Sophy Ridge on Sunday Interview with Baroness Shami Chakrabarti Shadow Attorney General

Sunday 3 February 2019


SOPHY RIDGE: Well let’s get straight on with our next guest, Labour’s Shadow Attorney General, Baroness Chakrabarti, thanks very much for being with us in the studio this morning. Now before we go on to Brexit and other issues, I am keen to get your reaction to the news that our City Editor, Mark Kleinman, broke yesterday that Nissan is planning to cancel production of its XTrail model in Sunderland, concerning news.

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: It’s very, very troubling and that is a region that does not need more uncertainty, turmoil and when something like that happens you have to think not just about the potential jobs in that industry, in that region, you have to think about the whole supply chain to it. It is places like Sunderland that have really, really suffered for years actually, since the crash and it’s places like that that we need to look to when we are looking at the causes of the Brexit vote. Obviously it is not for me to speculate until Nissan makes its announcement about the precise reasons but I think in recent times already we have seen battery manufacture and R&D, we are looking perhaps to lose vital infrastructure to places like China but also to parts of the EU like France. It is really troubling.

SR: Is there anything that the government should be doing?

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: I think it needs to end uncertainty in many respects, in particular the no-deal Brexit scenario. I don’t want to make everything about Brexit because as you discussed earlier with Vince Cable, there are other issues in car manufacturing but the no-deal Brexit is an uncertainty that is completely unacceptable for all sorts of people – farmers, car manufacturers, consumers – the government needs to absolutely take that off the table. I don’t think that the House of Commons will tolerate a no-deal Brexit so Theresa May needs to stop running down the clock and using that terrible threat as some kind of bargaining chip with the EU.

SR: And the easiest way to take no-deal off the table is to vote a deal through. Is it time for Labour to drop some of its red lines and actually look to make a compromise and get a deal?

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: Well we know that Jeremy Corbyn went in last week to speak to Theresa May and I know that he’s been criticised in the past for not speaking to her earlier but it’s because he wanted no-deal off the table and then to be able to talk about what kind of a deal might get the support of the House of Commons.

SR: But you can’t take no-deal off the table, can you, until you have got the basis of some kind of deal. Labour could take no-deal off the table by trying to get a deal.

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: Well what Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May have begun to discuss are our priorities which we think are closer to the priorities that would command support across the House of Commons, so that’s a customs union.

SR: Okay, so let’s talk about a customs union. This is what Labour often say, a customs union is what you want but at the same time though, the backstop has an effective customs union in it and at the moment you haven’t negotiated the future relationship so why don’t you vote for the Withdrawal Agreement and get that through, which already has a customs union in it, and then argue for the customs union afterwards?

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: Because you have to have some vision of where you’re going before you leave.

SR: But you need to get a divorce done before the future relationship.

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: Yes, but most likely with the Labour version of the future relationship the backstop would be much less of an issue. The reason for the backstop is because the EU like Labour will not countenance a hard border on the island of Ireland.

SR: But Brexit will be there regardless won’t it? That’s Labour’s plan as well.

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: The mood now, given where we are and the timing, is for some kind of insurance policy or backstop but the point is we have less of a problem and less uncertainty about the future because we want that customs union, we want that close relationship on regulatory alignment, on a customs union, on a strong single market relationship which would mean there wouldn’t have to be this divergence which is what creates the conflict around the backstop.

SR: Okay, now there’s been some criticism about Labour MPs this week who voted for the deal, who signalled they would vote for the deal in return potentially for some more money for their constituencies. Now if those constituencies voted to leave the EU and they are in need of more investment, isn’t that a win-win?

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: No, I don't think it is a win-win and by the way I don’t believe in the end any Labour MP would really be fooled by what some people have called a bribe and so on and that’s not because the Labour constituencies in vast parts of the country aren’t desperate for more investment, it’s because you can’t just pick constituencies off in that very narrow way. We need investment across regions, across the country, whether it is on things like research and development, whether it’s regional …

SR: Some money is better than none though isn’t it?

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: Look, I get that but I just do not believe that Labour voters in the most left behind constituencies would thank their MPs for these short-term isolated bribes, I just don’t see that commanding public confidence and support. I mean when you think about how disenchanted so many people have been with politics and politicians in recent years, the idea that that would be reversed by this sort of pork barrel politics, I just don’t see it.

SR: Well let’s talk about something else that could potentially cause disenchantment in politics and that’s a second referendum. I spoke with Vince Cable earlier and I am keen to get your thoughts on it as well. So last week on the show, I just want to show you what your Shadow Cabinet colleague Angela Rayner said, she said: “If we end up with a second referendum then us as politicians have failed the public.” Do you agree with that?

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: Well she’s got a point, I think she’s got a point. Personally I am very, very sceptical about referenda in general because of this binary yes/no, in/out kind of approach that doesn’t deal with nuances and complexities and what kind of Brexit and what kind of EU, what kind of relationship. So we had this referendum a few years ago, we didn’t even have a qualified majority for that level of constitutional change, just a simple majority and look what happened, this completely divisive, divided result. Mrs May said she was going to heal the country, she called an election which she didn’t need to call, it hasn’t healed the country, I think Angela has a point. I said and other people have said, if you have a second referendum and you get the same result or a slightly different result this time, this time it’s 52/48 the other way, what happens next?

SR: So it could be more divisive you think, if we have another referendum?

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: It could be. We can’t rule it out altogether because if you have to break the stalemate, I personally would prefer a general election. Now you might say, well you would say that wouldn’t you, that’s self-serving but it’s just with a general election you get to talk about other things. You get to have nuance, you get to talk about social care and education and manufacturing investment and so on and so forth, things you don’t get to talk about in a simple in/out, yes/no, black/white referendum.

SR: If election reports in the Mail on Sunday are anything to go by, they say Theresa May has pencilled on in for June.

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: Well do you know, I hope so and I say to her, you know, you did it when you didn’t need to do it and now you have been in stasis, the country is effectively not being governed, all sorts of other desperately important issues are not being dealt with.

SR: But wouldn’t you get a battering in the polls though? If people don’t like Theresa May they must be looking at you guys and thinking …

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: Well I think partly, I think partly – let’s be honest – Labour is a party of Leave and Remain, it’s not a party just of Leave or just of Remain. What unites Labour, whether it’s party members or MPs or voters is a belief in social justice and if all the energy and all the debate and all the commentary and all the Sunday morning TV is always about Brexit, sometimes it’s hard to cut through with the kind of issues that helped us in a general election campaign, that is an issue but we have not done … I mean we could argue about polls and a Poll of Polls and how many we’ve done slightly better or slightly worse in in the last eight but the most important poll of all is the official democratic one which is a general election.

SR: Now before we go I’m interested to get your thoughts on Venezuela. We’ve seen groups in support of both the President and the opposition leader, what’s your take on what’s happening and how the international community should be acting?

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: Here’s a thing, when I’m not an expert in a particular region like South America, I go to my trusted sources for the picture and for me as a human rights campaigner my trusted sources have always been Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, so I’d say that is always a good place to start when you want to know what might be happening in a country. Last year’s reporting on Venezuela are pretty damning and that’s in terms of disappearances, that’s in terms of crushing dissent, that’s in terms of reports of torture, of prisoners and political prisoners and it is completely unacceptable. I think it is incumbent on people like me as a member of the left, to call out governments and states of the left because human rights have to be applied with an even hand.

SR: Do you think Jeremy Corbyn has been tough enough, do you think, in his statements on Maduro?

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: Well I think that Jeremy is a lifelong human rights defender because sometimes it’s difficult for him to cut through the media because people just say well you’re a socialist just like the Venezuelans.

SR: I’m talking about his public statements in the last couple of weeks.

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: He has said that we have to have the rule of law and we have to have human rights and clearly if you match that with the reporting of the situation in Venezuela that’s not happening. However, and I do have to say this, it would be very helpful if the United States and the UK Conservative government would yes, of course call out Venezuela but also look across the way at Honduras where you have a US backed government that is also crushing dissent. I think that the human rights defence on the planet only works when all the primary standards are applied with an even hand whether it’s Saudi Arabia, whether it’s Israel Palestine, whether it’s Venezuela, whether it’s Honduras and if we start applying these standards with an eye to oil or regime change, then we are on a pretty sticky wicket I think and we don’t make things better.

SR: Okay, we’re out of time, thank you very much.