Straddling Two Horses Rarely Ends Well

30th January 2017

By Keith Nieland-

Straddling Two Horses Rarely Ends Well

I try to avoid them if I can as they are not good for the blood pressure. I refer, of course, to television interviews with Jeremy Corbyn’s inner cabinet members. But recently I accidentally came across interviews with Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry. They were about the hot topic of Brexit and Labour’s stance. I usually avoid interviews with the holy trinity of Abbott, Thornberry and McDonald as they shed little light and just usually reflect Corbyn’s thinking that morning with little discussion with other Labour MPs or indeed anybody as far as I can gather.

I Will Say This Only Once

This is a summary of both interviews:

Q. What is Labour’s position on May’s Brexit plan?

A. Labour respects the verdict of the Referendum and puts the protection of jobs, workers’ rights and business as top priority.

Q. Does that mean Labour supports membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union which includes signing up to the free movement of labour?

A. Labour believes in maintaining access to the Single Market and Customs Union.

Q. Does Labour support the free movement of labour?

A. Repeat first answer.

Q. Repeat previous question.

A. Repeat first answer.

Q. If Labour does not support the free movement of labour but wants to negotiate access to the Single Market and the creation of some kind of new Customs Union does not that make Labour’s position the same as the Tories?

A. No, as we would not wish to turn the UK into some sort of offshore tax haven.

Q. So Labour does support membership of the Single Market and Customs Union?

A. We are only the Opposition; that is a question for the Government.

Riding Two Horses

I am old enough to remember the days when circuses actually had animals in them and Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit position reminds me of the rider who entered the ring with one foot on one horse and the other on a second horse. It looked pretty spectacular but after one circuit the rider usually dismounted before something nasty happened. Here we have Jeremy Corbyn doing a political version. He has one foot on the Remainer horse marked “single market and customs union” and the other foot on the Brexit horse marked “border and immigration controls”. His justification for this is that Labour needs to appeal across the board to both Leavers and Remainers and that the Party cannot win if it pins its hopes on one side or the other. After all there are Labour MPs from both strong Remain and strong Leave seats.

Opposition are Supposed to Oppose

As we currently stand the only nationwide political party implacably opposing Brexit are the Liberal Democrats and they have less than 10 seats. If for no other reason the 48% who voted to remain deserve better Parliamentary representation than that. It is not the job of the Opposition to quietly acquiesce with any Government’s plans particularly on such a vital issue – the clue is in the title. Being clearly set against Brexit and wanting a second referendum on the final exit deal with the EU is not doing the Lib Dems any harm as they take council seats from Tories in staunch Remain areas and rise in the polls albeit from a very low position. This has the virtue of the Party being able to present a clear and concise position which you can agree with or not, but Labour’s position is about as clear as the Thames’ mud.

Labour’s position is costing it voters. As was pointed out in the Emily Thornberry interview, the polls indicate the Party has lost 400,000 voters to the Lib Dems since the last General Election and a similar number to the Tories and UKIP combined. The extent to which this is due to Corbyn’s general unpopularity or Labour’s Brexit position (or both) is unclear. Some Corbyn fans will rejoice as what they see as Red Tories going elsewhere but those with the true interests of the Party at heart will just put their head in their hands.

The Flaw

It could well be that one unintended outcome of the Referendum was a move away from the old class-based party loyalties to irreconcilable groups of Remainers and Leavers. If that is the case Labour runs the risk of being trampled to death in the rush.

However, there is a flaw in Labour’s whole Brexit approach and that is, quite simply, if they think the Government is wrong why are they supporting it? If they think, as they appear to, that May’s Lancaster House speech put jobs and workers’ rights at risk; that the fall back position of an off-shore tax haven is unacceptable, why is Corbyn planning to support the Brexit Bill come what may? They should either vote against or at the very least put down amendments about guaranteeing access to the Single Market and Customs Union and rejecting the tax haven option.

Corbyn should be working with other parties to try and put together an alliance to defeat the worst aspects of May’s plan. It might not work but at least there will be credit in trying. By some indications there is a Remain majority in the House of Commons so there is potential to attempt to tie May to something less ideological and more realistic.

Corbyn’s current position runs the risk of sharing the blame if May’s plan falls apart and getting none of the credit if it succeeds.

An Honourable Position

It is quite tenable for Labour to say that while they respect the outcome of the Referendum they feel the Government’s plan is not in the best interests of the country, it is not what voters voted for, and Labour will, therefore, vote against the Brexit Bill. The fact the Government cannot give guarantees about job losses, workers’ rights, UK citizens living abroad and the dependence of many services (particularly the NHS) on EU labour are grounds enough for voting against. Labour should not fall into the trap of zero based decision making.

Secondly, Labour should be making the case for remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union. The economic priority should be the protection of 45% of our export market plus the potential for the future in the world’s biggest free trade zone. This is more important than running around the world begging other countries to fill the lost trade gap.

Thirdly, it is not immigrants that are putting a strain on the public services, instead they fill much needed skills gaps. Labour should be making the case for immigration and setting out plans for supporting immigrants and the communities into which they settle.

The Three Line Whip

Corbyn’s decision to impose a three line whip on voting for the Brexit Bill will be ignored by Leavers and will infuriate Remainers. In all likelihood it will split the PLP and, possibly, the Shadow Cabinet. At least the Party will get an audience if it were to adopt the position set out above and it might get some grudging respect from its detractors.

One of the reasons Corbyn drew support during the leadership campaigns was because Party activists were fed up with MPs voting with the Tories and supporting, as they saw it, Tory policies. I wonder what they think now particularly as Corbyn’s position is not in line with the policy adopted by the Party as last September’s Conference?

As Nick Cohen and others have pointed out on Twitter, Corbyn has now lined himself up with the Conservative Party, UKIP, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Sun, Putin and Trump.

The Labour Party has truly passed through the looking glass.

Keith Nieland

Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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