I often start a conference presentation by saying I am not going to talk about Brexit, but usually do. The subject is unavoidable as it impacts on so many aspects of public policy. As we approach the Scottish Labour Party conference this weekend, here are my thoughts on how Labour should approach the issue.
I voted Remain and my trade union campaigned for a Remain vote. However, that wasn't the outcome and we have to respect that vote. And before some folk get too excited, it was a UK referendum and subsequent polls show that people living in Scotland share similar views on issues like immigration control and they certainly want common trade rules across the UK.
I have written many UNISON submissions to parliamentary committees and elsewhere on the challenges that Brexit brings – most recently on workforce planning in the health and care sector. I have also argued that we should not just defend the rights of EU nationals to stay in Scotland but demonstrate that they continue to be welcome here. I have also made the case for devolving many aspects of immigration policy on the Quebec model and opposed the blatant disregard of the devolution settlement in the EU Withdrawal Bill.
The issue for the Scottish Labour Party this weekend is how Labour should position itself, given the chaotic mess the UK Government is in.
I start from the position that Labour is not the government and is not leading the negotiations. It is the job of opposition to scrutinise government and to indicate a broad alternative approach. Keir Starmer set out his six tests, which I believe form the basis for a Labour response to the Brexit negotiations. As Jeremy Corbyn said in his recent speech, "Our priority is to get the best deal for people’s jobs, living standards and the economy. We reject any race to the bottom in workers’ rights, environmental safeguards, consumer protections or food safety standards."
Most commentators agree that his speech provided some much-needed pragmatism - supporting a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union and strong relationship with the single market. I would argue, as have others, that it was smart politics as well.
It also seems likely, based on the Chancellor’s speech yesterday, that a transition period will be agreed of two years,
“The Labour frontbench may ultimately argue for a ‘Norway’ Brexit on EEA terms. But this will only happen if or when it is clear that no less-integrationist alternative is feasible – and when a sizeable portion of Leave voters have changed their minds to the extent that they are prepared to accept the price of soft Brexit.
Neither of those conditions applies today, which is why the Labour centre-of-gravity has not united behind the single market option. In fact it suits the Labour frontbench to be sandwiched between the single-market out-riders on its own backbenchers and the government’s impossible-ist ‘goldilocks’ position.”