Any attempt to analyse Labour’s position on Brexit faces a difficult initial hurdle: understanding what that position is.
It has a number of different iterations. But let me take the most coherent: that fleshed out by Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Keir Starmer.
Here’s what Sir Keir said in Parliament:
The majority of those voting voted to leave. That result has to be accepted and respected, notwithstanding the fact that many of us, including myself, campaigned for remain. However, that is not the end of the matter. The next question, and one that is increasingly pressing, is: on what terms should we leave the EU? That question was not on the ballot paper.
So far so good (For what it’s worth, I’ve explained why I think those statements are true here. If you remain unpersuaded, this blog post is probably not for you).
But what are the terms on which we should leave the EU – and how does Labour plan to control them? (Making the traditional assumption for this sort of thought piece on the stance of the Opposition: that it can deliver its strategy in Parliament.)
Speaking outside Parliament Sir Keir proposed this:
We are clear that we need the fullest possible access to the single market, that we should be in the customs union, and that there should be special arrangements for Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
(And let’s call this a “Good Brexit”). So far so good.
But what happens if the Government doesn’t secure them? Not a modest failure of the type described by Sir Keir:
Of course the starting position may not be the end position. We all accept that; we are all grown up.
but a wholesale failure. What then? How does Parliament react?
Logically it has three options.
- First, it waves the deal through anyway. In that world Parliament would have failed to control the terms on which we Brexit.
- Second, Parliament blocks the deal whilst respecting the result of the Referendum. Assume as is inevitable that the other 27 members of the EU won’t allow us to reopen negotiations. We would then leave the EU without any deal. Again Parliament would have failed to control the terms.
- Third, Parliament asserts a residual right to block the deal because the Government only has a mandate to Leave on the terms dictated by Parliament. It would say, in effect: ‘Unless you the Government do what Parliament has demanded MPs will either reject the deal and Remain or put the deal to the electorate in a Second Referendum.
Here’s the thing.
The first two don’t achieve Parliamentary control. Only the third does. And so long as Article 50 is legally revocable – a matter which will need to be ascertained from the Supreme Court A50 or other proceedings – it is a meaningful threat. Indeed, it is the only meaningful threat. Unless Parliament issues it, Labour demands for Parliamentary control are mere sound and fury. They signify nothing.
So what consequences – procedural and substantive – follow from Labour adopting this third position?
(1) It makes a ‘Good’ Brexit more likely.
The Labour Party collectively – if reality permits such a phrase – seems to be cohering around the line that, if it opposes Brexit it loses the ability to influence a ‘Good Brexit’. But, as I have shown, that is near to the exact opposite of the truth. It is a refusal to contemplate a world in which Labour might oppose Brexit that delivers that loss of influence.
(2) It has the advantage of being right.
Writing in the Financial Times, I said (of the possibility of a Parliamentary vote on the final deal or second referendum) this:
That last sentence is unanswerable. If the evidence – as opposed to the cheap speculation of unaccountable politicians – demonstrated that prosperity has deserted the country in anticipation of Brexit we would be mad to ignore it.
Only someone scared of what the evidence will show tomorrow chooses to make a decision based on assumptions today.
(3) The question of legal revocability must be resolved.
This Commons Library paper, released yesterday, addresses the possibility of the question being resolved in the Supreme Court proceedings. If it is not, there are various mechanics, which I will write on shortly, whereby it can be put and promptly in other proceedings.
Unless agreement can be reached with our neighbours – and Donald Tusk has signalled it would be (see his answer from 24’55”) – the timetable for Article 50 negotiations should recognise the need for Parliamentary approval or a referendum before the expiry of the two year term.
Standing well back, the logic of this line of reasoning is compelling.
If the Referendum result gave no mandate for any particular type of Brexit then Parliament must provide one. Faced with Brexit terms that do not deliver on what Parliament has mandated, Parliament is entitled to reject them. But, in any event, as I have explained above, there is no alternative.
Sadly, speaking yesterday, and without mention of any alternative, John McDonnell appeared to reject this possibility:
we must not try to re-fight the referendum or push for a second vote and if Article 50 needs to be triggered in parliament Labour will not seek to block or delay it.
Frustrating, short-sighted and logically incoherent. How has Labour found itself here?
Germany’s Social Democratic Party has accused Labour of a misplaced need to follow where the electorate leads. As The Times reported:
Along with other centre-left parties in Europe, the SPD is bitterly disappointed that Labour appears to be going along with Brexit. “It is a big mistake of Corbyn to say the majority of the people were in favour, therefore the Labour Party supports Brexit,” Mr Schäfer, 64, deputy head of the SPD in the Bundestag, told The Times.
“Of course they have to vote against Brexit. If the majority of people are in favour of this, Labour should say, ‘OK, we are sorry but we cannot follow always the majority’. Otherwise this is the end of different parties.”
Mr Schäfer warned that Labour would not get any credit for the successes of Brexit but it would share blame for failures if it did not oppose it, as the Liberal Democrats plan to do.
The Libs Dems are leading a campaign supported by some Scottish Nationalist and a few Labour MPs to vote against Article 50 unless the government guarantees a second referendum on the result of the Brexit talks.
The German politician urged Labour to think strategically about the next decade rather than worrying about losing seats at the next election for opposing Brexit. “Labour should vote against Article 50 to make clear they were in the campaign for Remain, because otherwise they are also responsible for the worst outcome of the negotiations,” Mr Schäfer said.
For information, I have set out, at the end, of this post some illustrative charts showing what a 15% loss of votes in ‘Leave’ seats or gain of votes in ‘Remain’ seats would mean for Labour.
But this still does not account for quite how far Labour has moved from the position held by its 2015 Voters (65% or 63% of whom voted Remain) and its MPs (218 for Remain versus only 10 for Leave) in light of polling showing limited support for a Brexit without strings.
In the face of that heavy Remain position, John McDonnell has nevertheless managed to spin 180 degrees from a pre-referendum ‘Brexit will help the corporate elites‘ to a full-blooded post-referendum ‘Brexit will hurt them‘.
Even the thoughtful members of the Labour Party have engaged in repeated attempts to burnish the quality of the democratic mandate. Writing in Prospect, Ed Miliband, for example, argued: “There is a clear mandate for Brexit from the referendum. I am not seeking to reverse the result. We are leaving the EU.” I do not find it easy to understand the impulse to airbrush away the lies of a campaign rich with them or the fact that a 2% swing would have delivered a different result. These facts might not change the mandate but it defies reality to pretend they are irrelevant to is quality.
The answer is that the Party is cowed.
Face with a vigorous and scornful media it seems determined to repeat its mistakes from the last Parliament. Then MPs bowed their heads regretfully to ‘overspending’ allegations and the need for austerity. Now they genuflect to demands for a Brexit that ignores the limitations of the mandate.
They do so because they understand it to be what the electorate wants. They do so because they are frit. But they ignore that they will take the blame when things go wrong. And they ignore that no one wants a Party that follows where others lead.
The following two charts show Labour seats in England and Wales by margin of victory, support for Brexit and (by colour, Runner Up).
The first shows all Labour seats.
The second highlights those Brexit supporting seats where Labour’s margin of victory was less than 15% (they total 44: 39 Conservative, 3 UKIP, 1 Lib Dem and 1 Plaid Cymru).
The following two charts show seats in England and Wales where Labour was Runner Up by margin of victory, support for Brexit and (by colour, Winner).
The first shows all seats where Labour was Runner Up.
The second highlights those Remain supporting seats where the winner’s margin over Labour was less than 15% (they total 18: 14 Conservative, 2 Lib Dem, 1 Plaid Cymru and 1 Green).
I’ll leave others to do the editorialising.