16 January 2019

Fear and loathing define Labour’s Brexit struggle


The key to understanding the Labour Party on Brexit is to remember they didn’t choose it. They chose, as the increasingly caustic social media meme reminds us, “chaos with Ed Miliband”. Indeed, lost to the foregone political age before the Conservative mariner shot the Brexit albatross, it is often forgotten just how active this choice was. Miliband, in a rare moment of strategic foresight, resisted significant political pressure not to commit his party to a referendum. From the doorstep mainly – there is no doubt, with UKIP at its high water mark, that Labour’s stance cost it crucial votes in the 2015 general election.

Miliband’s determination was perhaps reinforced by the looming cataclysm in Scotland, the trauma of which still stalks Labour nightmares. The historical significance of this event may be ignored by many Westminster commentators, but the collective Labour memory remembers only too well how it lost 98 per cent of its MPs in one electoral cycle. The fear in 2016 was that siding, once again, with the establishment position would see a repeat performance in the English and Welsh heartlands. More than one Labour MP privately expressed their relief to me at avoiding this fate in the immediate aftermath of the referendum.

That is not to say they were pleased – the depth of Labour MP’s European convictions is frequently underestimated, not least by the party’s current leader. Rather it is to state that the freedom from accountability was a blessed silver lining. No longer responsible for winning against their constituents wishes, they could settle back into the rhythm of opposition. Blame the Tories when the wheels fall off. It was, after all, their choice.

Labour’s Brexit strategy has been driven by this impulse from the moment Leave declared victory. The leadership, for once at odds with its phalanx of millennial supporters, is terrified a fatal mis-step could damage both its electoral chances and control of the party. Meanwhile, the ghosts of Scotland paralyse those Labour MPs with significant leave-voting majorities. Much effort has been expended upon can-kicking strategies that were never meant to succeed. After all, does Jeremy Corbyn really want to win a general election now and have to deliver or cancel Brexit? Do Labour MPs in heavily leave-voting areas really want to be held responsible for bringing about a second referendum? Perhaps some do, but I have my doubts. The impression that some would prefer it if the Government would kindly do its job and command the Commons is a strong one. That way Labour cannot truly be blamed for any outcome.

Alas, after yesterday’s vote Labour can no longer luxuriate in the gesture politics of opposition. Amidst such chaos it is difficult to be precise about the parliamentary arithmetic, but it is transparently clear that no Brexit deal can pass without a significant chunk of Labour votes. There are then, for the almost total majority of Labour MPs that oppose no deal, vanishingly few ways to avoid a clear choice any longer. At some point they are going to have to do one of two things. Either they vote alongside the government and deliver Brexit. Or, if Article 50 can be sufficiently extended, they vote for a second referendum and risk a Scotland-style wipeout.

The crucial group here are pro-European, anti-Corbyn MPs encircled in heavily leave constituencies. In the aftermath of the referendum these MPs will have received thousands of letters demanding they respect the result – I know because I used to work for one. Even the most judicious will have put their signature to written material that could be political dynamite should they thwart Brexit. Some may have actively ruled out a second referendum. This is a tough hurdle to clear, therefore the most likely scenario remains this group working across the aisle for a settlement that stops a no deal Brexit. Slowly but surely, the symbolic barriers to this are being removed: yesterday’s vote signals their ‘true’ position; a vote against the Prime Minister on Monday helps protect from charges of treachery.

But, as ever, the curveball could be Labour’s never ending factional struggle. For whilst backing a second referendum would undoubtedly leave this grouping exposed, the temptation to outflank the leadership with Labour members could well tip the scales if Corbyn digs in. At the moment, the number of Labour MPs backing a fresh plebiscite stands at 71. But if Corbyn hunkers down this will only grow and at a certain point his stance will surely become untenable. And if he caves a notional parliamentary majority suddenly appears attainable.

There will be some twists yet – Labour will not sell its lack of accountability lightly. But the Prime Minister’s chances could depend on a delicious paradox: she needs Corbyn to back a second vote. Sooner rather than later.

Alan Lockey is Head of Research at Demos.