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Neil Kinnock: It would be a serious evasion of duty if Labour failed to seize this chance to protect our country from the rockslide of hard Brexit

Not continuing in the EEA would mean endangering – sacrificing – thousands of skilled and decently paid jobs and, with them, the life chances of countless families

Neil Kinnock
Friday 11 May 2018 19:02 BST
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By supporting continued EEA participation, Labour can end the prime minister’s deference to the cliff-edge kamikaze squad
By supporting continued EEA participation, Labour can end the prime minister’s deference to the cliff-edge kamikaze squad (Getty)

The Labour Party was founded by a coalition of trade unionists, Fabians and socialists of a deeper stripe with the common purpose of putting the wellbeing of working people at the heart of decision-making in parliament and government.

More than a century later, that commitment is as vital as ever. It is what motivated me and 82 of my Labour colleagues in – of all places – the House of Lords to vote for Waheed Alli’s amendment to keep the UK in the European Economic Area rather than abstain as instructed.

I do not break the whip lightly. I respect our Labour leadership in the Lords and I value loyalty. But I have also said that virtue, in excess, fills graveyards. In this case, not continuing in the EEA would mean endangering – sacrificing – thousands of skilled and decently paid jobs and, with them, the life chances of countless families and communities.

Outside the EEA, the battering of service industries would take a heavy toll in the costly, crowded, cosmopolitan areas. And from Broughton to Port Talbot, Sunderland to the East and West Midlands, Scotland to western and southern England, lethal damage would be done to automotive, aerospace, pharmaceutical, engineering and other industries with product links to and from EEA markets that are currently impediment-free.

In short, the hurt would be greatest among the very people our party was established to represent. The resulting corrosion of growth and incomes would further shrink revenues for the vital public services. That’s not a scare from Project Fear. It’s happening now, in this post-referendum, devalued, misruled economy and we’re not even out of the single market yet.

Staying in the EEA can sustain employment and prospects for workers in this and future generations. Those who don’t take a stand for such a policy are letting myopic politics suppress realism.

Those 247 peers’ votes for continuing EEA participation ensure that the elected House of Commons can now decide for or against the only practical way of respecting the referendum result without crashing into huge disruption of supply chains and lost access to vital services markets.

That vote, when it comes, will present the best opportunity to break the grip of the Moggista and DUP hard right on this government. They are the only people who have “taken control” since June 2016. In the national interest, they must be dispossessed. It would be a serious evasion of duty if Labour did not seize this chance to protect our country from the rockslide of hard Brexit.

Securing continued participation in the EEA is obviously not the same as stopping Brexit. But it would mean rule by common sense in the common interest instead of rule by the European Reform Group.

Ms May, or whoever picks up her pieces, will then have to choose between setting a clear new course that commands parliamentary support, or attempting to win a mandate for a hard Brexit in a general election. That ended in humiliation last year and is probably not likely. But, in this administration, the bizarre is normal – so anything is possible.

Labour must make this challenge. By supporting continued EEA participation we can end the prime minister’s deference to the cliff-edge kamikaze squad and force her, or her successor, into the pragmatic patriotism of putting country before party.

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The objections to supporting EEA membership from some in the upper reaches of the Labour Party seem to centre on claims that it would either restrict a Labour government’s freedom of socialist action, or that it would mean ignoring our supporters who voted to leave the EU, or both.

The first of these claims is based on falsehood. The EEA is open to member states of the EU or the European Free Trade Association. Neither the EEA nor the EU are part of the socialist superstate of neocon delusion or of the global capitalist adventure playground of infantile leftist illusion.

The EEA is a mixed-economy agreement of 31 democracies “to promote continuous and balanced strengthening of trade and economic relations between the contracting parties with equal conditions of competition and the respect of the same rules”.

None of that prevents public ownership, social initiative, improving tax justice, promoting employment or advancing the welfare state – as so many instances in current member states show.

The EEA non-EU states are not under direct European Court of Justice jurisdiction and they can manage migration with effective rules. And, since those other 30 economies are not going away from our doorstep and backyard, assertive engagement is surely more useful to the British people than sectarian disdain.

We would certainly not be betraying Labour heartlands by staying in the EEA after leaving the EU. Voters were never, of course, asked this question. Some, doubtlessly, wanted to leave at any cost while many were led to think they could leave at no cost.

The truth about costs, short and long term, is now increasingly plain. And every rational analysis shows that the nearest Brexit Britain is ever going to get to “frictionless” trade in goods and services with the single market is through continued participation in the EEA and (as another peers’ vote advised, and Labour supports) negotiated membership of a customs union. If Labour’s “jobs and investment Brexit” means anything it must involve both of those objectives. We should pursue them relentlessly.

Awareness of the implications of leaving the EU has increased. If hard Brexiters really believe in “the popular will” they might join the majority that now wants “a vote on the final deal”. Their continued resistance to the idea suggests fear of facts, not faith in the people. But that’s a battle for another day.

Lord Kinnock was leader of the Labour Party from 1983 to 1992 and is also a major supporter of the Open Britain campaign

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