Any political party that aspires to run the country must be able to demonstrate to voters that it is fit and competent to hold high office. And when the outcome of a general election is, for right or wrong, likely to centre on a single definitive issue, it is vital that the party’s stance on that issue is credible and coherent.
Having been a Labour party member for the best part of a quarter of a century, I want my party to win the next election. So I take no pleasure in saying that Labour’s current strategy (such as it is) around Brexit is a half-baked, shambolic mess.
The party’s plan, should it win power, is to return to Brussels and secure a better withdrawal agreement than the one negotiated by Theresa May. But, having achieved this, it may then decide that remaining in the EU is the preferable option after all, and thus campaign to reject its own deal in a second referendum.
Of course the strategy is a complete dog’s breakfast which doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny. You don’t have to be a genius to recognise that the EU – which remains desperate to prevent Brexit – would be under no pressure whatsoever to deliver any further concessions in talks with a Labour government. It would know, first, that that government had already ruled out no-deal and, second, that the worse the deal on offer, the greater the chance of its being chucked out by the British public – and thus of there being no Brexit at all.
Labour frontbenchers brave enough to defend the party line are being mauled and spat out – Richard Burgon and Emily Thornberry the latest victims. This is not the consequence of any unique personal failing on their part; instead it’s because the Party’s ridiculous policy has rendered them helpless in the face of any serious inquiry.
The approach of putting your name to a deal which you then campaign to reject is novel in the extreme. It is certainly not something I have ever witnessed in many years of activity in the trade union movement. Surely the leaders of Labour-affiliated unions – who know a thing or two about how negotiations work – ought to intervene and warn party leaders of the absurdity of their position. Regardless of individual views on Brexit itself, the current incoherence does nobody any favours.
Labour’s stance ultimately derives from the fact that most sections of the party are vehemently anti-Brexit while knowing that to alienate their working-class Leave-voting heartlands would be to risk losing millions of votes. So it has tried for three years, through a tactic of ‘constructive ambiguity’, to keep both sides on board. When the coin was tossed, Labour, rather than call heads or tails, willed it to land on its edge. But having served to persuade both sides that the party doesn’t really speak for them, this approach has failed dismally. That’s because, in the end, Brexit is a binary issue: we either leave the EU or we don’t.
If Labour thinks it can win an election from a position of campaigning to subvert the Brexit vote, it should think again. The recent European and local elections were a demonstration of how the party’s failure to convince working-class communities that their Leave votes were safe in its hands resulted in the haemorrhaging of support among its traditional base.
Too often, the priorities of the party are determined by those who cannot see a world beyond the M25. The UK Labour party is, in practice, the London Labour party – witness, for example, the fact that the most senior positions in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet are filled by MPs representing constituencies in the capital: McDonnell, Starmer, Thornberry, Abbott and, of course, Corbyn himself.
This London-centrism manifests itself politically in the kind of liberal cosmopolitanism that has done so much to drive a wedge between Labour and the post-industrial areas which were once the bedrock of its support and where a more rooted, patriotic, communitarianism exists. Unless Labour begins to reconnect with these voters, and quickly, it risks losing them for ever.
A step towards this would have been to pledge from the very outset to honour the EU referendum result, come what may, deal or no deal. This would have been the right approach not only as a matter of simple democratic principle, but also because Labour cannot win without Leave voters. The facts are stark: over 60% of Labour constituencies voted Leave, as did 35 of the 45 target seats in England and Wales which Labour needs to win if it is to return to power. At the other end, 16 of the party’s 20 most vulnerable seats also voted Leave.
The party’s vacillations on Brexit have allowed its opponents to make ground in traditional Labour territory. The latest message from Nigel Farage – that Labour speaks for Dalston, not Doncaster – will undoubtedly strike a chord with many. Some kind of non-aggression pact between the Tories and Brexit party at the next election could see Labour become an also-ran in these places.
If Labour wants to be sure of holding on to them, the party needs to swiftly rediscover the spirit of Euroscepticism that was once mainstream within its ranks – articulated by such giants as Clement Attlee, Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle. These luminaries believed passionately in the principles of democracy and self-government, and weren’t afraid to voice their opposition to proposals for deeper political and economic integration throughout Europe. Euroscepticism was also a dominant theme throughout the wider Labour movement, including trade unions, many of which saw the EU – correctly – as an institution whose values and laws were explicitly anti-socialist and therefore inimical to many of their own objectives.
But I fear the party has left it too late, and the tribal loyalty that once existed towards Labour in these working-class communities – call them small-town Britain – may have disappeared for good.
The past week may have been a nightmare for Boris Johnson, but the real losers in the long run may be Her Majesty’s Opposition. A rambling, shambling policy on Brexit, coupled with its sudden aversion to a general election – preferring instead to go around shouting nonsense about a ‘coup’ – will do nothing to propel the Labour party to power or win back the hearts of minds of its one-time core vote.
Labour should not make the mistake of assuming that victories in parliamentary procedure equal success at the ballot box. Whatever happens at the Palace of Westminster in the coming days and weeks, the real struggle – that for the soul of the country – has really only just begun.