Len McCluskey: The NEC made the right decision on Labour’s Brexit policy

It is a Labour government, and only a Labour government, that can make the changes the country needs, bringing together the north of London and the north of England. Class not culture is what counts.

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The only surprise about Jeremy Corbyn seeing off the critics of his Brexit strategy at Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting this week is that anyone is surprised.

Reaffirming the party’s conference policy as the basis for its manifesto for the unexpected European elections was one of the more obvious pieces of political common sense.

Why change that carefully crafted compromise of last September, when the sad, yet remarkable, truth is that very little has changed since? Nothing has been agreed by MPs, no option for resolving the Brexit crisis either ruled in or definitively ruled out.

Under the circumstances, it was wise not to submit to an over-cooked campaign to leap far ahead of agreed policy and commit Labour to fighting for a re-run of the referendum under all and any conditions.

I am also unsurprised that the nine NEC representatives elected from the constituency parties because they backed Corbyn ended up voting…to back Corbyn.  A campaign fronted by Alistair Campbell and championed by the leadership’s most vociferous critics was never likely to sway them.

The manifesto decision will not be the end of the matter, I’m sure, but it gives Labour a chance to regroup and once more speak across the artificial divide that is being allowed to scar our politics.

I have always argued that the Europe debate is not really, and certainly not only, about membership of the European Union. It stands proxy for a range of concerns in a society that is somewhat traumatised by ten years and more of economic crisis and austerity.

Millions of people in ex-industrial areas, the sort of communities bypassed by booms yet invariably savaged by slumps, were motivated neither by the primitive nationalism of Farage nor by the free-trade fantasies of the Tory right, but by a desire for their voices, long drowned out by the clink of champagne glasses in the City, to be heard. The European Union was perceived, rightly, as part of the status quo that had left their interests ignored.

Likewise, the hundreds of thousands who marched for a second referendum are not, I believe, demonstrating in support of Jean-Claude Juncker, nor endorsing the economic waterboarding the EU Commission imposed on Greece and Ireland. They want a tolerant, open society and to stand up for liberal values in the teeth of a resurgent populist right.

Both “sides” worry about the country that they will be leaving their grandchildren.

Now I wonder which politician stands for the sort of radical economic and social change that addresses the anger of the first group, or many of them at least? And which politician has spent his life fighting for tolerance, and for human rights for all, wherever they come from?

The answer to both questions is the same and is, of course, Corbyn, whose handling of the Brexit issues has not been about the expediencies of party management – it is the right one in principle. There can be no basis for a successful Labour government resting on the victory of either of the “tribes” into which Brexit has divided our country over the other.

Of course, Britain either has to leave the European Union, as mandated by the 2016 referendum, or not, as urged by much of the country – for that is what the campaign for a further “people’s vote” is really about.

Both arguments have democratic legitimacy.  It is just as right to demand that the decision of 2016 be implemented in some form or other as it is to assert that people have a right to change their mind. 

But this is not a problem of Labour’s making. Theresa May alone bears responsibility for the impasse the country has landed in, and it is right that her party looks like paying the highest political price.

Her great crime has not been ignoring the 2016 referendum result, as her right-wing critics claim, but in effect ignoring the equally democratic 2017 general election outcome. If one thing was blindingly obvious the day after that election, it was that the only Brexit that could get through the new House of Commons would be the sort of “soft”, jobs-first Brexit advocated by Labour.

Instead, she for too long carried on ignoring the new parliamentary arithmetic, as if she had actually secured the hyper-majority she had dreamed of when she called the election three years early. 

Her focus throughout was on appeasing the hard right of her own party.  Now it may be difficult to account for all the motivations of the 52 per cent who voted Leave in 2016, but I am sure that the desire to deregulate, slash taxes, scrap social protections, sign free-trade deals with the Faroe Islands and wolf down chlorinated chicken cooked up by Liam Fox’s Trumpian pals in Washington amounted to only the smallest part.

Yet that is the gang that has been allowed to call the shots, as if they had the votes to deliver their fantasy. It was not wrong of Corbyn to tell the Prime Minister in his party conference speech that “if you deliver a deal that includes a customs union and no hard border in Ireland, if you protect jobs, people’s rights at work and environmental and consumer standards – then we will support that sensible deal.” 

No, it was wrong of May to entirely ignore that outstretched hand until finally forced by serial parliamentary humiliations to recognise the reality as to where a Commons majority might lie.

Whether those talks will lead anywhere is unknown as I write. But it is clear that there will be no positive majority in parliament for anything that does not include the vital job-preserving Customs Union and ensure that Britain does not fall behind the EU on workers, environmental and consumer standards.

It is further clear that the Tory hard-liners are still angling for a disastrous no-deal Brexit following a post-EU elections summer coup which installs Boris Johnson or somesuch as prime minister.

We must make certain that Labour is not the midwife of that scenario.

That is the danger to unite against. It requires support for Corbyn. And it requires a greater degree of mutual understanding between “Leavers” and “Remainers” in Labour’s ranks. Yes, the latter are a majority of the party’s individual membership, an important consideration, but the former speak for a large chunk of the votes we need to win a general election.

Moreover, most trade unions, even if they are committed to a people’s vote don’t necessarily want “Remain” on the ballot paper.

We must all reckon with the emergence of a mass pro-European political movement, a novelty in Britain. But we cannot cavalierly dismiss, as too many London-based pundits day-tripping to the north are inclined to, the views of a large number of Labour MPs. One, for example, representing a northern marginal seat told me this week of knocking on 100 doors and encountering a tide of pro-Brexit opinion and anger at the political class, including Labour.

Our horizons must not be limited by the Brexit debate. It is not the most important question. After all, leaving the EU will bring the “left-behind” areas nothing if a Tory government of austerity and greed holds power in Westminster.

Nor will staying in the EU make Britain an open and tolerant society unless Labour forms a government. Brussels did not stop 30 years of manufacturing job losses, or prevent May sending her notorious “immigrants go home” van around the country.

It is a Labour government, and only a Labour government, that can make the changes the country needs, bringing together the north of London and the north of England. Class not culture is what counts.

So my appeal is to retain our unity and keep our eyes fixed on the real prize – a Labour government that can transform Britain, in or out of the European Union. And that means giving no ground to those who want to undermine Corbyn and split our party.

Len McCluskey is general secretary of Unite.