Labour’s Brexit tactics

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.

(4) Timetabling.

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.


Illustrative charts

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.



18 thoughts on “Labour’s Brexit tactics

  1. “I do not find it easy to understand the impulse to airbrush away the lies of a campaign rich with them”.

    For me, this is the crucial and much overlooked point. Not to say that your strategy is definitely wrong, but this must be part of the position and be dealt with. Otherwise what point of a second referendum as corrupt as the first?

  2. “I do not find it easy to understand the impulse to airbrush away the lies of a campaign rich with them”.

    For me, this is the crucial and much overlooked point. Not to say that your strategy is definitely wrong, but this must be part of the position narrative and also must be dealt with to prevent future re-occurence. Facts matter.

    Otherwise what is the point of a second referendum as corrupt as the first?
    And where does that leave democracy?

  3. Sir Keith says the result of the referendum should be “accepted and respected”. Your third, preferred, option holds out the stroganoff possibility of the result of the negotiations being rejected and Parliament deciding g to Remain, otherwise you are advocating an entirely redundant process. How can the two outcomes be compatible? How.can the sovereign will of the people be accepted and respected if it is not executed?

  4. The referendum changed things.
    If you don’t reappraise when things change, you are a passenger and set to become a victim.

    Labour is still struggling with the practicality v principle connundrum. This is not indecision, it is an internal battle in which a few are undecided.

    Much like politics.

  5. just out of interest, where did the data for estimated EU referendum votes come from?

  6. Chris Hanretty has done an analysis; I’ve also done one separately and they align quite closely…

  7. Absolutely spot on Jolyon. I listened with despair as Humphrys stitched up Keir Starmer on Today by asking the obvious question ‘And if you hold the government to account over this and don’t get what you want…will you vote it down?’. Starmer, who is no fool, made it clear he had spoken to Management… and said ‘No’.

    But, yes…YES, of course we’ll vote it down, We’re Her Majesty’s Opposition. It’s our job to vote it down, to pursue a vote of No Confidence in the government, to try and topple it…to force an election so that we can take our case on Brexit, and everything else to the country.

    Corbyn and MacDonnell were elected, rather like Tsipras, because people were fed up with the same old, same old. There was hope that they would embrace the eminent sense being talked by people like Richard Murphy and ‘explain’ the alternative to the economic illiteracy of Austerity…but no…rather like Tsipras they bottled it, and betrayed their supporters.

    Once again they’ve met behind closed doors and, as you quite rightly say, frit at the possibility of losing seats, have emerged with a cowardly, illogical mess of a ‘vision’ doubtless cobbled together in the vain hope that it will appeal to what used to be called Fleet Street. So we’ll have some more of Prudence, rather than borrowing (to invest) like Billy-oh because money’s available at 0.25%…and we’ll accept that a 51/49 vote by an electorate who were misled is an overwhelming mandate for Out.

    There was an opportunity here to Oppose…to hold up for scrutiny the Tory infighting which toppled Cameron, to attack May, to say this vote was Advisory…so, OK, we are advised and now we will debate, but for all its ills our position as a Party remains (!) Remain.

    I am minded to resign from the Party ‘in disgust’ …the trouble is, where now will I go?!

  8. This analysis does not take into account how the EU27 will behave if they believe that notice under Article 50 can be withdrawn. Accepting that Article 50 can be withdrawn would actually weaken our negotiating position.

    The EU27 and the Commission would be likely (or, at least, tempted) to push for a negotiated settlement that was a disadvantageous as possible for UK, hoping that parliament or the public would reverse the decision to leave.

  9. Great article. Labour cannot “block” anything by itself so we can ignore the posturing. Its amendment to an A50 Bill will need to appeal to Libs Dems and Tory Remainers to stand any chance of being passed. That could include customs union, single market and some social and environmental measures.

    That will allow a broad campaign for “Good Brexit” to be established and become the vehicle for legitimate blocking.This could take us through the electoral cycle and extend our EU membership until we can have a second referendum, as Labour 2016 Conference policy even suggests.

  10. Even in your third option parliament would find it difficult to vote brexit down – even if the deal was truly apocalyptically awful. Given that this is clear at the start of the process, labour should be spelling it out now. Someone has to approve or reject the brexit deal which is negotiated. The executive is not sovereign. The legislature cannot meaningfully decide since the referendum result effectively means it could not oppose any brexit on any terms. Therefore the deciders must be the people. So constitutionally, given the situation we are in, we really must have a referendum on the terms of brexit. Labour has 2 years to make and win this argument. (And whether or not art 50 is legally revocable, it would be in practice and I’m sure the EU could be persuaded to say so, during the negotiating process).

  11. I’ve no idea what all those charts mean. Some further explanation is needed.

  12. An opposition that does not oppose in the national interest is not an opposition, just as a government that does not govern in the national interest is not a government. Both are parasites on the people.

    Counting differences between the two shaded areas and accepting your assumptions, your analysis suggest that by taking your third option Labour risks losing perhaps 30 seats net. That of course is under the present boundaries which would be worsened by a similar number in 2020.

    Voting is not a stationary decision – people who voted leave may have done so assuming continued membership of the single market, NHS funding or may not have been aware of the complications and consequences. Certainly most would prefer to have 30,000 nurses to 30,000 civil servants. It is therefore likely that, even without voter remorse, the Leave vote proportions (not percentages!) would not be maintained under a general election and that a principled stand in favour of a ‘proper’ Brexit may well gain votes rather than lose them. A considered and mature approach compared to the governments inept posturing could lead to a substantial swing in Labour’s favour.

    Labour also needs to address the complex motivation for the vote – it was in many respects a plague on both your houses, just as the Trump vote in the US.

    A detailed district level study of votes by Warwick University suggests that the most important issue was not immigration but the austerity campaign. Surely this is a big opportunity for Labour to point to the true architect of the Brexit vote which is not Farage or Hannan but Osborne’s economically illiterate politically motivated campaign to crush the welfare state built over 70 years.

    Corbyn has already suggested that he is not opposed to EU immigration per se and I was cheered by that statement, much as I was appalled by McDonnell’s support for ‘Brexit opportunities’ which appears to me to be no less expedient than Cameron embracing the referendum to please UKIP and shore up support.

    Whether it is Parliament that has the final say or we have a second referendum, either must be supported by much more information and much less emotion. It cannot be the executive, which would be entirely unconstitutional and contrary to the requirements of Article 50 itself, leading to the spectacle of the government issuing A50 and the EU refusing to accept it.

  13. Derek

    The charts show a large number of seats that Labour won narrowly have now voted for Brexit and a very small number of seats Labour lost narrowly have now voted Remain. There appears to be a relatively small upside to trying to vote down the Brexit deal and an apparently large downside.

  14. A question, if I may:

    – how can our Supreme Court decide if A.50 is reversible or not? Surely that is the sole decision of the EU Council (whether majority or unanimously)?

  15. I agree.

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