The government has chosen to interpret last year’s sea-change referendum in an extreme way and embraced a set of positions and values on Brexit and migration that risk making the UK an illiberal, fractured and smaller nation, literally and economically.
How can the government get away with this? The referendum was not a landslide victory. Millions of Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem supporters voted on the other side. Only a proportion of the winners voted as they did for xenophobic reasons – and they certainly did not vote to make themselves poorer.
Despite this, the government has chosen a course of action – a hard Brexit – that reflects the views of vocal and influential hardliners, not the majority of the public. Minority opinion has never been more powerful.
Theresa May is putting her own interest ahead of the country’s. She does not want to be the fourth Tory prime minister to be politically crucified by her party on the cross of Europe. She is desperate for the support of the right-wing press and the nationalist wing of her party. Where Cameron placated, she has actively empowered, regardless of cost. And she hopes the costs of a hard Brexit will only emerge the other side of the next general election.
But this does not explain Labour’s position. The party’s frontbench has effectively brushed aside the views and interests of the bulk of its own supporters who wanted to stay in the EU and now don’t want to jeopardise their jobs by leaving the single market and the customs union as well. They value migration and want to see it managed, not virtually ended.
By going along with hard Brexit now, Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer have torpedoed Labour’s ability to oppose the government’s approach when it fails later on. This is not acting in the national interest.
Nobody would claim that Brexit is easy to navigate politically, but Labour has rendered itself impotent on the most important set of issues facing Britain in most peoples’ lifetime. Setting a series of belated “tests” for the government will hardly reverse the damage.
The response to all this has to go beyond party politics. A national, pro-European effort should seek to unite opinion in civic society and mainstream politics, based on three Rs:
Resist. We have vocally to oppose what we don’t agree with – we have to challenge and controversialise decisions so ‘new norms’ don’t materialise. That is why pro-refugee, anti-Trump demos, the Gina Miller case, new newspapers or campaigns against hard Brexit are so important.
Renew. People with liberal, social democratic views have been losing arguments on issues such as security, spending, globalisation, identity, migration, integration. We need to renew our policy offer in these areas – we need real alternatives not just raw anger. There is a lot that unites some Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and Green MPs and activists across all these issues – but the networks to do new thinking have to be created.
- Reorganise. We need a new generation of leaders who can inspire, locally and nationally, from both non-metropolitan and metropolitan neighbourhoods and parts of the country. Campaigns and parties have to put much more effort in to looking for new talent beyond their own organisations and boundaries. We need to hear fresh, authentic voices and end the idea that mainstream politics cannot speak for the majority.
If the centre left does not provide the leadership of this fightback, with Labour at its core, it will not have a future.
Peter Mandelson is a Labour peer, former business secretary and an architect of New Labour.
This article appears in the 29 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition