The year of the Brexit referendum is drawing to a close. The UK is, at the time of writing, awaiting a Supreme Court judgment on the matter of whether British constitutional law requires the process of leaving the EU to be begun with a parliamentary vote on Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Governance Post Executive Editors, Lisa Gow and Nathan Appleman, sat down with two Labour Party Members of Parliament, Ed Miliband, former leader of the Labour Party, and Sir Keir Starmer, Shadow Brexit Secretary and former Director of Public Prosecutions in England and Wales, to discuss how the future EU-UK relationship should be shaped.
Why do you think the UK has seen such a wave of xenophobia before and after the Brexit referendum, and what could the British Left have done to avoid it?
EM: I think it’s really important to separate out the different parts of this. 17 million people voted for Brexit. It’s important not to imply that 17 million people voted for Brexit because they’re xenophobic. There have, however, been a number of awful racist attacks and, to the extent that people feel legitimated in that, we should be absolutely tough in saying that they’re not. That’s a responsibility on the Government, the Opposition, everybody. The more general point I would make is that we’ve got to understand the roots of this – whether it’s Trump or Brexit. I think the roots of it lie in discontent with the system. It’s not to say that there aren’t elements to do with identity, views about immigration, or race in America, but fundamentally, people feel deeply discontented by a system that they don’t feel is working for them. And I think it’s much better to recognise that and for the Left to seek to act on it, rather than to be dismissive of it.
What sort of effects might the Trump presidency have on British politics?
EM: I think, in a way, some of the roots of Trump have already been seen with Brexit. There will be some people in Britain who will say that this means that we should pay less attention to Europe and hitch our wagon to Donald Trump. It seems remarkable that there are people saying that, but there are! Frankly, I think we should be pretty careful about hitching our wagon to Donald Trump, for all the reasons you can guess – his values, his views on very important things such as climate change, and his unpredictability.
Now, of course, we should try to maintain a decent relationship with America. I actually think that what Angela Merkel said about this was much better than what Theresa May said. Merkel said, “Look, we’re going to have a partnership with America but on the basis of values, for respect for human rights, respect for minorities, respect for people, irrespective of their sexuality”, etc. I think it’s quite important to be led by our values, not just saying that we’re going to be in line with America, whatever their views are. Of course, America is going to be an important ally for Britain, but we’ve got to hold fast to our values.
KS: Clearly there’s a parallel, in part with the sort of disaffection and disillusionment that so many people felt in the lead-up to the Brexit vote. We have to ask ourselves why the “Take Control” slogan was so powerful. It was so powerful because it was directed at, and was received by, people who felt, for one reason or another, that they had no real influence over their lives anymore, because of more fragile job security, housing, their community, and so on. That was a very powerful slogan. You can see the parallel there in the US. I don’t think that’s all of it. This is the time to reassert our values. Because if we don’t reassert our values now, then the values of Trump and others will begin to become the dominant values. We cannot allow that to happen. Everybody who shares the values of social justice, equality and fairness has to reassert them now, every day.
What sort of counter-plan can and should the Shadow Cabinet [under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn] come up with, ahead of the Brexit negotiations?
KS: Actually, I don’t think this is a Shadow Cabinet-only discussion. One of the important things is that the Labour Party Opposition has a united view on this, whether it’s the Shadow Cabinet, the broader Parliamentary Labour Party, or some of our colleagues doing work in the Select Committees. It’s important that we have a united and strong position. And we do, actually.
Is there really a strong position? It seems that, in the British press, there’s a lot of confusion about what the Labour Party actually wants, whether the Labour Party actually wants to leave the EU.
KS: I don’t think there is that confusion. There are some people undoubtedly saying “I’m not going to vote for Article 50”, but the vast majority of Labour MPs have said loud and clear and repeatedly that they will respect the outcome. If you have a referendum with a very simple question on it, “do you want to be in or out of the EU?”, you have to respect the result and not frustrate the process. Therefore, if the vote is to leave, then the mandate is to leave. There is real clarity about that. Within any political party, you have people who say “Well, I don’t quite accept that”, but that’s been the Labour Party’s position. You only have to flip the argument to see why that should be the position. I, along with others, campaigned passionately to stay. If the vote had gone the other way, 52 percent to Remain and 48 percent to Leave, but then the Government said “Well, we’re going to ignore that and leave anyway”, I would feel that that was a betrayal of the vote. To simply say we won’t even let the government start negotiations is inconsistent with accepting the mandate.
The second point is that there’s also unity and clarity that the Labour Party does not accept that it is legitimate for Theresa May to decide the future relationship between the UK and the EU and not disclose her negotiating stance to Parliament. This is the future relationship for everybody, not just the UK, but also the EU27. There has to be something which is out there in the open, subject to scrutiny and debate. So, we’ve been trying to force the government to bring its plan or strategy to Parliament and disclose what they are aiming for. So on those points – one, whether they accept the outcome and two, what’s the next step, the first one is determined, [but] the “how” isn’t. On that, I think the Labour Party has been united and pretty clear over the last few weeks.
That’s not our impression so far, from the way this has been reported in the media. For example, Jeremy Corbyn seemed to be saying that the Labour Party will block Article 50 and then Tom Watson (Deputy Labour Leader) stepped in and said no, we’re not going to do that. This is pretty confusing.
KS: I think if you look at what Jeremy actually said to the Sunday Mirror, he didn’t say that we were going to block Article 50. There’s an online version of it, and the headline has been changed.
If, hypothetically speaking, the UK Parliament voted to block Article 50, would this be tantamount to a motion of no confidence [in the Government]? If so, would you want to have an early General Election?
EM: I think it’s really important to emphasize this point. We had a referendum. I didn’t seek the referendum. 17.4 million people voted to leave the European Union. I understand the hurt and disappointment of the 48 per cent, but if we’ve got any hope of bringing the country together, we’ve got to respect the referendum result and negotiate for the best deal we can get in terms of Brexit. It’s important to say that the more the people in the 48 per cent spend their time saying “let’s reverse the result”, the more it leads to these two choices – reverse the result, or get a hard Brexit, where Britain burns its strategic alliances, ends up far away from the Single Market, outside the Customs Union, which would be damaging to our economy and strategically damaging for Europe.
There’s a real responsibility – that’s why Keir’s completely right – to engage on the pitch to ask what kind of Brexit we’re going to have. Part of our responsibility, as the Labour Party, is to show people that there is something worth fighting for in this. I absolutely believe that there’s something worth fighting for, because the issue of our cooperation with Europe hasn’t been settled by the referendum. The issue of us leaving the European Union has been settled. The extent to which we cooperate with Europe in the future has not been settled. We’ve got to decide that, in new ways, outside the European Union. It’s really important that that’s where our focus is.
On that point, people who voted to leave the EU didn’t know what they were getting.
EM: That’s why we’ve got to shape the settlement.
But do you think there’s any argument that, once the terms have been negotiated, they should be put back to the electorate? This is the most momentous decision since the Second World War. Shouldn’t there be an opportunity for citizens, many of whom are only now realising what the real consequences of leaving the EU may be, to think this through again?
EM: My view is that this role is now for Parliament. The people have spoken, and they’ve said, narrowly, that Brexit should happen. I think it’s really important, as I’ve said, that we focus on how we shape that settlement. I think that’s the role for Parliament now.
KS: Shaping how we start is the most pressing issue. Obviously, there will have to be a time when we look at the final deal, whether that’s in 2019 or some other time. Parliament will absolutely want to look at it and we’re almost certain there will be a [parliamentary] vote on it. But my concern is that by focusing on what might happen at the end, we’re missing the opportunity to shape what happens at the start. If the starting position isn’t the right one, then the final position is unlikely to be the right finishing position.
On the matter of shaping the agenda, the role of the British tabloids, both leading up to the Brexit referendum and the 2015 General Election, seemed different (even more aggressive), compared to previous elections. How do you see the future role of the tabloids during the Brexit negotiations? Can the tabloids be regulated in some way without eroding freedom of speech, which is a core value in our democracy?
EM: I think it’s very important to uphold freedom of speech. I don’t think that the tabloids should be able to intrude upon the privacy of ordinary people, but I think this is slightly like the weather. People complain about the press, but I don’t think there’s very much that can or should be done about their political coverage which doesn’t do more harm than good. You’ve said it was worse in 2015 – it certainly was for me! – but I don’t think it’s historically unprecedented. We’ve seen other stuff like this before, against other people, and it’s one of those facets of our system. I think there are ways to go around them – that is the role of the digital media.
[The tabloids] are not the only gatekeepers anymore, but it’s really a big, big question: how do parties on the Left, particularly those that don’t have the media on their side, find a way to get their message out? One of Jeremy Corbyn’s achievements has been to almost triple our membership. That is a massive resource, a massive opportunity to reach out to people. So, I don’t think there’s really an easy answer to this question. Did I like some of the press coverage of me during the 2015 Election? No. But do I think that it should be somehow regulated? No, I don’t. I think that protecting a free press is important, whether you agree with what they write or not.
Lisa Gow is Executive Editor of the Governance Post and a second-year Public Policy student at the Hertie School of Governance.
Nathan Appleman is Executive Editor of the Governance Post and currently on leave as a Research Assistant at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin.