In post-EU Britain, what is the Labour Party for?

A recurring theme of the Labour Party’s campaign to persuade voters to back remaining in the EU was a recitation of the list of workers’ rights allegedly won and protected by the EU on our behalf.

This was a crucial element of the so-called “left wing case for the EU”. But it left one with a nagging question: if the EU is responsible for all these rights at work, what’s the Labour Party for?

The danger of attributing to the EU achievements that were hard won by trade unions working in concert with Labour governments seems not to have occurred to the party’s leaders.

So let me spell it out: every major advance in workplace rights, whether record maternity pay, the right to protection against discrimination on the grounds of race or sex, the right to join a trade union and have it recognised by your employer, and the national minimum wage, was won through a UK Labour movement.

Yet so desperate were Labour to persuade its own voters to stick with the EU that it was even prepared to disavow its own legacy and pretend that all such advances were the achievement of Strasbourg and Brussels.

Not content with such careless stewardship of the Labour movement’s very raison d’être, it decided that if traditional Labour voters were unpersuaded by this new perspective, it would insult them.

Remember the much-praised performance by Sadiq Khan during last week’s Wembley EU debate, when the London Mayor affected righteous indignation by admonishing Boris Johnson with the sentence, “How dare you…”?

Well that righteous indignation was not affected at all. It was real, and it was the same indignation felt by the whole of the party’s leadership, and many of its members, towards those who still vote Labour but who refused to toe the party line on Europe yesterday.

How dare they not obey orders? How dare they express concerns about immigration when they have not been given permission to do so? How dare they even begin to imagine that there is such a thing as existence outside the EU?

How dare they… is this microphone even working?

There was some discussion recently about whether or not voters in Labour’s heartland areas knew the party was in fact campaigning for a Remain result in the referendum. This explained, you see, why polls showed a consistently large number of Labour voters mistakenly supporting Leave.

Of course, Labour were looking at the issue down the wrong end of the telescope. Voters weren’t waiting to be told by their political masters what “the line to take” was. They had already made up their minds and were not remotely interested in what Jeremy Corbyn’s views were.

Yesterday saw the inevitable consequence of the disconnect that the Labour Party seems to have enthusiastically nurtured over recent years. No longer prepared to stay silent on issues that concern them just because some London-dwelling political types feel uncomfortable when they’re raised, voters turned their backs on Labour.

Will they ever turn back?

We have to hope so, because the country, more than ever, needs an opposition party worthy of the name, with the potential, if necessary, to replace the incumbent government should the call come. But while its own voters remain standing with their backs to Labour, such a transition from opposition to government cannot take place. Neither should it.

Working class communities have been taken for granted, been mocked for their love of the English flag and of white vans, been called bigots and racists. And, in this referendum now thankfully behind us, they have been described variously as unbalanced, extreme, xenophobic and economically illiterate.

By the Labour Party.

How dare they?

The reckoning is coming. It may not be as swift or as immediately deadly as the devastation wrought upon their Scottish brothers and sisters at the hands of the SNP last year under strikingly similar (though very different) circumstances. But it is difficult to see how swathes of northern and middle England can now return happily or enthusiastically to the Labour fold.

There is a way forward now for Labour. It can accept the will of the people in this referendum, put its baffling enthusiasm for the EU behind it and embrace the opportunities that the referendum result has presented. It can accept that concerns about immigration are valid after all and honour its new understanding by working towards an EU exit strategy that includes severe restrictions on freedom of movement.

It can start to look positively at what a post-EU Britain will look like, what it can achieve, what new freedoms and powers it will have, and think about how they can be used for the good of the people Labour hopes, once more to represent.

But I fear it will do none of these things. I fear it will continue fighting a lost battle over the EU and the various elements of a campaign that is now history. And with each blow it will remove itself ever further from the people whose will it is so reluctant to respect.

And in a relatively short period of time, the people of our great nation will be able to answer the question, What is the Labour Party for.

And the Labour Party will tremble at the ferocity of the answer.


This article was originally published by the Daily Telegraph

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