2019 10 Editorial – Labour Handling Brexit

Labour’s Neutral Brexit

Labour’s party conference voted narrowly and unexpectedly in favour of the party adopting a neutral stance on Brexit. If we get a Labour government and the successful negotiation of a new Brexit deal, a second referendum would be held.

As a result of the conference decision Jeremy Corbyn’s neutral position has been vindicated. Conference showed it has confidence in him as party leader.

The decision is a set-back for  his opponents in the Shadow Cabinet and elsewhere in the parliamentary Labour party. Corbyn’s neutral stance was publicly criticised by senior members in the PLP in the weeks leading up to conference. They saw it as a further opportunity to undermine him and possibly launch a palace coup with deputy leader Tom Watson, who has never accepted Corbyn as leader, in the vanguard.

Labour’s Brexit policy is dependent on it winning a general election and forming a government. If this happens it intends to negotiate a new deal with the EU. With this deal, which requires the agreement of parliament, the UK would leave the EU but stay in a customs union and be closely aligned to the single market. The choice for voters in a second referendum would be Labour’s deal or remaining in the EU under present conditions.

Brexit will be the dominant issue in the general election. A neutral policy, in the event of a Labour victory and a second referendum, is therefore the only practical position to adopt. A vote in favour of a campaign to remain would be a risky election strategy. It would not only alienate many Labour voters in leave constituencies. Labour would also compete for votes with the Liberal Democrats in remain constituencies, unless an electoral pact was agreed. And this is unlikely given the hostility shown to Corbyn by Jo Swinson, the newly elected Liberal Democrat Leader.

With the Queen’s Speech scheduled for mid-October, a general election is unlikely to be held before mid-November at the earliest. A motion moved by Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling for an early election failed to attract the support of the required two-thirds of MPs. However, if Johnson succeeds in getting a deal through Parliament before 31 October, his “do or die” objective, it could work to his advantage whenever the election is held. But with MPs voting to prevent a no-deal Brexit and for an extension to the withdrawal period, which incidentally requires the approval of the EU, his options are narrowed. And with Johnson ruling out an electoral pact with Farage’s Brexit party, an agreed deal is imperative.

Less than a year after the 2016 referendum Labour performed remarkably well in the 2017 general election. Now, two years later, the odds of a repeat performance are stacked against the party. In 2017 Labour fought the election largely on bread and butter issues. With the decision to leave the EU as a done deal this was a successful strategy. But Brexit is now the only game in town. The major concern of most voters. Tired of the failure of politicians to agree on a deal, they just want it over and done with. So assuming that Brexit has not been resolved before an election is held, it is inconceivable that other issues will dominate the election campaign. This is the task that Labour faces.

An analysis of the 2016 referendum results suggests that if Labour fought the next general election with an unambiguous remain policy, it would struggle to hold onto its seats in constituencies that voted heavily to leave. Of the 649 constituencies across the UK, (by tradition the Speaker’s seat is not contested), 409 voted to leave the EU. These included 160 Labour held seats out of a total of 262. A number of those, possibly up to 20, would be lost to another party, seriously denting Labour’s chances of forming a government. To make up for these losses the party would need to gain seats in remain constituencies, by no means certain given the presence of a Liberal Democrat candidate.

The Liberal Democrats claim to be the only party in England serious about keeping the UK within the EU. And it seems they will go to any lengths to ensure that happens. A short while ago they argued that a deal agreed by parliament should be put to the people in a second referendum and that they would abide by whatever decision the voters made. For a solidly remain party this is a respectable position to adopt. Now they say that if elected to govern the country, a very big if, they would revoke Article 50, scrap Brexit, and keep the UK in the EU. It looks as though their credible performance in the elections to the European parliament earlier this year, where they won more seats than Labour, has gone to their heads and affected their political judgement. Likewise the defection of six MPs to their ranks.

The Liberal Democrats are not a party that can be trusted. Their leader Jo Swinson berates Jeremy Corbyn, saying he is not fit to be Prime Minister (she said the same about Boris Johnson) and refuses to consider any kind of electoral agreement with Labour. In all the excitement of recent weeks with polls showing increased support for the Liberal Democrats, she has forgotten her role and that of her party in the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition between 2010 and 2015. Swinson opposes a no-deal Brexit because she says it will have a devastating affect on millions of families. And yet she was a minister in the coalition government that introduced a policy of  austerity which caused so much damage to the very same families she now claims to support. Swinson as Prime Minister, leading a Liberal Democrat government? A million to one chance. Swinson and the Liberal Democrats propping up a minority Tory government? They did it before, and the lure of power and fame is enormous.

With an electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats ruled out, a Labour victory at the next election will depend on its ability to focus the campaign on its radical economic and social programme for Britain. The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell set out the parameters of this at the party’s conference. It needs to convince voters that it is doable and affordable. A tall order given the hostility to Labour of the Tory supporting press. But also lurking in the background are the Labour MPs who, it seems, would prefer a Johnson-led Tory government than a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. Deselection anyone?