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Talk of a new party ignores the real obstacle to stopping Brexit

At the moment, there aren't the numbers in parliament or the country for a gentler exit. 

What are the obstacles to a softer exit from the European Union – or no exit at all? They are, in descending order of importance: public opinion, Labour MPs in the West Midlands and Yorkshire, Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, the question of whether or not Article 50 is reversible, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Euroscepticism.

The latter has had more column inches devoted to it than anything else: it’s true that the Labour leader’s private belief is that Britain is better off out. He was persuaded to take a role in the Remain campaign, albeit one that frequently frustrated the official campaign, partly to retain the leadership, and partly because Yanis Varoufakis convinced him that Brexit would lead to the break-up of the European Union and an even worse deal for the nations of the EU’s southern perimeter.

That the EU doesn’t look remotely likely to break-up as a result of Brexit means that Corbyn’s old Euroscepticism is back in vogue, but the Labour leader doesn’t, as one ally puts it, “have religion” on the issue. (As I explain in my column this week, Corbyn’s passion project is foreign policy, and like most Labour politicians, he doesn’t really regard the EU as properly abroad.)

Although there are committed Eurosceptics with a powerful voice in the leader’s office, there are also a number of Europhiles. Corbyn’s position is essentially to have a quiet life internally and to find ways to defeat the Conservatives wherever possible, both of which push him towards a more Europhile position.

But the reality is that the Labour leader’s position is not all that important as far as Britain’s Brexit trajectory goes. The party’s position is, but that is set through the competing interests of the membership and trade unions – who largely favour retaining Britain’s single market membership – and the parliamentary Labour party – where a narrow majority favours a more drastic Brexit. That’s why the preferences of Labour MPs in the West Midlands and Yorkshire, the group most likely to be committed to a version of exit that ends the free movement of people, bringing with it a big breach from the European Union, are a lot more important than Corbyn’s feelings about the rules of single market membership.

An equally important block to a softer exit are committed Eurosceptics on the Conservative side. Taken together, the votes of Conservatives who are ideologically committed to a drastic Brexit or believe that only a drastic breach from the European Union can uphold the demands of Leave voters, plus those of Labour MPs who are ideologically committed to Brexit (not a very large group but every vote counts) and those Labour MPs who believe that a drastic Brexit is the only way forward (a significantly larger bloc) means that it is difficult to get 325 votes for an alternate strategy.

Then there’s the problem that while few voters, whether they backed Remain or Leave, have changed their minds, there is a large majority that believes the referendum must be upheld – and that majority also believes that “upholding the referendum” means a drastic breach from the EU.

It’s not clear what coagulating the narrow minority of MPs who currently back a softer version of exit into a new party (parking for a moment where the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru fit into this) does to peel off recalcitrant members of Labour or the Conservatives who might one day back a softer exit but are currently voting and arguing for a more drastic breach.

It might give a bigger platform for someone arguing for a gentler exit, perhaps helping to turn public opinion. But given that at present so few MPs are interested, talk of a new anti-Brexit party feels like displacement activity, rather than a serious attempt to stop Brexit. 

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

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.