This article was originally published in the New Statesman on November 21st 2018.
“I always voted Labour. So did my mam and dad. But I can’t vote Labour now.”
“You’re going to stop Brexit aren’t you?”
I was on the Metro in Newcastle and the woman was about my age and lived very close to the council estate where I grew up. She had recognised me and started chatting.
I told her we would respect the result of the referendum
“You don’t mean it. Why can’t we decide what we do like we used to?” she asked.
I said it was the government who had bungled the negotiations.
“Oh yes they’ve made a right mess of it, them Tories. But the French and Germans were always bossing us around.”
I wanted to explain that that was not really how the European Union worked, that the European Parliament had grown in power over time and that it was elected by people like her, but it was her stop and she had to get off.
Afterwards I thought that what I needed for this Brexit season was a story that can be told in three Newcastle Metro stops.
That meeting made me think of another constituent, from a more leafy part of Newcastle. He came to my surgery very angry that Labour was supporting Brexit in the 2017 general election. “You’ve stolen my children’s futures.” he shouted at me. “How are they going to make their way in the world? They won’t be eligible for Erasmus studentships anymore.”
I told him I championed the European Union for all its flaws and that our regional economy and history of international solidarity all pointed to remaining in the EU but I had to respect how people had voted.
I know if I had told the people I grew up with that some students might not be able to study abroad as easily as a result of Brexit, they would have voted Brexit even more enthusiastically.
And if I told my strong Remainer constituents that some constituents don’t want to be bossed around by the French and Germans, they would accuse me of ignorant populism.
And then of course there is industry, not a constituent as such but providing many of my constituents’ jobs. Brexit will have enormous consequences for British industry and particularly for regions like the North East, that still have great manufacturing and engineering industries. As shadow minister for industrial strategy, I want our debate on Brexit to be driven by a rational understanding of how our industrial economy actually works – what we make here in Britain, why companies make things here in Britain, who our customers are and the jobs that can and could flow from that.
Many will be scanning this blog to find out how I am going to vote and will be asking why I am banging on about my constituents and stakeholders. But these are the views and the people that I am trying to both represent and bring together. In government or opposition, Labour must present a clear way forward for Britain’s relationship with Europe, one people feel represents their interests even if it is not their ideal path. And that is not easy, even if many seem to think it is. I want those who tell me, “It’s easy, just call for another vote,” and those who tell me “It’s easy just respect the vote we have,” to see that we have common interest in coming together and have confidence that Labour is determined to govern this country in our common interest.
In some ways Newcastle reflects the country. We voted almost straight down the line – 49.3 per cent to leave, 50.7 per cent to remain as opposed to 52: 48, but we reflect the diversity, division and commonality of the UK. I have some of the most prosperous streets in the country and some with the highest levels of multiple indices of deprivation. Austerity has hurt all of us, but has hurt some of us more than others as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty recently confirmed. Take the metro from Newcastle Airport to Byker, and you travel through a reduction of 11 years in the average lifespan of those living nearby.
Yet the North East is the only region in the country to export more than we import and 52 per cent of that is to the European Union. Any kind of Brexit is almost certain to leave Newcastle worse off and a no-deal Brexit is estimated will take 16 per cent off our regional GDP in part because we are a successful manufacturing region.
So stark inequalities, strong Remainers, committed Brexiteers and a regional economy integrated into Europe. How do we square that circle?
I believe we have to start with the most important thing about Brexit – what it tells us about our nation. The fact is that the Brexit voters won more than the Brexit vote. They won the right to be heard. Pre-Brexit, few were paying much attention to the views of people in estates like the one where I grew up. In the minds of important people, including some in the Labour party, my one-time friends and neighbours were bigots, insular, uninformed, ignorant or just not important enough. They hadn’t gone to the rights schools, didn’t have the right jobs or the right vowels. The Brexit vote concentrated the mind of the nation. Just one example – as shadow minister for industrial strategy, I meet industry groups and lobbyists all the time. Before Brexit they told me how much they contributed to the country, but they meant London. Now they tell me how much they contribute to the regions. They’ve started measuring it. That is the Brexit effect.
The right to be heard is a key battleground in the history of our country and profound theme in the history of my party. It is at the heart of the age-old division between those who toil in silence and those who speak from a gilded platform. It is why Wat Tyler marched on London, why blood was spilled at Peterloo, why so many were deported to Australia in chains. Our party was formed to give a voice to the voiceless, and when I put myself forward to be Labour’s candidate in Newcastle Central I said that was what my job would be.
So we must start from the Brexit result and the right to a voice. The next step in a constructive approach to future Europe is to recognise that, despite the promises of so many well intentioned people, the European Union has not promoted the voice of the voiceless, either here or across Europe. I am Vice President of the Party of European Socialists and we must acknowledge that whilst European socialists are responsible for hugely important achievements from the social chapter to the protecting the environment, to ending mobile data roaming charges, Brussels never felt like a stronghold of socialists standing up for the voiceless. Over time, and undoubtedly exaggerated by a right-wing media, Brussels came to look more and more like a House of Gradgrinds, of people in fancy suits unified by their contempt for those who did the work. And then came the financial crisis, and the gospel of austerity championed in Brussels with its most enthusiastic choir in David Cameron’s Whitehall.
European socialism payed the price – since 2010, the number of socialist or social democratic parties in government has halved. As the leader of a socialist party riding high in the polls, Jeremy Corbyn is an exception, which many of our sister parties look to with envy.
So no matter what Britain’s future relationship with Europe is the Labour Party must stand for a democratic Europe that works for working people. We have to be able to tell my constituent on the Newcastle Metro that her party is standing up for Labour’s values in Europe – her values – and not letting anyone push us around.
But that does not mean Labour should embrace the idea that Britain can go it alone in a globalised world, where there are great powers that do not share our democratic values or our commitment to social solidarity. I think European unity is a good thing and worth fighting for. But just not any kind of European unity. A Europe of authoritarian racists, a Europe of neo-liberal bankers, of Gradgrinds, a Europe which uses international pay differentials to exploit and undercut working people and undermine communities with immigration fears – no thank you. A Europe which works for ordinary people – yes please.
Immigration is often cited as the key issue of the Brexit vote and it is certainly one that was talked about the most. Labour has recognised that leaving the European Union means free movement will come to an end. But I don’t believe that will make people here more prosperous or jobs more secure, not under a Tory government. As an engineer I worked all over the world, not taking other people’s jobs but meeting skills needs where they were needed. I believe that like sustainable trade, the right kind of skills exchange makes everyone richer. And Labour must not be afraid to say that.
In charting my path through the next few weeks, I hope to help the Labour Party give voice to the voiceless in a way that leads Britain out of this Conservative crisis of political national and international mismanagement. As shadow minister for industrial strategy I know it was the working people of Britain who were first silenced and then betrayed by the decades of laissez faire market economics which privileged the rich and the well-connected. I will not join those who campaign to reverse Brexit under a banner of complacency, which would simply go back to the status quo without addressing the causes of Brexit. But neither will I support the betrayal of my constituents by a Brexit deal which sacrifices their future prosperity.
Because that is what the current deal would do. British industry is integrated with Europe, we are part of supply chains that go back and forth across the North Sea and the Channel multiple times. These European supply chains cannot be replaced by American or African or Australian ones – the logistics and the costs are just too high.
British industry sells what we make in European markets. Many of our most profitable, high wage firms are global, and whether they are based here or overseas, decisions on where to locate production are driven by their understanding of what makes sense for their companies. The UK has huge potential in an age of technological change as a centre of advanced manufacturing: our hundreds of years of engineering excellence, our world class universities, our rule of law, our highly productive workforce. And our closeness to Europe’s megamarket.
This deal dumps our industry out of the customs union within 24 months, it introduces barriers to our trade in services and it create legal uncertainty and regulatory mismatches with Europe. It therefore endangers our core industrial competitiveness, and threatens the future of British industry and the economic and physical wellbeing of communities across the country.
I know some businesses have come out in support of the Prime Minister’s deal as something they can work with which will reduce uncertainty in the short term. But I will prioritise the long term interests of my constituents over the short term interests of some businesses.
So I will not vote for a Brexit deal which does not meet Labour’s six tests – the tests are simply what the Tory government promised Brexit would deliver and what our economy requires. I will not accept that the nation should be voiceless when it comes to what the deal is – so I will not accept that it is a choice between this deal and no deal. If Theresa May cannot get her deal through Parliament, she should go to the country in a general election where everyone’s voice can be heard and I will campaign for that and for a Labour government which builds a Britain and a Europe which values the voices of everyone and rewards their contribution.
If we cannot have a general election, then I will support a people’s vote on the deal, and that vote should include the option to reject Brexit, now we have seen the deal and are more familiar with the methods and motives of the Leave campaigners. But no matter what happens, no matter what our country’s relationship to Europe becomes – I will insist that the interests of the people that sent me to Parliament, our values, our solidarity, our commitment to social justice – define what Europe is.