Labour needs leadership


The referendum result is seismic and momentous -- whichever way you voted, on this we can all agree. The British people have spoken and it is important to respect the result, listen to the message it has sent and note what it tells us about the United Kingdom. 

The result was decisive but does not represent a landslide victory for the different Leave campaigns. Whilst the 51.9% who voted for us to leave the European Union got the result they wanted, the 48.1% who believe Britain is stronger, safer and better off in the EU cannot be dismissed and ignored -- their voices must be heard too.

"The 48.1% who believe Britain is better off in the EU cannot be dismissed and ignored."

The referendum has exposed deep divisions in our country, given the dramatically different ways different nations and regions, generations, socio-economic classes and ethnic groups voted. For example, according to YouGov 75% of 18-24-year-olds voted for us to remain, whereas 61% of those over the age of 65 voted for us to leave. So it is incumbent on all of us to work out how we stitch our fragile nation back together.

In the short term, economic and financial stability -- upon which jobs and businesses rely -- must be re-established. The turmoil that the much maligned economic "experts" warned of has hit the markets today, with the pound falling to below $1.35 on the global currency markets -- the lowest in 31 years.

Given this, the intervention of the Governor of the Bank of England is welcome. For this reason alone, it would have been grossly irresponsible for the Prime Minister to immediately invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, instantly triggering the two-year time frame to negotiate our withdrawal, as this would have simply added to short-term instability.

Promises made

We now face the prospect of a new Prime Minister, most likely one of the leading members of the official Vote Leave campaign. A huge number of promises were made by that campaign -- both in terms of government policy and in the negotiation of our EU exit -- which the new Conservative administration will be charged with delivering from October.

We were promised that a Brexit will lead to tens of billions of pounds of extra investment in our public services, particularly the NHS, whose logo was plastered along the side of the Vote Leave battle bus. We must ensure those promises are kept.

"It is inconceivable that any deal for our departure from the EU can involve free movement."

We were promised a trade deal with the EU on similar terms to what we have now -- an important yardstick against which post-Brexit arrangements should be judged. We were told that, after leaving the EU, the government would meet its target of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands. Above all, we were told that warnings of job losses, a flight of foreign investment and overall damage to our economy are overblown, and that prosperity will flourish.

Whatever your views on these promises, it will be the constitutional duty of the opposition to hold the new Prime Minister's feet to the fire on all these commitments and hold them to account for their delivery. In truth, the manifesto of the winning candidate of the forthcoming Tory leadership contest has, in effect, already been written by the Vote Leave campaign. To some extent, it has been co-authored by UKIP, many of whose arguments Vote Leave ended up echoing.

Border controls

Of course, the motivating issue for many Labour voters to vote to leave the EU was immigration. I have never denied that immigration poses challenges, but I do not believe that leaving the EU, with all the risks to our economy, is the way to resolve them. Yet I and other Remain campaigners must accept that a majority of people took a different view.

It is inconceivable that any deal for our departure from the EU can involve free movement, given that it has been clearly rejected by the British people. So a new system will therefore need to be put in place to apply to all immigration, whether from the EU or otherwise.

The debate on immigration has unfortunately become increasingly polarised. One group of voices claims that Britain is full and that it's time to shut our borders. Others insist there's no problem: immigrants and the vast majority of Britons rub along together alright, and it's only a fundamentally backwards and prejudiced minority who have an issue.

Labour's future

How should Labour respond? We have rightly argued that immigration has brought real economic benefits. But that -- on its own -- is an accountant's answer to a question which goes to the heart of how people feel about modern Britain.

Of course, we won't solve the challenges by resorting to the sort of scapegoating which the UK has such a proud history of fighting. But instead of arguing endlessly about who we should let into our country and why, we should spend more time discussing what happens when immigrants enter our country and settle in, say, Middlesbrough, Newham or Glasgow.

"Labour now requires leadership which was sadly lacking from the top of our party during the referendum campaign."

As I said in a speech earlier this year, we should be less shy in acknowledging that immigration can (but doesn't have to) undermine community cohesion, and recognise there's a middle way between shutting our borders and shutting our ears to people's concerns. Seeking to ape UKIP in this regard will prove to be a dead end, and not credible with the public in this context. Instead, we must find a Labour answer to the immigration conundrum which both addresses people's concerns and stays consistent with our values.

All of the above requires leadership which was sadly lacking from the very top of our party during the EU referendum campaign. Our main striker often wasn't on the pitch, and when he was, he failed to put the ball into the net.

Finally and most importantly: we may have lost the referendum, but the values which drove us to adopt a remain position have not been defeated. The notion that by the strength of our common endeavour -- not just as citizens, communities and constituent parts of the UK, but as nation states -- we can often achieve more working together than we can alone, whether on the environment or national security, is just as valid.

Our concern for human rights and social justice -- not just at home but abroad too -- is no less strong. Our desire to ensure that no matter what your starting point in life, if you work hard, play by the rules and put in the graft, all opportunities should be open to you, is no less a priority.