22nd February 2017
-By Steven Duckworth-
Why Tony Blair is right about Brexit and why Labour must ignore him
I like to think of myself as fairly non-partisan on politics. Extremists aside, I believe most people get involved in politics because they generally want to improve society for all of its members.
Having said that, I am a supporter and member of the Labour Party, not because I’m a socialist but because I believe Labour is still the party that is best able to deliver and sustain a prosperous and fair society. It shouldn’t need saying that Labour needs to actually get into government before it can deliver anything, but in these febrile times for the party, it’s always a point worth making.
Bearing this in mind, it was with some pride and a great deal of sadness at Labour’s current plight that I watched Tony Blair’s Blooomberg/Open Britain speech last week.
Labour’s most successful leader riffed across many different, but connected, themes intelligently and effectively. His delivery was impeccable and he talked directly to the people his speech was aimed at, the 48% of the population who had voted to remain in the EU. Only a masochist would want to compare him with the Labour Party’s current leadership team, but compare I did and it left me in a state of despair.
In terms of detail, Blair was spot on too. I also believe that people believed that leaving the EU would help finance the NHS, cut down on all immigration and return sovereignty to Westminster. All of these assertions by the Leave campaign were demonstrably false and I do believe that Blair is right when he predicts that leaving the EU and the Single Market would have a highly negative impact on our prosperity and standing in the world. Blair also showed his political instincts and craft when he accused Theresa May of being the purveyor of “the mantle of patriotism abused”. Oh, how that would sound coming across the dispatch box on a Wednesday lunchtime.
So where does Mr Blair’s intervention leave us when we think about the politics of Brexit specifically? I tend to think it offers nothing much at all.
Theresa May has decided – for reasons of clarity and political expediency – that a hard Brexit is what she will pursue. Tim Farron has concluded the opposite, but for much the same reasons. The SNP are similar to Farron, but they think this all may well provide a tilt at another Scottish independence vote.
Which leaves the Labour party; of all the parties it needs to face both ways on Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn had no realistic choice but to back the government over triggering Article 50. I think it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.
Blair may want a politically realigned movement that energises and engages Remain voters – as a Remainer I’m glad someone is making the case – but Labour has to get on with the task of running a party at Westminster and fighting elections and that means trying to straddle the Brexit divide.
So is there a way forward for Labour on Brexit? Well, there are no easy choices; the party will anger and ostracise many supporters whichever way it decides to go on the issue. But there are opportunities. Labour needs to be positive and start to describe what sort of Brexit the government should be pursuing: red lines on the Customs Union, what a fair immigration policy would look like and pushing for a settlement for those EU nationals already resident in the UK would all start to frame a different take compared to the other parties.
This is the right thing to do in itself, but it also lends Labour authority when – and I think it will – the government begins to flounder on its Brexit negotiations. An opportunity for a second referendum might even arise and Labour should support it, but from a position of a party that has tried to implement the referendum result rather than obstinately opposing it.
Labour faces a real Hobson’s choice on Brexit and will have many a difficult moment in the months ahead. There are no easy lines for a party that elected a Eurosceptic leader ahead of a momentous EU referendum. A different party under a different leader might well have been able to join a broad-based movement to oppose Brexit, but Labour’s tragedy is that it is in no position to take up Tony Blair’s rallying cry.
Massive mistakes over the past few years, particularly the last two, have meant that if it is to survive – and that is already in the balance – Labour will have to slowly and tentatively build its way out of the pit it finds itself in. There is no room for political quick fixes in that particular project.
By Steven Duckworth