of policy is not even crashing in polls.
And being a member of the Labour Party, simply pointing out the chaos caused by Theresa May’s incompetence is not a policy either. I have worried for some time that the UK Party Leadership doesn’t have a clue what to do or where to go on Brexit. And unhappily over the last few weeks they’ve proved it. And on the biggest issue of our time. That’s really something.
It’s all too easy to fall into a state of utter despair with politics today. The collective failure of the political class to lead over the last few years is an indictment of not simply individuals but the system as well. And on the left we have to bear a significant part of this guilt. Our collective failure to provide a coherent and convincing response to austerity has led to Labour voters voting for Brexit. Forget what the pollsters tell you. Brexit is happening because working class communities voted for it.
And that means we in Labour have a special responsibility to lead. And leading is more than running scared from difficult issues or buying into a right-wing agenda born of a rotten media and fuelled by despair with politics as usual.
The confusion from Labour’s Westminster front bench has made me wince in pain. I have seen no senior UK Labour leadership figure provide reasoned intelligent leadership over these frenetic weeks. Not on principle or based upon our values. Every interview a different policy. Every statement a new approach. I have seen equivocation, excuses and hand-wringing. And after all of that do we still claim that we want a general election? Wow.
And all of this drift came home to roost on Monday evening where the UK Labour leadership didn’t appear to know where it stood on the UK Immigration Bill. Diane Abbott stood at the despatch box making a poor speech where the policy had changed by the time she sat down. The compromise was a typically cynical attempt to have and eat cakes. Even Boris would have blushed. Voting against the Bill but doing so on a one-line whip is the worst of all worlds. No courage. No conviction. No leadership. This is not simply abandoning our values. It is trampling them underfoot in an unseemly and desperate attempt to appease a nasty hard-right agenda. And all this from a leadership that constantly lectures us on their socialist purity.
So there needs to be a fundamental change in Labour’s approach.
And allow me make an unusual and novel suggest. Why not do the right thing?
Labour cannot continue to treat Brexit as a rather tiresome management issue. It is the defining issue of our age and that means rooting our approach in our principles and values. The Welsh Labour Government was right to set out last week the measures they are taking to protect Wales in the event of a catestrophic no-deal failure. But you can’t take the politics out of politics.
And no longer can we continue with the fiction that whatever happens with Brexit we will continue with our spending plans and with our UK programme for government. Any sort of Brexit will hit the poorest communities hardest. It will reduce economic activity and with that the tax income available to spend on key services. In short if we continue our current path then we will not be in a position to deliver our manifesto. And that’s even if there is a general election. And if we win that election. And I’m not convinced that the people of Britain will vote for a party that does not know it stands on this crucial issue. Thatcher was never liked and never popular. But she was respected because she stood up for what she believed to be right. There’s a lesson there for Labour. It may not be popular everywhere – and I represent Blaenau Gwent – but I believe that the people have more respect for politicians who believe in enduring values more than courting passing popularity.
So where does this leave Labour’s policy on Brexit?
It means that we stand up for internationalism and against the thinly-veiled chauvinism that we’ve seen take root in our politics over recent years. We stand up for open-borders and an inclusive politics. An economy rooted in fair work and a fair distribution of wealth. In short we argue for a different economic model and one shared with our friends in the EU. We argue for the EU as the future for nations to share sovereignty in the common interest of our citizens. We celebrate our common European heritage, history and civilisation. And we seek to play a leading role in shaping the EU of the future and not shrink away from difficult challenges. So we argue our case based upon our values. We stop the Brexit bandwagon today. Certainly we stop a no-deal Brexit but we must also vote to suspend Article 50 as well. We do not facilitate Brexit either by accident or design.
And then we campaign for a second referendum. Our party’s democracy is not served á la carte. It is a fixed-price menu and conference was clear. The UK leadership cannot argue for greater internal democracy and then ignore it when it does not suit their prejudices. And a second referendum will be the crucial first step in rebuilding trust in our broken politics. It should be no surprise to anyone that people do not believe or trust politicians after the last few miserable weeks.
That means we need Labour to state clearly that Brexit simply cannot take place in March and neither can it happen without a clear democratic mandate based upon the facts and not the easy, lazy and fake assumptions of two years ago. And then in that campaign Labour will speak up for those people who have borne the brunt of austerity and who have faced the reality of welfare reforms and public service cuts. But we will not blame others from elsewhere for the problems caused by the policies of our own government. We will not stand by whilst people are labeled by their accents, the colour of their or where they happen to worship. And we will not vote for legislation that places those prejudices on the statute book.
It’s a time for leadership. And leadership based on principle rather than expediency. I do not believe that future generations will thank those politicians or parties who ducked these fundamental issues.