Jeremy Corbyn took the opportunity to make a clear statement about Labour’s Brexit policy – and take a jab at the Tories – in his speech launching Labour’s campaign for election to the European Parliament.
He attacked populist right-wing parties that are trying to play on petty-minded prejudices that Brexit has brought out, and criticised those who positioned themselves as either “Remain” or “Leave”-supporting parties.
And he re-stated Labour’s mission statement to end austerity, invest in the UK’s economy and communities, and raise wages and living standards.
He said: “Labour agreed to talks [on Brexit with the Tories] because we believed it was the right thing to do to see if we could get a better deal… So far in those talks, there has been no big offer, and the red lines remain.
“So if we can’t get a sensible deal, along the lines of our alternative plan or a general election, Labour backs the option of a public vote.”
That is a huge statement of intent. It answers criticisms that his party has been wavering on the subject.
But you can be sure his critics will still be banging the same drum tomorrow. As I type this, the BBC’s Norman Smith is asking Mary Creagh if there is any chance of Mr Corbyn backing another referendum, as though he did not say as much in his speech, less than an hour previously. Some people just won’t pay attention to what’s going on around them.
He said Labour’s alternative plan for Brexit – rejected for tribal reasons in Parliament – would “end the chaos caused by the Conservatives and let us focus on the other big issues facing our country.”
He said it would “restore pride and prosperity to parts of our country that have been neglected for too long. That neglect was, I believe a major reason behind the vote for Brexit in the first place.”
In contrast, he described the Conservative government’s actions as “botched” and “damaging”, and the government itself as “disintegrating”.
He said the Tories had delivered “three years of the Tories spending more time arguing with themselves than negotiating with Europe.
“What the Prime Minister finally cooked up led to the biggest government defeat in parliamentary history.
“It wasn’t until that damaging deal had been defeated three times and the Government had already missed its own deadline for leaving that the Prime Minister finally admitted she needed to compromise.
“It’s difficult negotiating with a disintegrating government with cabinet ministers jockeying for the succession, rather than working for an agreement.”
Mr Corbyn took the opportunity to re-state Labour’s position, that the party was trying to find a way to unite the people of the UK, rather than perpetuating the damaging division caused by the Conservatives.
He said: “What’s needed is a bit of understanding. Understanding of why so many people felt so frustrated with the system that they voted to leave. And understanding of why so many others believe that staying in the EU is the only way to protect our open and diverse society.
“What kind of society do we want to be? And on that people can find so much common ground. Labour, and only Labour stands on that common ground in this election.”
He said: “The injustices in our society are deepening. Those injustices aren’t to do with backstops, implementation periods and all that obscure jargon.
“They’re about whether your children will go to a school that can afford the basics or one that has to send begging letters to parents; whether your relatives will be treated quickly and safely on the NHS or wait in pain and distress for months; whether your parents will get a helping hand in old age or be left isolated and afraid; and whether we as a country can end the burning injustices in our society that Theresa May once talked of but did nothing about.”
Pouring scorn on the attitudes of the Tories and other right-wing parties, he said: “We need solutions, not scapegoats.
“When you blame your neighbour rather than the powerful for problems with the health system or for overcrowded classrooms or for a lack of housing you’re letting those responsible off the hook.
“You haven’t trained a doctor or a nurse, you haven’t opened a new school, you haven’t built a house; you haven’t secured a penny of extra investment.
“All you’ve done is fuel an atmosphere of division and nastiness.”
Relating this to the EU, he said: “We are the part of the great majority who reject the politics of smear and scapegoating.
“The biggest issues facing us like tax avoidance and the power of multinational corporations are international issues that demand international solutions. And the biggest issue of all the climate and environment emergency that threatens everyone’s future cannot be averted by one country alone.
“To transform our country and tackle injustice, inequality and the climate crisis we need to unite the overwhelming majority of people and take on the privileged and powerful.
“Labour will address the inequalities that helped fuel the Brexit vote by investing in our communities and people ending austerity and creating a fairer society.
“And we will lead the fight against racism at home and across Europe wherever and however it arises.
“It is Labour that wants to bring our country back together.”
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