It was heartening, after nearly 18 months of navel-gazing and in-fighting, to watch a Labour MP clinically dismantling Theresa May’s non-plan for Brexit in Parliament. It’s been a long time coming, but is all the more welcome for that. Keir Starmer showed he has a grasp of the complexities that Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson can only dream about. He may be “second rate”, as described by the mighty legal brain that belongs to Iain Duncan Smith, but that’s still too high for the Tories to handle.
Brexit is the defining issue of the next three years, and now that we have taken the initiative, we need to keep it. Too many times Ed Miliband would set the agenda, only to lose it a few days later when the steam ran out. Nobody knows the answers but at the moment we are the ones asking all the right questions. So here are a few simple ideas to make sure this issue continues to be up in headlights:
- Respect Leave. It is easy to gloat, which is probably why everyone’s doing it so much, but we won’t get anywhere by saying ‘I told you so.’ There are many Tory MPs who voted Leave who are appalled that the thing they voted for – sovereignty – is being kept from them even before we have left the EU. We can be making alliances with all parties on Westminster – even UKIP. Carswell’s vision for Brexit is as much at odds with Farage as our own. But we should be using our brilliant army of door-steppers to go round the communities and find out what people really want. We can’t do that until we…
- …know what we’re talking about. Starmer has led the way, but we should be clear about the options because if Labour is to make any headway in these fabled heartlands – where we are losing ground to UKIP – then we need to be able to explain, in plain English, what is happening.
- Be creative. Let’s buy into the benefits of Leave. Instead of mocking that £350m a week let’s work to make it a reality. Which NHS services are suffering in your area? What could your community do with an NHS windfall? In areas that voted Out we need to change the agenda from immigration to fighting for the economic benefits promised by the Leave campaign.
- Reach out to Europe. Let the EU negotiators know that it is not just the 16 million people who voted to stay, there is a sizeable chunk of leavers who disagree with the Government’s non-policy. There is no doubt our vote has put the EU in a terrible bind. They need to make an example of us to discourage other countries from following suit. How do we work together to get the best for everyone? The answer is home territory to Labour: the EU needs to reform its finances, and fast. The only reason freedom of movement is such a big topic is because we’ve all given up on trying to forcing the banks to abandon the unrealistic financial targets that hit the poor the hardest.
- Call out Theresa May on racist attacks. Every day that she refuses to express any concerns about the rise in hate crimes is another day of shame for her. The argument about whether or not the rise is caused by Brexit is less relevant than the actual fact that hate crimes have increased massively since June.
- Show a bit of Alastair Campbell. However you feel about Tony Blair’s spin doctor, he was brilliant at commanding the headlines with great little phrases. “Brexit shambles” is a start. How about “dog’s Brexit”? Or more positive: “Fighting for your £350m a week”? There are plenty. “Give us a foreign secretary who’ll command respect, not ridicule”. “Fighting for Brexit, but not in the UKIP sense”. “Brexit being decided by someone who commands fewer than 200 votes”. “Theresa May not”.
- It’s not about us. Corbyn may well be the unassailable leader of Labour but this is much bigger than us. Thank goodness, we can finally stop fighting each other and concentrate on the easy target across the commons. But…
- There may be big lessons for us to learn. For those still briefing against Jeremy, you’re not helping. Our interminable internal wrangles are relevant only insofar as they get in the way of our successes.
For those who felt the PLP behaved badly over the summer, the irony shouldn’t be lost on them that Labour is at its best when highlighting the big problem of May’s Brexit: the voice of MPs and Parliament is as important as what the people decide. Perhaps those who criticised the PLP for wanting to do their job may think, at their leisure, about how democracy involves an acknowledgement of how the two groups must work together.
But that’s for another day. Right now there’s too much else to do.