Labour’s Brexit stance is no tactical masterstroke—it’s just incompetence

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Posted by Geoff Bishop.

Written by Oliver Kamm.

How the party got to this state is an interesting question with a dispiriting answer

Labour’s stance on Brexit is getting through to the public: it doesn’t have one. YouGov polling shows that 43 per cent of voters think Jeremy Corbyn wants Britain to stay in the European Union, 24 per cent think he wants us to leave, and 33 per cent understandably don’t know. The machine politics of the Momentum pressure group ensured that the subject wasn’t selected for full debate at the party conference in Brighton. It was left to Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, to give a Delphic speech calling Labour’s approach “grown-up and pragmatic.”

It’s neither of those things. It’s frivolous and irresponsible. On the single most important issue facing Britain’s economy and society, and on its place in the international trading system and the diplomatic order, Labour has nothing to say. How the party got to this state is an interesting question with a dispiriting answer. The silence appears to have been adopted as a combination of accident and incompetence, yet is now embraced as a tactical masterstroke.

The accident and incompetence are Corbyn’s. The party’s titular leader bears heavy responsibility for the Brexit vote. He was so unmoved by the subject that he went on holiday during the referendum campaign and failed dismally to advance any coherent case for Britain’s future in Europe. He comes from a wing of the party that has long been instinctively suspicious of both the EU and Nato, and it shows. Labour voters weren’t clear during the referendum what the party’s stance was and they’re certainly not clear what it is now. The party seems to have decided that its electoral fortunes in June were well served by this lack of clarity and wish to perpetuate it while a wounded and weak government flounders on the subject.

“Labour denounces austerity while evading the inevitability that Brexit will damage British workers’ living standards”

That’s not a credible or reputable position for Labour. The party is conventionally thought of as having shifted a long way to the left under Corbyn. On this issue, it is on the contrary a party of the right. It evinces suspicion of immigration and advances some truly terrible arguments to oppose freedom of movement. (To be fair, this is true across the party. Stephen Kinnock MP declared this week—with absolutely no evidence—that immigration had contributed to wage stagnation. It’s not true, as I and many others have pointed out.) It’s clear from his occasional pronouncements that Corbyn doesn’t grasp even the broad principles of the European issue, let alone the policy details. He calls for tariff-free access to the single market, apparently unaware that the biggest obstacles to trade are non-tariff barriers like rules of origin. The EU is not just a free trade area: it is a single market.

Labour’s economic thinking is in a peculiarly feeble state. It denounces austerity while evading the inevitability that Brexit will damage British workers’ living standards. There is no way of making Brexit “work,” because exiting a single market of our closest trading partners will restrict the growth of the economy. That’s what will happen by constraining the flow of goods, services, investment and—yes—people to and from this country. Labour should instead be seeking to protect living standards by insisting that the government retain membership of the single market and the customs union, and put the outcome of negotiations with the EU to a second referendum.

Corbyn’s incoherence doesn’t even make electoral sense. As John Curtice of Strathclyde University has shown, Labour made greatest advances in June among voters keenest on Europe and least worried about immigration. Where I live in East London, nearly four out of every five votes cast in the European referendum were for Remain. In the general election, the Labour MP Meg Hiller, who defied the party whip to oppose triggering Article 50, was returned with a majority (not her total vote but her majority) of almost 38,000. I thought it worth backing her on the European issue. The young people who voted Labour are being cruelly sold out: if Brexit goes ahead, they will lose the automatic right to live, study and work in 27 EU countries, and Corbyn won’t lift a finger to stop it.