A prominent Labour MP today condemns her party’s self-imposed silence on Brexit, saying it is playing into Boris Johnson’s hands and hampering attempts to tackle urgent issues such as the cost of living crisis and climate change.
Writing for the Observer, Stella Creasy suggests Labour’s defensive approach amounts to a betrayal of those who voted to remain in the EU in 2016.
Labour, she argues, cannot and must not wait until after the next general election to speak out about areas in which Brexit is clearly failing, and the benefits of cooperating more closely with our European neighbours.
“For fear of saying the wrong thing, many in Labour claim it is better to say nothing at all about Brexit. But such reticence does not honour those who voted Leave – or Remain,” she writes. “Each wanted their vote to mean something better than chaos at the borders or businesses in peril.”
Creasy, who chairs the Labour Movement for Europe, adds: “Whether [it is] businesses overwhelmed with red tape, [or] care homes missing staff or rising food prices, the public are asking why such difficulties keep happening – and finding MPs avoiding an honest answer, let alone a solution. To fix something, you first must name it. And that means getting over the myth that talking about Europe is code for re-running referendums.”
Her comments come amid growing frustration among many Labour MPs and activists about Keir Starmer’s refusal to address in any detail the Brexit issue – one on which he campaigned vigorously before he became leader, and was prepared to defy then leader Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer was a leading proponent of a second referendum on EU membership, arguing that membership was indisputably in the UK’s national interest.
Now, however, the Labour leadership – based on its reading of focus-group data – is reluctant to let any of its MPs speak out about closer links with Europe or too favourably about what the EU does, for fear of alienating pro-Brexit voters behind the “red wall”. It also believes Boris Johnson will jump at any chance to attack the party as wanting to rejoin the EU.
Last Monday, at a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy told MPs that when talking about the Northern Ireland protocol it was important to make clear that both sides – Brussels and not just the UK government – had to be more flexible. MPs saw his remarks as an instruction not to allow themselves to be branded as too pro-EU in the media, or by the Tories.
One senior member of the front bench said: “All this does is create a vacuum, one in which we say nothing at all, and Johnson can dictate the debate about Europe and Brexit. It is very frustrating. At some point we have to start speaking up on this issue.”
No one in the parliamentary party is advocating a policy of rejoining the EU. But there are those who would like to see closer involvement with the single market under a Labour government, and a return to EU free-movement rules, particularly as evidence grows that Brexit is harming trade, and contributing to rising prices.
Many of these MPs say Starmer should make a speech spelling out how Labour accepts that Brexit is irreversible and is not in favour of re-entering the EU, but is still true to its values as an internationalist party that wants to build closer links with our European partners.
Last week, Labour shadow minister Anna McMorrin was reprimanded by the Labour leadership for saying she would like to see the UK return to the EU single market if her party formed the next government.
In her article, Creasy writes: “We can’t solve the cost of living crisis without revisiting what leaving the single market and customs union has done to grocery shopping. Economic growth has fallen 4% on the 2016 trend – every percentage point representing £9bn in lost revenues for vital public services. How can it be fair our constituents are now paying more to feed their families, small businesses are struggling to import or export and our children are missing opportunities, all while a political elite still claim to be ‘taking back control’ – just not yet.”
A motion to the Labour party conference in Liverpool in September, put forward by the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, and backed by Momentum, supports returning to the EU’s open borders agreement.
Ben Tausz, from the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, said: “Ending free movement was the biggest expansion of border controls in the UK’s recent history, but attacks on migrants’ rights and human rights are still intensifying. The Tories’ anti-migrant agenda is designed to divide working-class people and convince us that foreigners are to blame for falling living standards. That was the narrative at the heart of their Leave campaign, and we aren’t going to defeat it by pretending it’s not happening or, worse, peddling a soft version it.
“Most Labour members agree, and we expect a strong showing for our motion this year.”