“The Tories did not win votes from people in northern towns by saying they would be exposed to ever-fiercer international competition.”Paula Barker MP
Thank you for the invitation to speak today. I very much welcome the Leave Fight and Transform initiative. Now that leaving the EU is an imminent reality we need to quickly set out a positive agenda for what this can mean for our communities – and LeFT, and this meeting, is an important part of that.
I’ve been an MP for more than a month now and I am proud to represent the people of Wavertree, and I am proud that I was elected on a radical Labour manifesto – a manifesto that offered the prospect of a real break from 40 years of neoliberalism.
But of course, that prospect was not realised, with us losing over 50 seats to the Tories in leave-voting areas.
I will talk about what I think we should learn from that defeat, and how that should affect us going forward.
But I want first to outline how my own thinking on the EU referendum has developed over these last few tumultuous years.
Prior to becoming an MP I was the regional convenor of UNISON North West. It was in that role – and as a representative of some 200,000 workers in public services – that I voted in the 2016 referendum, – and I voted to leave.
I voted leave because I wanted a major shakeup. I wanted to defeat Cameron and Osborne and end their austerity agenda that I’d seen have such a devastating effect on the public services in the North West and on the workers who deliver them.
I voted leave because I wanted to see the removal of potential impediments to a radical Labour programme. Limits on government intervention through state aid rules, limits on public spending, limits on a government’s ability to protect workers from the ravages of marketisation and competition.
And I voted leave because I’d seen the damage done by the ECJ’s Alemo Herron ruling. This key judgment means that the many thousands of workers who have been outsourced from the public sector to the private sector do not receive subsequently agreed pay rises. The significance of this decision should not be underestimated – nearly every industrial dispute that UNISON North West members have been involved in in recent years is rooted in the injustice of this ruling – a ruling that denies outsourced public service workers the rate for the job. And this ruling cannot be changed by the UK courts or the UK government or the UK people – not without leaving the EU.
I did not regard the referendum as being about immigration or liberal social values. The referendum posed a legal and institutional question about the UK’s future – and I answered accordingly.
I was of course concerned by the subsequent direction of Labour policy. First, the emphasis on retaining close links with the EU over positively embracing how the freedom of leaving could help us implement radical policies. And then, after the 2017 election, the gradual rehabilitation of the possibility that the UK may not leave at all.
But I stood on the 2019 Labour manifesto in its entirety, including the party’s position on the EU.
I had confidence that Jeremy Corbyn could negotiate a better deal than Boris Johnson – with greater freedom on state aid and continued protections on workers’ rights.
And the party’s position still left open the possibility of a Labour Brexit – that would allow leaving the EU to be done in a unified way, uncontaminated by any hint of anti-immigrant or nativist sentiment. I thought there was a chance of winning a leave vote again – but on a clear Labour agenda.
Above all, the prize of a Labour government, with Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister, was a very great one. I believe such a government could still have been transformatory even within the bounds of EU membership.
Ultimately, I weighed the positives of a Corbyn government more heavily than the potential benefits of leaving the EU.
But of course it wasn’t to be, and we now face the prospect of a Conservative majority government, that will be able to get Brexit through but also its wider legislative programme.
In these circumstances, history teaches us to fear the worst.
What’s different this time is that that majority of more than 80 seats is built on the votes of leave-supporting ex-Labour voters in the north of England.
We know that the chief change in the Labour policy offer between 2017 and 2019 was the shift in the EU position. And I believe that that shift played a big role in costing us the chance to implement our radical and popular programme for government.
But I think it was also the Tories’ positioning that cost us votes in the former Labour heartlands. ‘Get Brexit Done’ was an attractive message to many, but I think it was crucial that this was combined with the Tories ditching talk of the need for continued austerity. I don’t recall prominent Conservatives going on about the ‘magic money tree’ in 2019. The Tories were not saying that they were keen to ‘Get Brexit Done’ in order to return to George Osborne’s project of reducing the deficit. No, Brexit needed to be done so that hospitals can be built, schools can have more money, and police numbers can be increased.
There is now a potential tragedy in that communities who have suffered most under austerity have now voted-in a Conservative government to wreak further destruction. And that would surely be the case if the right-wing Brexiteers get their way. They see Brexit as an opportunity for deregulation and an extreme form of marketisation – even talking about unilaterally removing protections for British industry – such is their fanatical commitment to unfettered trade.
But there is no mandate for this agenda. Boris Johnson even talked before the election about having a new state aid system by 2021. The Tories did not win votes from people in northern towns by saying they would be exposed to ever-fiercer international competition.
Following the election, Labour must now of course accept that there is no doubt that the people’s will is to leave the EU – and that that must be delivered.
But the Tories do not have a mandate for a deregulatory Brexit. In the next five years we need to defend the British public from any move by the Tories to exploit their majority to deregulate and further marketise our economy, whilst also setting out a positive vision of what could be achieved by a Labour government outside the EU.
Our radical manifesto would undoubtedly be easier to implement outside the EU, [including for example] :
– the re-nationalisation of the railways, and of Royal Mail
– increased public spending
– and having an activist government, intervening to protect and promote the interests of working people.
We’ll never know for sure now whether that manifesto was compatible with EU membership.
But being outside the EU will make this agenda more achievable in the future, and it will make a party advocating these policies in a general election more believable, more credible, and more electable.
These are crucial days and weeks now for the Labour Party and the labour movement.
We could double down on our criticism of Brexit and continue to bemoan the decision that has been taken.
Or we could double down on our advocacy of the radical economic policies that will decisively break with neoliberalism, and that can deliver for our people and communities.
I believe we need to do the latter, and people involved in initiatives like LeFT need to work tirelessly now to win the argument, that a socialist UK outside the EU is possible.
- We publish above Paula Barker MP’s speech to the LeFT meeting in Wigan on Saturday 18 January 2020 as a contribution to the ongoing debates taking place on the left.