Nye Bevan said: “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down.” That is pretty much what happened to us in the European elections. For the first time since devolution, Welsh Labour came third – behind Plaid Cymru. That result was a bitter pill to swallow. It showed that our attempt to be neither Leave nor Remain did not work. Do we back Brexit? Do we want a final say? I was asked these questions throughout the campaign – on ministerial visits, by my own local members and by constituents. The same questions and frustrations were expressed by friends and family alike.
I know that taking a side comes with its own risk of losing supporters, but Labour should always stand up for what is right and not what is easy. Standing in the middle of the road, refusing to choose, has driven away people from all sides.
Our UK message on Brexit was decisively rejected by the public. For those willing to give us five minutes of their time on the doorstep, you couldn’t possibly explain in that short window what our policy was and why. It was not a courageous and principled position – it was seen for the fudge that it is. The messaging of other parties was simple.
The detail of Brexit is complex – most politicians can’t describe the intricacies of the customs union, single market or the World Trade Organisation. None of us truly know what the electorate voted for in 2016, although we do know lots about what people voted against.
There was undoubtedly a build-up of resentment and anger towards Tory austerity. The narrative that David Cameron and George Osbourne created of ‘workers vs shirkers’ was disgraceful. Those who are being insulted by the Prime Minister and don’t think they have much stake in the status quo are unlikely to agree that change will make their life worse. The anger of many Brexit voters with how the UK doesn’t work for them is well-placed. The reality is that the EU isn’t to blame – it’s the choices of politicians elected to governments across the UK that could and should change their lives.
It’s not just that we need a platform built on Labour values to change and transform Wales and Britain – we won’t get the opportunity to implement our agenda without resolving Brexit. And leaving the EU will make our task much more difficult.
I want a UK Labour government and an end to austerity as much as any other member or supporter. But we cannot do that if we aren’t prepared to try and win people back. The voters who deserted us and ran to Plaid, the Greens and the Lib Dems won’t come back if we don’t provide clarity on Brexit across the UK as we have done here in Wales.
Infuriatingly, we waited until after we suffered a predictable mauling at the polls before providing that much-needed clarity – in Wales at least. Welsh Labour now has a clear position: any deal must go back to the people in a confirmatory vote with an option to remain. We are clear that in any referendum Welsh Labour will campaign to remain.
We have the clarity in Wales, but we still don’t know what UK Labour intends to do. Despite the crushing results, despite sound advice from all corners of the party, UK Labour still hasn’t come out unequivocally for a final say. Worse than that, Jeremy Corbyn is still talking up the fantasy of a general election and a Brexit deal.
Jeremy Corbyn has said on more than one occasion that the party would be in the hands of its members under his leadership. If he is any doubt about where Labour members are across the UK, he should put the question to them in a one-member-one-vote ballot. Give our members across the UK the power to decide the biggest issue of our generation.
We have to choose whether UK Labour is for a Brexit deal or for Remain, and confirm our support for a referendum to settle the issue. We cannot wait until autumn to decide. We can’t wait any longer for the leadership to reach the same conclusion that the membership reached long ago. We can’t wait for UK Labour to catch up with Welsh Labour.
I have said for some time that we should back a final say on Brexit with the option to remain. It isn’t a political calculation to harvest votes – I’ve said that it could potentially turn people away. For me, it is the right thing to do. We know that Wales will be poorer if we leave the EU and that a no deal Brexit is the worst outcome possible.
It is something of an irony that Nigel Farage, members of the European Research Group and the DUP who claim to believe in the union of the UK are the most likely to break it up. If you want Scotland to leave the UK, you’ll enjoy what happens if the UK is driven over the no deal cliff without another referendum. The impact on the island of Ireland would be hard to understate.
We must offer an alternative, to stop the chaos and focus on what is most important to the people of Wales. Rhodri Morgan had many assets as a leader. He could be bold and brave. He wasn’t afraid of standing up for the people of Wales within the Labour family or against the Tories. We now have clear red water on the case to stay in the EU. Wales has taken the lead on a final say and the UK party should do the same. If it doesn’t, we are in dangerous territory.
Labour doesn’t have a right to exist. The recent electoral defeat we suffered could easily be repeated an at Assembly or general election. Most importantly, this is the right thing to do for the people that we are here to serve.