Last Friday I was delighted to welcome Keir Starmer QC, Labour’s Spokesperson the UK exiting the EU, to Bristol West.
Thanks to Bristol University Labour students for organising the space and for mobilising so many students and university staff to come along. The meeting was packed out – all 350 tickets were taken very quickly – and there was a thoughtful atmosphere.
Keir’s speech had a big impact on me and on others in the room.
As many of you already know, I campaigned hard for us to remain in the European Union and, like most people in Bristol West, I would prefer for us to remain in full membership, for many reasons. So did Keir.
Sadly, the referendum went the way we know it went.
Since then, I have spoken out many times in favour of protecting as close a relationship as possible between the EU and the UK, including speeches in Parliament, questions challenging the Brexit and International Trade Ministers on their lack of a plan, writing articles about the benefits of free of movement of people, and about keeping Single European Market membership on the table.
Keir said that on the day afterwards, he looked at his children, aged 6 and 8, and decided there and then that he had to work as hard as possible to make the future better for them, and that it was more important than ever to be arguing the case for our progressive values. Like a lot of us, he has had to go through grief about the result of the referendum but he encouraged us to focus on what we can do to shape the future.
Labour values are the values I hear and see expressed in Bristol West all the time – internationalist, outward-facing, tolerant, challenging discrimination and hate, building alliances and working together. Now more than ever we have to campaign for these, together, in Bristol and nationally.
Keir has identified tests against which to hold the government to account about their negotiations with the EU – protecting workers’ rights and environmental rules, for example. He has developed these by travelling round the country and consulting businesses such as our local employers Airbus, trade unions and others about what they need from a future relationship with the EU, in order to continue to trade and provide good quality jobs. As a result of this, the Labour Party, unlike all the other parties, has a clear position on what we want from the future relationship between the EU and the UK. Other parties have said they will offer a referendum on the results of the negotiations – but that’s not spelling out what they want from the negotiations! It is also an extraordinarily high-risk strategy – putting the question to the country again risks us getting back the same result, possibly even stronger.
My colleagues who, although remainers themselves, represent constituencies which voted mostly to leave the EU, tell me that they are consistently getting back on the doorstep the question “Why haven’t we left yet?”. I agree with Keir that we need a clear negotiating strategy, something the Labour party has prioritised, and full and proper scrutiny and a final vote in Parliament.
Keir also made it clear that the government voted down the Labour amendment to protect the rights of EU citizens who have made their lives here to be able to remain in the UK. A Labour government, on day one, would guarantee those people’s right to stay – and rightly so. He pointed out that the government is treating them as bargaining chips, whereas Labour treats them as human beings and values their contribution to our country. It would also set a good example for negotiations.
We took questions, including ones which I answered about immigration and on refugees. I said that, as the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, I have made changing the national narrative and the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers a top priority in my time as MP. Just before Parliament was dissolved, I launched the report of the inquiry I initiated – ‘Refugees Welcome?’. We took evidence from hundreds of organisations and refugees and made clear recommendations for changes in government policy.
Labour has a proud tradition of honouring human rights and helping people fleeing war and persecution and we will always live up to our legal and moral obligations. My dad came over from India on the boat in 1956 – not as a refugee, but to study. He made his home here, marrying a British woman and having three children.
My dad knew there were rules about immigration. Just as all the asylum-seekers and refugees I have ever met know there are rules. Even as members of the EU, movement of people is governed by rules. We will continue to have rules on immigration – and that’s sensible. But what’s not sensible and not fair, is the terrible way this government is implementing the rules, frequently telling people they are not allowed to be here when they are – so they have to spend months or years in limbo appealing the decision.
Keir pointed out that the Tory government is responsible for the terrible decisions being made on our behalf at the moment about the UK’s relationship with the EU. The Prime Minister has ruled out the option of staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union; she has said she wants us out of Eurojust, which helps us to co-operate with different justice systems across the EU; and she wants us out of Euratom, which regulates the nuclear industry. It is astonishing that the PM has done this already, before we have even begun negotiating. It is also astonishing that she chose to trigger Article 50, starting the clock running down on a two year time-limit before the UK leaves the EU, and then called a general election, effectively losing months of an all-too-short negotiating period.
I feel inspired by Keir’s visit, reinvigorated to campaign for our values, the values of the people of Bristol West, who believe in a future where we collaborate and cooperate with others and achieve more than we would alone.