A new report by the Fabian Society suggests that Labour will not be able to form a Government on its own after the next General Election; the implication is that Labour will have to make alliances in order to win.
It’s a sobering read: although the most sobering part, perhaps, is the tacit acceptance of the idea that Labour is going to have to appeal to both sides of the Brexit divide. This seems to me to be fundamentally misguided, and the road to electability will lie in coming off that particular fence.
First, it underestimates the huge divide that the Brexit vote opened. It’s obvious that the vote was about far more than simply whether the UK should remain in the EU or come out; the fault-lines run much deeper than that. It is about national identity, about political values and how politics is conducted, about the clash between the plebiscitary “will of the people” and the need for rational politics based on analysis and discussion. It represents a divide between a forward-looking, progressive, outward-facing and confident Britain and one that is locked into decline and the pessimism of nostalgia for a past that never really existed. It challenges our understanding of what democracy is; and as such it is not a divide that one can easily bridge.
Second, Labour Party policy, as agreed by conference, is absolutely and unequivocally clear; it is that the UK should remain, and, in the event of a vote to leave, that Labour should oppose it. It is a policy that recognises the purely advisory nature of the referendum; the fact that it is just impossible to predict what the terms of the UK’s departure will be; there is consensus among many economists (including those who were part of Corbyn’s economic advisory group) that Brexit will severely damage the economy and that the brunt will be borne by the poorest and most economically marginal.
Third, it remains obvious that the Government simply does not have a clue what its negotiating stance should be; and that opinion is shifting. There is a growing sense that the British public were lied to and taken for fools by unscrupulous politicians of the Right. Not only were the Leave campaign in no position to promise £350m per week for the NHS, but it has become abundantly clear that they never had any intention of doing so. Leavers tried to argue that the UK could remain in the Single Market, but without accepting freedom of movement that was never going to happen. 48% of the electorate voted to remain; indications are that were the referendum to be held today, that figure would be higher, as the shambles becomes clearer.
Fourth, in the context of an advisory referendum, arguments about “the will of the people” are just irrelevant. The essence of democracy is that things change, and that elected politicians take responsibility for their decisions. Are we really saying that the implication of the referendum is that we should leave on any terms – especially when the leave campaign lied so copiously? Voting is an essential part of democracy, but only part; democracy is also a process, involving informed debate and discussion, and an understanding of what is realistic. Plebiscites are not democracy – more often than not their role is to subvert democracy, and increasingly last summer’s vote appears to be doing precisely that, as those on the hard Brexit right seek increasingly to deny the right of the 48% to speak and campaign.
So the answer is simple: an intellectually-serious, progressive, grounded and internationalist Labour party and leadership should not be attempting to sit on the fence at all; it should be implementing Labour policy and campaigning to remain. It should be doing so not just because it is the right thing to do, wholly consistent with Labour’s history and beliefs, but also because it is likely to be the electorally-popular thing to do. It’s worth remembering that one of the reasons why Labour won in 1997 was that Blair and (especially) Gordon Brown presented themselves as the competent alternative to a wholly shambolic Government, divided over Europe and so much else.
Unfortunately, under the current leadership, that is not going to happen. Corbyn – and particularly those around him – have a history of anti-Europeanism and it is now clear that they made conscious decision to frustrate the pro-Remain campaign during the Referendum, in stark contradiction of Labour Party policy. To call, as Corbyn did, for Article 50 to be triggered immediately after the referendum showed a fundamental lack of intellectual grip; to argue now that Labour will not oppose the triggering of Article 50 when the Government will not discuss its negotiating aims (which is a very different matter from negotiating tactics) has effectively neutralised any Labour influence; it is a conscious and deliberate assumption of irrelevance in the face of the most important political debate for many decades. To talk of a “people’s Brexit” that does not favour the city is just so much hot air if you have chosen to walk away from the debate.
Labour cannot sit on the fence. The only way in which it can remain true to its history and principles, the only way in which it can serve the people it speaks for, and in which it can remain a credible party of Government is to speak honestly and powerfully in favour of remaining in the EU. At least it shows respect for the electorate, in a way that meaningless phrases about a Brexit that works for everyone cannot. There are times when sitting on the fence is the route to irrelevance; this is one of them.