If Brexit has proved one thing, it is that there is life after political death.
Enoch Powell may have remarked that all great political careers end in failure, but nearly twenty years after his death, his twin obsessions of immigration and Europe are again dominating British political discourse.
And this week, Arthur Scargill used the letters page of The Guardian to attack Jeremy Corbyn for backing extended British membership of the European single market. This shift, claims the leader of the Socialist Labour Party, is to “betray” Labour’s membership.
Scargill may have been right when, more than 30 years ago, he warned of the danger of Margaret Thatcher’s policies, but today he is way off beam.
Labour members are strongly pro-European, and the rise in the Labour vote in June’s general election was driven by people supporting the closest possible relationship with the EU. Ignoring that would be to disappoint millions, especially the young voters who drove up turnout.
Labour’s announcement that it wants to “maintain the same basic terms that we currently enjoy with the EU” for an unspecified “transitional” period, and that it is open to staying in both the customs union and Europe’s single market in the long term, should be welcomed for three major reasons.
Firstly, this position creates the first real clear blue water between Labour and the Conservatives, and we surely need that more than ever. They have a firm basis to oppose the government’s Withdrawal Bill.
Labour must resist attempts from ministers to drag them down with their floundering Brexit, the timetable of which gives scant regard to the need for Parliament to properly scrutinise the raft of legislation hastily churned out by Theresa May and her fellow Brexiteers.
Second, this position could finally put the “meaningful” back into the parliamentary vote ministers were earlier forced to promise. If Labour measures the Government’s deal against the “exact same benefits” it wants to deliver, it should be willing to completely reject any and all proposals from the Tories that do not hit that standard.
Voting down the government’s position does not have to mean no deal – just a new deal, and one that could still be negotiated within the context of EU membership.
Third, this position is a huge step forward for those of us who think we need to keep the option of continued membership open, which is where my organisation, Best for Britain, stands – even though Labour is not yet supportive of that line.
Perhaps most important for Labour itself is what this signals to the one third of voters – from across party allegiances – for whom Brexit was the most important issue, as well as the two thirds of Labour supporters who do not support Brexit.
By going further and creating the space to add “No Brexit” to the menu of options the country should consider when measuring the Brexit deal against our current terms, Labour would give further confidence to those voters that they are no longer politically homeless, but also that their views are being listened to again.
The policy shift, though, is important not just for its content, but also for what it says about the momentum of the debate.
Last year, ministers told us that it was for them alone to determine the timing of the withdrawal notice and the course of the negotiations. The first claim was crushed by the courts, while the second has not survived collision with political reality.
Barely a month ago, after being ridiculed for turning up at the negotiations with empty folders, came the first of the Government’s position papers. These have been damned as “magical thinking” in Brussels, but actually described policy options that sound much like our current membership arrangements, augmented with cost and added inconvenience.
There has certainly been nothing in any position papers so far that suggests we would be in any way better off if we left the EU.
I’m sure ministers have something up their sleeves here, but I hope they do better than leading Brexiteer Lord Harris, who, when asked on the Today programme this week what good things would come from leaving the EU, could come up with nothing more than saying he “felt” Brexit would be better. He then added that it would allow him to insist his employees work longer hours.
For all these reasons and more, Labour’s real opposition must start this week with the Withdrawal Bill – fighting the Government will help expose the gaping holes in their panic-stricken approach to a Brexit it cannot turn into a success.
All those working on the Withdrawal Bill – from civil society groups to businesses to Opposition MPs – need to tell Theresa May the open secret looming over Whitehall: that no Brexit is better than a bad Brexit.
Eloise Todd is CEO of Best for Britain
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