Without a general election, Norway plus is our best option

As trade unionists, trying to do the best for those you serve often means choosing between a range of imperfect scenarios.

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This afternoon Theresa May sat down with Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford to discuss a way forward on Brexit. This was the right approach, albeit woefully late in the day. As I told the Prime Minister when I met her months ago, she should have reached out on Brexit options as soon as she entered Downing Street, not merely at the tail end of her premiership when she feels she has little else to lose.

With only nine days until a potentially catastrophic no-deal Brexit, every effort to avoid that disastrous outcome must be made.

As the union representing UK public service workers, we campaigned in 2016 to remain in the EU. We believed that would be the best outcome for public services and for everyone who works in them. Yet, painful as it was for many of us, we accepted the result of the referendum as the will of the people. In the nearly three years since, we have sought to find a way through that respects that unprecedented vote while protecting public services, jobs, wages, the economy and – crucially – peace in Northern Ireland.

As a result, our firm preference is for a general election that I believe would sweep the Tories from power – and allow the Labour Party to negotiate a far better deal with the EU. 

Yet until or unless there is another election, we owe it to our members to pursue other viable options. That’s why we’ve come out clearly in support of the so-called Norway plus plan – remaining in the customs union and the single market. It’s not a perfect option – but there are no perfect options. Certainly remaining in the EU as it currently exists would be far from perfect.

Yet as trade unionists we are rarely working with perfect scenarios. Representing people and trying to do the best for those you serve all too often means choosing between a range of imperfect scenarios and trying to secure the best possible result from them.

It’s disappointing that MPs have so far failed to find an option – however imperfect – that they can coalesce around. Sticking doggedly to your preferred option rather than reaching out to avoid catastrophe is not leadership, it’s dogmatism. The people deserve better.

That’s why today, UNISON – the biggest union in the UK – is making an effort to reach out to avoid catastrophe. Not because we have changed our mind about what the best course of action is, but because it is our responsibility to do all we can to avoid the worst of all worlds – a no deal Brexit that threatens the peace and prosperity of everyone in the UK.

Today, leadership means saying that if the only way to pass an imperfect deal – one that doesn’t include membership of the customs union and the single market – is to let the people have their say, then that’s what has to be done. We cannot allow our future to be dashed on the rocks of a no-deal Brexit.

Dave Prentis is general secretary of UNISON.