Exciting vision or doctor’s mandate? The problem for the centre-left

I wasn’t at the Progress Conference on Saturday. I’d promised my friends (and myself) a broadly non-political weekend after the past couple of months. But it seems that at least parts of the Conference were in ‘tell hard truths to our own side’ mode. In particular, Stephen Bush’s speech has attracted much comment:

There’s clearly plenty of truth in this. It is indeed wearing to hear social democrats talking about being divisive as if that were the issue. Quite clearly it isn’t. The issue is that we dislike Corbynite politics and want something different. Some allowance needs to be made for moderates’ exhaustion from trying to hold the hard left off. But to return Labour to its mainstream tradition, you need to persuade and inspire people who currently like Corbyn. Alternatively, you need to get people in to outnumber them. And no, Labour moderates can’t easily shout about electability in our current state.

But I’d make two main points in return. First, the Corbynite left can cross lines social democrats can’t. I’m not calling for a naive form of ‘straight-talking, honest politics’. (Bush is quite right there. Note to self: stop doing it.) But it’s hard to counter an entire prospectus based on the pretence that middle-class corporatism equals redistribution, sums we know don’t add up and a foreign policy which sells parochialism as ‘peace’ once people have bought into it.

If people believe fantasies, they’ll always sound better than messy trade-offs. In that case, how do you pit realism against the big lie mode of politics and win? I’m sure a sufficiently charismatic and inspiring leader could do a great deal to address that. And no doubt much more can be done to frame the issues differently. It’s still a huge problem.

The second problem is the unappealing truth of where we find ourselves. The UK faces several crises which we need to address, with limited state bandwidth to devote to them. Fortunately for all of us, I have neither any prospect of becoming Prime Minister nor any desire to try. But were I in charge, I have a rough idea of what I’d prioritise.

I’d need to find a substantial amount of money just to keep core bits of the public realm from falling over. The NHS, social care, councils, welfare and the justice system desperately need cash. To be clear, the cash injection wouldn’t even be to make things (much) better: it’d mostly be to stop them from getting worse. As we’re talking tens of billions of pounds of current, not capital, spending (and we’d better have some room for manoeuvre to prop the economy up if Brexit goes disastrously wrong), this means broadly-based tax rises. By all means try to hit the very rich too. But there’s a reason social democratic paragons have higher VAT than we do, not just higher top rates of income tax.

I would, of course, try to minimise the damage from Brexit. This means delivering the softest version compatible with electoral acquiescence and political reality. Unfortunately, a Brexit with a severely constrained trade policy and free movement probably won’t stick. If that’s true, it gets worse. The least-worst Brexit is different in Great Britain and Northern Ireland — but the consequences of substantial differentiation between the two are unacceptable. And it may well be that neither of these least-worst options can be agreed. Whatever the result, the question is how much worse off we end up — not what we gain.

I’d also look to our east and west and conclude we as Europeans were dangerously exposed. We have a currently indifferent hegemon across the Atlantic and a dangerous revanchist at the other end of the North European Plain. Democratic Europe should be planning for a real security crisis in which Washington abandons it. It shows little sign of doing so. The UK is of course one of Europe’s best defence and security performers. That doesn’t make it anywhere near good enough, and the 2% of GDP floor has ceased to be high enough. Unfortunately, we are in no position to advise others on pan-European policy and expect to be listened to. But Europe needs to make a start. To get anywhere, the UK will need to commit serious additional resources of its own.

I am well aware both that climate change is rapidly reaching a tipping point, if it hasn’t already, and that the UK can do little on its own to turn things around. We’ve long since reached the point where we need to talk frankly about adaptation and mitigation. This includes our responsibilities to the wider world, most of which got much less than we did out of the emissions which created the crisis. By all means try to push the wider world towards keeping climate change in bounds. But don’t bet the mortgage on the wider world responding.

I’d look to bolster our institutions and our constitutional safeguards. When the extremes seem on the rise and more and more politicians seem happy to pull threads out of our liberal democratic fabric, this is now urgent. There are many possible ways to do this. We could have a stronger and more democratic second chamber, no longer vulnerable to prime ministerial packing or easy charges of illegitimacy. It could have a power of veto over amending certain key statutes. (Better yet, we might try to require a parliamentary super-majority of some sort to do so.) Ideally the Commons’ voting system would make it harder for one party to control it, if reform could pass a referendum. (It wouldn’t. I know better than to try to hold one now.) But frankly, even a reliable defence of the roles of the BBC and the judiciary would be a start.

And finally — the one potentially cheery thing on the list — I’d want to start doing something about the housing crisis. That might mean planning reform, dropping the ‘every sperm is sacred’ approach to every acre of the Green Belt (can we all please note the M25 is in the Green Belt and stop confusing it with AONBs, by the way?), major capital investment in housebuilding (a much better use for public money than renationalising water and creating public option energy companies), untying local authorities’ hands and a dash of statist ‘use it or lose it’ when it comes to land banking. We could even tie a land value tax (or a property tax of some kind) to providing ongoing revenue for housebuilding.

The problem is obvious. This is a daunting list, quite possibly more than any government can realistically manage in five years while keeping everything else ticking over. It’s also a pretty cheerless prospectus, with one significant but deeply divisive exception. (Let’s not kid ourselves that the voters are going to hear ‘property tax’ and think ‘a home for my kids’.) Essentially, it amounts to ‘stop things from falling over, implement a bad decision tolerably and try to protect ourselves in a dangerous world’. But right now, I honestly think a sensible government needs to play doctor more than visionary.

Clearly, Labour members and quite a few British voters want to be inspired. Unfortunately, damage limitation doesn’t have much of a heroic arc. I’m not sure the centre-left has often, if ever, managed to win a doctor’s mandate. And I’m not sure there’s an obvious way to square the circle. Can the centre-left make making the best of things sound hopeful?

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 8 May 2018.

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Consent and conciliation: Brexit and the Border

Given the ambiguity in December’s Joint Report between the UK and the EU, the UK’s reaction to the EU’s draft Withdrawal Agreement is unsurprising. Equally unsurprisingly, anger focused most on the protocol for Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The Irish Border is Brexit’s most fraught question. People can cross it without checks due to the Common Travel Area. Military checkpoints closed over time: the last came down in the last decade. Goods cross unchecked, thanks to a customs union and shared regulatory standards. And thanks to common EU systems, VAT and excise duties don’t need to be checked either. Brexit puts this at risk.

Border protocol

The protocol clarifies that the UK and Ireland can continue to make provision for the free movement of persons without checks. This is crucial: controlling travel between Ireland and Northern Ireland would prove unworkable. The symbolic and human implications of trying would be appalling. Checkpoints would likely become targets. In 1939–52, we had controls between Great Britain and the island of Ireland instead.

More contentiously, the protocol lists areas where Northern Ireland would apply EU law to avoid checks on goods or customs. The ‘common regulatory area’ would cover:

  • EU law on the free movement of goods
  • EU customs legislation, with Northern Ireland considered part of the EU’s customs territory
  • bans on restricting imports/exports, both upfront and by the back door
  • EU law on VAT and excise duties.

EU sanitary and phytosanitary rules and standards for agriculture and fisheries would apply. The same goes for wholesale electricity markets, much environmental protection, and state aid as it affects EU-Northern Ireland trade.

You can argue about whether every aspect of this protocol represents the ‘bare minimum’ to avoid a hard Border. Ukraine’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement provides a precedent for internal market treatment on the basis of ‘approximating’ legislation. (I suspect ‘approximation’ will look very much like ‘adoption’.) Other approaches which recognise the Court of Justice of the European Union’s jurisdiction could also be found.

Still, I can’t see how you avoid any border checks without regulatory alignment in goods, a full customs union and shared law on VAT and excise duties. And paragraph 49 of the Joint Report was wide-ranging:

The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. … In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

Both sides have defined a hard border to mean no physical infrastructure. I read this to mean UK, and not only Northern Ireland, alignment. And there are fundamental problems with a full economic border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Border economics

Obviously, the economics don’t explain why borders in these islands are so contentious. But Northern Ireland stands to lose more than most of the UK from Brexit. So we should scrutinise claims about the economics of the Border.

Northern Ireland’s exports are more EU-focused, and dramatically more Irish-focused, than Great Britain’s. 35% of its exports go to Ireland alone. But ‘exports’ don’t cover trade within the UK — and 59% of Northern Ireland’s external sales go to Great Britain.

Data: Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency

That holds across the vast majority of sectors. For instance, 61% of Northern Ireland’s external sales are of manufactured goods, and mainly go to Great Britain.

Data: Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency

Some reply that a sea or air crossing is inherently more onerous than a land one and so can better accommodate checks. This carries some weight. But economically, it’s hard to argue it makes up for the impact on nearly four times the sales. ‘You’ve got to cross water anyway’ doesn’t work for UK manufacturing trade with Germany. It can’t logically work for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland either.

There are some exceptions. No one sensible should break up the all-Ireland single electricity market or have different rail gauges on the island. But absent very compelling evidence, the economics of an regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea don’t stack up.

The Belfast Agreement and the Border

More fundamentally, unionists’ case rests on the Belfast Agreement’s principle of consent. Many have argued that principle requires special status if a choice must be made. They claim border checks should reflect Northern Ireland’s Remain vote.

It’s superficially plausible, but I think it falls on reading the Agreement. The parties agreed to ‘recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland’.

Brexit makes it harder for nationalists to accommodate themselves to the UK. That’s one reason voting Leave was such a mistake. But the principle of consent clearly relates to the choice between the Union and a united Ireland. It cannot be cited in and of itself to argue for particular relationships with the EU.

Special arrangements for Northern Ireland don’t breach the principle of consent in a literal sense. And all sides accept Northern Ireland is unique. Other parts of the UK do not have the right to join another state guaranteed by international treaty. And the world’s most lopsided liberal democracy can hardly insist on total internal symmetry.

But there is a principled difference between more autonomy for Northern Ireland and differentiation aligning it with another state. That’s particularly true when Northern Ireland has no direct say in the arrangement. Being in the UK entails more than MPs at Westminster. Beyond a certain point, the spirit of the principle of consent must be given its due. I believe an state-like economic and regulatory border within the UK passes that point.

Precedents exist for excluding parts of the EU from its customs union, and indeed for excluding parts of EU member states from the EU itself. But Northern Ireland is neither small and uncontested nor distant and geographically isolated. It is reasonable and just for unionists to expect to remain meaningfully integrated into the economy of their state.

The Border is deeply sensitive for nationalists — London’s insensitivity on that point stands as an indictment. We should avoid forcing a choice on borders if we possibly can. But constitutional status, in spirit and letter, is just as sensitive for unionists. On this, the DUP is quite as firm as it claims. So is the UUP. Liberal unionists such as Sylvia Hermon expect alignment to be UK-wide.

The EU27 side is making a fundamental mistake if it thinks the Agreement means an unmarked border with Ireland trumps avoiding an economic border with Great Britain. Strand Two of the Agreement does indeed provide for a North-South dimension. But it’s carefully defined, far more so than in the Sunningdale Agreement which preceded it.

In fact, it’s crucially important and insufficiently understood that the Belfast Agreement is far clearer on constitutional status than Sunningdale. There are reasons for that. It is quite as dangerous to ignore unionists’ concerns on status as to dismiss nationalists’ fears about borders.

Consistency cuts both ways

On Brexit, I normally criticise our government for wishful thinking, denialism and contradictory commitments. And there’s plenty of fault to lay at London’s door. Casually dismissing the Border problem, blithely assuming Dublin would give ground and pretending technology could fix a fundamental policy problem stand testament to that. But the EU27 side’s position on the Border has contradictions too.

Paragraph 50 of the Joint Report is crucial:

In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.

Barnier has said that how the UK delivers on paragraph 50 is a purely UK affair. That’s rather disingenuous. The EU has rightly pushed back on UK hints about turning a blind eye or exempting most businesses from customs controls — they’d create a smugglers’ paradise and break WTO law to boot. By the same token, the UK can’t turn a blind eye either.

So London can’t unilaterally prevent any barriers within the UK and deliver on paragraph 49. The EU and UK would have to extend arrangements to prevent barriers on the island of Ireland to Great Britain to do that. And having signed up to paragraph 50, the EU should surely allow it to be deliverable.

So the EU has a choice too, not just the UK. It’s currently saying something along Canadian lines (or perhaps a bit more like the now-abortive TTIP) is the only realistic option for Great Britain. Combined with the draft protocol, that clearly means an economic border in the Irish Sea — and a fallback option which doesn’t really deliver on the Joint Report.

Compromise works both ways

To be clear: I believe the UK Government is far more at fault in the Brexit negotiations than its EU counterparts. It has failed to make the effort to understand its partners — worse, it indulged in self-indulgent nationalist rhetoric at the price of alienating them. It has failed to prepare its people to face the gulf between Vote Leave’s fantasies and Brexit’s reality — May’s speech on Friday was a belated, partial start. And it has spent far too long effectively seeking to gain the economic benefits of the EU without the institutional obligations.

But the EU’s ‘Norway or Canada’ mantra (though it shouldn’t be taken wholly literally) carries its own problems. A balance of rights and obligations is fair and reasonable. A binary approach makes it politically impossible to solve the very question the EU labels a sine qua non. (And of course, ‘Norway’ wouldn’t solve the Border issue anyway.)

If the UK can move further towards realism and away from its needlessly hardline Brexit policy, and if the EU can define avoiding cherrypicking as a balance of rights and obligations and not a binary split, there might be a way to give everyone something. It would probably include something close to the Withdrawal Treaty protocol for the whole UK.

The UK might hope for more input into drawing up regulations, drawing on EEA precedents. It might ask for a little more room for regulatory manoeuvre. It would seek concessions on services, perhaps drawing on Ukraine in both cases. The EU could demand a substantial financial contribution. It could also expect a liberal and preferential UK migration policy short of free movement. And London would need to accept regulatory alignment as binding. (Kevin O’Rourke and Sam Lowe and John Springford have put forward very similar options.)

The UK could then say it had reduced economic disruption while curbing EEA movement; the EU would be able to say there was a real price for leaving; the UK and Ireland could remain borderless. From Great Britain’s perspective, I’ve tended to see an EEA-ish Brexit as the least-worst option, especially for services. However, Northern Ireland’s greater reliance on manufacturing and links with Ireland make it different. And given the stakes, I’d be willing to put Northern Ireland first.

I accept this is asking a lot of the EU. But I hope the EU might consider its origins as a peace project for our continent. And so I’d argue it, too, should prioritise protecting the peace project on these islands.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 4 March 2018.

On electoral responsibility

Elections are brutal things. Politicians usually do what they need to do to win. Frankly, as a Labour member I often wish we were more ruthless.

Still, a politician fighting for votes should always remember there remains a country waiting to be governed afterwards. There is no dead of night into which your silliest turns of phrase or your most careless commitments disappear. Theresa May’s predecessor was sunk by one of his most careless commitments: I imagine he could advise.

When it comes to silly turns of phrase, politicians should also remember hurt feelings have consequences. The United Kingdom proved that how people feel matters on 23 June 2016. As a result, we now face our most challenging and complex negotiations in many decades. In those negotiations, 27 other countries hold almost all the cards. The Union they form together has clear principles of its own. It has a vital interest in preventing British free-riding leading to other countries trying the same thing. And it currently has higher priorities than pure economics, as the UK of all countries should understand just now.

Since becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May and her ministers have promised the British people they can have their preferred EU benefits (or near as damnit) without the obligations. She spoke the language of antagonistic nationalism to please her party’s zealots at Conference. She threatened where she should have conciliated. She rattled sabres instead of building bridges, and she failed at every turn to manage expectations. And today she chose, after a leak highlighting the hubris and ineptitude of her government’s Brexit ‘strategy’ — probably aimed at warning the German public they might have to pay a fair bit more if the talks collapse — to accuse the very people whose goodwill she needs most after 8 June of ‘interfering in our elections’.

I presume Mrs May called this vote because she felt confident about the outcome. Politicians are not in the habit of ceding three years in office on a whim. So by her own lights, she can presumably afford a modicum of statesmanship. She can afford to start preparing the public for the climbdowns which will be required for a deal. She backed Remain, however quietly, and she knows Vote Leave sold a pack of lies to win. She knows we can’t have what they promised.

At some point, one of two things will happen. British expectations will gradually return to earth, allowing us to move towards some inferior-but-not-devastating deal with the EU over time. Or British expectations will meet EU reality and the result will be a car crash. It seems our Prime Minister deems the latter worth making more likely in the cause of (in her view) winning a majority of 140 rather than 120.

I imagine it will indeed win votes. But seeking to govern is not just about seeking votes. This irresponsibility may well come back to haunt Mrs May, even if she wins her mandate. She will richly deserve it, if so.

It’s just a shame it will come back to haunt the country too.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 3 May 2017.

Sentiments and statistics: why CANZUK won’t fly

The idea that the United Kingdom should try and rebuild closer ties with Canada, Australia and New Zealand raises its head from time to time. Obviously we’re close friends, with ties of history, language and culture, and there’s nothing wrong with reinforcing old friendships.

But thanks to Brexit, we’re hearing a bit more about this kind of thing than usual — with a focus on some kind of economic and geopolitical partnership. So is there a business case for CANZUK as a primary relationship for any of these four countries? Let’s look at where our potential partners currently sell goods and services.

Data: World Bank statistics (I grouped CANZUK, EU-27 and GCC figures myself)

In the United Kingdom, nearly half of our exports go to the rest of the EU. When you add EFTA members in, a majority goes to countries in or partly in the single market. By far our largest non-European partner is the United States. China and the Gulf Co-operation Council states both come in ahead of CANZUK. You might try and argue that we’ve had a lot of trade diversion to the rest of Europe. But even if you doubled our trade with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it’s never going to be anywhere near enough to make up. We are a Euro-Atlantic economy.

Data: World Bank statistics (I grouped CANZUK, EU-27 and GCC figures myself)

In Canada’s case, it’s quite obvious that nothing and no-one could match the scale of US trade. It’s next door, it’s huge and it’s economically fairly integrated. Again, China and the EU-27 both come in ahead of CANZUK. Again, there’s no way CANZUK could even come close to matching trade with the neighbours.

Data: World Bank statistics (I grouped CANZUK, EU-27 and GCC figures myself)

A clear majority of Australia’s exports go to east Asia, with the developed English-speaking world clocking in at about 10%. CANZUK would theoretically be the fourth-largest destination for exports, but over half of them go to New Zealand. (Let’s also note that Australia and New Zealand already have a free trade agreement.) Australia trades mostly with its neighbours and within its geographical region.

Data: World Bank statistics (I grouped CANZUK, EU-27 and GCC figures myself)

New Zealand is the only CANZUK country where CANZUK would be the top recipient of exports (or even in the top three). But that’s overwhelmingly down to Australia, where 17% of New Zealand’s exports go. The UK makes up 3.4%. (Incidentally, the EU-27 accounts for about twice that.) Again, New Zealand is mainly an Asia-Pacific economy.

So all four of our prospective partners show the usual truth in trade: countries tend to sell to their neighbours. The UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are already mature, developed economies, so any idea that their vast growth potential could make up for diversion from elsewhere doesn’t stack up. There is no sensible case for CANZUK as a main economic bloc for any of its members.

But CANZUK has been sold as a geopolitical partnership, not just (or even mainly) an economic one. Do the defence and security arguments stack up any better? Clearly the four countries spend a large amount on defence between them — over $96 billion, though nearly 60% of that is spent by the UK. We have served together in many conflicts. Australia and New Zealand are committed to each other through ANZUS. Canada and the UK are allied through NATO.

But again, look at members’ defence strategies. The four countries share two main things: a predominant focus on their own regions and a critical dependence on the US. Our most important joint defence endeavour is the Five Eyes, where the US is the most powerful member. Only the UK even aspires to have a global reach in its own right. Our Strategic Defence and Security Review cited our military and intelligence’s ability to ‘project our power globally, and … fight and work alongside our close allies, including the US and France, to deter or defeat our adversaries.’ Note the US and France are the two main allies cited. It is abundantly clear that the UK’s main defence commitment lies in NATO.

Australia’s Defence White Paper from last year is clear. Its priority is to ensure an independent ability ‘to defend Australia and protect our interests in our immediate region,’ and then to ‘enhance Australia’s ability to contribute to global coalition operations.’ Its two principal allies are the United States and New Zealand. Canada’s key roles are ‘defending Canada,’ ‘defending North America — in partnership with the United States’ and then ‘contributing to international peace and security.’ New Zealand’s focus includes the need to ‘defend New Zealand’s sovereign territory’, ‘meet New Zealand’s commitment as an ally of Australia’ and ‘contribute to, and where necessary lead, operations in the South Pacific’.

Granted, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore have one joint security commitment. They have agreed to consult on responding to a threat to the latter two countries. But the Five Power Defence Arrangements aren’t a collective security agreement. They stem from a UK withdrawal from commitments east of Suez in 1968–71, not a willingness to take on new ones.

The FPDAs are generally agreed to contribute to security. But does anyone believe the UK and Canada could possibly defend states in the Pacific in an existential crisis without the US? Would Australia and New Zealand be in a position to assist in Europe if the roles were reversed? That may be a remote prospect, but a true collective security commitment requires the answer to be ‘yes’. I don’t think anyone actually believes that would be the answer without the Americans. So what, meaningfully, are we going to do together in the field of security and defence on our own?

There’s no decent case for making an economic priority of CANZUK. There’s no real defence or security case for it either. We’re all liberal democracies with similar positions on global issues, but we can already co-ordinate our foreign policy as and when we want. No doubt we could bring in freedom of movement between our countries if we particularly wanted, though it’s hard to see that as practically transformative. But in the end, this is about sentiment.

If ever the UK needed to be frank about its role in the world, the time is now. Brexit is going to be damaging anyway: if we get it wrong, it could be catastrophic. Our priorities are to minimise the damage to our relations with our nearest neighbours, try to keep the transatlantic alliance in one piece and develop economic ties where they will do most good.

Whether we’re ‘more like’ continental Europe or mainly-anglophone-developed-democracies-but-not-the-US is subjective and highly politicised. Much of the argument boils down to rival sentiments. But our trading patterns, principal threats and security priorities aren’t sentimental. And an economic, foreign or defence policy governed by sentiment would be doomed to failure.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 8 April 2017.

Revisiting representation

It is hard to overstate how large a challenge to the parliamentary system the EU referendum result represents. Around three quarters of MPs judged that the UK was better off in the EU. But despite their judgment, our economic and geopolitical compass is being reset.

Our current predicament is a perfect demonstration of the problems of plebiscitary democracy grafted onto parliamentary systems. Using a referendum to validate a permanent, crucial step a government wishes to take is one thing. Sometimes the people should authorise a change in the rules of the political game as well as Parliament.

But here, a government offered a dramatic change it deemed profoundly unwise, with no plan for how to do it. It didn’t have a plan for Brexit, because it didn’t want Brexit. It couldn’t offer a prospectus, because any Brexit deal depends on the views of our EU partners as much as our own. That’s not its fault. But there wasn’t even a negotiating pitch to scrutinise. The Scottish referendum in 2014 abounded with dubious assertions. The Scottish Government’s White Paper was full of holes. But at least the holes were there to be picked.

In 2016, we were offered a promised land without any Moses tasked with getting us there. The unreality, the wilful dishonesty about what can and cannot be done, continues to this day. And in the name of democracy — in the name of the people — attempts to expose that are being delegitimised by government. The public were promised the chance to take back control from Brussels. Instead, the Government has taken yet more control from a cowed Parliament.

Defending parliamentarism

So as many have said, we need to stand up for parliamentary democracy. We elect people rather than choosing policies directly for good reason. Government is not a series of on-off and one-off decisions: policies need to be pursued over time and there are many variations. Further, policies intersect with each other. Deciding everything separately and giving priority to everything ultimately decides and prioritises nothing. (Electing people to run one particular service is a bad idea for similar reasons.) Representative democracy requires policy to be discussed: as we’ve seen, referendums can serve to prevent that.

Parliament needs to reassert itself, and we all need to reassert some of the basic principles of a parliamentary system. Parliament has every right to be forceful in shaping how the EU referendum result is implemented. The referendum answered one question. It didn’t give our new Prime Minister some unchallengeable, quasi-telepathic insight into ‘the will of the people’. And MPs have a perfect right to make a judgment their voters don’t like and judged in their turn at an election.

A parliament of representatives?

But if we want parliamentarians to do that, we need to make representative democracy work better and broaden its reach. We need to look at how our parliament works. The public rejected the (non-proportional) Alternative Vote in 2011. We’re unlikely to get another shot at voting reform soon. But our current Parliament’s make-up makes it harder for the public mood to be reflected through representatives rather than referendums.

By that, I don’t mean first past the post isn’t proportional and that’s a bad thing, though it isn’t and, in my view, that is. I mean that major changes in voting behaviour are stifled and points of view go unheard in the national debate for too long. Sometimes that means we ignore grievances for too long. Other times it means we respond to them too uncritically, because we didn’t argue with them openly.

Take the rise of UKIP. The obvious point, from a reformer’s point of view, is that for a party to win an eighth of the votes and one solitary MP is simply unjust. I agree. Others would counter that UKIP’s rise has nonetheless had a profound effect on the behaviour of Labour and the Conservatives. Well, yes. But how transparent has that effect been? On one level it sounds admirably democratic: rather than producing a mishmash, listen to UKIP voters and address why they’re voting that way. But while a political party can often be wrong, the saying goes that voters never can be. So how do UKIP’s policies and beliefs get tested and held accountable on a daily basis, like mainstream parties’?

That should be happening in Parliament. There should be a UKIP Shadow Cabinet, UKIP Select Committee members, UKIP voices at Prime Minister’s Questions. Yes, that gives them a platform. So be it: when an eighth of voters speak, they have earned a platform for their chosen party. But it also incentivises — forces — the other parties to actually argue with UKIP, not just ignore it and then try to flatter its voters. Every so often it’d get its way, but then it seems quite capable of doing so without MPs.

Its presence in Parliament, if earned, could have been an early warning for Parliament. In 2004, I was all for allowing free movement from the new EU member states from day one. Strategically and economically, I stand by it: we kept and cultivated friends in eastern Europe and we were richer for it. But politically I was utterly, catastrophically wrong.

Now, it’s quite likely that the House of Commons elected in 2001 would have had a few UKIP (or Referendum Party, or whatever) MPs, probably not all in Conservative areas, to raise the alarm about enlargement. Perhaps we’d have responded by imposing transitional controls after all. Perhaps we wouldn’t have. But the early warning mechanism would have been there. We might not be leaving the European Union now.

What kind of reform?

Reform doesn’t have to mean some remote national list system where parties with 1% of the vote hold all business up. Quite the contrary: British traditions of constituency representation and keeping party HQs from having too much control over who ends up in Parliament matter. But the idea that these preclude anything but one system, with no nod to proportionality at all, is quite some straw man. It is quite possible, building on systems we’ve already used in the UK, to design a system which fits into our parliamentary culture.

The obvious choice would be an additional member system designed to fit British political culture. Most MPs would be elected as they are now. The other list MPs could be chosen through an open list, representing local areas — not huge regions. A system where an area the size of, say, Surrey has 6–7 constituency MPs and 4–5 county MPs really won’t fling us all into Israeli-style chaos. The electoral areas wouldn’t be big enough — though you could add a 4–5% threshold to make sure. And the number of county MPs per area would be small enough for voters to meaningfully choose individuals, not just parties.

This would mean an end to the days when 10% or 15% of voters were denied proper reflection of their views in Parliament. That includes people whose voting choices I don’t like, and quite right too. Parliament should be the cockpit of UK national debate. Robin Cook argued that if you wanted that to be the case, you should want Parliament’s hours to fit the print media news cycle. I’d argue you should also want Parliament to represent the major strands of political opinion in rough proportion to their size.

Our current system fails to deliver that basic requirement. It also makes it harder for the two largest parties to hear from voters outside their strongest areas. Not insurmountable, of course — Labour and the Conservatives have both managed it in their time — but harder. That matters because Labour voters in Surrey and Tory voters in Tyne and Wear should have some political representation they choose. But a fairer system would also give Surrey a voice in the Labour Party, and Tyne and Wear a voice in the Conservative Party.

Co-operative government

Of course, a sensible proportional system would probably require a party to win around 44–45% of the vote to get a majority on its own. With current voting patterns, parties would have to work together to govern. Quite right too. I can see how a party with 45% of the vote — even 40% — might claim, on a moderate platform, to represent the popular will. I cannot see 35%, which my own party won in 2005, as much of a mandate to govern alone.

There is no reason co-operative government must end voter control. Parties in coalition-prone countries are generally good at signalling their priorities in dealing with others. In fact, such evidence as we have suggests our parties aren’t much (or any) better at delivering their manifestos than the continentals! Junior partners in coalition get about the share of ministries their share of seats suggests, and the broad political complexion of the legislature is generally reflected in policies passed.

At the moment, UK parties second-guess which broad electoral coalitions 35%-40% of voters might prefer. In other countries, voters themselves send a broader range of political forces to Parliament and meaningfully control their relative strengths. So in Sweden, voters know the four parties which will work together on the centre-right. But they can alter the influence each party has within that bloc — a larger say for the Centre Party, say, or the Liberals.

To my mind, that compares rather well to the UK, where mainstream social democrats and liberal-minded conservatives are (for now) wholly unrepresented by party leaderships. No doubt uncompromising leftists and traditional conservatives felt the same a few years ago. Why not let the people themselves decide how much weight they wish to give both?

Mediating mandates

There’s a tension here between two principles many constitutional conservatives cherish. The first is the doctrine of the mandate itself. In UK mandate theory, a party goes to the country with a manifesto, wins a majority in the Commons and then enacts said manifesto. The argument runs: a majority single-party government is clearly in power, clearly responsible and clearly accountable.

The second is the idea of ‘government by discussion’. This is surely key if we want Parliament, not just government, to stand up for its right to make its own judgments. Decisions should be debated and considered in Parliament, and will be so more fully than most people wish to do themselves. MPs can then be held accountable for their judgment.

It’s pretty clear why these clash. The first implies policies will be pushed through smoothly and easily; the second implies they’ll be tested and scrutinised. Obviously, no one actually treats both as absolutes. But contrasts between a pure plurality mandate and muddled coalitions are therefore unhelpful. Yes, the ‘mandate’ is more diffuse in a proportional parliament. But it’s broader, and a culture of negotiation fits better with ‘government by discussion’.

More than that, it’s government by discussion, not unchallengeable mandates, we need to bolster now. It makes sense for governments which only reflect a minority of voters and parliaments where new views find it hard to get a seat at the table to use referendums, precisely to make a mandate unchallengeable. An over-obsession with the mandate, narrowly defined, is part of the disease, not the cure.

Just now, reasserting parliamentarism means reasserting the value of deliberation, discussion and debate. To do that, we need to make sure the main strands of opinion are properly represented in Parliament. I know constitutional conservatives won’t like this argument. But they of all people should remember the old quote: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 13 March 2017.

A Brexit speech for a Labour leader

I stand here to give a speech which I had hoped not to have to make.

I campaigned hard for Remain before 23 June. I wanted the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union, as did 16 million fellow Britons. But 17 million fellow Britons voted otherwise. They delivered a clear, though narrow, verdict.

Labour has said that we respect the referendum result. And so we do. The United Kingdom, as the Prime Minister has said, is leaving the European Union. I am not here to talk about how to stop Brexit, but how best to implement it.

We respect the decision taken; we also respect the fact that it was narrow. We live in a deeply divided country. If we want to bring it back together, we have to find a settlement which can appeal, at least in part, to both sides of the national argument last year.

Perhaps that sounds uninspiring. Boring, even. But if the referendum made anything clear, it showed that we have become far too divided a country.

I believe we need to rediscover the virtue of compromise; of remembering that we usually do have more in common, as Jo Cox MP – so tragically taken from us last year – said in her maiden speech; of meeting our friends and neighbours halfway.

Labour believes that ‘by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone’. But working together requires finding common ground. And today I want to outline how Labour would make that possible.

Listening to Leave voters

Any attempt at doing that must start with asking ourselves: what were Leave and Remain voters saying on 23 June?

For Leave voters, sovereignty played a crucial role. There is always a balance here. We can keep our rights to do things our own way, on our own – but that often means the way others do things affects us and shapes our own choices, sometimes decisively or almost completely.

Or we can agree to do things together with other countries, knowing we’ll have to compromise a bit, but often having a greater real say in the overall package than we’d have had on our own.

Just as no-one sensible believes that we can’t do anything together with other countries, no-one sensible believes there’s nothing we can best deal with by ourselves. There’s no 100% right answer to where the line is: and those of us who campaigned to Remain must accept that we failed to convince enough people that the line lies in the right place now.

The UK’s global ties were also important to many people who voted to leave. Our global story is also part of our European story. For better and for worse, Britons, French, Spaniards, Dutch, Portuguese and many others crossed the seas – as soldiers, settlers, farmers, factory workers, missionaries and far more. As Quebec and Latin America could remind us, transatlantic ties are not just the United Kingdom’s to enjoy.

But the UK has an exceptionally strong sense of its global ties today. That’s partly down to the English-speaking democracies with whom so many Britons share bonds of family, friendship and affection. It’s partly due to the sheer reach of past British expansion. And of course, it’s partly linked to our distinctive version of shared sacrifice in two world wars.

There’s no conflict between being European and having ties elsewhere. But I fear pro-Europeans too often – without meaning to – managed to join some opponents of the EU in inventing a tension where there didn’t need to be. And we know many who voted Leave thought of our friends further afield when they made their decision.

And third, of course, migration. Too many people have talked as though this was the only thing Leave voters thought of. It wasn’t, and we do fellow citizens a disservice in pretending otherwise. But no-one can deny that concerns, fears and anger about migration played a crucial role in the vote on 23 June.

Now, at this point Labour politicians go on to talk about wage levels, about exploitation of migrant labour, about funding for public services in areas of high recent migration – and I will. We must condemn prejudice and celebrate the contribution immigrants make to the UK – and I will always do that. But economics doesn’t address all the reasons many people are worried, even angry.

Much of people’s concern about immigration stems from culture, not economics. I am not saying that anyone with these concerns is racist or prejudiced. I am saying that many people, probably most, are ambivalent at best and unhappy at worst about rapid and unmanaged change, especially when it feels done to them rather than with them.

Concern stems from views about different cultural attitudes, too. Everyone has characteristics and instincts shaped by their nationality and upbringing, so this is not a attack on anyone’s worth or culture. It’s simply to say that, just as people with different personalities can sometimes need to think about how to get along, so can people with different cultural backgrounds. And we have shied away from that discussion for too long.

Reassuring Remainers

So any way forward needs to find a way of speaking to those concerns. But what of the second-largest number of votes cast for any cause in British history? What about those who voted Remain?

First, we need to acknowledge many Remainers’ strong sense of internationalism – not a passionate love of European institutions, but something broader than that. Many Remain voters don’t just see it as a practical necessity to get on with the neighbours; they believe it to be a good thing in itself.

Many have travelled elsewhere in Europe; they may have friends there, or remember spending time there themselves. They value their, their children and their grandchildren’s rights to live and work elsewhere.

And of course, many of us remember the European Union’s origins as a peace project – a way for Europeans to argue in council chambers over product standards, not with tanks over borders. As they go to Brussels, UK ministers need to remember that too, and respect how seriously our partners take it. It is not only a majority of UK voters who can value politics and history just as much as economics.

Second, a commitment to EU rights and standards loomed large for many Remainers – especially Labour Remainers. It would be easy for me to attack a Tory Government here, and rest assured we will whenever it is merited. But it goes deeper than that.

The rights to parental leave, to consultation at work, to protection for temporary employees; it is indeed often true that the UK’s legislation goes further than the EU minimum. But European minimum standards set a floor for all of us – not just the UK. Some Conservatives may want the UK to try to undercut the Netherlands; but actually, the rules help protect all our social models.

Similarly, many who remember what British beaches and rivers were like in the 1970s will know that EU environmental standards have changed things for the better. The EU is one of the world’s most forceful actors on climate change – no, not forceful enough, but more so than anyone else, and one whose word as the world’s largest economy matters.

Tory threats to scrap those rights and standards, to move towards an ever-more-ruthless free-for-all if the EU fails to agree a deal to their liking, are unlikely to survive contact with the voters for now. But it would be exactly the sort of destructive race to the bottom common rules are in place to stop.

Third and most prominently, the economy was a crucial reason millions voted Remain. This isn’t really about the fears of an economic shock – not in the long-term. Those of us who campaigned to Remain should have the grace to say we expected the reaction to be far worse than, so far, it has been.

It is about the inescapable heft and proximity of the European single market. The EU covers around 44% of our exports on its own. Add in the Swiss and the EEA countries, all of whom are in the EU’s single market to varying degrees, and the countries with a partial customs union with the EU, and it’s over half. And that doesn’t even consider the free trade deals already struck by the EU.

Bringing Britons together: a moderate Brexit

So any way forward should address both sides’ concerns, while fulfilling the mandate to leave. We should pursue a moderate, reasonable Brexit: a settlement our country can unite around for this generation. We must also seek a settlement which works for the European Union, whose survival and prosperity is a vital national and continental interest.

First of all, a moderate Brexit must be moderately implemented. In particular, we cannot allow ourselves to be driven off a cliff-edge by an ideological insistence on the fastest Brexit possible. The negotiations which lie ahead are the most complex we have had to negotiate in modern times. We must allow for a transitional deal, so we have time to get this right.

I believe our final deal must include membership of the single market. In many ways, the single market is a British invention. It goes far further than any free trade deal ever can. The reason Theresa May talks of preserving ‘single market arrangements in some areas’ – never mind the fact our partners won’t stand for cherry-picking – is this: she knows full well they cannot be bettered outside the single market.

It is quite possible to be in the single market and outside the EU. Plenty of Leavers looked to Norway’s place in the European Economic Area before the referendum. The EEA focuses on exactly the thing many eurosceptics in the UK said they always wanted: the most unfettered trade possible within Europe.

Norway is not in the EU. It plays no part in the Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy. No EEA law takes direct effect in Norway; the Norwegian Parliament enacts it, and has more flexibility than an EU member. Political union is not an aim of the EEA. Norway makes smaller contributions to shared activity than it would as an EU member. There is a safeguard clause for legislation with unacceptable consequences – though Norway has very rarely had to use it. In principle, the EEA or something like it is the main arrangement able to include passporting for financial services.

As the Prime Minister has said, trade is not the only area where we wish to work with our European allies. Climate change is a shared challenge. The EU’s Emissions Trading System also includes Norway. The UK could be a leading player in green energy if it wanted to be, so it makes good sense for us to seek to stay inside. We should be no less keen to work with the rest of Europe on security and extraditions after Brexit than we were before and should be keeping the substance of the European Arrest Warrant, as far as possible.

The customs union and the Irish Border

Finally, the Prime Minister has argued for a renewed focus on trade deals elsewhere in the world once we leave the EU. I understand this: one argument for Brexit was pursuing new markets elsewhere. But at the moment, as a part of the EU’s customs union, our businesses are spared a tidal wave of paperwork in exporting to the rest of the EU. We are also spared customs checks on our only land border.

This is a difficult choice. Making the best of Brexit might be argued to require looking across the world for new business and new markets. But it is hard to see how the UK is likely, for now, to strike the kind of deals which would make up for such major new barriers with our largest market.

Above all, we cannot risk creating a hard border on the island of Ireland lightly. Any changes to our position in the customs union will require the closest consultation with Ireland and with the Northern Ireland parties. Labour will press the Government to ensure this happens.

Any measures which could reduce the burden of checks should be considered: facilities to carry out EU customs checks in the UK for Ireland-bound goods and vice versa, for instance, or ways of pre-certifying goods bound across the Irish Border. We should learn from Norway and Sweden, who ensure only one national authority needs to check goods. The UK should stand ready to discuss how such measures might be delivered and funded with Ireland.

And if broad consent in Northern Ireland can be found for special measures or some special status there, then – given its unique position – the UK, Ireland and the EU should give them the most serious consideration.

The issue of the customs union is almost uniquely difficult. We need time to address the challenges it raises. We should remain in customs union with the EU during the transitional period, during which we will be seeking to re-establish the trade deals we currently have as an EU member. We can do that from within a customs union with the EU.

And let us then take our final decision on its future on evidence, not ideology.

A close neighbour and a closer Union

My judgment is that the best approach – one which increases our domestic sovereignty, allows a renewed sense of global ties, supports our economy and protects our social rights – lies in membership of the single market, through the EEA or some other means.

I believe this path, together with close co-operation in security and foreign policy, reflects our position as a European nation with ties elsewhere. A close friend to the EU for whom its degree of integration has proved too great.

It also speaks to all four countries in our United Kingdom. The Scottish Government has been loud in seeking a differentiated solution for Scotland. The Welsh Government has put forward proposals of its own.

I do not believe the right solution for the UK is to create new borders within the UK. It is, instead, to respect the devolved nations’ concerns as part of a UK-wide settlement. Not Nicola Sturgeon’s seeming determination to use Brexit as a wedge for separation; not Theresa May’s seeming indifference to the views of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; but a settlement which can bring us all back together.

Free movement as managed movement

But I am not going to lie about the price of staying in the single market. Too many politicians have peddled too many myths over the years. The price of staying in the single market is some form of free movement of labour.

We have to understand that our EU partners are not bluffing about this. The European project relies on common rules for common benefits. For them, conceding that principle sets a dangerous precedent for the future. If one country can unpick parts of the single market, others can too. We need to recognise this and respect it. But I also know immigration was one of the main reasons people voted to leave the EU.

Faced with this, some say we should offer up our own people’s jobs on the altar of cutting migration. Others say we should ignore public concerns and carry on regardless. Still others say we should simply demand the single market and a end to free movement. The first ignores our people’s future; the second ignores democratic reality; the third ignores the clear views of our European partners. None of these are good enough.

What we need to do is find a way to handle the way free movement operates – and, over time, to better handle the pace of change. Not ‘free movement’ as we have implemented it in the UK so far, nor a denial of economic reality, but managed movement.

First, we need to make better use of the powers we already have to manage movement from the rest of Europe better. There’s no need to wait for Brexit to do this; a Labour Government could start working on it now. After three months, we actually have a right to tell EEA citizens they need to show they are working or studying or have the resources to support themselves if they wish to remain in the UK. We don’t do it at the moment. Let’s look at it.

Second, there are issues we can talk about in Brexit negotiations, especially around benefit claims and hiring policy. Of course, the vast majority of EEA citizens actually come here to work. But because of the way tax credits work in the UK, we do have concerns here about whether people have made a contribution before they start to receive benefits as well.

Article 112 of the EEA Agreement allows non-EU members to take safeguard measures if there are ‘serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectorial or regional nature liable to persist’. We should, if possible, seek a political understanding that the UK will take some proportionate action on EEA migrant benefits as an EEA member. We should also explore the possibility, as the Swiss (with extensive single market access, though not EEA membership) have recently, that those who have registered as jobseekers in the UK might be given priority for jobs over new arrivals.

We should also take action on wages and skills, so more British people are able to do jobs which others currently fill. Some pro-Europeans have bemoaned the rise in wages offered by agricultural employers in Lincolnshire. Not I. No social democrat worthy of the name should bemoan a better deal for low-paid workers. Labour’s commitment to higher wages and to tackling exploitation could open more of those jobs to British citizens.

We need to do far more both to support British citizens to develop new skills – so they have no need to worry about competition from others, because they will know they can hold their own. And considering migration from outside Europe, we should be willing to probe a bit deeper on whether we could be training more people here. If we struggle to find people in the UK who want to work in Indian or Chinese restaurants, for instance (as we have in the past), we should ask why more often.

Finally, we need to talk more about integration. The vast majority of people who make their home here want to play a full part here. In reality, people in the UK are mostly pretty good at getting on together. And evidence suggests that when people are reassured that immigrants overwhelmingly do wish to contribute, join in and integrate – which they do – their concern about immigration falls considerably.

So partly, we need to reassure people and show we value people living together, not just living beside each other. We should not be relaxed about the idea of people living parallel lives.

But there are some areas where we do have a problem. And it is progressive to say as much and look to do something about it. There is nothing left-wing about people, disproportionately women, finding themselves unable to get help they need or talk to people in their local area because they don’t speak enough English. There is nothing left-wing about cutting government funding for language classes. And to ask (and fund) councils to do more to support integration in their local areas would be good for new immigrants and established communities alike.

No one policy or strategy will succeed in squaring this circle. But making use of the powers we already have, seeking adjustments where this is feasible, taking real action on wages and skills and doing more to ensure people live together not apart can both better manage the pace of change and help address its consequences.

Wider Europe

No speech on UK strategy should ignore our wider European role outside the EU.

The UK is a European country and we must remain committed to European values. That includes the Council of Europe – wholly separate from the EU – and the basic values enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The ECHR is the Council of Europe’s greatest creation and one of the world’s most remarkable backstops for basic decency anywhere in the world. Britons led the way in putting it together; assumptions that long informed the common law became part of its warp and weft.

Our membership of the Convention does not just matter to us: it matters to our whole continent. The European Court of Human Rights is far from perfect, but it matters to Russian human rights activists who struggle to get their cases to Strasbourg. It matters to novelists in Turkey who look to the Convention to help protect their free expression.

Quite rightly, our neighbours would be appalled were the UK – one of the world’s great democracies – to withdraw from its commitment to such a basic instrument of human rights protection.

Co-operation on extradition, on security and much else besides could be threatened if we no longer adhered to common human rights standards. Further, our influence in the counsels of our continent – a continent in which we will always need and wish to play a role – would be badly hurt.

But above all, the true values and true nature of the country where Amnesty International was born could never be served by turning our back on human rights protections. We seek a different relationship with the rest of Europe. But Labour wants no part in abandoning Europe’s finest values.

Protecting the West

The United Kingdom must also remain unequivocally committed to the collective security of our continent. How and to what extent we co-operate with the EU on military matters is a matter for negotiation, but our commitment to our continent through Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is not. We stand with our neighbours.

And here, we cannot ignore the challenges to our east and the changes to our west. I don’t propose to say too much about President Trump today. The UK, and Europe as a whole, must of course retain a close relationship with the United States, above all through NATO. We must also be able to speak frankly where we disagree.

But we Europeans must recognise that our ability to speak frankly and our ability to defend ourselves are intrinsically linked. Credible defence is the foundation of an ethical foreign policy, to coin a phrase.

To our east, Vladimir Putin leads a country which, just three years ago, altered the boundaries of Europe to its own direct benefit for the first time since 1945. That country’s interference in the democratic processes of the West is now well-documented.

The UK, as Europe’s leading defence power, retains a crucial role in Europe. We must not abdicate it. We must build on our links within NATO, and our bilateral agreements with France. We should also seek to retain the right – like Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and Ukraine – to take part in joint procurement via the European Defence Agency, where this is in our interest.

But above all, we and other Europeans must have a serious, honest conversation about our defence capabilities. It should go without saying that the target of 2% of GDP on defence should be met by every NATO member. But more than that, we must ask whether that level will suffice to keep our continent safe.

Because we may be leaving the European Union, but we could not leave Europe even if we wanted to. And our neighbours’ security will always be part and parcel of our own.

Labour’s approach today

So we seek membership of the single market; a close relationship with the EU after Brexit, while strengthening our ties elsewhere; a balanced approach to managing migration within the single market and from outside the EU; and a firm commitment to European values and security. Where does this leave Labour, facing a Conservative Government?

We will be a responsible Opposition. The times are too grave to play games now. We will judge the Government against the vision I have set out, and we will reach out to other parties and other MPs who share some or all of it. And where the Government get it right, we will support it.

So I say this to the Prime Minister: you are not the prisoner of your backbenchers. You need not put their ideological obsessions above our country’s interests. Where you do the right thing for British jobs, British workers and British safety, Labour will support you. You can be as brave as you want to be.

In Government, we will accept that the question of EU membership is settled for this generation. But if this Conservative Government drags the UK out into a hard, damaging, reckless Brexit, Labour will work towards a partnership of the kind I have described today. We will reach out the hand of friendship to our fellow Europeans and bring our fellow Britons back together.

Perhaps it is unusual for a Labour leader to cite Churchill rather than Attlee. But in a speech about reuniting a nation, it makes some sense to look across the party divides. On 11 May 1953, he said:

Where do we stand? We are not members of the European Defence Community, nor do we intend to be merged in a Federal European system. We feel we have a special relation to both. This can be expressed by prepositions, by the preposition “with” but not “of”—we are with them, but not of them.

Churchill was enlisted by both sides of the referendum debate. But it might be fitting if our new place in Europe and the world reflected his real complexity more than the partisan moulds into which he has been shoehorned.

The future I describe is not the one I argued for before 23 June. But for this moment, for this generation, it might be one with which we all can live.

On Article 50

Whether the Supreme Court was legally correct to say that Parliament must legislate before the Government can invoke Article 50 is for others to debate. Rightly, the courts gave judgment and have settled the issue. Politically, I always believed the Government should seek approval from Parliament for its timing and strategy.

But the Supreme Court’s decision places Labour in a truly poisonous position. Most of our voters backed Remain; most of our seats backed Leave. We cannot defy the referendum result; we cannot back a hard Brexit. I do not envy our embattled MPs.

Second Reading

I can see why Jeremy Corbyn wishes to ask Labour MPs to vote for the Article 50 Bill at Second Reading. And ultimately, I won’t blame him for that, although I disagree with a three-line whip. I know Labour cannot simply ignore the referendum result, and that many – probably most – will feel they should vote in favour to show they accept that result.

But Labour MPs overwhelmingly backed Remain. In many cases, their constituents did too. MPs like Jo Stevens, Catherine West and Tulip Siddiq put themselves at great risk if they ignore their own residents’ views. And some – those who are and have always been committed Europeans – will feel their consciences can only stretch so far.

I accept parties of government must have a position on such issues, but frankly I see little point in pretending Labour is in any danger of being in government soon anyway. The current struggle is for survival – one which many MPs will struggle to win if they alienate their Remain-voting constituents. Jeremy can take his position, and most Labour MPs will back him, but it is divisive and unhelpful to force MPs’ consciences at Second Reading. MPs will split hopelessly anyway; best to make some shred of virtue out of overwhelming necessity.

Third Reading

The more important question for the national interest is how Labour MPs vote at Third Reading. Here, there comes a point where Labour MPs must consider the policy consequences of their votes, however electorally inconvenient that may be. Reluctantly, I accept the country voted to leave: overriding the vote without a referendum would be anti-democratic and could occasion a terrible backlash against mainstream politics, and we would lose a second referendum by a larger margin than the first. We now need to try to minimise the damage. As such, I recognise Labour cannot reject Article 50 en masse regardless of the circumstances.

But once the UK triggers Article 50, we have a two-year window in which to negotiate an exit agreement, hopefully with a transitional deal as we move to a new relationship with the EU. It’s all very well to talk about meaningful parliamentary votes on the deal, but we can only extend those talks if every other EU member agrees. It’s legally uncertain whether we could even revoke Article 50 outright unilaterally, but clearly the Government will not do so. That means a vote on the final deal on exit and transition is very likely to be a choice between whatever May comes up with or nothing at all. Backing the Tories’ deal or being thrown out on WTO rules isn’t much of a choice.

If Parliament really wants to influence the shape of Brexit, it has to exercise that influence now, before the two-year countdown starts. And that means Labour’s backing for the Article 50 Bill must depend upon the amendments the Commons passes. If Labour MPs will not vote against the Article 50 Bill at Third Reading in any circumstances, they will effectively show that in the final analysis, they are prepared to let any kind of Brexit through.

The referendum gives Theresa May no right to a blank cheque. Nor does she have a right to ride roughshod over the views of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’s administrations and legislatures. Her form of Brexit will do enormous damage to the people Labour represents. It may well poison our relations with the rest of Europe at the very time when the United States may abandon our continent too. Labour should not sign her cheque so long as it stays blank.

Labour and Brexit

More broadly, Labour needs to be frank about the true implications of what Theresa May plans to do. She has said she wants to leave the single market and the customs union, although she seems to have some notion of simplifying customs proceedings. Responding to her speech, Keir Starmer said: ‘It is good that she has ruled out that hard Brexit at this stage.’ He also said ‘I accept that form follows function’.

His response ignores the secret of the single market. The rules and institutions of the single market are the single market: the form creates the function. It is simply not the case that May’s ‘bold and ambitious free trade agreement’ will do the same job. And Labour does no service to scrutiny by allowing that elision to pass unchallenged.

Jeremy Corbyn’s response shows where such a path leads us:

We welcome that the Prime Minister has listened to the case we’ve been making about the need for full tariff free access to the single market but are deeply concerned about her reckless approach to achieving it.

It is simply not good enough to say ‘hard Brexit’ is only about process, not endpoint. Labour should back remaining in the single market and level with voters about the tradeoffs – as well as the reality of our EU partners’ position. The Opposition should puncture the Government’s delusions, not indulge them.

In conscience

Finally, I will not lie about what I would do at Second Reading if I were a Labour Member of Parliament. I could not in good conscience vote to give any impression I approve of what we are about to do. I do not approve, even if I try to be resigned. I am a passionate European and I always have been. I believe the European project is, for all its faults, the greatest attempt to build relations between our countries on the basis of law and not just power we have ever seen. I believe it has made an invaluable contribution to peace, democratisation and constitutionalism on the continent of Europe. I believe it is part of a web of institutions and habits of mind and inaccurate historical memories, a web which helps keep the dark heart of man at bay. And I would not want it said that the United Kingdom’s representative assembly walked away from it as one.