At last, the EU future relationship bill has been published. It’s decision time for Labour – and MPs’ inboxes are beginning to fill up with free advice. So how should Labour vote?
The first guide is always the national interest. And that would tell us a deal, however bad, is better than no deal. Few put it better than Unite manufacturing chief Steve Turner, who urged Labour to vote for the deal because “right now it’s time to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with UK workers”. He and 34 manufacturing workplace leaders concluded: “Anything else would be an act of gross industrial vandalism that will not be forgiven by those impacted by it.”
But, cry many (with good cause), this deal is a long way from perfect. There is new paperwork for lorry drivers. A border down the Irish sea. Our fishing fleets were sold down the Channel. The trade agreement is a trade reduction treaty. Surely our political interest is to abstain, safe in the knowledge that the Conservative Party has the votes to push it through? “Let’s not be complicit! Let the Tories ‘own this’!” shout the incoming emails.
This, I’m afraid, is cakeism. The abstainers want to avoid no deal, but don’t want to back the deal that’s done. They want to have their cake and eat it. If only life was like that. But it isn’t – and here’s why.
The abstainers are inviting us to exploit the luxury of a seminal defeat for future political advantage. That is, to say the least, a very high-risk strategy. Last December’s crushing rout was delivered to us in part because voters wanted to ‘get Brexit done’. Most painfully, our working-class base collapsed because, having voted for Brexit by a margin of 64% to 34%, they concluded (in the stunning verdict of the Labour Together post-mortem) that “Labour no longer represented people like them”.
Imagine, you are here in Birmingham and a recently unemployed car worker asks you, “you knew a deal – any deal – was key to save my job, so why didn’t you support it?”. Frankly it won’t cut a lot of ice to say, “because I didn’t think the deal was perfect”. You’d be told pretty bluntly that perfection is a luxury few can afford right now in a city where unemployment is spiralling back to a level we last saw in the 1980s.
It’s true that we could try to sit back, carp from the side lines and then, when things go wrong, tell everyone who’ll listen that ‘we told you so’. But anyone who thinks there will be a prize at the next election for the cleverer-than-thou hasn’t been on enough doorsteps in ‘Red Wall’ seats like the eight we lost across the West Midlands.
How will abstaining on the deal persuade working-class voters to come home to Labour? Abstention is not a qualification for high office when it looks like indecision. And indecision on one of the greatest national questions in our history will not persuade the good people of the 124 seats we need to win to form a government to vote for us. We would risk last year’s swing away from us becoming a permanent switch.
This deal will not be as ‘economically and socially catastrophic’ (as the emails put it) as no deal, but it is a trade reduction deal. That’s what Brexit is. Like it or not (and I don’t like it), that’s what 17.4 million people voted for.
Our strategy should be to protect and progress. We should vote through the basic deal that safeguards the country – including Northern Ireland – against no deal, highlight the many flaws, then bring forward a series of votes in the months to make good the Tory Party’s sins and omissions. We should start by asking to opt back into the Erasmus scheme. That way, we protect ourselves from the accusation that we’ve simply not moved on from either the referendum or last year’s election defeat. And we’ll ensure the Tories own their failure.
This armistice is the end of the ugly Brexit battle that’s engulfed our parliament for over four years. But it is only the beginning of the new alliance with our neighbours. We could carry on fighting the last war – a battle in which we failed. Or we could summon the imagination and energy to win the peace and set out, with clarity and persuasive force, where we go from here.