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LABOUR can congratulate itself for inflicting a “humiliating loss of authority” on Theresa May in Wednesday night’s Brexit vote, but the party needs to better promote its own vision for our future outside the EU.
Parliament’s palpable lack of faith in the Prime Minister as our negotiator-in-chief is shared beyond Westminster. Since the Conservatives’ disastrous election result in June, the government has had no mandate for its approach to Brexit or anything else.
This is not simply a matter of incompetence.
The free-trade fantasies floated by International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and Brexit Secretary David Davis show their ambition to sign our country up to TTIP-style treaties which subordinate elected governments to transnational corporations, open public services to exploitation by predatory profiteers and put environmental protections and labour rights at risk.
Given the EU was itself a prime mover of TTIP and has continued to push the equally anti-democratic Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada, Remainers who like to imply this neoliberal agenda is a creation of Brexit are being disingenuous.
But it still makes sense for Labour to do everything it can to ensure the Tories are not given a free hand in negotiations.
There are real enough differences between what the Conservatives want from these talks and what the EU wants. Brussels will be keen to warn other member states not to leave by ensuring Britain is seen to lose, while May clearly wants a win to sell to the electorate as a reason not to turf her party out of office.
There are acres of common ground. too. The Tories and the EU Commission are united on pursuing a deregulatory agenda based on forcing “competition” into the public sector, attacking workers’ pay and conditions to produce a “flexible” labour market — read job insecurity and mass unemployment — and removing all restrictions on the activity of big business.
No deal cooked up between them is likely to advance working people’s interests. So Labour is right to push for more accountability in the Brexit process and to exploit divisions within the Tory Party.
If Labour is seen to be seeking to reverse the decision to leave the EU, however, either by trying to force a second referendum or by pushing for a “deal” with Brussels that maintains most of the trappings of membership, such as continued membership of the single market, it not only risks serious electoral consequences — two-thirds of Labour constituencies voted to leave — but could tie the hands of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government by shackling it to EU rules on competition and state aid.
Corbyn himself has been clear that Britain can forge an independent foreign policy outside the EU based on “solidarity as well as mutual benefit and fair trade,” while colleagues such as shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner note that “our withdrawal from the European Union presents Britain with the chance to develop a progressive trade and investment policy that puts working people at its heart.”
But there are lorryloads of Labour MPs who do not share this vision. Nor do Wednesday’s Tory rebels or the residual Liberal Democrats hanging around Parliament like a bad smell.
Corbyn’s team should counter the Tory meltdown with a positive pitch based on how Labour will use Brexit to deliver a better, fairer Britain and stamp hard on any suggestion that the party might try to stop it.
If Parliament is to be given a vote on the final deal, it would be no bad thing if the Parliament that does so has a different composition to the current one.
The best outcome of May’s defeat in the Commons this week would be if it brings a new election, and the end of her premiership, that bit closer.
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