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Labour let us down yesterday: Laurie Penny reports from A&E

The grim truth is that nobody in the Labour Party has any answers.

It's 2am, and I'm sitting under a strip light in the emergency unit of my local hospital, waiting for the doctors to finish attending to a young friend of mine who attempted to end her life tonight. When the paramedics arrived, they told us she wasn't the first -- for many Londoners, it seems, something about the news or the weather today gave the impression that a crisis point has been reached.

Apart from a shoeless shouting drunk growling at the nurses to give him back his confiscated footgear, the waiting room is quiet, strewn with ill, beaten-looking people patiently waiting to be seen. The frontline NHS personnel staffing the emergency desk were rushed off their feet even before massive public-sector cutbacks were announced a few hours ago, but they're doing the best they can. Somewhere behind my head, a machine that goes 'bing!' -- Monty Python observed that every hospital must have one -- seems, at this hallucinogenic hour of the night, to be taking the slow, trembling pulse of the nation.

The people of Britain have been badly let down today. The poor, the young, the old, the tired, the unwell: we have all been let down. Not just by the Tories, who let us know what was coming with all the oily subtlety of side-street sleaze artists; nor by the Liberal Democrats, from whom nobody expected any more than the stern, funereal complicity that they delivered during today's spending review. No: the people have been let down by Labour.

In 13 years of meandering and hawkish leadership, it seems that the Labour Party has utterly forgotten what effective opposition politics are supposed to look like. If its collective response to the greatest assault on social democracy in living memory is anything to go by, Labour has also lost sight of what it means to be a party of the left.

After laying out the details of his economic shock doctrine, George Osborne glibly asked the shadow chancellor if he had any other ideas. With all the panache of a sixth-form debater, Osborne repeated the question: did Labour's new economic spokesperson, or indeed anyone on the Labour benches, have alternative suggestions for fixing the economy other than tearing up the Attlee settlement, throwing a million on to the dole and destroying welfare?

Alan Johnson did not answer. Instead, he stammered, he clucked, he flapped, he did everything but lay an egg in an apparent attempt to mimetically re-enact the chickenish behaviour of his party over the past few weeks. The shadow chancellor gave no answer because he has no answer; nobody in the Labour Party, it seems, has any answers. They have knelt down and swallowed the Tory narrative that this recession is all Labour's fault, rather than the result of years of systematic global financial deregulation with which every major political party in Britain and the US was until lately in agreement.

The strongest criticism Mr Johnson could find was to suggest that the planned cuts were a little 'ideological' in aspect -- which is a shame, because the left could really do with some alternative ideology to counterbalance the Conservative Party's determination to wage class war with a calculator, and right now the Labour Party can't seem to find its ideology with both hands.

The grim truth is that the recoagulated Labour Party has no ideology and no new ideas. It was Labour that began the privatisation and withdrawal of public services in this country; now, today, with the Blairite model of intermittently caring neoliberalism buried at the crossroads of global economic crisis with a repossession order through its heart, even a new leader seems to have done little to raise any life from the ashes of the Labour left.

Labour has no answers; not for Osborne, not for its supporters, and certainly not for the weary Hackney residents currently curled up in this NHS waiting room, wondering if they can afford to spend a pound on a hot chocolate from the machine. The teenage boy next to me has started vomiting noisily into a cardboard dish; a drowsy-looking young woman is bleeding into her seat, a trickle of dark fluid slowly seeping on to the floor while her nervous partner holds her hand. My friend still has not returned. Alan Johnson doesn't have an answer for her either, nor for the hundreds of thousands of people who have felt despair shove its chill fingers into our hearts tonight.

That Labour does not have any answers for us is a disgusting display of the irrelevance of Westminster politics to the lives of ordinary citizens. If today's pathetic equivocation parade is a benchmark for the next four years of Labour politics, we will have to look elsewhere to find a voice in the hard, cold months ahead.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.