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Labour’s Brexit policy could work – but the politics looks more questionable
Labour has a Brexit policy that will work, and which has the virtue of defying the culture war that Leave and Remain have come to embody. Alas, politics is not as simple as that: both delivering that policy, and even more importantly holding together as a movement and an electoral coalition, will be much harder than arriving at their painfully constructed compromise.
First, Labour will have to get a new referendum through the House of Commons. To do that, it not only has to pass the winning line of 320 to 322 MPs with other parties: it will need a further margin against the Conservatives in the new Parliament. Labour is far from winning a majority. Polling guru Sir John Curtice has said that its chances of winning outright are close to zero. So it will have to corral other parties, perhaps not only the Scottish National Party but also the Liberal Democrats, into its voting lobbies. On the face of it that should be straight forward given that both those parties are one way or the other in favour of a ‘Peoples Vote’ on the question of Britain's EU membership.
But even getting into and staying in power to hold such a vote – for instance securing SNP backing for a Confidence Vote and a Queen’s Speech – could be much, much tougher. There are widespread concerns about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s competence and trustworthiness across the House of Commons. The SNP will want at least a Section 30 order signed allowing it to hold a new independence referendum; it might even hold out for Britain’s nuclear-armed Trident submarines to be removed from Scottish waters. Both will cause major rebellions amongst Labour MPs in Westminster and in what remains of Scottish Labour north of the border.
Then we come to the second EU referendum itself. Some Labour MPs will hold out against it. Their numbers will be thinner than in the last Parliament. 29 Labour MPs voted against such a plebiscite in April’s ‘Indicative Votes’, but this time – unlike then – the idea will have been included in Labour’s manifesto. Then again, some of the MPs voting against in April will have either left the Commons or lost their seats. John Mann and Kate Hoey have left the Commons. Frank Field is standing again for his own Birkenhead Social Justice Party, but seems unlikely to be re-elected. Caroline Flint and Melanie Onn might well lose their seats in Leave-orientated Don Valley and Great Grimsby.
But every vote counts in the Commons, and if Labour can just eke its way into power with perhaps 250 MPs (allied with say 45 SNP Members and 25 Liberal Democrats), they will only have a working majority of a handful. Just a few Labour Eurosceptics (such as Yvonne Fovargue, MP for Makerfield) might tip the balance. If that vote were lost, it is hard to see how such a three-party arrangement could continue.
Britain would be back in a huge mess, having extended for no reason with a new Brexit deadline under Article 50 – and no visible plan.
In the more likely event that a minority Labour government could pass a new EU referendum (and stay in office long enough to oversee it), that vote might take until autumn 2020 to set up. Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister would clearly rather stay above the fray, making positive noises about the European Union without actually committing himself to Remain – all the better to stay in power without sullying his own principles too much.
It is usually said that Remain would win such a vote, because Leavers might boycott’s Labour’s new Leave deal as ‘not really Brexit’. But even that contest should certainly not be seen as plain sailing.
When YouGov asked the general public what they thought of a new negotiation and a second referendum in September, 34% of respondents said they would be ‘delighted’ or ‘pleased’ with that outcome: but 41% said they would be ‘disappointed’ or ‘angry’ (11% said they ‘wouldn’t really mind’). Even if Remain carried the day, Labour would have further alienated its still-faithful rump of Leave voters (just 12% of who picked Labour in the latest YouGov poll of 18-19 November).
All the while, Labour is – and will be in office – playing a very dangerous game with its new support in cities and large university towns. In recent years it has swapped a wide and quite loyal electorate, in smaller English and Welsh market towns, for a more mobile and voluble audience among young, liberal professionals and public sector workers. Brexit however is straining those new links to destruction. In the same poll showing that Labour had the loyalty of only 12% of Leavers also showed that less than half of Remainers – 45% to be exact- thought they might vote for the party, with many opting for the Liberal Democrats or the Green Party.
Labour has tried to bridge the unbridgeable. For a long time, the party's Brexit ambiguity looked like a masterstroke as the Conservative Party under Theresa May threatened to break up over this question – facing a repeat of the Corn Laws in the 19th Century. But now the Tories are generally united behind Boris Johnson and there is a Brexit deal on the table that voters can seize if they want. The Labour leadership meanwhile has been forced through internal and external pressure to accept the Remain case without the enthusiasm many of its new younger, metropolitan voters wanted. Thus, it has ended up with the worst of both worlds.
Triangulation worked for a while, but it is now proving almost impossible to maintain – polluting Corbyn-Labour’s reputation amongst Labour activists and voters for principle, plain speaking and a better, more honest politics. Quite apart from the wedge Brexit has driven into other poisonous long-term divisions, that hint of duplicity may be the European question’s greatest legacy for the Corbyn political project.
Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a number of books about modern Britain, including The Paradoxes of Progress: Governing Post-War Britain, 1951-73 (2012) and The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017). He maintains a regular blog, ‘Public Policy and the Past’, and tweets as @gsoh31.