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14 January 2017

How to negotiate a progressive Brexit

As a pro-Remain MP in a Leave area, I know Labour needs to engage. 

By Phil Wilson

Today, Open Britain and the Fabian Society have come together to try and answer some of the hard questions Brexit poses for the Left, and to outline the principles that should inform our approach to Brexit, in a new pamphlet. As an MP who campaigned for Remain representing an area that voted Leave I know how important it is for Labour to engage with the outcome of Brexit negotiations to ensure working people’s interests are protected.

It is fantastic that progressive groups are thinking about Brexit and going beyond the platitudes of “red, white and blue Brexit.” That’s why today[s document has been welcomed by Keir Starmer and the Shadow Brexit team and supported by Labour MPs.

Open Britain and the Fabian Society suggest six principles that should government Labour’s approach to Brexit, covering the economy, our foreign and security policies, immigration, the laws that protect our environment and rights at work, domestic economic reform, and the political way forward. This approach is aimed at preserving the best aspects of our EU membership, while respecting the result and tacking the underlying frustrations and pressures that led so many of Labour’s natural supporters to vote to leave the EU.

The greatest threat to working people is the spectre of a destructive hard Brexit, which would impose onerous and damaging tariffs, customs duties and red tape on our exports to, and imports from, the EU. This would mean fewer jobs, lower growth, and higher prices. A full 44 per cent of Britain’s exports go to the EU, making it comfortably our largest trading partner. A progressive Brexit approach to trade should prioritise three strands – continued participation in the single market and customs union, unless it can be proven empirically that doing so will not damage our economy; a rejection of the WTO model, which would dramatically increase barriers to trade; and a transitional arrangement, should one be necessary, to bridge the likely gap between Britain leaving the EU and a new, permanent trading arrangement being agreed.

This must be combined with action on immigration, which was such a powerful driver of the vote to leave the European Union. What the British people want is greater control over immigration without paying an economic cost. This must be our approach too, as we look for a new deal on immigration from the EU that includes, for example, tying free movement to those who have a job offer and arguing for sector-specific emergency brakes that could be applied in cases of identifiable economic stress. It is important to note that The Dutch Deputy PM is calling for reform and David Cameron’s “special status” renegotiation conceded the principle that rules could be altered in response to exceptional inflow of workers causing serious problems. At the same time, however, Labour must not abandon our internationalist, progressive principles. We should continue to welcome the immigrants our economy needs, and stand up for the European Union citizens who are already resident in this country, and now find their rights under threat.

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Another priority must be an approach to security and foreign policy that keeps our streets safe and prevents strategic shrinkage. We should seek to maintain our current level of co-operation with Europe on security, including British participation in the European Arrest Warrant, Europol, and databases such as the Schengen Information System. At the same time, we must seek to prove to allies in Europe and the United States that we remain a serious partner on the world stage. That means maintaining the 0.7 per cent target for international aid spending, leading action against climate change, and continuing to play a full role in Nato, including maintaining the 2 per cent of GDP funding target.

One of the great achievements of the single market, one that has not been fully appreciated by some, is the swathe of common rules that protect workers, consumers, and our environment. Labour must stand for the maintenance and advance of these standards, and fight ceaselessly against the Tory instinct to seek a competitive advantage in making Britain the Sports Direct economy of Europe. While this future might appeal to some business tycoons, it would be a grim future for working people.

Tackling the root causes of frustration and alienation, especially in Labour communities, must be spearheaded by changes to our domestic economy. Action to rebalance our economy in favour of working people – through more training and skills funding, greater investment in regional economies, worker participation and a focus on exports – is long overdue. This will, however, be undermined without urgent action to replace the EU funding streams that currently benefit deprived areas of our country.

And ultimately, this whole approach must be undertaken in a spirit of consultation and consent that has been lacking from the Government. Parliament must be involved not grudgingly but willingly, by putting down a detailed plan before the House of Commons and accepting that MPs must vote on the triggering of Article 50. The devolved administrations, as well as local government leaders in the English regions, should be given a seat at the top table, rather than the occasional unenlightening meeting with David Davis. 

Others will have their own valuable ideas about Labour’s response to Brexit. What is needed now is policy detail within the context of the enduring Labour values of equality and social justice, coupled with a commitment to human rights and internationalism. When the Prime Minister presents her “plan” there must be a credible Labour alternative – today marks the start of putting one together.

Phil Wilson MP is a leading supporter of Open Britain