"Most importantly, Labour needs to immediately unite in opposition to the hardest Brexit possible."
Article 50 has been triggered but Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, lacking unity and direction, seems as incapable to challenge the narrative of the Prime Minister’s hardline Brexit of nightmares as it has been over the last nine months. The way things stand, even if the House of Lords amendment would have made it to the final bill, a ‘meaningful vote’ hardly matters without a meaningful opposition. This has to change.
Labour has failed to keep its head at the crucial moment when others have lost theirs. The Official Opposition has allowed itself to be swallowed by the same nonsensical dichotomy that is all or nothing Brexit. Yes, a majority voted to leave the EU, but not everyone within that 52% voted for the currently unveiling horror scenario orchestrated by Mrs May’s Three Musketeers. The ‘will of the people’ is not set by one vote and it definitely was not set to the tune of hard Brexit.
It has certainly been forgotten that the people voted for departure but not for destination – as the more organised opponents of hard Brexit have been arguing. This can be seen by the rather unsurprising ‘have your cake and eat it too’ Brexit attitudes revealed by the recent survey results by NatCen. In all likelihood, of course, the breakup wish list cannot be delivered. Thus, Labour must think realistically. Regarding public opinion, the most popular possible content of Brexit, with both Remain and Leave voters alike, is continued free trade with the European Union. Importantly, this is the view held by 84% of Labour voters according to the research. The party needs to organise firmly against the reckless and unrepresentative no deal crash out of the EU, which under this government looks like a potential outcome.
Even within those who voted to leave the EU, accepting free movement in order to secure a free trade deal post-Brexit has its supporters (36%). “Nobody is talking about threatening our place in the Single Market,” said Vote Leave campaigner and Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan on camera during the referendum campaign. Many believed when they were told that Brexit would bear no costs, only possibilities. So what about those who still support the option of close economic ties? Maintaining EU rights and regulations on bank passporting, flight delay compensation, and roaming charges also gain significant support with the Leavers.
Equally, we cannot forget the 48% who voted to remain in the world’s largest trading bloc: Labour’s passive acceptance of the Europhobic option as the only Brexit alternative has already estranged many of its pro-EU supporters. And this is not a small group. As Professor John Curtice has brilliantly shown, a majority of Labour voters voted for Remain across all the regions on the island of Britain (North, Midlands, South, London, Wales, and Scotland). In other words, even in the Eurosceptic North and the Midlands, more Labour voters favoured to remain in the EU than to leave. Therefore, the party cannot afford to be seen as a “collaborator to Theresa May’s project”, as Labour MP Mike Gapes said at the Labour Movement for Europe’s conference last month, if it intends to keep a hold of the supporters it still has.
The party is dropping in polls and Jeremy Corbyn is appallingly unpopular with the electorate 18 months into his leadership. Labour’s current strategy that overestimates the threat of UKIP in its traditional territories is simply not working. In fact, even the Liberal Democrats have lost more voters to UKIP since 2010 according to BES panel surveys. Andrew Harrop’s analysis in Stuck highlights the same point about Labour’s strategy, adding that the party has lost more voters to the Liberals since 2015 than to the two pro-Brexit parties put together. Indeed, despite the victory, attempting to out-UKIP UKIP in Stoke Central clearly did not work as Labour still lost support. There is no need to even talk about Copeland. The torn party engulfed in internal struggles is definitely not sending the public the message of competence and leadership. And one of the largest dividers at the moment is how to handle Brexit.
We need pragmatism. The exit struggle is now here – hopefully followed by the UK-EU trade negotiations – and Labour has to be better prepared in order to fulfil its role. Red lines need to be drawn and the case for a trade deal with the EU post-Brexit needs to be made loud and clear. There needs to be a push towards maintaining beneficial EU regulations regarding workers’ rights, environmental protections, and product standards after leaving the Union. Also, the possibility of paying into EU programmes such as research projects and the Erasmus student exchange must be promoted. Furthermore, the Government needs to be pressured to guarantee the status of EU migrants already residing in Britain to obtain reciprocal rights for UK citizens on the continent. The public’s concerns over immigration has to be listened to carefully, but the response needs to be grounded in reality and to recognise the needs of sectors such as healthcare and tourism.
Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer got the ball rolling towards unifying Labour’s positions last Monday with his six ‘Brexit tests’, but unfortunately these points resemble more a wish list than a pragmatic opposition to Brexit hardliners. Obviously, any post-Brexit trade deal cannot provide the ‘exact same benefits’ to the UK as being a member of the single market – the EU simply cannot allow that. Moreover, regarding the point on management of migration ‘in the interests of the economy and communities’, one of the strongest arguments for EU migration during the referendum campaign was the significant economic net contribution EU migrants have made to the UK economy. And the evidence shows little correlation between the increase in EU immigration and changes in pay and joblessness for UK workers. The ‘six tests’ are a good indicator of the direction we want to see the negotiations take, but they cannot be taken literally if Labour wants to provide effective opposition to hard Brexit.
Labour needs to appeal to both its already existing voter base, of which around two thirds (63%) voted for Remain, as well as to those ‘soft’ Leavers who now feel betrayed by the broken promises of Brexit hardliners. And, most importantly, Labour needs to immediately unite in opposition to the hardest Brexit possible.
Otto Ilveskero is a Young Fabians member. Follow him on Twitter at @IlvesOtto.