Labour wants to have its cake and eat it over Brexit, but at what cost?
The party’s position on EU withdrawal is determined by its strategy for the next general election – but as Tom Kibasi explains, it is taking a huge risk by not advocating for a second referendum
Since the referendum result in 2016, Labour’s political strategy has been to walk a middle line between Leavers and Remainers: it has neither embraced Brexit nor taken steps to prevent Britain leaving the EU. It opposes the extremism of no-deal but is not prepared to support ‘no Brexit’. Its position is for soft Brexit, triangulating between the instruction to Leave and the economic concerns of those who voted to Remain.
That means a permanent customs union, alignment with the single market, and compromise on freedom of movement. Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to the prime minister of 6th February set out Labour’s Brexit plan clearly and coherently. What is distinctive about Labour’s plan for Brexit is that it honours the vote to leave while maintaining a close partnership with the EU such that it is capable of securing the consent of those who voted to stay. It has more than fulfilled its responsibility as the Opposition.
The Labour plan appears to be based on the IPPR paper ‘the Shared Market’, first published in December 2017, which I co-authored. In fact, its first outing was not to the Labour leadership but to David Davis and Steve Baker at the Department for Exiting the European Union.
The report introduced the idea that the crucial strategic decision was not about securing ‘access’ to the single market but rather whether there would be regulatory alignment or regulatory divergence. The report examined the various options for a new partnership, identifying a future relationship that could satisfy the concerns of both sides of the divide (and was briefly considered by senior cabinet figures).
Labour’s position has, in fact, been much more defined for longer than is commonly imagined.
It was in February last year that the Labour Leader adopted the central idea of “a new and comprehensive customs union” that would be permanent. A few months later a frontbench Labour amendment adopted another key component: alignment to the single market, based on shared institutions, such as a UK Court of Justice with multilateral membership.
The Corbyn letter codified other elements too, including dynamic alignment on workers’ and consumer rights and environmental protections (meaning that regulations would adjust in the UK to match improvements in the single market over time). Mindful of the sovereignty concerns of Leave supporters, the report also argued that there must remain the possibility of divergence, albeit with known and proportionate consequences thus eliminating any ‘cakeism’.
The Labour plan was infused with political life by positive reactions in Westminster and Brussels. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said it could be a way to break the impasse. Senior Conservative backbenchers said that they would support key elements of the proposal.
So we now know that there is a deal available that is acceptable to the EU and that could almost certainly command majority support in the House of Commons. But its passage would come at the price of splitting the Tory Party down the middle, on a scale and severity akin to the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 (another dispute about international trade).
Yet Mrs May has chosen to reject Labour’s proposal, placing the unity of the Conservative Party above the opportunity to unify the country with a form of Brexit that would have honoured the referendum result while protecting the economy.
Labour strategists believe that attempting to stop Brexit would destroy the party’s chances of winning the next general election. They point out that the vast majority of Labour-Tory marginals voted to Leave, and that it is vital for the party to win these seats if it is to create an anti-Tory majority in the House of Commons. They believe that these voters would punish them for advocating for, let alone forcing, a second referendum. Some go further still, arguing that Labour would inevitably lead the Remain campaign – and that Leave would win once again, thus destroying the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
Those representing working class constituencies in the north of England have vocally made the case that attempting to reverse Brexit would be a betrayal of Labour’s working class supporters. The reality is that for many of Labour’s working class supporters, Brexit is not particularly important, compared to the impact of austerity and stagnating living standards. This makes sense: any voter for whom leaving the EU was a top issue would be unlikely to support Labour anyhow.
Nonetheless, the nostalgic, romantic idea of championing the working classes has strong emotional resonance at the top of the party. Shadow ministers such as Ian Lavery, Richard Burgon, Jon Trickett, and Andrew Gwynne are reported to have threatened to resign rather than to vote in favour of a second referendum. So for the Labour leadership so far, a second referendum has been a paper option, not a serious way forward.
Moreover, this electoral strategy chimes with the long-held ideological position of key decision makers, many of whom have been opposed to the EU for decades. It is variously seen as an undemocratic, neoliberal institution, asserting neo-colonial control over its weaker members, and as an instrument of NATO. That’s why Jeremy Corbyn opposes Tory Brexit, but does not oppose Brexit itself.
From this standpoint, accepting the result of the referendum is not sacrificing the national interest to the party interest; they are indivisible. Confirmation bias is surely at play: the electoral strategy that is seen as most promising is also the one that confirms the pre-existing ideological position.
So Labour finds itself colluding with the government in running down the clock so the choice becomes the prime minister’s deal or no-deal, and by ‘soft whipping’ its MPs such that they face no real consequences for supporting the prime minister by either voting with the government or abstaining. This was illustrated by the absence of consequences for those Labour MPs that rebelled on the Cooper-Boles amendment to legislate to prevent no-deal.
This strategy stands a reasonable chance of success: the real die-hards in the Conservative Party that oppose any deal number perhaps 30 MPs; should roughly 15 Labour MPs support the government and roughly 30 abstain, then the deal will pass. But is this really smart politics? Or a high stakes gamble based on flawed assumptions?
Three assumptions, three risks
First, the strategy is based on the assumption that British politics will ‘move on’ from Brexit after the deal is approved by parliament and refocus on domestic policy instead. Labour wisely realises that politics is not about two competing answers to the same question but what question is being answered in the first place: if Brexit is the question of a general election, then the Tories will be the answer.
But if the election is about the state of the country, Labour believes it is poised to win. At the 2017 general election, many voters appeared to think that Brexit and immigration had been ‘dealt with’ and the national conversation shifted to stagnant wages, increasing class sizes and longer waiting times in the NHS.
But this is wishful thinking. Brexit won’t disappear as a political issue: come the end of 2020, parliament will need to either ratify a FTA with the EU, extend the transition at the cost of £11b/year, or enter the hated backstop. The most likely outcome is a transition that extend to April 2022, the month prior to the general election in May 2022. That feels like an eternity away—and in political terms it is. If the Brexit project succeeds—or more accurately, it does not catastrophically fail—the government will reap the political benefits. But if it fails, expect the blame to be spread liberally around. Neither is it wise to assume opinion will remain static. The longer the Brexit shambles persists, the higher the chance that Labour votes shift from disquiet to disillusion with their leader’s seeming ambivalence.
Second, the strategy assumes that the next general election will be determined by swing voters in marginal seats. This approach privileges the views of Labour and Tory Leave supporters rather than Remainers. But it is hard to picture Tory-voting Leave supporters switching to Labour under Corbyn’s leadership, not least because these voters are more likely to be concerned about issues such as national security which are traditional ‘owned’ by the Conservatives. It is hard to believe that the same people who can energise the left with a clear socialist message can also persuade Brexit supporting Tory voters to switch allegiances. More than that, as New Labour discovered to its peril, it is dangerous to take your own supporters for granted.
But what if the election isn’t determined by swing voters at all?
One of the important consequences of the 2016 referendum was to divide the country in two blocs that have coalesced into competing identities as well as political positions. Is the UK perhaps becoming a 50-50 nation? This is the phenomenon seen in the US since the 1990s – where the country is split into two competing cultural and geographic blocs – and may provide some explanation for the resurgence in support for the two major parties in the 2017 general election.
In such a scenario, what matters is not swing voters but energising your base to get out and vote – and not sufficiently riling your opponents’ supporters so they feel the need to stop you (witness Labour’s commitment to the pensions triple lock in 2017, for example).
Labour strategists have argued that Remainers have nowhere else to go, and that if there was really popular support for a stop Brexit party, then the Liberal Democrats would have been beneficiaries by now. The mooted “Neoliberal Democrat” party that is likely to be formed by a small number of Labour MPs splitting to join with the Lib Dems will attract copious media coverage, but has next to no constituency in the country.
But this is to miss the point: the real risk for Labour is not that its Remain voters support other parties, but that they simply stay at home and don’t vote for anyone. So if the next general election is determined by turnout rather than by swing voters, Labour could be in serious trouble. Labour is betting that these voters are to be found in city seats with already large majorities, and so the impact would be negligible. But what if they are in marginals, in places like Kensington or Canterbury?
Team Corbyn believe that their base is not energised by EU membership, but by ending austerity, investing in public services, and promoting economic justice. That is certainly true for vocal Labour supporters for whom the project is about socialism, not the details of the UK’s relationship with the single market or European institutions.
But for other middle-class voters – insulated from the severest impacts of austerity but for whom the EU is an important identity issue – there is a risk that this is not the case. And Labour’s ask to the middle classes for more redistribution means that motivation really matters in getting them out to vote. Labour may discover voters find it rather easy to stay at home when asked to vote for higher taxes on themselves.
Third, Labour’s triangulated position risks undermining one of the most important dimensions of Corbyn’s popular appeal. Despite being in parliament for more than 30 years, Corbyn was able to position Labour as the party of change precisely because he was rightly perceived to be an outsider, and unlike career politicians. The message of his leadership campaign – “straight talking, honest politics” – was the same positioning used in the 2017 general election.
But by triangulating on Brexit, Corbyn runs the risk of being seen to be just like any other politician. This probably explains the decline in his approval ratings to historic lows—indeed, Corbyn might be better perceived if he simply picked a side, whether that was Leave or Remain.
The shift in perception of Corbyn towards being seen as any other politician will make it much harder for Labour to be seen as the party that can bring about the change Britain needs at the next general election, particularly since the Tories will have elected a new leader by that time. Again, this risks turnout of Labour voters rather than affecting swing voters.
What’s the alternative?
The alternative for Labour is to stick to the spirit as well as the letter of its Brexit policy agreed at its party conference in September. That would mean continuing to oppose May’s Brexit deal as bad for the country and for no-deal to be taken off the table. If Labour’s Brexit plan is rejected by parliament, then the party should fight for the people to be given the final say. It must mobilise its 500,000 members to campaign for the people to be given the final say on the deal—whether to keep the deal we already have as members (in the EU but out of the euro and Schengen) or to embrace the deal proposed by the prime minister. If the prime minister believes so strongly in her deal, why not put it to the people?
If Labour MPs are presented with a choice between May’s Withdrawal Agreement—including its hard Brexit destination for the future relationship—and a no-deal Brexit, the prime minister will win the vote. The prime minister knows this and the public do too.
As it stands, Labour is already seen by a majority of the public as the “party of Remain”. Brexit was always a project of the right and it is now rightly owned by the Tory party. Given this, voters might well reward the party for a clear, forceful, and unambiguous position – regardless of whether the parliamentary numbers for a further referendum materialise or not. Labour does not have the votes in parliament to end austerity, but that has not stopped it from campaigning against it. Why should Brexit be different? A public vote can only happen if it commands cross-party support, so if Labour is unable to force it to happen, it will not shoulder the responsibility. But if it doesn’t even try, then it will surely share in the public’s opprobrium.
In many respects, Labour is in the classic dilemma of strategy under uncertainty. For all the claims and counterclaims of each side, the truth is that no one can be sure, not least because Labour possesses the capacity to shape events as well as respond to them. The polling evidence is mixed and often contradictory—a majority of the public don’t want a second referendum but then again Labour support also appears to suffer significantly if the party is seen to back Brexit.
No one should pretend Labour faces an easy path ahead. But situations of extreme uncertainty also have their blessings: if the politically shrewd course is unclear, then all the more reason to simply do the right thing for the future prosperity and security of the country, and oppose Brexit. Leaving the EU is bad for Britain; it is a project of the radical right that has been revealed to have been both deceitful and empty at the same time. Labour should oppose it.
Centuries of foreign policy sought to prevent the European continent uniting against this country; through our own volition, the UK has finally brought about precisely the outcome it has always sought to avoid.
Since its creation, the United Kingdom has been torn between wishing to engage in European affairs and to retreat to its shores, and Brexit must be understood in that context. So it is a very serious mistake to believe that there can be political stability outside the EU: no equilibrium position can be reached precisely because the UK economy will continue to be shaped by decisions made in Brussels. No matter the deal, Brexit means the UK giving up its participation in decision-making and losing the very control the referendum sought to restore.
That’s why, in time, the UK will re-join, albeit on less favourable terms than we enjoy today. And so the left of British politics will surely search for internationalist leadership in the decade ahead. No matter how much the public demand “just get on with it”, the Europe question is here to stay. Labour must fight for Britain to shape our future for the better, as full members of the European Union.
Tom Kibasi writes in a personal capacity.