Take the last elections. Brexit was the word no one dared utter. The pundittieri of press and TV preferred to see Labour’s decline as something leading to the kind of party they’d like it to be – a house-trained, re-creation of the SDP.
Yet the fact is that Labour did badly in Brexit-voting areas but better in urban metropolitan areas which supported Remain.
It was punished when it selected a passionate Remainer to fight Hartlepool – one of the most enthusiastic Brexit constituencies – by 69 per cent (compared to 59 per cent in Batley and Spen).
Clearly Brexit was more responsible for Labour’s poor performance than Sir Keir Starmer. He did his best but largely on his own because so many Remainers sulked on the sidelines.
A few proclaimed the intention of going back. Others claimed that the disaster prophesied by operation fear was still to come and began to say “I told you so”.
Yesterday’s potential leaders Hilary Benn, Emily Thornberry, Yvette Cooper and others fell mysteriously silent. So Starmer fought Hartlepool largely on his own and then got blamed for doing badly.
If this mess extends into another decade of futility, Labour is finished. Its basic problem now is how long before it accepts the verdict of the people and recognises that’s we’ve left the EU for good.
Living in the past is no position for a national party. After previous defeats, Labour has always eventually recognised reality and adjusted to the new world, though usually after a long struggle to deny it.
Sitting waiting for Brexit to fail (and hoping it will) offers no future to a party which should be about power, not schadenfreude.
Britain is two thirds of the way out of the EU and there’s no turning back. So the job of opposition now is to invigilate the Government’s efforts to get a better deal for Britain, not go back to a dead past.
Government for its part must change the settlement, to give Britain the full independence every other nation has by shucking off the controls and restrictions the EU has imposed to weaken us.
That alone will give each side – the EU and us – the opportunity to grow in its own way rather than becoming a source of continuous bickering and friction.
Instead of agreeing to a fair and balanced settlement the EU exploited Boris Johnson’s desperate need to get some kind of agreement to weaken Britain as a competitor.
Theresa May’s negotiating was weak. As Michel Barnier observes in his diaries, she had already given too much away while Boris desperately needed an early agreement to break out of the impotence the Supreme Court and Hilary Benn were trying to impose.
He did but to get it he had to concede a Northern Irish settlement which is unworkable, a fishing agreement which gives most of our fish away, restrictions on state aid which will make it difficult to rebuild our weakened industrial base, and provisions for banking and services which will make life difficult for them in the EU.
On top of all this, it gives too much scope to French ‘buggeration’ through over regulation, excessive form filling and industrial action.
Britain needs a more equal treaty which will put our relationship with the EU on the same terms enjoyed by every other independent nation.
Getting it will be far more difficult if Labour defends the fiction that the settlement is ”a legal international treaty” and not to be touched.
Labour must recognise that the EU is now a commercial rival, not an old friend, and our patriotic electorate is hardly likely to smile on a party taking the side of competitors they’ve never particularly liked
On the other hand for Labour to accept that we are where we are, and give up sulking, will allow politics to return to normal with an opposition doing its job of pushing government to give a better deal to the people.
Once Labour becomes relevant it can outbid the Government, urge a stronger line and develop its own plans to seize the opportunity of Brexit to regenerate our failing economy, and improve the lot of its people which is the real job of opposition.
Austin Mitchell was Labour MP for Great Grimsby from 1977 to 2015. He lives in West Yorkshire.
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