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To lead a new movement, Labour must stop giving ground to the Tories on Brexit

Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy has been driven by the politics of the Westminster bubble.

After months of bad polling figures, this week ought to mark a turning point in the fortunes of the Labour leadership and the wider progressive left. Monday evening’s anti-Trump mobilisations, which drew tens of thousands at barely a day’s notice, were among the most vibrant and politically diverse demonstrations in years. In the energy of the crowd and the thousands of home made signs you could spot the tell-tale signs of a major new political movement. And this movement is aimed not just at Trump, who is easy to revile, but at Theresa May and her role in the new world order.

May’s visit to the United States did not have to be a blunder. But by failing to condemn Trump’s ban on Muslims, and then defending his planned state visit, May has put herself in the position of providing cover for new administration as it implemented the most extreme and prolific set of executive orders in American history. This is the conclusion that will have been reached by many of the almost two million people who have now signed the petition calling for Trump’s state visit to be cancelled. The dividing line between Trumpism and the acceptable mainstream has crystalised – and the Prime Minister has, for a moment, found herself on the wrong side of it.  

The mass dissent against Trump and May is providing a window onto a much deeper division in British politics, which Labour should exploit. When the government stood by Trump’s state visit, Labour was right to call for its cancellation. Where May appears relaxed about torture and banning Muslims, Corbyn should roll out an ethical foreign policy, defend immigration and preach equality. Where May appears doggedly Atlanticist, Corbyn can point towards a close relationship with Europe. As a new coalition promises to organise the biggest demonstration in British history against Trump’s state visit, multiple strands of Britain’s ideological and cultural war will come together in the minds of millions. If Labour can provide bold leadership to them, everything could change.

The problem is that Labour has already triangulated itself into a hole on the biggest related issue of the day – Brexit. Having whipped in favour of Article 50 on its second reading last night, Corbyn has played it safe in the hope that Hard Brexit can be averted further down the line. This is a trap. When May returns with a negotiated deal, parliament will be voting with a gun to its head – either to accept the deal or to have no deal at all. Then, when Labour runs a general election campaign on the basis that Tory Brexit has been a disaster for society and the economy, critics of all political stripes will point out that Labour voted for it at every possible stage.

There is an alternative to this strategy. It is remarkably simple and it has actually been formally proposed by Labour backbencher Chris Leslie. Amendments 5 and 9 to the Article 50 Bill would bind the government into retaining European Single Market membership. This Norway-style Brexit option would offer stability to the economy, and, more importantly, have the effect of retaining swathes of protections for workers and the environment, as well as free movement. The government has no mandate to withdraw from the EEA – in fact, membership of the Single Market was in the Conservative Party manifesto in 2015. Instead of retreating, Labour should make a show of holding the Tories to their own election pledge.

Labour finds itself wedged into a corner because it has failed to attack the government’s legitimacy narrative, and it has convinced itself that doing so would be electoral suicide. To change that, it must state some relatively modest facts. Abstaining on, or even opposing, the government’s particular formulation of Article 50 does not equate to blocking Brexit. With 48 per cent of people having voted directly to continue it and not all of the 52 per cent being opposed, there is a good case that there is a popular majority in favour of free movement with Europe, grudging or not. The "working class vote" does not consist entirely of white people with regional accents.

As with much of what has gone wrong since September 2015, Corbyn’s strategy on Brexit thus far has been driven by the politics of the Westminster bubble – in which the parameters of what is possible are defined by a hostile press and the prevailing common sense among MPs. Labour is giving ground and surrendering the narrative on Brexit and free movement, and this will only strengthen Ukip and the Tories. Meanwhile, a new movement quite outside that bubble is emerging, disgusted at Trumpism and rebelling against Hard Brexit. If Labour can provide this new movement with leadership, it could find itself catapulted into the lead; if it fails to do so, many will look elsewhere.

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After a year of chaos, MPs from all parties are trying to stop an extreme Brexit

The Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit.

One year ago today, I stood on Westminster Bridge as the sun rose over a changed country. By a narrow margin, on an unexpectedly high turnout, a majority of people in Britain had chosen to leave the EU. It wasn’t easy for those of us on the losing side – especially after such scaremongering from the leaders of the Leave campaign – but 23 June 2016 showed the power of a voting opportunity where every vote counted.

A year on from the vote, and the process is in chaos. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The Leave campaign deliberately never spelled out any detailed plan for Brexit, and senior figures fought internal battles over which model they preferred. One minute Britain would be like Norway, then we’d be like Canada – and then we’d be unique. After the vote Theresa May promised us a "Red, White and Blue Brexit" – and then her ministers kept threatening the EU with walking away with no deal at all which, in fairness, would be unique(ly) reckless. 

We now have our future being negotiated by a government who have just had their majority wiped out. More than half of voters opted for progressive parties at the last election – yet the people representing us in Brussels are the right-wing hardliners David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson.

Despite widespread opposition, the government has steadfastly refused to unilaterally guarantee EU citizens their rights. This week it has shown its disregard for the environment as it published a Queen’s Speech with no specific plans for environmental protection in the Brexit process either. 

Amid such chaos there is, however, a glimmer of hope. MPs from all parties are working together to stop an extreme Brexit. Labour’s position seems to be softening, and it looks likely that the Scottish Parliament will have a say on the final deal too. The Democratic Unionist Party is regressive in many ways, but there’s a good chance that the government relying on it will soften Brexit for Northern Ireland, at least because of the DUP's insistence on keeping the border with Ireland open. My amendments to the Queen’s speech to give full rights to EU nationals and create an Environmental Protection Act have cross-party support.

With such political instability here at home – and a growing sense among the public that people deserve a final say on any deal - it seems that everything is up for grabs. The government has no mandate for pushing ahead with an extreme Brexit. As the democratic reformers Unlock Democracy said in a recent report “The failure of any party to gain a majority in the recent election has made the need for an inclusive, consensus based working even more imperative.” The referendum should have been the start of a democratic process, not the end of one.

That’s why Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit, in order to ensure that voices from across the political spectrum are heard in the process. And it’s why we continue to push for a ratification referendum on the final deal negotiated by the government - we want the whole country to have the last word on this, not just the 650 MPs elected to the Parliament via an extremely unrepresentative electoral system.

No one predicted what would happen over the last year. From the referendum, to Theresa May’s disastrous leadership and a progressive majority at a general election. And no one knows exactly what will happen next. But what’s clear is that people across this country should be at the centre of the coming debate over our future – it can’t be stitched up behind closed doors by ministers without a mandate.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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