Two weeks after the vote to leave the EU and the Tories are in a full-blown leadership contest. Some Labour MPs are despondent at the outcome of the vote, while others are seeing it as an opportunity to achieve their personal ambitions.
I will fight tooth and nail to make sure our party never splits. Yet it is not a fight any Labour politician or member can do alone. We are a democratic socialist party and we cannot have one without the other. Those who wish to ignore one or both are the ones who wish to divide our party and movement.
I have really felt for Jeremy Corbyn over this period, as he is the first Labour leader to have former leaders touring the TV studios openly attacking him and calling for him to go. Although I or Jeremy would be happy to meet and discuss any views that those such as Neil Kinnock or his son have on how we dislodge a Tory government, we both think that such things should be done in a comradely way and not in the media.
The truth is that nine months after Jeremy became leader of the Labour Party on the back of an overwhelming mandate from party members, there are some members of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) who have not been able to accept this outcome and never will be; some who were open and others who held their tongue but never their opinions. And there are those who are still not happy with the changes to the way we select a leader that equalised the rights of MPs with those of our membership.
Yet a quarter of a million members cannot be ignored. It is they who knock on the doors and deliver leaflets that help Labour MPs get elected. Those who feel they have a mandate from the electorate at a general election have to realise that it is a mandate that was won on a Labour platform and with the help of many members of the Labour Party, whose voice now needs to be recognised.
There are some Labour MPs who are intransigent to the leadership of Jeremy regardless. However, there are others who may not support Jeremy but respect democracy and want to see the Labour Party, regardless of who its leader is, take on the government. It is those MPs who understand that for our party to succeed it must be a comradely coalition.
That is why Jeremy in his calm and dignified way has proposed a period of consultation and dialogue to identify the views of those members of the NEC, trade unions and sections of the PLP on the best way forward. This is the way to take the heat out of the situation and bring people together, not just to oppose the Tories but also to shape the future of the country.
Rules to live by
After the vote to leave, George Osborne went to ground for several days. When he re-emerged, it became clear why. The Chancellor had promised an austerity Budget if Leave won the referendum, in a transparent attempt to blackmail the population. Yet “Project Fear” failed spectacularly; voters don’t like being bullied or threatened.
Instead, Osborne has signalled the reverse: tax giveaways and a suspension of the government’s discredited fiscal charter, which, despite Labour opposition, has been falling apart since it was pushed through parliament last year. We warned at the time that the Chancellor’s inflexible approach – putting restraints on capital expenditure as well as day-to-day spending – would fail miserably, and so it has turned out.
In the March Budget, thanks to the downgrading of the UK’s economic outlook, the first two tests of the fiscal charter were failed: the welfare cap breached for three years and government debt rising rather than falling. It was only thanks to some creative accountancy that the Chancellor avoided missing his third target: to be on course for a budget surplus in 2019/20. This went down the tubes, along with what was left of his career, after the Leave vote, which he inadvertently did much to bring about.
Labour has long argued that the right approach was one based on investment, fiscal policy working hand in hand with monetary policy. While it seems that George Osborne has finally accepted some of our arguments, it’s disappointing that yet again he has reached for corporate tax cuts as a response, pushing the UK further towards tax haven status.
Red lines on EU negotiations
Negotiations over the UK’s future relationship with the EU have yet to take place. As is becoming depressingly clear, neither side of the government had much of a plan on what to do in the event of a vote to leave. Planning to avoid or at least lessen the economic shock has been left almost entirely to the Bank of England.
The longer this lack of clarity from government continues, the worse it is for those in Britain – whether EU or UK citizens. With Theresa May disgracefully hinting that the rights of EU citizens already living and working here could be treated as some kind of bargaining chip, some parameters for the negotiations need to be set in place.
Our starting point is that we will aim to look after the best interests of working people in the UK. That means protecting hard-won rights, as currently reinforced by the EU, and ensuring that jobs and livelihoods will not be damaged. We will not agree to any negotiated deal that does not allow the freedom to trade for UK businesses in the EU, and EU businesses in the UK. Tariff barriers between developed countries make little economic sense and losing free trade will hurt jobs. We will want to maintain the UK’s stake in the European Investment Bank, helping secure much-needed funding. We will not agree to any loss of rights or protections at work. We will not agree
to losing the “banking passport” that provides essential access to EU markets for UK financial institutions – protecting jobs here. And we will not allow the residency rights of EU citizens in the UK, or those of UK citizens in the EU, to be affected.
For a progressive labour movement position on the UK’s future in Europe, these appear a sensible bare minimum.
John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor
This article appears in the 06 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers