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How Labour Screwed Up On Brexit

The party's approach has been all about electoral maths rather than solid principles, and now it's falling apart.

by Michael Chessum
05 August 2019, 11:28am

Collage by Marta Parszeniew (Photos of Labour politicians via, via, via, via, via / Map of Britain via National Museum of the US Air Force)

First they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they give you an awkward fudge which you are obliged to hail as a great victory. Then they hover backwards and forwards until you basically lose hope. And then, at long last, they claim to have always held the position you are advocating, and that you really have nothing to be complaining about.

You never actually win. Campaigners with experience of shifting policy know this pattern well. Large, proud political institutions do not like to admit they are wrong, and much though it represents the seeds of a new politics, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, and its position on Brexit, is not fundamentally different. As the party heads towards a Remain position, the cheerleaders for a Labour Brexit, or “constructive ambiguity”, or whatever it was that Barry Gardiner last said on the Today programme, need to be given a ladder to climb down on.

And so, the failure of Labour’s strategy to deliver Brexit is not – we are told by many Labour supporters – the result of a strategic error on the part of those in charge of it. Rather, it was squashed by extremists on both sides. The story goes that Labour had a solution in the centre ground of the debate: a noble, brave plan to deliver a soft Brexit that would unite the country – but that irresponsible hard Remainers, many of them motivated by hostility to Corbyn, polarised the debate so much that it became electorally untenable.

This is a fine narrative, except that it is rather like talking about when England won the 2018 football World Cup after Raheem Sterling scored two goals against Croatia in the dying minutes of the semi final. That is to say, it is a reference to a historical event that never happened.

Labour didn’t always have to be the party of Remain, but it did always need to be the party of Remainers.

If, in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, Labour had put forward a bold soft-Brexit offer, it may well have found that the overwhelming bulk of Remainers would have flocked to defend it. This position would have combined delivering the result of the referendum with a principled defence of free movement and a commitment to stay in the Single Market – guaranteeing the workers' rights, environmental protections and consumer standards that are currently enshrined in EU law, and retaining the closest possible relationship to Europe.

I can say this with some certainty, because in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, Remainers were demanding exactly this stance. Another Europe is Possible, the left’s anti-Brexit campaign – of which I am national organiser – was not focussed on stopping Brexit. Instead we put forward what we called a “Progressive Deal”, a charter for what a least worst Brexit might look like. This got approximately zero traction within Labour.

Later, we set up the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, which fought for a key part of any soft Brexit settlement while remaining explicitly neutral on Brexit itself. At the time of the 2017 conference the campaign had the support of thousands of members, but just four backbench MPs (Clive “never gonna give EU up” Lewis, Minister for Tottenham David Lammy, his London neighbour and fellow ardent Remainer Catherine West, and Swansea MP Geraint Davies, who snores to the tune of “Ode to Joy” in his sleep). We and the campaign for Single Market membership had submitted the headline motions, but Momentum instructed its delegates to block the motions from being debated on the conference floor – at the direct request of the Leader’s Office.

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Jeremy Corbyn delivers his speech at the 2017 Labour Party conference in Brighton (Simon Dack News / Alamy Stock Photo)

The more centrist campaigns, too, took a soft Brexit stance in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum. Open Britain, the legal successor to Britain Stronger In Europe (the “official” Remain campaign in 2016), was initially a campaign to stay in the Single Market. Best for Britain launched as the explicitly anti-Brexit alternative to Open Britain, but only in April 2017, and only in April 2018 did Open Britain morph into the People’s Vote campaign.

Rather than put forward a soft Brexit vision that would accommodate the demands of its grassroots and supporters, the Labour leadership was sucked in by the narrative that delivering on the referendum meant delivering something harder. Free movement, the main moral issue for most left-wing Remainers, was the first casualty.

The 2017 election saw a Labour campaign take a progressive tone on immigration, but its actual policies – the end of free movement and the withholding of public services and welfare from more migrants – were, absurdly, well to the right of anything proposed by Corbyn’s predecessors.

In this entire period, Labour never committed to membership of the Single Market. Its only clear commitment to softening Brexit came in February 2018, with the announcement that it would support membership of a Customs Union, the most technical element of EU membership and one that carries with it no guarantees of rights or protections for workers, migrants or the environment.

If soft Brexit really was a noble compromise made impossible by electoral maths, perhaps this is because no major political party ever argued for it in a clear or coherent way. Like Theresa May, Labour’s front bench attempted to deliver a version of Brexit that seemed to sideline the wishes of the 48 percent. Unlike Theresa May, Labour relied on Remain voters for the bulk of its electoral coalition.

There are a number of overlapping explanations for Labour’s strategic failures on Brexit. The one most often cited, that Corbyn is himself a supporter of a left exit – “Lexit” – is the least compelling. Corbyn’s personal politics on a second referendum are shrouded in mystery, but he did campaign for Remain in 2016, and it is also pretty clear that he is not holding the pen on the development of Labour’s Brexit policy.

It is true that a number of Corbyn’s close and trusted aides are more overtly in favour of Lexit. Unite general secretary Len McCluskey is a true believer, and has done much to push opposition to free movement. Strategists Andrew Murray and Seamus Milne are also Leavers. Until 2016 Murray was an open member of the Communist Party of Britain, an organisation so in favour of Brexit that it now campaigns for No Deal and called on members to boycott Labour in the European elections.

The presence of Lexit supporters at the heart of the Corbyn project may well have slowed down Labour’s shift back towards Remain, but it has not defined the actual position taken by the party. If Lexiters had really been writing Labour’s Brexit policy, it is inconceivable that they would have committed to membership of a Customs Union, which enshrines all of the state aid rules to which supporters of that position are so opposed. Keen observers will note that front bench Labour figures have quietly stopped talking about state aid restrictions in recent months. Put simply, Labour has always been further away from a Lexit position than a Remain one.

Labour’s real problem on Brexit is a much simpler and more mundane one: it hasn’t been left-wing enough.

On almost any issue, the instinctive approach of Jeremy Corbyn and those around him would be to stake out a position of principle and fight to build a movement around it and convince voters. Brexit provides a number of different points on which to do this – such as arguing for free movement and migrants’ rights, or calling for a Europe-wide Green New Deal, or shaping the movement for a public vote into a movement against austerity as well. But that has not, so far, been the approach of the Labour leadership.

Instead, Labour’s position has been almost entirely driven by electoral calculation, and a desperate attempt to hold together its electoral coalition by fudging the issue and talking about something else.

In the 2017 election, this strategy worked, with a radical manifesto and huge grassroots campaign that went underneath the media’s hostility to reach millions of new voters. Although some of Labour’s success was down to tactical voting by Remainers, much more important was the higher salience of issues like the NHS, public services and tuition fees.

In the longer run, the “change the subject” strategy has done substantial damage. Labour voters and the wider electorate have now observed the party swimming desperately in both directions on multiple occasions. In early 2017, the party whipped for Article 50, and for more than a year refused to entertain the possibility of stopping Brexit. It then whipped for a public vote. Its new position, agreed between Jeremy Corbyn and union leaders this summer, is a sharp turn towards a more Remain stance, though leaves open exactly what Labour would do in government.

The apparent turning point for Labour’s recent shift was not a sudden realisation of how terrible Brexit is, but doing badly in the European elections. This is, to state the obvious, a bad look for a party whose appeal comes from its authenticity and reputation for principled politics. The same applies if you are the Labour left and you are trying to retain the support of party members, who have backed a public vote by a majority of at least four to one for over a year now. Corbyn’s strategy has failed to take account of the fact that for a huge numbers of his supporters, Brexit is a matter which contains basic values and deeply felt issues of principle, and is not simply a tactical question to be traded and maneuvered around.

One final factor has made it impossible for many on the left to engage with Brexit in a strategic or clear-headed way. With the issue being used as a wedge by Labour’s old Blairite wing, and more latterly the likes of Tom Watson, to separate Corbyn from his Remainer base, the logical thing to do might well be to give the Labour right what they claim to want, and deprive them of the ammunition. But Corbynism is a political movement built under siege and against the odds. Its collective common sense is fiercely hostile to external criticism, and for many on the left in the grassroots and at the top, doing the logical thing just feels like capitulation.

There is a lot of truth in the idea that many of the most zealous pro-EU campaigners, inside and outside of Labour, are motivated by hostility to the left and Jeremy Corbyn. Never one to be outdone for inconsistency, Chuka “you can take our lives, but you’ll never take our EU directives” Umunna was arguing in the autumn of 2016 that Britain must be willing to leave the Single Market in order to end free movement. The idea that a return to a pre-Corbyn Labour Party would produce a more principled Brexit policy is laughable. Tony Blair was and is an avowed supporter of harsher border controls. Under Ed Miliband, issues like Brexit weren’t fudged, because half-hearted fudge was just how the entire machine worked.

There is no way out of this situation that does not involve pain for Labour. But Boris Johnson is now preparing for a general election in which he could well swallow the Brexit Party whole. Labour can either disappoint its Leave voters on Brexit and aim to win them back with a radical domestic agenda, or it can continue to walk the tightrope, failing to stake out its principles or cohere its base. One path could lead to Jeremy Corbyn scraping into Number 10. The other leads to the collapse of Labour’s vote, years of chaos and the demolition of what remains of the welfare state. As we approach conference season, perhaps this ought to focus some minds.

@michael_chessum

Michael Chessum is national organiser for Another Europe Is Possible.