Labour’s Brexit dilemma

Dick Leonard

Largely due to Keir Starmer’s skilful leadership in the House, Labour may have won a tactical victory over the Tories in last month’s Commons debate over the Brexit timetable. But the two recent by-elections suggest that it may be losing the strategic battle. Labour did equally badly in pro-remain Richmond Park and pro-leave Sleaford. It is understandably nervous about the upcoming contest in Copeland.

These electoral problems strongly suggest that the party has lost its appeal to both sides in the debate over Brexit. Not surprisingly, as it appears to be abandoning its pro-remain position, without embracing leave with any enthusiasm.

The bulk of the party appears to have accepted John McDonnell’s early conclusion that the democratic result of the referendum must be respected, and that it would be a mistake to obstruct Article 50.  This despite the narrowness of the result, and the patent lies of the leave campaign – 17 in number at the latest count. (The remainers may also have made extravagant claims, but were not guilty of knowingly making false statements).

But recognising democracy must also involve a recognition that between two-thirds and three-quarters of Labour voters supported remain, according to the pollsters and the detailed analysis made by John Curtice. Much is made of the fact that around two-thirds of Labour-held constituencies voted leave, but even in many of these it is probable that most  Labour voters supported remain, and of course very many of the Lleave votes came from Tories or Ukip supporters.

The Labour party’s position now seems to be to press as hard as it can for a soft Brexit result, however improbable this appears both in terms of the government’s attitude and the reaction from the EU side. This is an inadequate response not only on behalf of its own voters but also on behalf of the electorate as a whole. Labour surely has an inescapable duty to ensure that the result of the negotiation should be put to the country as a whole, despite Mrs May’s obdurate refusal to countenance such an outcome.

It would be an unconscionable scandal if a hard Brexit – or even a soft one – were to be forced through without any public consultation. The consultation has to be through a second  referendum; a general election would not suffice – it might well be won or lost on a quite different issue, for example the fitness of Labour’s leader to be prime minister.

Incidentally, I believe that Jeremy Corbyn’s extraordinary claim that he would “instruct” Labour MPs to vote in favour of an early general election if the government proposed one is profoundly misguided. It goes against the intention of the Fixed Elections Act, which was drawn up to prevent a government from calling a premature election without the support of the opposition.

Even on the crudest electoral calculation, Labour would be well advised not to give more credence to the majority of 52 per cent rather than the minority of 48 per cent.  In bidding for the former, it would be competing with both the Tories and Ukip for a probable meagre share. With the latter it would be competing only with the Lib Dems (and marginally the Greens) for the lion’s share. Simple arithmetic should give the answer. Above all, Labour cannot afford to be outflanked on the remain side by the Lib Dems. That way annihilation lies.

Image: European Parliament



  1. verity

    “UKIP is not the threat “.

    they may not be a threat in the taking of seats. But if they take 15%-20% of the vote (many of whom may be former Labour votes) then we loose a huge number of seats in the few areas where we can usually expect to win. They are indeed a serious threat.

  2. John Logsdon

    A sensible article at last but Labour is in a complete mess over Brexit, whatever the true stance of the leadership.

    By accepting the arbitrary A50 date set by the arbitrary prime minister, it has squandered the sovereignty of Parliament to control the process. Keir Starmer has indeed been impressive and his Bloomberg speech quite right in pointing to the derogation of the constitutional duty of government both to prepare for a possible leave victory and for providing clarity and leadership since the referendum. The cavalier attitude of the Cameron administration in promising a referendum to shore up Tory party support and then of pushing legislation through that only demanded a simple majority could also have been mentioned.

    A correct stance would have been to demand that a bill is brought forwards to give a framework for the negotiations, to ascertain before invoking A50 whether this can be revoked, and to demand a final say both in a second Act and a confirmatory referendum. As it is, the country is in limbo.

    But what Starmer didn’t say – and couldn’t of course – was that the Opposition is also in derogation of its duty to the country in not offering a viable alternative government on waiting. So the people have no choice. If we leave the EU this way, the country is finished and Labour must bear some of that responsibility. If in the other hand, all the questions are answered before issuing A50 with full debates and due process including a confirmatory plebiscite, then we can leave the EU with our heads held high and with a united country. That is taking back control. If democracy is represented by a referendum, how can it be less represented by two referendums, even if the first one was perfect? The step that the country is about to take is not one that can be reversed in five years time. We must be sure, as much as that is ever possible, that it is right for the whole country.

    In the meantime, it is left to individuals to bring legal actions both in the UK and Dublin as a proxy for the EU to defend the national interests, none of which would be necessary if the government was doing its job and the Opposition holding the government to account. As it is, the only coherent policy is being offered by the LibDems and the SNP.

    UKIP is not the threat – it has incoherent policies, little effective ground organisation and a divisive leadership. The LibDems are a threat, particularly in the remain city areas where most Labour support exists. They have good local organisation, quiet leadership and are anxious to regain respectability and stick one on the Tories after their disgraceful performance in government over tuition fees and the dismantling of the NHS.

    Labour needs to wake up and smell the coffee. A snap election could see it reduced to a rump party that may just still be the opposition but otherwise impotent while the corrupt and evil Tories finish selling the county off to their friends and funders. As a life-long Labour supporter I would find it very difficult but even I would not put my party before my country because I am not a Tory. The many floating remain voters out there would certainly have so such dilemma.

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