The government and the opposition are both united in confusion over Brexit. Whilst there is no concrete plan for Britain to leave the EU it is difficult to see what the opposition should actually be opposing. The Labour Party’s position on Brexit remains unclear, although many members have taken it as read that Labour must support some form of Brexit for either tactical or moral reasons. Is this really the case?
From a tactical point of view it initially looks like opposing Brexit bad idea as 17 million people, or roughly 52% of the electorate, voted for Brexit - even if it is unclear exactly what they voted for. A recent study has shown that in a parliamentary election between a leave and remain party, leave would win 2/3s of seats. Add to this the fact that UKIP are second in 120 seats and support for overturning the referendum results looks suicidal for Labour.
All of this was received wisdom until the Richmond Park by-election, where the Lib Dems outperformed Labour in a strongly pro-Remain constituency. Richmond was never going to be won by Labour, however there are some worrying sign in Labour’s very poor performance. The Lib Dems were able to take advantage of Labour’s woolly position on Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s support for Brexit counted against the party in a strongly Remain area. Suddenly Labour is questioning whether support for Brexit is the right choice.
“Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters,” Stephen Bush wrote in the New Statesman following the result. Even worse for the party is the results of a YouGov poll indicating that a pro-Brexit Labour Party would finish third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party in share of vote in a national election.
Diving deeper into the data, it shows that Labour should at minimum campaign for a soft Brexit to prevent the advance of the Lib Dems in metropolitan areas. The study shows that Labour would win the largest vote share when supporting a 2nd referendum, as they pick up votes at the Lib Dem’s expense. However, this situation leads to the largest Tory and UKIP vote share as the electorate becomes more polarised between the Leave and Remain camps.
All this shows that the Lib Dems (and possibly the Greens) could steal a lot of Labour’s voters if they support Brexit. This makes sense as 65% of Labour voters supported Remain in the referendum. Corbyn has always been luke-warm at best towards EU membership and his call to immediately trigger article 50 after the referendum angered many Remain Labour voters. The Lib Dems are poised to take advantage of this as the most vocally pro-Remain party. Supporting Brexit could be the death blow to Labour.
None of this changes any of facts laid out at the start of this article: the strong support for Brexit nationwide and the number of Labour seats that UKIP are eyeing up for the next election. Labour is caught in a bind. Support Brexit and lose its liberal metropolitan voters to the Lib Dems; or support Remain (or a soft Brexit) and UKIP moves in on Labour’s seats in the former industrial North. Neither are particularly enticing options for the party.
Labour also have the problem that they cannot outmanoeuvre UKIP on Brexit or immigration. Regardless of how anti-immigration and anti-EU Labour becomes, UKIP will claim they are pro-EU, pro-migration and most people will believe them. As Abi Wilkinson wrote in the Independent recently: “voters simply don’t believe such rhetoric when it comes from Labour”. Remember that many voters believed that Ed Miliband would overspend as Prime Minister, despite his budget being signed off by the OBR.
Trying to compromise with the people whose only objectives are to take Britain out of the EU and reduce migration is what allowed UKIP and the Tory right to push David Cameron into a having referendum in the first place. We must not allow Labour to be pushed further and further to the right by UKIP. As Michael Chessum wrote in the New Statesman recently: “Attempt to negotiate a compromise on migration in the face of that wave [the anti-immigration populist right], or try to claim it as an “opportunity”, and there is simply no limit to how far Labour will be pushed”.
If Labour opts to put controls on immigration or manage immigration, they will be making the same mistake that led to the downfall of Cameron. By meeting the anti-EU, anti-immigration right halfway we conceded ground and encourage them to advance. Attempting to assert control over the issue of immigration is what has allowed the Tory party to right to the drift to the point where the new government is putting immigration above the health of the economy. If Labour opts for controls on immigration they will lose; UKIP will argue their controls are not tough enough. In the next election Labour’s controls will be tougher, but the same result will occur. Where does all this end?
It looks like Labour’s tactical options are all bad, but is there a moral issue to consider? The Labour Party also has a responsibility not to do massive long term damage to the economy, which Brexit surely would do. Leaving the EU would also threaten workers’ rights and human rights, as outside the EU, any future Tory government could abolish any rights they disliked. Labour also has a responsibility to stand up to the advancement of right wing populism and the branding of anyone opposed to Brexit as a “traitor”. Standing up to Brexit could be the right thing to do even if it is unpopular.
There are also moral issues around supporting Brexit. Does Labour have a responsibility to uphold the democratic outcome of the referendum? Even if what that outcome should be is painfully unclear? Many Labour voters do not feel listened to by the party. Directly ignoring them when they voted for Brexit is not a good idea, it only empowers the far right.
Personally, I think that leaving the EU is a really bad idea. If a significant proportion of the 52% who voted for Brexit can be convinced that it was the wrong decision then there is a case for holding a second referendum. However, I have not seen any evidence of massive ”buyer’s remorse” from Brexit voters. In fact I have seen more Remain voters becoming pro-Brexit and anti-immigration after the result. For now, the result stands and the democratic outcome of an election must be respected. The sad truth is that the Labour Party are likely to suffer whatever stance they take on Brexit; hard, soft, in favour or against.
Politics changed during 2016. The old political divisions no longer apply and a new spectrum is emerging. The traditional Labour voter coalition is being ripped apart by these changes. If politics continues to shift into a globalist/nativist configuration then there will no place for the Labour Party as it currently exists. This means that Labour needs to adapt and that they need to resolve some of the fundamental disputes that are dividing the party, especially over what form of Brexit does Labour stand for?