We all know that Brexit is a divisive and emotive issue for many people. It now appears to be causing some, journalists included, to take leave of their senses.
You can see that in the commentaries arguing that the person to blame for this whole national torment is… Jeremy Corbyn – aided and abetted by me. That’s right; it is the Labour leader and his supporters who are responsible for the fact that Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union in the next few weeks with, at the time of writing, no agreement as to the terms.
In this parallel universe, all would be well if Labour somehow used its Commons minority to thwart the government’s Commons majority on the issue. The problem is evident.
Let’s look at the reality. The referendum was a Tory initiative taken by David Cameron for petty partisan purposes, not supported by Labour at the time.
In 2016, Labour, and my union, confronted with an imperfect choice, campaigned for a Remain vote as being in the best interests of British working people. Jeremy Corbyn spoke at dozens and dozens of events in that cause. He showed rather more energy, I recall, than the head of Labour’s official campaign, Alan Johnson, who has escaped any criticism at all subsequently.
Since then, Labour has voted against Theresa May’s disastrous mishandling of the Brexit negotiations every step of the way. Jeremy Corbyn whipped Labour MPs to oppose her flawed deal when it was eventually put to a vote. Likewise, he supported the Cooper-Boles proposal to rule out a “no-deal” departure. And he tabled a Commons amendment expressing Labour’s full conference policy on the issue, including the option of a further referendum.
Labour was defeated on all votes in the Commons. That is the maths, I’m afraid. However, what has really tipped the Remain commentariat over the edge is the fact that Corbyn wrote to the Prime Minister outlining the terms of a Brexit Labour could with a clear conscience support.
You might have thought that this would be hailed as a statesmanlike initiative at a moment of national crisis, an attempt to seek out common ground so the country can move forward. Not a bit of it. For the “vote, vote, and vote again until we get the result I want” brigade it was a betrayal. Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie were first amongst them, notwithstanding that the things Corbyn proposed were exactly what they had been advocating until very recently.
Likewise, post-truth journalists such as Toby Helm of the Observer and the Independent’s James Moore have misrepresented Corbyn’s position (and Unite’s) as if we were thwarting the democratic will. The mistake these factious MPs and over-wrought writers make is not taking Corbyn at his word. He has said repeatedly that democracy obliges us to accept the referendum result, even though we do not like it.
The election manifesto on which all Labour MPs stood and which secured 40 per cent of the national vote 18 months ago made it clear that if Labour formed a government, it would seek to deliver a “Brexit” very much along the lines of his letter to Mrs May.
And as recently as last September, at the end of his party conference speech, Jeremy Corbyn spelt out that he would be willing to work with the government to agree an exit deal if it met Labour’s clear principles on safeguarding jobs, market access and workers’ rights. So all this pearl-clutching at Corbyn’s letter by some of Labour’s right-wing and their media echo chamber is dishonest. It can only be sustained by ignoring everything Corbyn has said and everything he has done on this matter.
Anyone expecting this Labour leader to suddenly reverse every public position he has taken and to engage in a fraud on the public doesn’t know the man. The programme he set out in his letter offers the best shot at getting even a loose national agreement as to how we can move on from Brexit. Of course, it has enraged the Tory right who want to seize the chance to impose a no-deal free-market unbound calamity on the country.
They want to continue to hold May hostage, keeping her from moving towards the common-sense centre on this issue while they busy themselves tying up the trade deals with the Faroe Islands and Tonga which are supposed to secure our economic future.
But Labour’s initiative should be welcomed by everyone else, including those Remainers who acknowledge that the referendum result should be honoured and who want to pay more than lip-service to the concerns and views of the millions of working people who voted to leave the EU.
For too long those concerns have been dismissed, including, alas, by sections of the metropolitan left who have no appreciation of the problems many working-class communities face. Just this week, for example, the boss of the supermarket chain Lidl admitted that he used cheap labour from elsewhere in the EU to keep wages down, and would likely have to give employees a pay rise post-Brexit.
One can argue about how this problem should be tackled, and Unite favours labour market regulation and controls on the exploitation of agency labour. But can my friends in north London in groups called Socialist this or Workers’ that please at least admit that a free-market in labour power works no better than it does in any other area of economic life?
The views of Umunna and Leslie seem to be conditioned above all by their determination to disrupt the Labour Party, probably as a preparatory step to leaving it.
I have now been in the party nearly 50 years. I would be lying if I said I had never thought of leaving – the Iraq War brought many of us to the brink or over it, and Labour’s refusal to repeal the anti-trade union laws when it had the chance felt like a bitter betrayal. Nor was I over-delighted when Ed Miliband set the police on Unite during the manufactured Falkirk controversy a few years ago.
But there was luckily always someone on hand to tell me to stop moaning and whining and to get on trying to change things instead. If Owen Smith would like their phone number, I will try to oblige. Certainly it is reprehensible that someone who less than three years ago aspired to be party leader should now threaten to quit over the Brexit position.
He must surely have read the manifesto he stood on in 2017. The one that gave him his personal best election result in Pontypridd, and increased his vote by nearly 7,000 – and made it clear that Labour would handle Brexit exactly in the way it is doing today? If he or other Labour MPs were deceiving the voters as to their intentions during the election then they should not expect any plaudits as democrats if they now leave Labour on this issue.
As it is, it is those in the labour movement looking for a way out of the mess that are taking the media brickbats. For the record, Unite’s policy is to accept the 2016 referendum, but also allow us to campaign for a people’s vote on the deal (a mechanism we will use) if the PM is incapable of moving away from her red lines, in particular, on a customs union to secure protection of jobs and investment. Any other question on the ballot paper is open to debate.
Also, for the record, I am not negotiating Brexit terms with Theresa May. But nor will I let my members down, in manufacturing above all, by refusing to engage with the government ministers on matters of vital concern to their futures.
Those are inconvenient facts for those who would like to blame the left for the mess that the right have made of our country and are making of Brexit.
My plea is that we turn our anger against those responsible for this crisis – the Tories – and our energy towards the best solution – a general election. Let’s unite in securing a Labour government on the basis of Corbyn’s Brexit plan and his radical proposals to renew our nations.