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Brexit and Beyond:Fabian Conference January 2019

The conference was held in London, with the main theme being “Brexit and Beyond”, with keynote speeches from Keir Starmer, Tom Watson and Emily Thornberry.

These are my personal notes of issues I found interesting or important in some way – definitely not a transcript of what was said in a very full and complex day of presentations and discussion.

Major issues/themes

Constitutional reform – Politicians are widely viewed as remote, and trust in politicians is very low (“experts” much higher). The last five years have demonstrated that our constitutional model does not work in the interests of the people, and risks capture by an overweening government or Prime Minister. We need to formalise some elements of the constitution to secure citizen’s rights and to prevent capture of Parliament by Executive. We need radical devolution of power to nations, regions and localities. Countries with written constitutions have more protection.

A positive inclusive vision – we need not only to criticise the current government and the EU, but to offer a positive vision of society, and plans to achieve this, including plans to reform and remain in the EU. It needs to be a vison which works for everyone

Populism. Faith in all forms of politics is weakening globally, opening door to “populism”, though it may have passed its peak in US and EU as false promises come home to roost

Leadership – people expect leaders to keep us safe, and embody our values. Theresa May has eroded faith in that.

Sovereignty. Sharing sovereignty is not losing it, but strengthening it through cooperation. A sovereign state can choose to share its sovereignty (e.g. NATO) in order to solve problems too big for a single country

Brexit. Extension of Article 50 is essential. There is no longer time to prepare for any kind of Brexit. Any outcome will offend a significant group of the electorate, so we should do what we believe right for the country. If we have a referendum, we must have a strong positive vision for change, not back to “business as ususal”.

EU

Support remains strong in the South and East, where commitment to democracy has been consolidated by funds for development and cash. Public support switches when countries become net contributors.

Reform. The EU does reform, but slowly (e.g. CAP). It is the largest rules based market in the world – the left believes in a rules based order, the right opposes it.

Tax. If all multinationals paid tax at the same level as conventional firms the sum would be greater than the deficits of all member states

The Leave/Remain divide is more about education than age – the 65+ graduates (a small group) are strongly left wing and strongly pro EU

Climate Change. A recurring theme, can only be tackled collaboratively.

Artificial Intelligence. A major policy challenge which we are not preparing for.

Keir Starmer

May is not resilient, but reckless. She invented her own red lines and closed down scope for negotiation at the beginning.

We were right to support issuing of Article 50 notice to authorise the government to seek a negotiated deal in response to the referendum result. That was not authority to sign a deal without Parliament’s agreement.

She has fought at every stage to avoid consultation, scrutiny and accountability. She tried for an approach where Parliament’s only involvement would have been to sign off the final deal in the last few weeks. She is still not listening, merely repeating her personal view of Brexit.

She has experienced the greatest Parliamentary defeat by a head of government in the UK in history (larger than the defeat of Charles 1st)

We are now at phase three of the Labour Conference plan.  It is time to kill unacceptable options and focus on real choices.

Labour now rules out:

  1. May deal (with or without tweaks)
  2. No deal – no majority
  3. Canada – weakens rights, no protection for services, no solution to Irish border
  4. Hard border in Ireland

This leaves only two options:

  1. Close economic relationship – a customs union and a close relationship with the single market (“a” because you can’t be “members” if not members of EU)
  2. Public vote

Time has run out. Leaving requires:

at least 6 Bills passing Parliament (none yet drafted) on: Brexit Implementation; Immigration; Agriculture and fisheries; Trade; Financial services; Plus 700 Statutory Instruments

An example of the problems is Eurojust. As partners in Eurojust we hold a significant number of people charged with serious crimes involving several member states. Without an agreement we have no legal basis to hold them. Do we let them go? Do we withdraw from cooperation on invetigations?

This makes extension of Article 50 inevitable, whatever the plan.

Would participation in the EU Parliamentary Election be a public vote?

Richard Corbett

EU would be very supportive if we change our minds

Public opinion has shifted, especially in Labour leave areas – the leavers of working age have swung disproportionately towards remain.

Stella Creasy

Brexit reflects a Europe wide politics of grievance , but Brexit is not top of the EU’s agenda

EU is not perfect – some big failures, but no Brexit deal is better, or addresses our real problems. Remain and reform is still the best option.

We need a clear story about how we want to reform the EU. We need to continue the democratisation of the EU. We have allies across the EU, and they are desperate for us to stay

Stephen Bush

Brexit does not help with our problems

Outside the EU arbitration of disputes is in the hands of pure neoliberal systems

Will people be content if they look back in ten years and say, letting people die for want of diabetes treatment was worth it?

Stephen Kinnock

We need to bridge the divide between cosmopolitans and communitarians

On balance, Cosmopolitans value rights, and mobility, they see globalisation as opportunity and value skills and education

Communitarians did not benefit from globalisation and experienced it as loss. They value responsibility over rights, welcome rules, patriotism and the nation state. They are suspicious of the big state, and want more local control.

New Labour held the two together “tough on crime…” and “cool Britannia”, but began to lose this in the mid 2000s, before the financial crisis. A key moment was Blair’s speech in 2005 which described globalisation as an unstoppable “force of nature”. Politics began to prioritise identity and rights over cohesion. This made it easy for Tories to divide and rule.

6 priorities:

  1. Strengthen common bonds across diverse people, groups and communities
  2. Focus on responsibility and rights
  3. Tackle mobility – the problem that able young people move to cities and never return
  4. Build an active state in partnership with business
  5. Regulate immigration/the labour market (like we do other markets)
  6. Be clear that patriotism is not an insult

Emma Reynolds

The strongest leave vote was in areas with the strongest “import shock” – e.g. buying from China things we used to make here ourselves.

The Tories abolished the migration impact fund which had eased pressures in particular communities

Don’t underestimate the difficulty of redistribution

We need a new Marshall Plan for communities:
Tax assets – revalue Council Tax, reform Inheritance Tax; Land tax; Tax multinationals; Invest in education (France has set maximum primary class sizes at 12 in deprived areas); Restore Sure Start; Regenerate places (including land reclamation where urban decay constantly reminds people of the lost past); build affordable housing and restore size standards

Sunder Katwala

Labour has lost its voice on difficult issues

We need to recreate the party of integration – not saying different things to different people

Wes Streeting

The right values security over freedom

There are only two kinds of Brexit – pointless (Norway) or painful (No deal)

We need to reinvogporate the nation state

Radical devolution of power to localities

Tom Watson

“After Brexit, I warn you not to be ordinary, young, old, or ill”

Our democracy failed after 2008, which should have been the big opportunity for the left.  We need an economy which works for everyone. Since 2008 we have lost 500 libraries, £70m cut from schools budgets, Homelessness risen, 4.5 million children in poverty

AI is a major challenge we are not prepared for. HMG project that 9 million jobs are vulnerable by 2030, including many middle class professional jobs which have largely been preserved so far. It took 100 years and a lot of battles to reach a settlement from the last industrial revolution. This one will be faster.

Growing GDP is no use unless it grows for everyone

A home of your own should be a right (a 30 year old who saves 5% of her income will have saved a deposit for a house by the time she is 75)

We should recover a trust in politics, as serving the people and as a noble profession

Emily Thornberry

We are in dangerous times:

Economic malaise – leave people cut off, divided and angry

Divisive politics makes scapegoating easy for populists

People reject “business as usual” politics

Growing view that violence is a legitimate way of resolving issues

Resurgence of politicians willing to use these for political advantage

It is not our job to appeal to the lowest common denominator: we should not normalise greed, fear or violence

We must rise above Trump and those he has empowered

Populist is not the same as popular – the most popular budget ever was Brown’s 2002 one, which raised NI charges to pay for NHS

Trump explained people’s suffering and offered solutions to people grasping at straws

We must offer an economy which works for all

In a new referendum we must be offering new opportunity to change

We need to codify our constitution

Optimism – we need a strong, positive story to tell about the future inside a reformed EU

Rights – a key element of left politics. The right prioritises security over freedom

All options will upset someone – go for our values and what we believe is the national interest

After the Election – the 2017 Fabian Society Annual Conference

On 8th July 2017 the Fabian Society held its annual summer conference, attended by some 200 Fabian members. The event focused on the 2017 election, the manifesto, the campaign and lessons for the future, especially in relation to Brexit and Housing. These notes reflect my personal interests, and are certainly not a coherent account of the whole conference.

Fine keynote by Yvette Cooper, and especially interesting contributions by Lisa Nandy, Seema Malhotra and Emma Burnell.

The Election

We did not win, but we did well, partly because the Tories lost, with a disastrous campaign.

Hostility to the Tories was a strong factor, and the fact that no one expected us to win

Remember 130 seats swung from Labour to Conservative

We had a strong manifesto, we offered hope, and support for public services

We had a leader who presented passion, decency, authenticity (though the Corby effect is ambiguous – some voted for him, some voted despite him)

Because no one expected us to win, we were not subjected to thorough scrutiny, especially on the economics – this will not happen again!

We held the factions together around a shared manifesto, and avoided fragmenting and infighting

The result polarised constituencies substantially with the erosion of the minor parties. Seats where one party has more than 50% of the votes increased dramatically between 2015 and 2017. Tory seats from 52% to 77% and Labour seats from 46% to 85%.

There is no simple explanation of individual results – the largest Labour majorities were in Bristol West and Knowsley!

Leadership was a paradoxical issue – in focus groups, half of people said that they voted because of Corbyn, but half voted despite him

Parliament is more diverse than ever before. 45% of Labour MPs are women, there are 27 BAME MPs, and we have the largest ever proportion of “out” LGBT MPs.

The result has already reversed Tory policies on several issues – grammar schools, foxhunting, winter fuel, Northern Ireland abortion

The Manifesto

The manifesto was put together in a hurry, not all was thought through.

It was better at demonstrating our values and direction of travel than as a detailed plan – not all could be addressed in one Parliament, not all was affordable

Focus group evidence shows that the manifesto worked – people liked hope rather than fear.

They noticed our policies on Tuition Fees and Bank Holidays! They remembered the Tories for the U-turn on the “dementia tax” (the U-turn more than the policy itself) and foxhunting.

Tuition fee policy was popular among parents and grandparents, not just the young.

Our manifesto was weak on welfare and the poor

there was debate about the proposal to abolish Student Loans (though note Andrew Adonis’ Guardian article supporting abandoning loans). Is this the priority at this point? If the rationale for loans is that graduates should contribute because the degree leads to higher earnings, then raising income tax on the top 5% of earnings is a simpler and more rational policy, than forcing debt on people 75% of whom will never repay in full.

The new campaign

We remain on an election footing, though opinion varies on how soon that will be.

We need to keep the spirit of the Manifesto, but develop the arguments better, strengthen on welfare.

Attach hope to a viable programme for government

Focus on equipping people to deal with an uncertain future

Talk a language that people understand (most people think “the market” is where you buy your vegetables!)

Andy Harrop’s five priorities:

  1. We need to attract “left conservatives” – left on economics but socially conservative
  2. We need to build on our good result in Scotland
  3. We need to campaign (again) “in poetry” but be better prepared to govern “in prose” (we did the first well)
  4. We need a story on Brexit
  5. We need to be civil, inclusive and united.

Yvette Cooper’s four priorities:

  1. Hold the new voters and go beyond them. Bear in mind the electorate is volatile (a high proportion of 2017 Labour voters had never voted Labour before)
  2. Chart a progressive story about Brexit
  3. Address the divide between cities (overwhelmingly Labour, remainer, educated) and Towns
  4. Prioritise a kinder, gentler, democratic politics. Avoid negative campaigning

Address older voters – we now have a majority of voters in all age groups under 45

Address C2s – our weakest social class

Talk up our track record

Continue to make the Tories look bad – Parliamentary opposition important

Demonstrate the competence of the whole team

Remain united.

Brexit

Much debate, but general view is that it is likely to happen, and that opposing in principle now wins no votes.

Party/Starmer policy was clever. Labour is the safest home for remainers, and not hostile to leavers. The LibDem policy of direct opposition merely provokes resistance, and has not convinced the remainers that it is feasible.

We accept the referendum result, but are clear about what people need – the six points. People did not vote to become poorer, but that is certainly what they will get.

Starmer’s six red lines command support from remainers and leavers (and much of this was promised by leavers during the campaign!)

Now is not the time to become the “Remain” party, but the time may come (?). Telling people they were wrong or stupid does not change minds. Public opinion may be changing (poll and focus group evidence not clear) and may change further as negotiations proceed.

Closing our borders may well drive up “illegal” immigration, which will drive down wages and conditions faster than current migration does.

The EU

Brexit is not the main concern of the EU – they have other more pressing issues to worry about, including the kinds of reform what we wanted to see, which they are pushing ahead with.

The 27 remain incredulous, but resigned to Brexit. They still think we are deluded about what we can get out of it, and the strength of our negotiating position.

Despite recent results in Austria, Netherlands and France social democracy is in retreat across the EU – the European left sees the UK 2017 result is seen as a beacon of hope.

There is agreement on the need for reform, but the Euro makes this (even more) difficult

Housing

Housing is a major issue – some think the biggest issue for the next election

All three forms of tenure (owner occupation, social housing and private rented), are in crisis.

Government policy to expand demand merely inflates prices

We need to shift from income taxes to land/wealth taxes

Does housing affordability map onto voting behaviour – a research question?