29th June 2016
-By Carl Gardner-
Labour must not hold the poisoned Brexit chalice
We’re in the middle of a huge political crisis. Markets are falling, there’s a vacuum of leadership, and Boris Johnson and his Brexit gang are falling to pieces before our eyes. The Labour leadership turmoil, far from being a sideshow, is the most important thing going on in British politics right now.
Where Labour ends up in the next few weeks may determine the country’s future. There are two main possibilities. Either the Tory Brexit administration that’s soon formed tries to put Brexit into effect without seeking an electoral mandate, or else it decides it wants an election to win authority for its own particular vision of what Brexit means. We can see from what Labour MPs are doing right now that they realise an early election is possible. They must be ready in case it does take place; and it’s more likely to happen if they’re not ready. Johnson and May both know they could massacre Labour in the autumn and be unassailable, if Corbyn remains leader.
So partly, current Labour manoeuvres are an attempt to ward off an early election. Labour MPs cannot, however, be confident of succeeding in that. The Fixed-term Parliament Act allows the government to force a general election if it votes for a motion of no-confidence in itself, an idea that sounds bonkers—but that has actually happened twice in Germany. In today’s fluid political situation, I have no doubt a new Tory leader could get away with this. Labour can’t stop it. So Labour must also be ready in case that election happens.
What stance to take in that election, then? To work this out, we have to think through where Labour needs to end up after polling day, and where it must avoid ending up at any price.
Brexit is now a frighteningly poisoned chalice. No Brexit administration can possibly deliver what Leavers thought they were voting for—a sharp cut in immigration, a completely unscathed economy and £350 million a week extra for the NHS. It’s impossible. Any Prime Minister who implements Brexit is doomed. Those who voted Leave will feel as deceived and betrayed as those who voted Remain. It’s this knowledge that explains the ashen-faced appearance of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and Johnson’s ludicrously fudged and unreal Brexit aims. The Brexit government is heading inexorably for a political backlash of tidal proportions.
Labour, then (looking at this purely in terms of Labour’s own strategic interest) would be in a decent place if it were the opposition, able to say every five minutes “We told you so; we were right to favour Remain”. It’d be in a very good position to take power in 2020 (if there’s no early election) or 2021 (if there is). To be in this position, Labour would need to have stuck by the Remain position it took during the referendum.
If there is an early election though, Labour cannot guarantee losing it. As we’ve just seen, it’s quite possible for politicians to shock themselves by managing to win a vote, and to find themselves in terrible trouble as a result. If Labour were, now, to accommodate itself to the idea of Brexit (for the superficially attractive reason that “the people have voted for it” or simply for fear of UKIP) it might be faced with an election that it wins. And winning on a pro-Brexit stance would truly be a nightmare.
Implementing Brexit would be a lose-lose situation for Labour just as much as for the Tories. If it assumed the responsibility of carrying it through, it would face the public’s fury when it tried to explain that there must still be a measure of free movement, or that jobs would be lost, and that anyway that there was no £350m a week. It would be lambasted again for “crashing the economy”. In England, it’d be blamed for losing Scotland; and Kezia Dugdale would lose what small hope she has of rebuilding Labour there. It’d be absolutely no good at all protesting that it was the Tories’ fault. “This is Labour’s bungled Brexit” Tories could and would respond. “If we’d implemented it, everything would have been milk and honey”.
What a stroke of luck this would be for the Conservatives. Having torn themselves apart over Europe and created a national crisis they were unable to solve and that looked set to hang round their necks as appeasement did, they’d find that with one bound, they were free. They need never do any of the hard thinking at all. Their version of Brexit could remain an unexplained never-never land. Labour would have signed up to deliver their goal for them and take all the political pain and blowback. They’d be in clover, and back with a big majority in 2021.
For Labour to avoid this, it must be ready to fight an autumn election on a firm Remain platform. It’s quite true that the UKIP threat in Labour heartlands is serious. That threat, though, cannot be met by accepting Brexit, which is not a magic charm. Labour will face the same questions about immigration regardless, and UKIP will always have a more extreme version of Brexit to offer. Voters won’t trust Labour if it pirouettes now.
Nor should Labour forget that it will badly expose another flank to the LibDems, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and (yes, it really can get even worse) the SNP if it hands the 48% who voted Remain to them. Labour can win an election if it’s the biggest party representing Remain while Leave is split between a soft Tory Brexit plan and UKIP.
Labour must go to the polls on a promise to stop Brexit and instead implement a new immigration plan doing everything legally permissible to reduce numbers and the perceived impact—in the NHS and schools, for instance, and if need be reshaping the benefits system. It must also launch a big programme of help for deprived areas. Spelling out what’s required makes it obvious Labour is the natural party to do it.
This way, Labour might still lose. But at least it’d be in a position to credibly oppose a Tory Brexit government. If it happened to win, it’d have a mandate to stop Brexit, supported by the SNP and any returning Lib Dems—and avoid the inevitable doom facing the politicians who try to make it happen.
All political logic points one way. Whatever the outcome of its current leadership crisis, Labour must recommit fully to Remain. Changing that position now would be as enormous a political blunder as electing Corbyn was.
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