Not long after Theresa May called last year’s election I was asked to do a rabble-rousing session for Labour campaigners in a former Nottinghamshire mining town. When you knock on that door, I warned them, you’ll be facing people very wound up about Brexit – so you need to get your facts straight. ‘I don’t want to live in a country where one half of the population calls the other “luvvies” and the other half stigmatises their opponents as “thick”‘ At the first door I knocked an elderly man pointed over my shoulder and said: “Look at the state of the road outside my house. Who is going to fix that?” It was the same at the next house, and for most of the afternoon. In the end I got very little earache about Labour’s position on Brexit, but quite a lot of neckache from looking at the broken roads.
Those hands pointing over my shoulder – at the shambolic state of services and amenities ordinary people have to live in – taught me a lot about the gaps that have opened up in British society.
Gaps and potholes
It’s not just about the gap between rich and poor – though that exists. And it’s not simply about the harsh political arguments between Leave and Remain, though these still turn my Twitter feed into a not-safe-for-work zone on a daily basis.
It’s a gap between big, successful cities and small, unsuccessful towns. Between places buzzing with culture and commerce and dead high streets which only buzz at kicking-out time from the local night-clubs, and not in a good way. Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to change Labour’s position on Brexit this week is risky – but if it allows us to start healing these divides it will be worth it.
Corbyn has committed Labour to trying to form a new customs union with Europe. That will allow British goods to trade freely in Europe, under a common external tariff. That means the crankshaft of a Mini produced in Warwickshire destined for the BMW engine plant in Munich, and the final assembly plant in Oxford, won’t have to cross any artificial borders. This move places Labour closer to the position of the two big business lobby groups – the CBI and the Institute for Directors – than the Conservatives.
But it still only covers a minority of our trade – because as a highly developed country, the majority of UK exports come in the form of services – like banking, accountancy, legal advice or budget airlines. ‘Corbyn’s move is premised on the idea most of us want to heal the divisions of Brexit and get on with it’ To minimise disruption we are going to have to do a deal that recognises the EU’s importance as our main trading partner today – whatever new opportunities might arise as the rest of the world’s markets open up to British trade. And when your economy is dominated by services, that means recognising common standards with other countries – from the design of a passenger jet to the cost of mobile phone calls when you’re abroad. Here Corbyn says, while we’re unlikely to be allowed to remain in the Single Market, he’s prepared to do a deal that ties Britain to many of the standards and rules required. The condition is that a Labour government could nationalise rail companies that fail; save steel plants like Port Talbot under threat from unfair Chinese competition; and stop the exploitation of migrants as cheap labour.
There is no majority for a hard Brexit
While the move itself is just a tweak to Labour’s existing position, politically it is massive. It means people who want to limit the economic damage from Brexit have a clear alternative to the Brexit dreamed of by Farage and Rees-Mogg. And it respects the decision of the majority who voted to leave the EU. Hard as it may be for people who want to overturn the referendum result, it asks them to accept that’s not going to happen, and to back Labour’s fight to put a close trading relationship with Europe as the main priority for the government. Read more: Jeremy Corbyn commits Labour to backing EU single market access in ‘jobs first Brexit’ Corbyn, effectively has done the equivalent of throwing a treble 20 at darts, leaving himself one more tricky but doable shot to become prime minister. Last June’s election result shows there is no majority for a hard Brexit in the country. Nor does it exist in parliament. Now there’s a clear Labour alternative to the Tory position, it becomes possible for those within the Conservative party who want to keep British goods trading freely across Europe to ally with Labour and defeat Theresa May. If they do so, she has to go. Above all, for me, Labour’s new position allows us to start bridging the divides. For many die-hard Remainers, support for the EU has become an issue of identity, symbolising everything that is open, global and progressive in their lives. By insisting that Brexit voters were “stupid” or “misled” – which is a euphemism for stupid – they’ve allowed right-wing tabloid newspapers to stoke up an American-style culture war between progressives and conservatives.
Divisions aren’t inevitable
I don’t want to live in a country where one half of the population calls the other “luvvies” and the other half stigmatises their opponents as “thick”. And nor do most people. At the school gate, at the pub and at work we have to look each other in the eye and make the best of Brexit, however we voted. Because while we’ve been obsessed with the aftermath of the referendum vote, Europe itself is going through an identity crisis.
We’ve got hard right racists, populists and even anti-semites in power in some East European countries – and the 90 far right MPs in the German parliament. In Spain we’ve got the democratically elected leaders of Catalonia in forced exile and a rapper jailed for three years for insulting the King.
I’ve met liberals and social democrats from Italy, France, Germany and Poland since Christmas and they all have that same, nervy tension when they speak about the future of tolerance and democracy in their countries. Brexit massively divided us – but my experience of reporting on Europe tells me that if it’s the worst thing that happens to us in the next 10 years it will be a relief. We have strong democratic traditions in this country, and we need to start bolstering consensus, not tearing each other to shreds. Corbyn’s move is premised on the idea most of us want to heal the divisions of Brexit and get on with it. We want to know what it’s going to mean for our jobs, the businesses we work for, our ability to travel and communicate abroad. But we also want somebody to fix the potholes in the road, fix our badly damaged health service, fix the culture of neglect that led to the Grenfell fire. Above all we need a way to get over our obsession with Brexit and get on with seizing the opportunities of the 21st century.