A few thoughts on Labour’s latest new Brexit policy:
What actually is it? Confusingly, there are two distinct policies doing the rounds. Yesterday the major Labour-supporting union bosses agreed – despite Len McCluskey’s reluctance – to a position that backs a second referendum in any Brexit circumstance: No Deal, a Conservative-negotiated deal, or a Labour-negotiated deal. In any referendum they want Remain to be an option, and expect Labour to definitely back Remain over No Deal or a Conservative deal, and possibly even against a deal negotiated by Labour themselves. That’s the unions’ position, but Labour’s actual new policy is somewhat different. Jeremy Corbyn has essentially agreed the first two conditions: a referendum on either No Deal or a “Tory Brexit” with Labour backing Remain. But he now won’t say what would happen if Labour came to power, or what would be promised in a new Labour manifesto.
What does it mean? Well, it means Labour Remainers are now trumpeting that Labour is “a Remain party”, although the Liberal Democrats and Change UK/TIG/Random But Changeable Name claim that a vote for Labour would still allow Brexit to happen. In practice, a party that promised the country it would honour and implement the outcome of the EU referendum is now committed in most circumstances to trying to ignore and defy that outcome. In the other circumstance – Labour gaining power – they simply won’t tell anybody their position, which means it becomes a question of judgement as to what’s going on behind closed doors at Labour HQ, and whether you can or can’t trust Corbyn and his Shadow Cabinet to fulfil conflicting promises. A bit of Kremlinology is therefore required.
Why is it changing now? There’s lots of guff around about supposedly high-minded reasons for the change-up. But it’s simple: Labour (like this site) believes there is an election coming. That doesn’t mean this new policy is being adopted because they have reason to believe it’s a vote-winner – rather, it’s happening now because the Opposition’s Remainers are desperate to try to force their preferred outcome into the Labour manifesto before the country goes to the polls. After years of quite artful can-kicking from the Leader’s office, they were increasingly worried that postponing the issue to Labour conference would be too late, and that an election might arrive in the meantime, to be fought on Corbyn’s preferred vague terms.
What does that say about Labour’s internal politics? For years, Corbyn and his close team of advisers have kept a lid firmly on the fundamental discomfort that many in his Parliamentary Party and wider membership have with the very idea of keeping their promise to fulfil Brexit. Even when outnumbered in the PLP or at Shadow Cabinet, he has been able to call on his personal authority from his dedicated grassroots followers to essentially steamroll his colleagues on the question. But the Leader’s office is now embattled on multiple fronts: bogged down in procedural warfare with current and former Party staff, failing still to get on top of the antisemitism scandal, and slowly but surely losing its authority.
There are open calls for advisers to be fired – as close to outright rebellion as many will go in any personality cult – and allegations (true or false) about Corbyn’s health which are in turn alleged to have come from people close to senior Shadow Ministers. If something was going to give, it was likely to be on Brexit, the issue on which the leader differs most from his grassroots following. It’s ironic, of course, that the only principle which he is willing to compromise is also the only one on which he was even vaguely correct, but that’s what’s happened. The fact Remain voices are gaining ground and courage suggests that they hope to build on this victory to eventually force even a Labour government to either abandon Brexit entirely or to give the Party free rein to back Remain against a Labour-negotiated Brexit deal.
How will it be received on the doorstep? Some of Labour’s Remainers are absolutely convinced that becoming a Remain party will be wildly popular. Most would privately admit, however, that just because it’s what they want doesn’t make it an easy sell or a guaranteed hit. There are definitely some people among whom it will be popular, not least in the Party’s membership, who have been stung by criticism from the Lib Dems and elsewhere that a vote for Corbyn will facilitate Brexit.
But even if Remain-supporting voters welcome the move, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will actually switch to vote Labour. With the Lib Dems successfully positioning themselves in the EU election as the main pro-EU party, will pro-EU voters ditch them in favour of a Labour Party that has been dragged only reluctantly to a mushier, more confused version of the position? Here, Corbyn’s continued ambiguity about what he would do in power could really hurt them – opposing a “Tory Brexit” but leaving the door open to carry out a “Labour Brexit”, even hypothetically, might not be sufficient to reassure hardliners. Meanwhile, it’s obviously an opportunity for pro-Leave opponents – be it the Brexit Party or the Conservative Party under a new leader – to make inroads into the Labour vote. The videos and leaflets addressed to former Labour supporters who voted Leave, or who simply believe in fulfilling a democratic commitment, are being produced right now.