This article was originally posted on Labour Leave
At some point Labour need to make a choice, and it makes sense to back Brexit.
It is no secret that Labour is deeply divided on Brexit. On the one hand, the Labour manifesto committed to a real Brexit, and to ending free movement. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell themselves have confirmed they don’t intend to keep Britain in the Single Market and the Customs Union. Barry Gardiner has doubled down on this position. On the other hand, MPs like Shadow Brexit Minister Sir Keir Starmer, have voiced support for remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union. 47 Labour MPs defied the whip to vote against Article 50. Then, one in five defied the party whip to back Chuka Umunna’s rebel amendment to the Queen’s Speech. Chuka Umunna is also a key founder of the all-party group dedicated to watering down Brexit, which includes Tory Anna Soubry, Green Caroline Lucas and Liberal Democrat Vince Cable. Meanwhile, ex-Chancellor George Osborne’s old right-hand man James Chapman’s threat of a new anti-Brexit party, provisionally called the ‘Democrats’ and supposedly being plotted as a force of the political centre, looms large over some Labour moderates.
This confusion does allow the party to appear both for and against a meaningful Brexit at the same time – a veritable ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ of a Brexit Policy. Some would say at the last election this may even have played to Labour’s electoral benefit. This may or may not be so, but over the next two years of Brexit negotiations it cannot last. Labour will have to crystallise its position as a party, and commit one way or the other as Brexit negotiations continue. When crunch time comes, Labour must be foursquare behind Brexit.
Around 4 million Leavers backed Labour in the 2017 General Election, reassured by their commitments on Brexit and free movement. Their support was crucial in keeping seats like Barrow-in-Furness, Bishop Auckland and Scunthorpe in Labour hands. Being seen to betray them by derailing Brexit and locking Britain into the Single Market and Customs Union, without control of its laws, trade or borders, would devastate Labour in its traditional heartlands.
What of the roughly 8 million Remainers who backed Labour, you may ask. Firstly, most former Remain voters do not want to prevent Brexit – polling reliably shows over half of Remain voters accept the result, and those who don’t, had the option to support the Liberal Democrats or Greens. Every seat where Labour was threatened by Liberal Democrats or Greens, including in such Remain heartlands as Bristol West, Cambridge and Sheffield, they triumphed despite committing to deliver Brexit. It is notable much of the Labour leadership has been seen to commit to a real Brexit, their poll lead has inched up.
It shouldn’t be forgotten Labour’s most prominent Brexiteer, Kate Hoey, won 57.3% of the vote in Vauxhall, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in the country. She did this while faced with a tub-thumping anti-Brexit Lib Dem heading an enthusiastic campaign. There is no ambiguity whatsoever about her views on Brexit – she supports Brexit, and a real Brexit which takes the UK out of the Single Market and Customs Union. This seems to show that Remainer acceptance of the result is being borne through electorally.
The final reason is more intricate. If Labour opposes a real Brexit, hinders the Government’s Brexit legislation, and undermines our negotiations at home and abroad, it will guarantee us a worse deal. Big business’ favoured a policy of remaining subject to ‘free movement’ would dilute wages, as Corbyn himself has alluded to. Moreover, remaining subject to EU rules on internal competition, would strangle the Corbynite nationalisation agenda in its crib. As neither the Government nor the European Union supports the so-called ‘soft Brexiteers’ vision, it would not keep us in the Single Market and Customs Union, and it would not pave the way for a ‘jobs-first Brexit’. The UK would be seen as bickering and divided at home, weakening our negotiators abroad.
The more our EU negotiating team are weakened, and the more fractured our Government appears to be, the higher the trade barriers we will face, the less control we will reclaim over our country and the higher a Brexit bill we will face. The newfound unity of the Cabinet, following Trade Minister Liam Fox and Chancellor Philip Hammond’s joint statement this weekend, means that weakness is less likely to come from Tory splits. Concerted counterproductive efforts from Labour could yet hamstring our negotiating team, however. If Labour’s choices railroad Britain into a terrible deal, or the possibility of no deal at all, Remainers will not thank them. The Great British Public will not forgive them. If, on the other hand, Labour plays a constructive role and backs our negotiators, much as it has backed the Government at other times of national crisis, it will be seen in a very good light indeed.
Backing Brexit is the only viable path for Labour, then. As much as Labour may dislike the Government, Britain – and Labour – need the Government to be strong in the Brexit negotiations. For this to happen, Labour needs to act in the national interest and get behind the Government on extracting good terms from Brussels and delivering Brexit. If, with Labour support, a good deal is agreed and we Get Britain Out of the EU with the best Brexit for Great Britain, Labour will be in a far better position to help shape post-Brexit Britain.