Between a Rock and a Hard Place – Labour and Brexit


There’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about Labour and Brexit – particularly after the suppression of a conference motion to force a debate on the single market. It’s lead a new outbreak of “the only way to avoid Brexit is to vote Green/Lib Dem”  and “Labour won’t save us from Brexit” posts across social media

It’s an illustration of the wider dangers of single issue campaigning, often taken up by people passionately motivated by a cause, but unaware of the need to look at the detail in a broader context. Labour’s stance at conference – and their position in Parliament since the referendum is all about the “bigger picture”.

The position of the big two political parties on Brxit is seasoned with irony. The Conservatives are hopelessly divided in parliament, but their core support is solidly behind leaving. Labour’s PLP are more or less united as remainers but Labour supporters are deeply divided. To make matters worse, it’s a division that splits the party by constituencies.

Labour simply can’t afford to turn it’s back on the referendum result – it has to tread a very careful path or risk supporters in core Labour seats abandoning old alliances wholesale. This is no idle matter. One of the reasons Labour lost the election in 2015 was disaffected traditional working class Labour voters turning to UKIP – voters who returned to Labour in droves earlier this year.

The Labour Party have to somehow take a path that keeps that demographic on-side. That’s no easy task and it’s the reason they did not want to become a hostage to fortune through a conference vote on the single market. Any excuse to allow the media to scream “Labour are going to steal your Brexit” would be catastrophic at the next election. It is interesting that Polly Toynbee, who was passionately anti-Corbyn and still is passionately anti-brexit readily accepts that smothering the motion was an example of astute political management.

It’s entirely legitimate to say “yes, that’s all well and good, but what about keeping remainers onside”. A second aspect of the “bigger picture” is that Labour face an overwhelmingly hostile media. Labour doesn’t want to give it the opportunity to divide it’s working class vote by crying “betrayal” – but that position allows the media to represent Labour as far more hard line on Brexit than it really is. Lok carefully at Labour policy and it’s full of nudges and winks.

Labour would almost certainly change it’s public position on Brexit if public opinion changed radically. There has been a small shift in favour of remain but it’s only a reversal of the leave vote last year, 52/48 remain – too marginal to risk. Labour have to maintain it’s position of “respecting the majority” until the impacts of Brexit finally create a sea change of opinion. Meanwhile Labour have accepted Kier Starmer’s red lines as party policy and Labour don’t have a hard line on Brexit – Starmer is talking about a 4 year transition.

For sure – none of us can be sure exactly what will happen with Labour and Brexit – but we can have a high degree of confidence they are planning nothing like as draconian exit as the Tories – and that there is a strong probability policy will change as the utter stupidity of the policy finally sinks in with the general public. On the other hand we have several certainties. One is that “voting Lib Dem or Green because they are pro remain” is a disastrous tactic. Neither party can defeat the Conservatives. Never forget that power is won by winning more seats than all the other parties. The 30 most marginal seats in the UK hang on majorities of 400 or less – 11 of them on less than 100. Even a handful of people voting for a party that couldn’t win the seat “because it is anti-brexit” could be enough to hand an election to the Tories.

Like everyone using this site I’m vehemently anti-brexit – but I know that in order to make a difference  first we have to win the election – so be smart about politics – recognise games have to played. We remainers tend to be rational types – politics is about so much more, from managing media misinformation, to dirty tricks to steering difficult routes through almost impossible terrain, it’s a dirty game and it’s not to my taste, but it has to be played. Nothing has changed since last April – the most important thing is beating the Tories. We didn’t quite get there then – but we can now if we vote smart. We have to take a gamble on Labour being open to change on Brexit – because if they don’t win the Tories will.