Labour fringe: MPs can’t agree on party’s Brexit direction

A debate at the Labour Party Conference, hosted by the New Statesman, highlighted the differing directions the party's MPs want to take.

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Three conflicting views on Labour’s Brexit policy were presented by three Labour MPs - Caroline Flint, Ben Bradshaw and Stephen Kinnock – in a discussion hosted by the New Statesman at the Labour Party conference.

The event was sponsored by The UK in a Changing Europe and the panellists were also joined by the intitative's director, Professor Anand Menon, to debate Labour’s Brexit position. Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer told conference today that the party will vote down any deal presented by Theresa May that fails its “six tests” for a good Brexit deal - a set of standards that Starmer said May is unlikely to meet. With Labour members voting on Labour’s Brexit policy at this year’s proceedings, the issue of a second referendum is a key point of contention at the conference and the New Statesman’s event.

Presenting the case for a people’s vote, Ben Bradshaw predicted Theresa May would fail to get a deal from the EU, and that parliament would stop the event of a no-deal Brexit because it is a “sovereign” institution.

“My message to colleagues is what is undemocratic, is when we get to that point where there is no deal that parliament has approved,” he said. “Are we then going to say to the British people, and those that will suffer the most, that we’re not going to give the people a final say?”

Caroline Flint, a former minister for Europe, argued that Bradshaw’s plan didn't “respect” the result of the referendum, and that there should not be a vote for a second poll in parliament. If the Prime Minister were to come back from the EU 27 with a “workable” arrangement on the Irish border issue and a “bigger association agreement”, then “how can that be described as a Tory hard Brexit?,” she asked.

Flint also criticised her party’s “six tests” policy, comparing them to the five economic tests for joining the Euro proposed in 2003 by then-Labour chancellor, Gordon Brown.

“These can be played any way they want by the front bench,” she said. Flint  said a second referendum would “divide voters again” rather than resolving current disagreements over Brexit. “It will tell Labour voters that if they voted Brexit, then they may as well vote Tory,” she added.

The present divisions in the UK observed by Flint were echoed by Stephen Kinnock, a member for the EU Scrutiny Committee, who said that the country is “deeply polarised”. Arguing instead for an European Economic Area (EEA) agreement of the kind adopted by Norway along with “a form of customs union arrangement”, Kinnock claimed that a compromise of this type is “the only viable option” currently available to the UK. An EEA arrangement would, Kinnock said, both deliver the mandate of the referendum while also giving the UK greater opportunities for control over freedom of movement. “We’ve got a different cultural and historical relationship with the EU,” he said. “We should have a relationship which reflects that.”

The one area of consensus in the debate was that the Conservatives are handling negotiations with the EU badly. “Nobody on this panel is going to champion the government’s handling of all of this," said Flint. "On that we all agree."