David Price argues that there was only ever one way that Theresa May could go today – to take Britain all the way out of the European Union, and start over…
“Management took us all off the regular shift, lined us up and told us that if Britain left the EU, they couldn’t guarantee our jobs anymore. They were basically bullying us into voting Remain.” So said the head groundsman of a sports club, ten days before the EU referendum. “The lads stood there quietly listening, and then as we walked away, we all said to each other – right, I’m voting Leave”, he told me.
It’s a familiar tale to anyone who pummelled the pavements, campaigning to leave the European Union last June. Alongside fellow canvassers of every persuasion from UKIP to revolutionary communist, I heard this story over and over again. The folks in one book packing depot – including many Eastern European workers – declared they were all voting Leave, “because EU immigration is driving our wages down”. A car bodyshop supervisor told me he’d been laid off to make way for two Estonians. “Lovely blokes,” he said, “they worked really hard, but didn’t have a clue about paint spraying. In the end, my ex-boss phoned me up and asked if I wanted to come back on an hourly rate, to fix their mistakes. Pride told me no, but my wife told me yes…”
Ever since last June’s historic vote, the ‘continuity Remain’ campaign Open Britain has been telling us that we never actually voted to leave the EU single market – despite all those repeated threats from Remain and promises by Leave, to do precisely this. Theresa May could have listened to the siren call of the establishment – which has benefitted so much from the torrent of low-wage, unskilled labour into the UK – but sensibly chose instead to heed the will of the people. In her historic Lancaster House speech she declared, “what I am proposing cannot mean membership of the single market.” Many working people clearly believe that, as one plumber told me, “immigration has been turned into a weapon and used against us.” Theresa May has finally signalled her intention to put the safety catch back on.
Most British people also agree that our EU membership fees have been crazily high – Vote Leave estimates that since 1973, the UK has paid half a trillion pounds to Brussels. May’s declaration that, “the days of making vast EU contributions will end” have not come a moment too soon, then. With our net contributions running at nearly £1 billion per month, most taxpayers would rather see the money go to the NHS. Like a tourniquet on an open wound, Labour must pressure the government on this to make sure it happens.
The Prime Minister also announced that we will effectively exit the customs union, and make bilateral free trade deals with the wider world. This can only be a good thing, because nowadays the EU represents less than 15% of world GDP, whereas it was 40% when we joined in 1973. There’s a great role to play for Labour MPs, pushing for us to make job-creating deals with the United States, China and Japan as a matter of priority. They must also ensure they’re of sufficiently high quality so as not to jeopardise existing British jobs. Direct sector-by-sector access to the EU single market should be retained as much as possible, with additional support measures for any businesses that lose out.
Ending the Common External Tariff also presents a great overseas development opportunity; Britain can now push ‘trade not aid’. Over the past three decades, China has lifted the largest number of people out of poverty in the history of the world – and has done so by selling things to the West. Britain can now help developing nations in Africa by opening up parts of our food market, which were previously closed due to EU protectionism. With world food prices around fifteen percent lower outside the European Union, we’ll enjoy cheaper suppers too.
When the final Commons vote comes to take us out of the EU, Labour should be in the position of having played a full and active part in the Brexit process. The Great Repeal Bill will place EU law onto our statute books, including the Social Chapter, but suddenly there will be an opportunity to begin campaigning for so much more. There’s great scope for revising industrial, social, agricultural and environmental policy. Labour’s Brexit minister Matthew Pennycook rightly praised Theresa May’s intention to maintain collaboration with EU partners over a range of issues, but now the United Kingdom has a remarkable chance to tailor a bespoke new relationship with the big, wide world. Change is coming, and Labour should ensure its values run through it like the writing inside a stick of Blackpool rock.
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