Brexit times

Thornberry said: “We’re all here [at conference]. I don’t see why we can’t make the decision now.” The frontbencher said she feared Labour risked losing 30% of its core vote to Lib Dems and the Greens “unless we are clear about where we stand on Europe”.  … Thornberry added: “I think that this conference should thrash it out.”

Agenda? Never mind the agenda! Thrash it out, people! Let’s get this sorted!

As it’s turned out, Conference has backed the NEC position, which means that it won’t be dropping all its existing business in order to thrash out the question of Brexit – not that it was ever going to do that. But wouldn’t it have been better if Thornberry’s warning (if not necessarily her advice) had been listened to? Doesn’t it put Labour in terrible danger to go into an election without a firm policy on Brexit? Can’t we just, well, sort it out – listen to the members, look at the polls and back Remain?

I don’t believe we can (which isn’t to say that this policy doesn’t put us in terrible danger – I’ll come back to that). Here are a couple of extracts from a blog post I wrote in January.

it’s generally accepted now that the result of the 2016 referendum gave the then government a mandate to set the Article 50 process in motion, and that the referendum, qua referendum, can’t simply be ignored or set aside. What I think isn’t sufficiently appreciated is what follows from that, if you’re a potential party of government … If Brexit is happening, that must mean that when we have a Labour government, Brexit is happening under Labour. If Brexit is happening under Labour, that must mean that Brexit fits in with the rest of Labour’s policies – that it’s in some sense a Labour Brexit. If the party’s committed to a Labour Brexit, that must mean that we know what one of those is – what kind of Brexit would be good for Labour and good for Britain. And if the answer’s ‘none’, there is no way the party can possibly admit it – not without going back on its endorsement of the referendum as a democratic process and all the commitments it’s made since the referendum.

If we are to be saved from the pointless, gratuitous disaster of leaving the EU, at some point a lot of people are going to be disappointed – and democracies don’t flourish with millions of disappointed citizens. Simply throwing the switch on Article 50 – which we now know the British government can do at any time – would be the worst option, sending the clearest possible message that the political establishment knows best and doesn’t trust the people. … Labour’s policy is to mould Brexit in the light of Labour’s goals for the country, and then, in effect, push it till it breaks: by the time a decision is made – by the government or the people – to Remain, it should be obvious to everyone that Labour has taken the referendum result seriously and tried to make it work. This approach has a good chance – perhaps the best chance of any – of squaring the Remain circle, enabling Britain to stay in the EU while minimising the depth and breadth of Brexiter disappointment.

The problem with this position – which, I think, follows inexorably from the initial commitment not to revoke Article 50 without a further vote – is that it works for Labour in government much better than for Labour in opposition. Labour’s policy, as we know, involves negotiating a deal, then putting the deal to a public vote including an option to remain; the party’s position in that vote will be decided at a special conference, after an improvement on May’s deal has (or hasn’t) been negotiated. There are thus three key points in time:

  1. The election
  2. New negotiations with the EU27
  3. The referendum on whatever deal has been agreed in stage 2.

At stage 3 it’s quite possible that Labour’s position, as a party, will be that remaining in the EU is the best option. But Labour can’t commit to that position at stage 1 – let alone now (stage 0?) – for the simple reason that doing so would commit the Labour government to that position at stage 2, and a Labour government negotiating a deal while committed to Remain would look as if it was negotiating in bad faith. The party’s committed to Remain, you’ve just won the election – why bother going to Brussels to talk about a Brexit deal you don’t want? Why not just revoke? There is an answer to this question – having to do with the greater democratic legitimacy of 2016’s 52% vs a Westminster majority won on 40%(?) of the vote – but going down that road would create more problems than it would solve. (Does a majority support closing Eton, Mr Corbyn? OK, bad example…)

In short, if we’re serious about honouring the 2016 result rather than revoking Article 50 – which I think we should be, purely on democratic grounds – we have to go into the next election without a commitment to Remain. Which raises the question, can we win it on that basis? I’m honestly not sure. Something weird happened to the polls around the time of the European election. Normally, you’d expect a tranche of voters to desert each of the main parties for a more left- or right-wing alternative – Tories to UKIP or BXP, Labour to Greens – and then return home again at the next election. This has happened to some extent – the Greens were at 4% in February, 8% in June (and 12% at the Euro election) and are now back at 4% – but only to some extent. Moreover, normally you’d expect the Lib Dems to lose votes – relative to the previous General Election – along with the two main parties; this time round they put on votes. (Literally – a million more people voted Lib Dem in the 2019 Euro elections than did so at the 2017 General Election, despite the overall turnout being 15 million lower. That’s the kind of thing that usually only happens to the Greens.)

The big movements in the polls this year are (roughly) as follows. In March the Brexit Party was launched; by April it had taken 8% from the Tory share of voting intentions. During April and May, in the runup to the Euro elections, the Tories lost another 14% to BXP, while Labour lost 10% to the Lib Dems. Since July the Tories have taken that 14% back (but not the initial 8%); Labour’s voting intention share has remained static – as has the Lib Dems’. It looks as if the Lib Dems’ repositioning as the Party of Remain has rehabilitated them, to the point of giving them a permanent position looking over Labour’s shoulder; they’re currently polling 19% to Labour’s 23%.

Will it last? I must admit, I was expecting the Lib Dems’ Euro election surge to have melted away by now, in the same way that temporary boosts for the Greens and BXP have done, but in retrospect this was shortsighted: big swings to the Greens and UKIP/BXP at Euro elections are normal, but a big swing to the Lib Dems had never happened before. There seems little doubt that they are currently telling a fair old chunk of the people what they want to hear, at least in terms of rhetoric; in terms of policy, of course, Labour are now offering to let the people decide on Brexit, which is precisely what the Lib Dems have been demanding for the last three years. This in turn tells us that – for a fair old chunk of people – the rhetoric is important: at the moment at least, making the right – appropriately resolute and uncompromising – noises about stopping Brexit is more important than the details of policy.

Labour thus has four possible routes to winning back those voters who seem to have swung to the Lib Dems.

1. Get the policy right on Brexit
This is necessary in any case, but it probably won’t be sufficient. The power of an intelligent, ethical, properly worked-out policy shouldn’t be understated, though, particularly in a situation where Labour appears to be losing votes on its Guardian-reader flank. If Labour MPs can tell the public, repeatedly, what our Brexit policy is and why it’s correct, the contrast with the Lib Dems’ offering should be enough to win quite a few votes back. (This does entail Labour MPs not telling the public that they think our Brexit policy is wrong, though; something really needs to be done about that.)

2. Get the rhetoric right on Brexit
I don’t think this is a runner. Labour’s policy has come in for much unjustified criticism – it’s not ‘convoluted’ or ‘contradictory’, it just can’t be explained in three words. But, when the other two parties are going big and going crude, a policy with sub-clauses is never going to win the message war. Perhaps I’m too pessimistic; perhaps somebody’s about to come up with a catchy phrase to express the essence of Labour’s policy. But my current feeling is that this isn’t where Labour should be fighting.

Fortunately, the other two possibilities are considerably more hopeful.

3. Get the policy right on everything else
Some inspiring objectives and constructive medium-term policies are already starting to come out of the party; the 2019 Manifesto should be a good one. Labour can offer not only clarity but vision and innovation on… well, pretty much everything that isn’t Brexit. The more we manage to shift the conversation on to everything else a government can – and will need to – do, the more the Lib Dems’ weakness in depth will be put on show. Swinson’s personal involvement in austerity policies has already been raised; I suspect we’ll be hearing about this again, and in some detail.

4. Get the rhetoric right on everything else
I think we can definitely do that.

Labour’s Brexit policy is less simple than it could be, but this is an unfortunate consequence of the party taking democratic structures seriously and not being willing to risk alienating several million people. We need to head towards the next election talking about the party’s policy on Brexit – preferably in one voice – but also talking about everything else that’s on Labour’s agenda for government, and doing it in hopeful, creative and inspiring ways. That way we can retain our existing base, attract those who have drifted off since 2017 – whether to Farage or to the Lib Dems – and mobilise new voters and non-voters. It means bringing together a lot of different groups of people, but we should see that as Labour’s strength as well as a challenge. When we reach out – including reaching out to both sides of the Brexit divide – we win.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: