Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. Whatever happens, Brexit is going to dominate parliamentary politics for at least another year, maybe more.
No matter how bored you are by it, no matter how tempted by the thought, “Oh, sod it, let’s just jump and get it over with”, the nightmare still has years to run.
Why? Because Britain is nowhere near prepared for anything. The legislation for leaving hasn’t been prepared or passed.
No post-Brexit trade deals are in place (though we’re told that one with the Faroe Islands is looking hopeful !!). And no ‘frictionless trade’/ ongoing relationship with Europe has even been discussed.
Even the most enthusiastic ‘jumpers’ will find that Brexit is the entanglement they can never escape from. This is ‘the special place in hell’ reserved for all of us.
Where then do you turn for sanity? Unexpectedly, it may be in the lifeline thrown out by Bob Kerslake, former Head of the Civil Service. His advice is to accept our current gridlock, rule out a No Deal exit, and face up to the reality that we need at least a year in which to give the public the final say on which option Britain wants to go for.
It is this space that I want to explore.
If the EU has any sense it will offer to suspend Article 50 … for as long as it takes for Britain to work out what it wants to do. The folly would be in putting a time limit on it, leading to yet another charge into patched-up absurdities. To avoid the UK lurching into disputes about whether this required us to participate in the coming EU elections, we should just agree to extend the term given to existing UK-MEPs until Britain’s position is clarified. Giving freeloader Nigel Farage an extension of his euro salary would be a small price to pay for this breathing space.
Labour’s problem is in finding a way to support this. Jeremy Corbyn’s letter – despite its omission of binding commitments to the environment – may be enough to (constructively) ensure no cross-party agreement. This is critically important. Just like the Lib-Dems in the coalition government, Labour would cop the blame for everything that goes wrong in the post-Brexit debacle. Wavering Labour MPs should think hard on this.
Many people have already explained that the 5 points in Corbyn’s letter are either not on offer or considerably worse than a Remain and Reform platform. ‘A’ Customs Union would be worse than being in ‘the’ Customs Union. Britain would have no say in rules we would then be bound by and no ‘exemption’ rights that are currently open to existing Member States. It’s a ‘fools gold’ proposition.
The real opportunity is to turn any ‘pause for thought’ into a new national conversation. The best way of doing so would be under a Labour commitment to a nationwide series of Citizens Conventions. It isn’t just what the country needs. This could be Labour’s lifeline too.
It scares me to look at the gap opening up between the Leadership and the membership in the Labour Party. Polling indicating that Brexit could be more damaging to Labour than the Iraq War or the 2008 financial meltdown, cannot be swept under a carpet labelled ‘the will of the people’.
Labour’s messages about austerity and social inclusion have not been enough to put the Party streets ahead of one of the most discredited and divided Conservative governments in living memory. The Party looks like a better organised Opposition, but not a government-in-waiting. One reason for this is the failure to offer a vision of post-austerity Britain that lives in the future rather than reconstructs the past. This is the space large numbers of Labour’s newest members are wanting to occupy… And they aren’t waiting for the Leadership to lead.
What climate emergency?
It may not have figured in Labour’s letter to Theresa May, but all round the country localities (and activists) have been declaring that climate breakdown is the test tomorrow’s ‘transformative economics’ has to engage with.
From Lambeth to Lancaster, Scarborough to Stroud, and Milton Keynes to Brighton, local authorities have been formally declaring their own ‘Climate Emergency’. The core of these make one thing clear: Britain must to cut its carbon emissions by 50% within the coming decade. Nothing Labour currently has on offer is within reach of doing so.
‘Climate Emergency’, however, offers Labour the space in which all the negatives opened up by Brexit could morph into a national reconstruction agenda; providing hope (and inclusion) for all. What Labour has to do is seize every opportunity to radically shift the goalposts of debate each time something conventional fails. The Nissan/Brexit debacle is a good example.
Of course Brexit was going to haemorrhage jobs. Labour’s platform, however, should have begun from a recognition that there is no future in producing cars that add to the climate crisis rather than reduce it. Why fight for the right to produce a new generation of diesel cars when the next generation needs to be PV or hydrogen vehicles?.
The same logic applies to housing, heating, waste and water. Every aspect of tomorrow’s sustainable economics will have to work within fixed (and reducing) carbon budgets. In practice, this means carbon budgets that reduce by 15% per year.
This is a challenging but still do-able task. Citizens Conventions could be the platform for mapping it out; a platform Labour needs in order to re-connect itself with its own membership.
Back to the Future
Ten years ago Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and I supported an Early Day motion in Parliament. EDM’s put down a marker rather than actually change the law, but their importance should not be missed. The 2009 EDM read
“… this House recognises that there is a climate emergency and that the catastrophic destabilisation of global climate represents the greatest threat that humanity faces; further recognises that the world is already above the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration for a stable planet; further recognises the need to reduce this level to 350 particles per million or below; believes it is impossible to predict how close the world is to dangerous tipping points and that action to reduce emissions now is worth considerably more than doing the same later…”
Ten years later, and in Leadership positions the Left never dreamed it could be in, the challenge for the Labour Party is to do just that. Labour must move the debate beyond the debacle Brexit has taken us into. As the number of ‘climate emergency’ localities burgeons around the land, lambasting the Tories is not enough. Ten years ago, the Left could warn. Today, it has to lead.
It’s what the country is waiting for.