First, Labour’s decision to ‘respect the result’ of the Referendum is a choice. It has chosen to respect the result because, whatever the reason, it wants to.
It is true that people believed they were voting for a result that would be delivered. And – although a legally binding referendum would likely have had further safeguards – all things being equal my own view is that Labour would have been politically bound to deliver the result of this advisory referendum. But all things are not equal.
Both the official and the unofficial Leave campaigns broke the rules in material ways – they cheated, not to put too fine a point on it. There is powerful evidence of Russian interference in the referendum. Demonstrable and deliberate lies were told by the Leave campaigns. The promises that the Leave campaigns made will not be delivered. I accept that the assessment of the political saliency of these things is a matter of judgement. But it cannot sensibly be argued that it would be impossible for Labour to say ‘the result is not valid; the will of the people was not discovered by this flawed exercise.’
These factors open the door for Labour to say the result lacks validity. Labour has made a choice not to walk through that open door.
Second, Theresa May is pushing for a softer Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn is pushing for a harder Brexit.
For myself, I see no meaningful difference between the outcome being sought by the Conservative and the Labour parties on Brexit. Both want to trade with the Single Market. Both want to be free to make their own trade policy in a manner that rules out a customs union. Both want control over immigration in a way that rules out membership of the Single Market. In the circumstances I think it is reasonable to say that both want a Hard Brexit. But the point I am here making is a different one.
Theresa May’s party has a very large contingent that is prepared to leave without a deal. Her battle is with the Ultras in her party that would deliver that outcome and she seeks a ‘softer’ Brexit than they want. The Labour Party by contrast is dominated – its membership, its voters, its constituencies such as trade unions – by those who want a soft or no Brexit or a vote on the deal (or on whether to leave without a deal). Jeremy Corbyn’s battle is with that dominant faction in his party – and he seeks a harder Brexit than they want. This is (it seems to me) beyond sensible debate.
He is battling for a harder Brexit, she is battling for a softer one.
Third, Labour cannot win its battle with its Remainers.
The debate on social media between those who see a Corbyn government as more important than stopping Brexit (“Pro Corbyns”) and those who see stopping Brexit as more important than a Corbyn government (“Pro Remains”) is a debate the Pro Corbyns cannot win.
Labour is a political party. To win Government for their man, Pro Corbyns needs a broad constituency. As things stand, Pro Remains are a campaigning group. Their immediate goal is to force Labour to change its position on Brexit.
Pro Remains lack sufficient representation in Parliament. Without it they cannot achieve their goal. So their strategy must be to cause the only party who might change its position to do so. And, sadly, the only way to cause Labour to change its position is to ensure the political cost of pursuing its present stance is greater than the political cost of changing it. And if Pro Remains are toxifying Labour’s attachment to its present stance they are winning. They will be forcing Labour to re-evaluate that stance. If Pro Remains are also toxified that does not matter – or does not matter at this stage – because they do not need a broad constituency to achieve their immediate goal.
(In a better world, the Pro Remains strategy would be to ask Labour to look to the interests of the country, or to the need to fund public services, or to protect the jobs of working people, and so. But sadly we are not in that world).
Labour cannot win its battle with its Remainers.
Fourth, by aligning his position against that of Labour’s members, Jeremy Corbyn is dishonest and hypocritical.
Corbyn campaigned and won the leadership on a platform of allowing members to choose Party policy. He said (you can see him saying it here at 31.07)
“One firm commitment I make to people who join our Labour Party is that you have a real say, the final say in deciding on the policies of our party.
“No-one – not me as Leader, not the Shadow Cabinet, not the Parliamentary Labour Party – is going to impose policy or have a veto.”
Yet Labour’s position is not remotely aligned with what the polls say its members want. And Labour is reported to be battling, yet again, to prevent its Brexit policy coming for a vote before Party Conference.
Corbyn’s position is hypocritical and dishonest.
Fifth, Labour offers nothing of substance on Brexit.
It is true that Labour fought hard for Parliament to have a say on whether to approve the Brexit deal. And with the help of Tory rebels it won a vote on that subject in December. And it was only when Tory rebels capitulated last month that it lost a vote that would have strengthened Parliamentary control.
But Labour has consistently refused and refuses to say what it would do with Parliamentary control. It has not said it will vote to withdraw the Article 50 notice if the Brexit deal is unacceptable to Parliament. It has not said it will vote for a referendum if the Brexit deal is unacceptable. It offers nothing.
The best guess – and it can only be a guess – is that if the Government’s deal is voted down Labour would seek to force a general election. But that vote is likely to take place in late January 2019 (see section 13(10)) and there would be no time after the result was known, and after any General Election was called and run, for Brexit to be affected by the outcome. And if this guess is right, it suggests Labour’s fight for a meaningful vote is more about Labour’s narrow interest than about Brexit.
Labour offers nothing of substance on Brexit.
Finally, sixth, Labour has chosen not to push for a softer Brexit.
To be in opposition is to have a minority in Parliament. This does not stop an opposition campaigning or voting for its policies. And sometimes those votes or campaigns succeed.
Brexit is no different. Labour could develop a deliverable alternative to the Tories’ plans. It could negotiate with the EU to ensure that alternative was acceptable. It could then campaign for that alternative in the country and in Parliament. That is what an opposition does: it puts forward policy proposals and seeks to persuade the country and Parliament that those proposals are desirable and deliverable. It hopes to force a u turn on the Government
Labour, in the case of Brexit, has completely absented itself from that process. It has not developed a deliverable alternative. It has not sought to negotiate and agree it with the EU. And it has not sought to persuade the country and Parliament of the value of that alternative.
Labour could have pushed for a softer Brexit. It has chosen not to.