As Labour Party members gather for the annual conference, this year in Brighton, Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, is urging delegates to unite behind the Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Brexit.
Let the people decide. What could be clearer — or more honourable — than that? In these divided times, where the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, two parties aspiring for government, have opted for the polarising messaging of the demagogue, Jeremy Corbyn is saying that Labour will not dictate to the voters but instead work for them and with them.
Let us unpack what the Labour leader is offering voters. He is saying, elect me into No 10 and the party I lead will honour the vote of 2016 and do its utmost to secure the best possible Brexit deal. He will then put this deal back to the people but, in order to also honour the views of the 48 per cent, it will be the Labour deal vs Remain on the ballot paper. The people will decide.
Amid the heated voices and uncompromising stances, Labour is now the only political party offering an approach on Brexit that speaks in calm tones to the whole country. It is the only party putting the unity of the nation ahead of narrow calculation and easy headlines — because it is the only party that understands that unless we heal this country, our country, our people will suffer.
Of course, the attacks have begun already. The ultras on either side of the referendum fence will never be satisfied but this should not deflect Labour and our movement from our responsibility to bring our country together. This was also why Labour worked to fend off the horrors of a no-deal Brexit.
The choice before the Prime Minister now is respect the law or break the law. Do the latter or impose a bad, Tory deal and you’ll break our country; you will send businesses to the wall, cause needless misery for the most vulnerable and send blameless people to the dole queue. And you will do so to satisfy an extreme faction of your party, one of whom is making a fortune on the side by betting against the pound. So much for the party of patriotism.
As for Jo Swinson, she has turned a party with roots stretching back to the last century into an aggressive, one-policy pressure group overnight. Perhaps she is hoping that this rebranding will make us forget her part in the austerity scandal the coalition government visited on the communities and people of this country. Fat chance.
‘Vicious Tory government’
Wherever you go, whatever you say, the Labour Party and trade unions will be there to remind you of the hurt you actively chose to cause to innocent people because you wanted to sit at the table, propping up a vicious Tory government, of which the leader, David Cameron, stated the other day is that his only regret is that he didn’t roll out a harder, faster form of austerity. And no doubt you would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Neither, too, should any heed be paid to calls for Corbyn to state whether he would back a Labour Brexit deal or Remain. The party’s long-stated, principled intention is to get the best possible deal it can from the EU. Indeed, signals have been sent from the highest levels of the EU that the contours of Labour’s deal, which would maintain access to the single market and retain a customs union (described eloquently by Emily Thornberry as “to leave but not go too far”), both vital to our economy, would be acceptable to the 27 member states.
But it would be wrong — plain daft, in fact — for the party to take a position before any deal. No trade unionist would ever go into negotiations with an employer stating where they will stand on any deal before discussions have even begun. It is no different for Corbyn and Labour in this instance; negotiate in good faith with honest intentions, a message I would like shadow cabinet members to declare received and understood.
I am going to put my cards on the table here. I have spent many a long night poring over the electoral map of the UK, searching for how Labour could achieve power if it came out for one side or another. So desperate am I for a Labour government to undo the damage of this punitive government that if a clear Leave or Remain position guaranteed victory, I would accept it.
Try as I might, however, I cannot see where the votes to give us the seats would come from — and, more importantly, I cannot find anyone within the party who can show me either. Yes, we may pile up some more votes in safe Bristol or London seats but this would be at the expense of those in Wales, Wakefield and Wigan.
No, the correct position has been and remains that Labour must act for the whole country. The position as articulated by Corbyn does exactly that, which is why, ahead of conference, I make this plea to our friends across the party. Whether you are a constituency delegate or a trade union delegate, an MP, or an affiliated society member, we are as one because we are trade unionists, we are socialists and, above all, we are democrats. Do not let us be divided or defined as anything other, either by our enemies or by Brexit. Support Corbyn, support this Brexit position.
This is not the time to abandon our principles or relinquish our duty as democrats. Yes, the constant attacks are exhausting: from the media and those within our own ranks who have never reconciled themselves to that historic moment four years ago when Corbyn was elected leader promising a different kind of politics. They have spun and schemed from the shadows, feeding an eager press pack with lies and distortions.
Even commentators who profess to back our leader, and should know better, peddle the divisive nonsense that the trade unions affiliated to the party and the members can never be as one. They have all been outwitted by Corbyn at every turn because, even in these testing times, our members understand decency and principle when they see it, and I am confident that the voters will too.
We are Labour, established to take on privilege and self-interest, the party of our communities and of public service. When a general election comes, we will go to the people with a platform of hope and reform, ensuring that nobody, no community is left behind. We have a programme that will transform this country for the better, healing the dreadful wounds of austerity inflicted because the Tories told a staggering lie about the economy and the Lib Dems enabled them.
As has been said before, Brexit is a process, it is not a destination. It is for us to articulate that destination, the vision of the country we seek to build together and for one another.
This comment first appeared in New Statesman