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Labour must come clean about Brexit

by Michael Prest | 17.10.2017

The Tories’ troubles have diverted attention from Labour’s EU policy. But without an honest position on Europe, Jeremy Corbyn is courting disaster too.

Labour shouldn’t crow about Brexit. It has been fun for the party to have a front row seat at the Tories’ Brexit freak show and it has done wonders for members’ morale. But the spotlight on Theresa May has diverted attention from an uncomfortable truth: Labour’s position on Brexit is no clearer than the government’s and may not be greatly different. Unless Labour comes clean about how it really wants this dismal saga to end, it could be badly damaged as well.

There are two clear Labour policies. One is that it accepts the “will of the people” and leaving the EU, although the majority of Labour voters and MPs want to stay in the EU. The other is that it wants to remain in the single market and customs union during a transition period. The rest is fudge. As expressed by Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, in his conference speech the position is to keep as many as possible options open, which may or may not include some form of long-term single market and customs union arrangements, short of actually staying in the EU.

It’s an artful construct, the kind of political balancing act that questions Corbyn’s reputation as a politician of principle. Like all balancing acts, there’s a risk of falling flat on your face. What is the party really saying? If Labour is elected before this government reaches a Brexit deal, which is possible, it would inherit a dreadful mess. As a government, the party would have to formulate a real policy, not a set of cunningly drafted possibilities. The task would be formidable: the economy will be weak, the nation divided, relations with the EU dismal and Labour may well have only a small or no majority in the Commons.

If the government – with or without May as prime minister – staggers on to reach a Brexit deal, on what basis will Labour accept or reject it? Is the party willing to renegotiate a deal it considers to be flawed if it comes to power after the government reaches an agreement with the EU?

At the moment it’s well nigh impossible to say how Labour would handle a Brexit deal whether in government or opposition, an obfuscation made worse by the suspicion that Labour’s leadership may really want to leave the EU (although Corbyn has said he would vote Remain again).

Voices within Labour, such as the Labour Campaign for the Single Market, are demanding clarity.  But the good old-fashioned stitch-up which prevented, with the leadership’s connivance, proper debate on Brexit at the party’s conference does not inspire confidence.

Should Labour not come clean about its Brexit policy soon, it could suffer the same fate as the Tories: division, public loss of confidence, and if in government no coherent direction. The right policy is to make the principled case for staying in the EU. More unprincipled fudge – whatever the leadership really wants – is no good for the party, let alone the nation.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

2 Responses to “Labour must come clean about Brexit”

  • “Labour must come clean about Brexit”

    A bold headline, but one not substantiated by the article.

    Labour is not the government, and until there is a general election to fight there is no need whatsoever to refight the internal Brexit battles weakening the party from within and without.

    Labour SHOULD ‘remain’ (pun intended), and to borrow from David Davis, constructively ambiguous for as long as possible.

    It was only 4 months ago that this policy was tested at the ballot box and confounded all the predictions (and I suspect hopes) of pro-Remain pundits.

    Indeed, this site’s own Hugo Dixon himself proclaimed in the Indy:

    “Labour is going to struggle to hang onto the seats it has got, let alone win any more.”

    So maybe, just maybe, it’s time for some introspection from those who have been proven wrong, time and time again.

    Why would anyone think an opposition leader painting himself into a completely unnecessary corner simply to satisfy the demands of his detractors is a good idea?

  • Labour is not ‘ambiguous about Brexit’. Labour (Keith Starmer) has set out the party’s red lines for an acceptable Brexit deal, which include traditional Labour concerns such as workers rights, and other issues such as environmental standards and citizen’s rights. They support immigration controls provided they do not adversely affect the British economy. This appears in many ways to reflect what many Leave voters thought they would get – a Brexit that does not leave them any worse off.
    It is (remotely) possible that a Brexit deal can be negotiated which meets Labour’s conditions. However they are not the government and it is not their job to negotiate such a deal.
    It is however highly likely that the eventual deal on offer will fail most if not all of these red lines, which leaves Labour free then to say “they tried, but they failed – now we must rethink the direction in which the country is heading” and that may include rejecting the referendum result on the clear basis that it does not measure up to the country’s real needs (as they see them).
    That is a fairly principled position to take – respecting the referendum result but only if the deal delivers what was promised.