Post-referendum, Labour faces an existential crisis – over leadership, policy and its whole purpose and very existence. At the same time there could be an early general election, within the next 10 months. The leadership crisis needs sorting out first and urgently. Whatever the final outcome, Labour, as the main party of opposition in a parliamentary system, cannot operate effectively if the party inside and outside parliament are at loggerheads with each other. This impasse has to be resolved – and quickly.
If Labour is to start to reconnect with the lost voters who backed leave, against the party’s official position, it should open up its voting system for Leader and parliamentary candidates to all those who want to support Labour – a full-blown, US style primary system. Like the French Socialist party primary in 2012 (in which nearly three million voted), local polling stations should be set up around the country. There should also be full online and postal voting. The £3 supporter scheme last time was a small embryo of this, but it needs to bring in votes in the millions for the next leader, not just the hundreds of thousands. It will take some organising and publicity, but it would surely be worth the effort.
Labour then needs to set out its approach to the Brexit negotiations. It should press for the UK remaining a member of the single market, with an effort to secure at least some tightening of the rules on free movement – issues such as welfare eligibility rules, free movement for a job, not just to travel and then look for one, and possibly also an annual cap on total numbers. Other EU members could quite possibly welcome these changes too. At least the effort should be made.
Many of the leaders of the leave campaign – though not Farage – are now claiming that immigration had nothing to do with the result. This is patently absurd. Of course, only some leave voters were motivated by immigration. But there were more than enough of them to alter the final result. Without the immigration issue, it is certain that remain would have won. If Labour wants to win back significant numbers of its traditional voters who backed leave, it needs to tackle this issue explicitly.
Labour should therefore also support immigration-related changes, which the UK can do on its own: targeted expenditure on local communities directly affected by migration over recent years, with adjustments to local government grants explicitly to tackle this, and new expenditures targeted on the repercussions of the changes in communities that migration has often brought. There should also be much greater efforts devoted to enforcement of the minimum and living wages, a ban on job recruitment which is solely overseas, with UK residents either unaware of the vacancies or barred from applying, and much tougher regulation of zero hours contracts.
Another priority at home will be learning the lesson from the referendum of the divorce between Labour’s natural supporters and the party – as well as the disillusionment of voters across all parties – to devolve more powers and autonomy to the regions and cities of England. Westminster and Whitehall are remote and England is far too centralised. Like the other nations of the UK, each part of England should be given far more responsibility to run its own affairs, including decisions on tax and spending.
The biggest priority of the next prime minister(s), whoever they are before and after a possible general election, will be to establish a new, workable relationship with the EU 27. Given the referendum decision, if that new relationship is to be established on a sound footing, Labour should also commit to putting the deal to the people in a second referendum. That is the only way it can be established on a secure basis for the future.
The UK needs to retain the widest possible economic and other links with the members of the EU. Our future prosperity, influence in the world and success, depend on effective, wide-ranging and well-managed negotiations with the EU 27. Labour must both call continually for this and keep the government’s “iron to the fire” to ensure it is delivered.
If all these steps are taken both Labour and country can gain something back from the loss of the referendum.
Image: Houser Wolf