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Electing a Labour Government Matters More Than Brexit

Centrists insist that Labour’s electoral fortunes depend on it taking a hard stance against Brexit. But their own behavior tells us their top priority is to stop Corbyn from becoming prime minister.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and wife Laura Alvarez leave after voting in the European Elections, at a polling station at Pakeman primary school in Holloway on May 23, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. Leon Neal / Getty

In the wake of Britain’s European election, Labour’s right wing has used the party’s poor performance as the opportunity to launch the latest attack on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Yet this onslaught was already well under way before a single vote had been cast.

Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson and MPs like Wes Streeting complained bitterly about the party’s Brexit policy during the election campaign; one anti-Corbyn ultra, Margaret Hodge, even called for people to vote against her own party. They all wanted Corbyn to make a firm commitment to the anti-Brexit, “People’s Vote” camp.

After Labour slumped to 14 percent and third place at the polls, the pro-Remain right is insisting more stridently than ever that the party needs to take a hard stance against leaving the European Union. Such a position, however, risks a lasting split in Labour’s base, along the lines of the 2016 referendum. In fact, in the context of the push against Corbyn’s leadership, it’s not at all clear it’s supposed to help Labour electorally.

Democrats and Deniers

Indeed, it’s instructive to look at what these people were saying in the months following the 2016 referendum, when Labour’s approach was being decided upon. In November 2016, Tom Watson denounced the Liberal Democrats as “Brexit deniers” who were “desperately, openly, shamelessly trying to recover some sort of electoral relevance” by “ignoring the clear decision the British people made back in June”:

We will press the government hard on the terms on which we leave the EU in order to achieve a settlement that benefits us all. But effective scrutiny isn’t the same as blocking Brexit. We’re never going to apologise for holding the government’s feet to the fire. But nor we will ignore the democratic will of the British people.

Watson stressed that Labour would “not attempt to obstruct the triggering of article 50” — the first step towards Britain’s departure from the EU.

When the vote on Article 50 was held a few months later, Wes Streeting and Chuka Umunna reaffirmed that message:

We believe as democrats that we must abide by the national result which is a clear choice to leave the EU. To stand against the decision of the country would be to deepen Labour and the country’s divisions and undermine our ability to build a coalition uniting the cities with the towns and country, the young with the old, immigrant with settled communities, the north with the south. We have to build this coalition in order to win an election to form a Labour government.

Streeting and Umunna pledged that Labour MPs would “rigorously scrutinize the Government’s Brexit negotiations and hold the Tories to account.” They would not allow Theresa May to push through a destructive, reactionary agenda in the guise of honoring the referendum result: “Neither Leavers nor Remainers want Britain turned into a bolt hole for the superrich, a tax haven for monopoly capitalism, a sweatshop for Europe.”

Labour went into the general election in June 2017 with the position spelled out by Watson, Streeting, and Umunna: accept the referendum result, but offer no blank checks to May and the Tories. It promised to fight against any bonfire of social rights, or a deal that threatened to cause major economic disruption.

May’s Nemesis

With that platform, Labour deprived Theresa May of her governing majority, even though a Brexit-powered Conservative Party won its highest share of the vote since the 1980s — a percentage that would have given May a landslide under normal circumstances.

Her failure to obtain that crushing majority of seats was the single most important development in British politics since the referendum. If Corbyn’s party hadn’t cut the Tories down to size, they would have been free to push through a Brexit deal tailored to their own specifications. All the marches and petitions in the world would not have been enough to stop them.

Since then, Labour has used its platform on the opposition benches to challenge May’s Brexit agreement, a shoddy deal whose terms were heavily conditioned by the Prime Minister’s obsession with making life harder for immigrants. The main opposition party’s refusal to wave through May’s Brexit blueprint made it impossible for her to pass it, since she would have needed help from Labour to overcome the resistance of hard-right Tory rebels.

In other words, Labour has done exactly what Watson, Streeting, and Umunna said they was going to do. It is this approach that has prevented May from delivering the kind of Brexit she wanted to impose.

So what are they complaining about?

It would be one thing if we were dealing with a change of heart. Politicians can alter their position in the light of new developments: there’s nothing disreputable about that.

What we are dealing with here is something far more cynical. Watson, Streeting, and their now-departed colleague Umunna have not changed their minds: they’ve changed their tactics for undermining the Labour leadership, which remains their number one priority.

In the months leading up to the 2017 election, Labour’s right wing expected to unseat Corbyn in the immediate future. They framed their arguments on the assumption that they would soon be in the driving seat and would have to take full responsibility for the party’s Brexit position.

When the calculus changed after the general election, they decided to use Brexit as a wedge issue to disrupt Corbyn’s leadership as much as possible, while they waited for the opportunity to launch a direct challenge.

If Labour had been led since 2016 by Watson, Umunna, or one of their co-thinkers, it would certainly have had the same policy of accepting the referendum result and trying to mitigate its potential consequences — but combined with a much more hawkish and demagogic line on immigration.

Liberal newspapers like the Guardian and the Observer would then have hailed this approach as the epitome of sensible pragmatism.

Border Guardians

The biggest flaw with Labour’s Brexit policy has not been its acceptance of Britain’s departure from the EU: it has been the timid, defeatist line on new immigration controls. It was pressure from Labour’s right wing in late 2016, at a point of maximum weakness for Corbyn’s leadership, that drove him to accept that freedom of movement for EU citizens would end when Britain left the Union.

This wasn’t an essential concession for anyone who accepted the referendum result: there was nothing on the ballot paper about immigration controls, and pro-Brexit spokesmen had gestured towards Norway — which, as part of the single market, accepts free movement — as a model to follow.

Giving ground on this issue clearly went against Corbyn’s own instincts. In the months following the referendum, the Labour leader was attacked by liberal columnists like the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland and Polly Toynbee for his defense of immigrants.

Toynbee accused Corbyn of taking Labour on a “jaw-dropping kamikaze mission” by refusing to call for “reasonable controls” — something that would have required Britain to leave the single market, the very “hard Brexit” that Toynbee claims to deplore.

The Guardian luminaries and the Labour right eventually got their way over the issue, although Corbyn has always refused to say that immigration is too high and must be reduced. He left the door open to preserving the status quo under a different name after Britain leaves the EU.

The party’s line on freedom of movement made it more difficult to take a clear-cut position in defense of a Brexit deal that would put Britain in much the same position as Norway. Of all the plausible outcomes that have been on the table since 2016, that would have been the most desirable.

Labour’s advocacy for soft Brexit or “Norway plus” had to be opaque and back-handed, expressed in formulas like “jobs-first Brexit,” because of the compromises imposed by its right wing — the very people who now posture as the champions of Remain.

Soft Landing

For some people, the suggestion that any outcome other than staying in the EU could be desirable will seem like heresy.

Since 2016, the Brexit debate has become so entrenched that many “Leavers” and “Remainers” consider their stance to be a totem of personal identity. EU membership has become a battleground for cultural attitudes that owe very little to the Union’s treaties and structures.

In the face of this polarization, it needs to be said all the more bluntly: the differences between staying in the EU and a Norwegian-style “soft Brexit” would be almost negligible, in terms of social rights and economic disruption.

Imitating Norway wouldn’t clear away all of the potential barriers to socialist reforms being implemented by a left-wing government in Britain — but it wouldn’t impose new barriers either.

The “hard Lexit” approach called for by Costas Lapavitsas and others was never really on the table: it wasn’t what people voted for in 2016, and as things stand it’s by far the least likely outcome.

One of the main advantages of a “soft Brexit” deal — whatever its precise details — would be avoiding the need for a second referendum. Most advocates of such a vote have been shockingly complacent about their chances of victory, brushing aside opinion polls that suggest a rerun of the first vote would be too close to call.

Even if Remain won, the campaign would be even more rancorous than the first, and only a landslide result could truly settle the issue.

We may now be drifting towards a second referendum in any case. But Corbyn and Labour were right to try and avoid that outcome.

There has often been a tendency to defend Labour’s position in terms of electoral pragmatism — the need to balance between Remain- and Leave-voting sections of its base. This is perfectly legitimate in its own right: a left-wing government, implementing Labour’s 2017 manifesto or going beyond it, would make far more of a difference to people’s lives than staying in the EU.

But there was a wider political logic behind the party’s stand. The accusations of “sitting on the fence” leveled at the Labour leadership are misguided at best, malicious at worst. The best elements in the party, including Corbyn, recognized it would be a disaster if Leave vs Remain became entrenched as the main dividing line in British politics.

Culture Shock

The most strident partisans on either side are deeply complicit in the effort to transform Britain’s political life into a US-style culture war. Europhile liberals and Brexiteer nativists both want to polarize the country along lines that will be toxic for any kind of left-wing project: young vs old, cities vs towns, center vs periphery, Scotland vs England, London vs the North — anything but the most important line of cleavage, between the working-class majority and a ruling class that will be insulated from the consequences no matter what happens in the years to come.

The advances for the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats in the European elections are a major boost for that effort.

Those who accused Labour of “sitting on the fence” or “giving Nigel Farage what he wants” completely misunderstood what an operator like Farage really desires.

It should be clear to everyone by now: Farage doesn’t want to achieve any particular outcome, at least in terms of policy. If his priority was to get Britain out of the EU, he would have supported May’s deal: by any objective standard, it was a hard, Tory-inflected Brexit, much harder than anything the Leave campaign had explicitly called for before the referendum.

The point of a culture war is not to win, but to keep fighting indefinitely on whatever pretext comes to hand. What Farage really wants is an endless cycle of grievance and victimhood. It’s easy to imagine that his preferred outcome would be a second referendum that Remain won by 52 to 48 percent: the perfect foil for another round of grievance-mongering.

You don’t beat someone like Farage by fighting on his chosen ground. Implacable opposition to racism is vital. Presenting Britain’s relationship with the EU as a matter of cosmic importance is not and plays directly into his hands.

Downfall

The prime responsibility for Farage’s triumph in this election, of course, lies with Theresa May. May dealt with her electoral fiasco in 2017 by pretending it had never happened. When she became Prime Minister, there was an overwhelming majority in favor of a negotiated exit from the EU — including most Remain voters, who thought the referendum result should be respected.

May had two years to reach out to the opposition and try to build a cross-party consensus: she refused to do so. She also refused to manage her base’s unrealistic expectations. When her self-serving, partisan deal was predictably voted down in the House of Commons, she responded by hectoring her opponents and making empty threats.

The talks between her government and Labour in the last couple of months were a transparent sham, an attempt to foist some of the responsibility onto the opposition.

Indeed, May appears to have counted on one of two developments: either Labour would call for the referendum result to be overturned, allowing her to pose as the sole champion of democracy and the popular will, or else its MPs would bail her out in the name of “stability,” even if it meant taking a major political hit. With a more conventional leadership, Labour might well have followed the second course by now.

To repeat a point made earlier — one almost entirely overlooked in the media — if it had not been for Labour’s remarkable performance in 2017, May could have sailed through the parliamentary votes on Brexit, and Britain would have left the EU on her preferred terms.

Instead, May created a political vacuum in which the Brexit Party could thrive. Farage just had to adopt a slogan the Conservative prime minister had done more than anyone to legitimize: “No deal is better than a bad deal.”

But the self-appointed leaders of the hard-Remain cause in the People’s Vote (PV) campaign deserve their own share of the blame.

All or Nothing

Unreconstructed Blairite loyalists like Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson have used the campaign primarily as a weapon in their factional struggle against Corbyn and the Left. As one PV insider complained earlier this year: “Because the campaign is full of ex-Labour spinners it is trying too hard to change the Labour Party, rather than trying to change politics.”

This warped sense of priorities drove them to adopt a hollow and cynical maximalist line, precisely because they knew it would be virtually impossible for the Labour Party to embrace it. (In private, Mandelson’s business-consultancy firm informed its clients that Brexit could not be stopped.)

This also led the People’s Vote spokesmen to propagate a number of damaging falsehoods. One was the idea that Corbyn and his wicked advisor Seumas Milne were solely responsible for imposing a “pro-Brexit” line that his party’s MPs wanted to overturn.

A large number of Labour MPs represent Leave-voting constituencies and are very reluctant to back a second referendum. They include politicians like Caroline Flint and Gloria De Piero who could not be considered Corbyn supporters by any stretch of the imagination. This basic political reality, which would confront any Labour leader, has been systematically occluded by the PV campaign and its friends in the British media.

Equally harmful was the idea that all possible versions of Brexit were just as bad and could not be distinguished from each other. The goal of the PV leadership team, openly stated to reporters, was to knock every “soft Brexit” or “Norway plus” option off the table, so there would be a straight choice between “no deal” and Remain.

This grossly irresponsible approach may yet bring us to a referendum that puts those choices to the electorate. The recklessness of the PV campaign may indeed reap a victory for the no deal scenario it claims to oppose most of all.

Proxy War

By early 2019, the PV campaign appeared to have shot its bolt. Another emphatically non-Corbynite Labour MP, Lucy Powell, argued that “we’ve passed peak People’s Vote” in late January: “Labour MPs who have got reservations about a second referendum began feeling more confident about expressing that to each other. And the aggressive nature of the second-referendum campaign has put off colleagues, pushing people away.”

The campaign then rose again, thanks to May’s inability to pass a deal, her unwillingness to offer any meaningful compromises, and the resulting extension to Brexit, which meant the UK would be taking part in this year’s European election after all.

Yet these very same factors supplied Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party with their opportunity. Both sides wanted to make the European poll into a proxy referendum on Brexit, and that effort proved largely successful.

There are some obvious caveats about drawing conclusions from the result. Less than 37 percent of eligible voters took part: barely half the turnout from the 2016 referendum (72 percent), and drastically lower than the 2017 election (69 percent). There was bound to have been a selection effect, with those more preoccupied with Brexit in either direction more likely to turn out.

Previous EU elections have also been a very poor guide to performance at the next British general election.

But if the election results do give us an accurate picture of public opinion, the message is similar to the one conveyed by opinion polls. There is no decisive majority for either Leave or Remain. The outcome of a second referendum is impossible to predict.

The main achievement of the PV campaign and other anti-Brexit forces has been to radicalize those who voted Remain in 2016, rather than to change the minds of Leave voters. Hard-Remain may have been a good electoral strategy for the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. However, it doesn’t offer any clear way out of the present logjam.

Labour’s performance was unquestionably very poor. But its Brexit platform was not designed to maximize the vote in this kind of polarized contest: it was meant to resolve the crisis triggered by the 2016 referendum, in a way that made it possible for the Left to advance. A messy but workable compromise was never likely to stir great enthusiasm — even less so since Tory intransigence has made that compromise seem anything but workable.

Labour is now under intense pressure to change its strategy. Owen Jones has set out the arguments for doing so in an article that was thoughtful and constructive, unlike Paul Mason’s witch-hunting diatribe, which combined support for hard-Remain with a shop-soiled reactionary agenda that harks back to the worst aspects of Blairism, centered on stigmatizing “antisocial behaviour” and defending “strong natural security” including even nuclear weapons.

This “Blue Labour”–People’s Vote hybrid would be the worst of all worlds for the British left.

Before rushing to embrace the second-referendum perspective, Corbyn’s supporters should remember that all the arguments against it are as valid today as they were a fortnight ago. There is no clear route to that goal with the current British parliament, any more than there is towards Labour’s preferred soft-Brexit deal. There is no guarantee that Remain would win at the second time of asking. And going down that road could mean writing off anyone who voted Leave as a potential left-wing voter.

The main reason to change course would be this: if it seems clear that Labour can’t win back the support lost to the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, or the SNP at the next general election by any other route. That’s a valid consideration, and a difficult judgement call to make.

But if the Labour leadership does now pivot towards the second-referendum camp, it should be seen in a realistic light, as a major setback for the Corbyn project, and for any prospects of meaningful political change. It’s not a choice that should be made lightly, without taking full account of its pitfalls.