The 23rd June 2016 will go down as one of the most disastrous days in our country’s long history. I have always believed that our future as a country relies on being rooted in European unity. It was one of the reasons I joined the Labour Party as a teenager.
The ability to have levers at our disposal to fight poverty, build opportunities and remove inequalities requires us to use all means possible to have influence in the wider world, where much of what affects us is no longer contained just within our own borders. In my mind it has always been obvious that the European Union is the most effective forum through which we can exercise that influence.
Leaving the EU will cause harm to every community across our country. It is clear there are no circumstances under which we could secure a better deal than we have through our current membership. Turning away from our biggest market and seeking new trade relationships elsewhere will take decades, and we are unlikely to secure terms against bigger markets that benefit us.
Access to the single market, funding for community and research projects as well as our collective ability to influence global economic forces are all under serious and immediate threat. The threat extends to virtually all aspects of the economy and the wider impacts of an economic downturn are clear: the most vulnerable and least resilient communities will be hit first and hardest. Labour’s priority must be to deal with this impending crisis.
Our EU partners, with whom we must negotiate an exit deal, are adamant: there can be no access to the single market without free movement. Reform of the latter may well have been possible had we remained, but is now near-impossible as EU countries move to limit the spread of Brexit. Either we crash the economy in order to close the borders, or we protect the economy and destroy trust in politics. It is clear that the Leave campaign’s promises are not achievable without severe economic sacrifice.
Where the blame lies for this disaster is clear. The Conservative Party allowed an internal division to spiral into a national – and international – crisis. Their recklessness and callous disregard for the consequences of their actions have let us all down. They have risked the integrity of our precious union with Scotland, destroyed our international reputation and put millions of livelihoods at risk. They must be held to account. And we – the Labour Party – must be the ones to do it.
It is my belief that the scale, urgency and necessity of this task is not properly appreciated or understood by the current leader of our party.
Jeremy Corbyn has been leader of the Labour Party for the best part of a year. I did not vote for him last summer, but it was clear that Labour supporters wanted change. I have enjoyed the few occasions I have worked with him, especially on air quality. He demonstrated a clear interest in the issue and, following a campaign session with me and other EPLP colleagues, raised it with the Prime Minister during their weekly exchanges the following week.
But during the referendum campaign I became increasingly dismayed at his lack of involvement and his remarks dismissing the economic forecasts provided by dozens of commentators from the IMF to the Treasury. Instead he chose to ape the Leave campaign’s description of them as “scaremongering” rather than the real and prescient warnings they were.
On the morning following the referendum, Jeremy issued a statement that included praise for two Labour MPs who campaigned for the leave campaign, despite this being in direct opposition to Labour Party policy. This was a huge insult to the thousands of Labour campaigners who had worked tirelessly for the UK to remain inside the European Union.
This was followed by his misguided call for the immediate triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would lock Britain into a strict two-year timeframe to negotiate an exit deal.
To argue for such a course of action without a clear view of what the UK’s future relationship with the European Union would look like was reckless, and I accept that Jeremy has admitted this was a mistake, but to announce it without any discussion with the Shadow Cabinet or the European Parliamentary Labour Party, beggars belief.
During his final PMQs with David Cameron, Jeremy decided not to point out the former prime minister’s legacy for what it is: a betrayal of his responsibility to safeguard the country. The seriousness of the situation we now face did not even feature in his remarks.
The Tories will not atone for their actions on their own. The new Prime Minister has just appointed as her Foreign Secretary a man who wrote in 2002 that former African colonies should return to British rule, and who, during the fetid referendum debate, called Barack Obama “a part-Kenyan” with an “ancestral dislike of the British empire”.
She has placed right-wingers Liam Fox and David Davis in charge of forging new international trade deals and unravelling EU protections for workers and the environment. Fox has already expressed his desire to fast-track a TTIP-style deal, without any safeguards for workers, the environment or for public services, with the United States.
This is the reality of Brexit, and Labour needs now more urgently than ever to be an opposition with a leader capable of exposing it.
The task ahead of us is enormous. The Tories have created a catastrophe that will negatively affect the UK for generations. Our Leader’s inability to recognise this fully, hold them to account and to offer a way forward is unforgivable.
We need a new leader and Owen Smith has shown himself to not only be capable and effective, but – crucially – collegiate. He has shown that he understands the consequences of Brexit but also the need to act quickly and decisively to communicate the risks and challenges to Labour’s heartlands.
I believe he can reach out to the areas we need to win back from the Tories and will do so not from a position of self-interest or ideology but from a deep commitment to the Labour Party.
These views are my own, and I am not speaking on behalf of anyone else in the European Parliamentary Labour Party. I have not arrived at them lightly and I would ask that even where people strongly disagree with me, that they respect my opinion.
Whatever the result of the leadership election the task must be to unite, to never let the Conservatives off the hook for what they have done to our country, and to position ourselves to defeat them at the next General Election.