Labour wants a “Brexit that brings people together”: here’s what it must do to achieve that.
Keir Starmer yesterday called for a Brexit that brings the country together, rejecting a “reckless Tory Brexit”. He promised to protect jobs and the economy, and retain the benefits of the single market and customs union, along with the rights of workers, consumers, and environmental rights. We endorse these aspirations but, to achieve a Brexit that both unites the country and protects individual rights, Labour must make two further commitments.
First, Labour must commit to making voluntary associate citizenship of the EU (for British citizens) central to negotiations. Associate citizenship has been embraced by Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator. If the next UK government shows similar willing, it will quickly become a reality.
A Brexit that “brings the country together” must offer something for those who voted remain. Theresa May claims Britain is united behind Brexit, yet 44% of voters believe it is the wrong course for the country. For the May government, “unifying the country” has meant imposing the most extreme version one of half’s desires on everyone else. Associate citizenship should win the support of both Brexiteers and Remainers. Those who campaigned on “taking back control” cannot begrudge a measure that empowers individuals to take control of their own destiny and identity. Individuals who want to (and are prepared to pay into the EU) should not be denied the chance to continue to take part in the European project, if this can be done with the UK outside the EU.
Further, if Labour is serious about retaining the benefits of the single market, then it must defend the right to take part in the market of ideas, culture, and services that is central to the
European project. A deal that applies only to goods will retain nothing but a pale, neo-liberal shadow of the true benefits of the single market.
Second, Labour must deliver a Brexit bill that empowers both Parliament and individuals. The May government’s “Great Repeal Bill” will facilitate a bonfire of rights, with Parliament effectively powerless to intervene. Sir Keir promised to scrap the GRB and replace it with an “EU Rights and Protections Bill”. This must place a premium on individual rights and empower Parliament to hold the government to account.
Labour have promised to maintain worker’s, consumer’s, and environmental rights. The Article 50 process gives us just two years to prepare for Brexit. This is not enough time to sort through the entirety of EU law (the acquis communitaire) to decide which rights to keep, if we are to do so in a democratic and accountable way. It is certainly not enough time to ensure that rights are not merely preserved, but accompanied by the network of supporting rules and institutions that make them effective and enforceable. The only way to be sure rights are maintained effectively is to transfer EU law wholesale into UK law. We can then decide which EU derived laws to maintain, repeal, or replace in a thoughtful, transparent, and accountable manner, after Brexit.
A rushed process will inevitably result in rights being lost. As the most vulnerable will find it most difficult to be heard in the melee of Brexit negotiations, it is likely to be their rights that are most affected. We cannot allow this to happen.
Labour must also guarantee that the Brexit bill will not be used to subvert Parliament. The impacts of Brexit will be widespread and long-lasting. It has never been more important for Parliament to hold the government to account.
Theresa May is seeking to side-line Parliament using Henry VIII powers. These will allow her government to exercise the powers of Parliament without submitting to parliamentary scrutiny or winning a vote. These powers are undemocratic and unnecessary, they must be scrapped altogether.
If Labour decide that exceptional powers can’t be avoided, it must guarantee, on the face of the bill, that Henry VIII powers will not be used to erode substantive individual rights. This will mean that individuals can hold the government to account in court if it starts to misuse its powers. Further, their use should be subject to the affirmative or super-affirmative procedure, meaning that they cannot be used without a vote in Parliament.
There can be no doubt that Brexit is the defining issue of our generation. Labour have started out in the right direction, but the country needs them to fully embrace the role of champion of democratic rights and individual liberties.