Labour leadership contender Jess Phillips has said she could envisage campaigning to re-enter the European Union at the next general election, ahead of the contest kicking off in earnest on Monday.
With the UK poised to leave the EU at the end of this month, the approach of a future Labour leader to Brexit is one of the pressing questions Jeremy Corbyn’s successor will have to face.
Phillips, who campaigned for remain and for a people’s vote, said if she were leader, she would make a decision ahead of the next election about what stance to take, but had not changed her mind about the benefits of EU membership.
“You would have to look at what is going on at the time. What our job is, for the next three years, is to hold Boris Johnson to account for all the promises,” she said on BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show.
“So if we are living in an absolute paradise of trade, and we’re totally safe in the world, and we’re not going to worry about having to constantly look to America for our safety and security, then maybe I’ll be proven wrong. But the reality is that if our country is safer, if it is more economically viable to be in the EU, then I will fight for that, regardless of how difficult that argument is to make.”
Her approach contrasted with the insistence of shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, who was closely associated with Labour’s shift towards supporting a second Brexit referendum, that it is now time to move on.
“We are going to leave the EU in the next few weeks; and it’s important for all of us, including myself, to realise that the argument for leave and remain goes with it. We are leaving. We will have left the EU,” he said.
“This election blew away the argument for a second referendum, rightly or wrongly, and we have to adjust to that situation.”
Starmer said debate would move on to Britain’s relationship with the EU, as a non-member. “The argument now is can we insist on that close relationship with the EU – close economic relationship but collaboration in other areas – and also, what is the framework now, for future trade relations?”
Norwich South MP Clive Lewis, who co-founded the Love Socialism Hate Brexit group of Labour MPs, also warned against the risk of rehashing the leave/remain debate in the months ahead.
“The fight now is about the kind of country we’re going to be,” he told the Guardian. “And if we now spend the next five years or longer looking back, and define our future as rejoining the EU we’ll lose the next stage of this battle, which is about whether we’re going to be an isolationist, inward-looking, xenophobic country, or an outward-looking, progressive, internationalist country.”
Labour’s ruling national executive committee (NEC) will meet at noon on Monday to confirm the rules and timetable for the election, which is expected to be completed by the end of March.
One NEC source said they were likely to stick with rules thrashed out at Labour’s 2018 annual conference, that will oblige candidates to win the backing of trades unions or local parties, as well as MPs. They may be given just days to secure the necessary 21 nominations from MPs and MEPs.
Leading leftwing candidate Rebecca Long Bailey, who is an NEC member, will not attend the meeting, allies said, amid fears from rival camps of a conflict of interest if she took part.
Campaigning stepped up on Sunday with most contenders making media appearances – though Long Bailey has so far confined her participation in an article in the Guardian calling for “progressive patriotism and solidarity”.
Friends said she had taken a break to spend time with her son over Christmas and the new year, but was preparing to launch her candidacy formally this week.
Long Bailey’s close friend Angela Rayner, who had been seen as a potential leadership candidate, will kick off her bid to become Labour’s deputy leader with a speech in Stockport on Tuesday.
As well as adjusting to Britain’s imminent departure from the EU, the MPs jostling to succeed Corbyn have been setting out their analysis of the party’s poor performance in last month’s general election.
Phillips said Labour’s key problem during the campaign was that voters did not trust it to deliver on its ambitious promises, including free broadband for every household.
“The fundamental thing is that the country didn’t trust us to govern. It didn’t trust us to deliver on what we were saying,” she said.
Asked what she thought when she saw the free broadband pledge, which was based on a plan to renationalise elements of BT, she said: “What I thought was actually what I think lot of people thought, which was I wasn’t sure how we were going to deliver that.”
Phillips also questioned whether the full list of nationalisations promised by the manifesto – which included mail, water and energy, as well as rail – should have been Labour’s priority.
On rail, she said the case had clearly been made; but in other areas, she said the party has to look to “how those services can better serve the public, and nationalisation is one of those ways – but we have to make choices that people can trust that we will deliver”.
Nandy echoed Phillips’s concerns about Labour’s manifesto. “First of all I wouldn’t have been offering free broadband,” she told the BBC Radio 5 live’s Pienaar’s Politics. “People said to us, ‘It’s all very well promising free broadband but can you sort out the buses?’ and that was the more pressing issue in their lives.”
She added: “It’s not about whether you’re radical or not; it’s about whether you’re relevant.”