28 September 2018

The method to Labour’s Brexit madness


Ok, I admit it. I don’t know whether it’s increased exposure to the toxic ramblings of conspiracy comedian Craig Murray or something more fundamental about my rapidly approaching middle age. But whatever it is — it’s happened and I am here to confess. Yes, friends, I am now a full-bore conspiracy theorist. And I am blaming the Labour Party.

The first warning sign was Salisbury. How, I reasoned, could the Labour leadership think that promoting Russian-sponsored talking points was more politically sensible — let alone principled — than standing in condemnation with our Western allies? Then came the equally unfathomable self-harm of the party’s protracted anti-Semitism crisis: why take the road of most political resistance?

However, perhaps inevitably it is the big one that has finally tipped my scales. Because if anyone can explain the party’s Brexit policy without recourse to conspiratorial musing, then truly they are a better thinker than me.

The absurdity of Labour on Brexit is difficult to understate. As it stands, the party says it is supportive of Brexit. Yet thanks to six ludicrous tests – one of which requires the Government to deliver “the exact same benefits” as the single market and the customs union – it will almost certainly vote down whatever deal the Government strikes in Parliament. After that, Labour proposes we should extend Article 50 (ruled out by the EU) to have a General Election (ruled out by the Government). If and only if that push fails will the party then consider a second referendum.

But even then, as John McDonnell helpfully clarified, the referendum would contain only two choices: no deal or the Government’s deal. That is to say the Labour Party is seriously proposing a referendum where it opposes both options on the ballot paper. To say this isn’t credible really doesn’t do it justice. At a time of potential national crisis the Labour Party is basically taking the piss.

But what, fellow Corbynologists, if there is some conspiratorial method behind this seeming madness? I’m afraid to say there is — but before we delve into such murky waters it’s worth pointing out to complacent Conservatives that Labour’s party conference was on the whole a success.

For one, Corbyn’s speech was a triumph of left-wing economic populism. Policies like increased public ownership and free childcare are not “Marxist” — they are both common across Europe and undoubtedly popular. What is more, standing as he does outside the political mainstream, Corbyn is able to frame such common-as-garden social democracy as the radical change the country so nakedly craves.

Those who remain unconvinced would do well to peruse Labour’s outstanding recent party political broadcast. And if you still don’t believe its message has an audience in this country, then I fear the forthcoming years may prove something of a political education.

Then there is the remarkable improvement in Corbyn as a public speaker. This is crucial because when the public awake from their political hiatus during the next election they will find a communicator who will almost certainly be better than whoever he is put up against. As in 2017 so too in the next election — this imbalance will make demonising Corbyn as an extremist nigh on impossible.

The question then, often raised by frustrated Labour Remainers, is why aren’t Labour further ahead in the polls? With some irony, the answer for now is probably Brexit — quite a lot of people support it. But the problem here is that even if its economic consequences can be mitigated or prove chimerical, it won’t be around to prop up the Tory poll numbers forever.

This is why Labour’s leadership is supremely relaxed about the Tories delivering Brexit — in the long-run it helps them win. Indeed, last weekend Labour’s all-too-frank Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner accurately summed up the party’s stance – and not for the first time. Updating a previous “colloquial” description, Gardiner tweeted “never interrupt your enemy when he is mistaking a mistake”. Scandalous, perhaps. But that just about sums it up.

So what pray tell is all this nonsense about a General Election? Well, that is where, at least for Labour’s beleaguered moderates, it starts to get sinister. Because even now they still hold the parliamentary balance of power when it comes to the Government getting a deal passed. The Labour whip will be opposed but many moderates, whether through fears of a Labour Leaver backlash or the consequences of no deal, will be tempted to back the Government. Now, however, such a move can be reframed by the Labour leadership as voting against a general election that Labour might stand to win.

The conspiracy theorists amongst us might recall it was “voting against a general election” that led to the motion that de facto deselected Frank Field. I however, couldn’t possibly comment.

Alan Lockey is Head of Research at Demos.