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Stella Creasy: Labour is a party running on empty

It is unforgivable to have a leader who asked others to go on to the pitch over Brexit while he benched himself, says the Labour MP for Walthamstow.

Since last Thursday, my inbox has burned with anguish about the state of our nation and our politics. People fear splits that are not just geographical, but also between generations and income groups. These divisions exist everywhere – while I’m proud that Walthamstow voted two to one to stay in the EU, locally and nationally our success will depend on finding ways to rewrite what at present looks like a very bleak future. To stop despair curdling our capacity to achieve this, Labour must urgently offer a radical and distinctive response.

It would be easy in such circumstances to lapse into misery; to find someone or something to blame and luxuriate in the safety of opposition believing a scapegoat is enough. But now is the time to recognise our hunger for social justice demands we do more than wring our hands; not to think in abstracts, but to focus on finding direct and deliverable answers to the challenges we face. And above all, to stand for something, not just against something. To be against austerity, neoliberalism or corporations: this only describes what you want to stop, not what you will achieve. Hold a placard, tweet a slogan, buy the T-shirt if it helps, but if you want real change you have to be prepared to work at making it happen in detail as well as in hashtags. 

Britain is crying out for progressive and courageous change-makers to help put it back together. We need leadership which, in the negotiations ahead, knows why we fought to protect the rights we could lose by leaving the EU. We need leadership that also looks to the world to come and champions how we can co-operate across our communities, our country and our continent. At a time of whirlwind global economic change and social disruption, the UK has just set out its intent to cut itself off from the collective bargaining power of the European Union. Leaving or staying is no silver bullet  it only increases or reduces our options for action. With Britain this badly broken, we cannot shrink into holding repeated meetings about how we wish it were different. In an era when money, services and people move at rapid pace, the crisis Labour faces is about its very purpose, not just its people. We have to show we can lead the way in the world to come, not the world gone by.

Labour must again be a progressive party which has courage. Courage to say the world is a very different place and so our answers must change too including from those given by any previous Labour administration. To give everyone a real chance to succeed, our vision of the economy, of our public services, indeed, of our core mission, needs to be completely revised less focused on institutions, more rooted in networks of people working together to transform markets and communities than anything ever previously proposed. Not a movement trying to stop the pace of change, but one actively trying to hasten and shape it for the benefit of all. 

This would be hard work at the best of times; Labour is a party running on empty, with energy and ideas as well as organisation depleted. We have never been a cult, where everyone has to think the same or leave. As grown-ups, we are able both to have differences of opinion and to make compromises so together we can take action. Actions that every day show we seek power to speed up and strengthen our ability to achieve our goals and that we also refuse to wait until we hold office to get started on our ambitions for Britain.

I have never agreed completely with any leader whether on ID cards, going to war in Iraq or skirting the Financial Transaction Tax but I have always fought our corner. Labour needs each of us to put our very all – our 10 out of 10, not 7.5 into achieving our aims. Each of us asking the public to take sometimes difficult steps with us because we believe it is in the best interests of the country. That is why I have no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn any more. It is unforgivable to have a leader who, when faced with Brexit and the damage it could do, asked others to go on to the pitch while he benched himself.

Being half-hearted about key issues in a world this complex and challenging does little for those we care for most or to win the argument for progressive outcomes  as is now depressingly clear. The trolls and naysayers will stamp their feet whatever happens; it is our responsibility to chart a different course. Labour doesn’t just need new leadership, but also new passion and determination for social justice and social action. As these forces try to tear us apart, let us reject the politics of inertia. Let each of us work to bring Britain back together to face the 21st century with confidence, commitment and common cause.

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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