This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.
Many in Labour are struggling with the British people’s decision to leave the European Union. It’s not surprising, our attachment to the EU as a party is very strong and most of us felt the pain of the referendum defeat deeply. But that’s not how Leave voters in towns and regions across the country felt. They are jubilant. They feel they are getting their country back and have sent a demand for change to remote faceless, global and national forces. For them, voting Brexit was an attempt to “take back control” and assert the need for change.
Like most Labour members, we backed Remain but despite being MPs with constituencies which voted to stay in the EU we both voted to trigger Article 50. We understand the anger of communities whose security has been taken away, where there has been rapid change and people feel they have no control over their communities. We’ve seen in our constituencies residents made redundant as jobs are off-shored, automated or sent to non-unionised workplaces. The European Union isn’t the cause of these problems across industrial Britain and leaving it won’t be the solution. But that is the signal for change that a majority of voters chose to send and elected politicians are duty bound to respect it.
Labour believes in democracy, and seven out of ten Labour constituencies voted Leave. Whatever we felt individually or as a party, we must now respect the country’s decision. David Cameron’s predictions of instant economic cataclysm if Leave won haven’t happened. There are few signs of Britain being gripped by bregret, and it’s not only the 52% who voted to leave who expect us to respect their decision and get on with it, so do most Remain voters.
The Brexit negotiations will be hugely complex. They will consume the Government for years, and the voters are not going to like everything they see. Instead of the £350million extra a week for the NHS the Leave campaign promised, the EU is demanding a divorce settlement above £30billion. The Government won’t be able to cut immigration without slowing the economy and cutting services immigrant workers provide in the NHS, agriculture and manufacturing. Already the sinking pound is pushing up prices on the high street.
These things will not go down well with voters. But they won’t blame themselves, they will blame political elites for wrecking their Brexit. There won’t be a political gain for telling voters “I told you so.” Most business, groups and people we have spoken to since the referendum just want us to get on with it now and make the best of it.
That’s why Labour must now focus on the longer term. The referendum was a Tory ruse to deal with splits in their own ranks. They never expected Leave to win and made no plans for it. Labour must hold the Government to account throughout the Brexit negotiations, but we must not to let the Tories misrepresent this as wrecking tactics they can blame for their inevitable failures.
In politics you win by owning tomorrow not yesterday. The referendum is over and Brexit is going to happen on terms dictated by the Tory parliamentary majority because Labour lacks the votes to change it. So we should now focus on a more positive vision of what Brexit could be. What do we want a trade deal with India, China or the US to look like? What high-tech skills does the British workforce need to compete globally? How do we use this moment to make our economy more productive? How do we bring the country together with a new story of national renewal, democratic control, protect communities from uncontrolled markets, and build a fairer country that plays a constructive role in Europe and the world?
Britain is leaving the EU, so Labour must side with voters on both sides of the referendum who want our country to succeed and that means getting on with the difficult job of making Brexit work, and, perhaps more importantly for Labour, having a plan for post-Brexit Britain.
Lucy Powell is the Labour MP for Manchester Central
Steve Reed is the Labour MP for Croydon North