Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Should Labour triangulate over Brexit?

There are two schools of thought about why Labour is adopting a confusing and conflicting position over Brexit which is almost the same as the government’s line. The first is that Labour is simply confused and conflicted. The more interesting is that this is deliberate triangulation: sound slightly less enthusiastic about Brexit to keep its core anti-Brexit vote, but also not to antagonise its minority pro-Brexit vote. I do not know which view is correct, and it is possible that both are. To the extent that it is triangulation, is this the right thing for Labour to do? This question is related to a recent Guardian article where John Harris argues that although Brexit will be a disaster it has to happen.

If triangulation is how Labour justifies its own position on Brexit, the obvious question to ask is why they made so much fuss when their predecessors appeared to triangulate over austerity. Brexit, like austerity, will be extremely harmful for the economy. So what made triangulation (or appeasement, if you want to use a more pejorative word) over austerity a huge political mistake, but allows the same for Brexit acceptable?

If you take the position that political parties and politicians should always argue for what they or their members believe in, rather than adapting their positions to what is politically possible or smart, then there is indeed no difference. Those who said that Labour’s failure to campaign loudly against austerity in 2015 represented some kind of moral betrayal should, for consistency, be arguing the same over Brexit.

A more political answer would be that in the case of Brexit triangulation worked, while for austerity it did not. In 2015 the election was all about economic competence, and Labour triangulation on austerity had the effect of conceding competence given the prevailing ‘clearing up the mess’ narrative. Of course Labour did not win the 2017 election, but they achieved during the campaign a surge in popularity that is virtually unprecedented. Labour supporters who are also anti-Brexit will tell you that this was because Labour made the election about austerity (or more accurately the size of the state) rather than about Brexit. If instead Labour had campaigned against Brexit, the election would have been a rerun of the referendum (as May wanted it to be) and because of the geographical concentration of the pro-EU vote Labour would have lost badly.

Even if you buy this, however, there remains a question of whether the triangulation strategy will continue to work, and whether it could have the unfortunate side-effect of ensuring Brexit will happen when otherwise it might be stopped. To assess this question, we need to take a realistic view of how the Brexit process is likely to evolve.

We know pretty well what the final deal will look like. It will be along the lines of the deal put on the table by the EU, together with a transition period during which we stay in the customs union and Single Market (and continue to pay for that privilege). We know this because the Article 50 process gives the EU the whip hand: the No Deal outcome, which is what happens if time runs out, is so much worse for the leaving country and there is no time to negotiate a trade deal. [1] As a result, to use a term loved by Conservative politicians but which in this case happens to be true, there is no alternative deal to be done.

The only risk before the election would be that the government would walk away. The election had made that much less likely. As there has been virtually no preparation for that outcome, it would bring chaos. This chaos would ensure that Theresa May’s successor lost any subsequent election. While the Brexiteers in safe seats might be prepared to see that happen, the rest of the party would not. Faced with a split in the Conservative party, Labour could not side with the government, as it would flip its triangulation strategy and lose a lot of its core support. As a result, a No Deal Brexit would fail. [2]

What this means is that we will leave the EU in 2019, but remain in the Single Market and customs union until both sides negotiate something else. Can a final deal of this kind be stopped? Logically you might think that MPs would realise that, compared to EU membership, all this deal does is mean the UK gets no say in the rules governing the Single Market and in addition we have to pay a significant sum of money for that lack of control! It is pure lose, lose, with the only positive (from a Leavers point of view) being the possibility of avoiding Freedom of Movement at some future date.

Unfortunately logic is something not normally associated with Brexit. In reality I suspect most Conservative MPs will agree to this (for the moment) softest of soft Brexits with a sigh of relief, telling themselves that they have fulfilled the will of the people with as little damage as possible. The triangulation strategy, which is essentially designed to prevent Brexit becoming a pro/anti party political issue, suggests Labour will go along with this. The only way either of these things might not happen is if public opinion turns against Brexit over the next year.

Will opinion move by enough to at least make it possible to get a vote for a second referendum through parliament? Who knows, but there are some structural factors against it. The first is the right wing press, which after all are the people who got us into this mess. The second concerns the broadcast media. Its operating model is based on a two party system, and if neither of these parties are making the case that our current difficulties are a result of Brexit then that case will not receive the exposure it deserves.

Here we get to why many of those who oppose Brexit are angry at Labour’s position. They feel that without a major party constantly reminding the public of the problems that Brexit is creating their chance of turning public opinion is much reduced. I suspect Labour’s response, if it was honest about what it was doing, would be to say that they will not risk the next election by taking a public anti-Brexit position. It is the Conservatives who got us into this mess, and they have to make the first move to get us out. The retort that Labour are reducing the scope of what they can do in government by allowing Brexit to happen has less force if we are staying in the Single Market and customs union.

This is related to the argument made by John Harris, which is that a vote to reverse Brexit would do nothing to reverse what caused the Brexit vote in the first place. If Brexit was stopped, UKIP would be given a new lease of life, and “the myth of betrayal ... would sit at the heart of our politics”. To recast what he is saying in my own words, you cannot undo social conservatism and the effects of economic deprivation, plus a decade or more of propaganda from the press, with a single vote of parliament. It is related to the earlier argument because Labour might say that they cannot reverse these same forces by a year of campaigning against Brexit before we leave.

Unfortunately there seems to be no reason why this state of affairs should change during the transition period. The government, committed to controlling immigration, will be determined to get a deal that ends free movement. Labour, to avoid immigration becoming too much of an election issue, will continue to triangulate. The best [3] hope I can see to avoid further Brexit damage is for Labour to defeat the Conservatives at an election, and quickly realise that they are better off staying in the Single Market and encouraging free movement. Which of course gets us back to why they are triangulating in the first place.

[1] It was designed in part to discourage countries leaving the EU. As David Allen Green suggests, there was a better way to leave the EU.

[2] We have gradually seen the government inching their way towards the EU proposals. (Remarks by Boris Johnson, like those of Donald Trump, are a distraction that it is best to ignore.) They are taking their time because the UK side has almost no power in the negotiations, and it is better to gradually concede to minimise any negative reaction among Brexiteers or the public. (Part of the problem here is that because the government still maintains a public stance that is pure fantasy, and the opposition wants to stay deliberately vague, the media feel unable to be straight on these issues with the public. It also requires effort to dispel fantasy with reality.)

[3] ‘best’ as in better than any other likely outcome.


  1. The narrow view of the economist on display here.

    Of course, from an economist's point of view, the only sensible course is to stay in the Customs Union and the Single market indefinitely, and so it is just assumed that that rational course will be taken.

    From a political perspective, it is mostly about freedom of movement. The Tory right and the Labour right (the Caroline Flints) want to end freedom of movement. That is compatible with staying in the Customs Union but not the single market, which is why the feeble Starmer has hinted at only staying in the latter.

    The Lexiters (Corbyn, MCDonnel, Milne, Fisher, Murray, Lansman etc) want us out of both for two reasons

    First it will cause enormous economic dislocation, enabling them to come to power with a more radical mandate.

    Second membership of the EU prevents them carrying out lots of lovely things, like state preference in contracts and state support for strategic bashing bits of metal together.

    From a political perspective, the electoral sweet spot for Labour is to be ever so fractionally more Remain-y than the Tories. Rational people who want to Remain are then given no option in our binary system: they have to support Labour as the lesser of two evils. So the more pro-EU bits of Labour go along with this quasi-Tory approach more less quietly as there are votes in it.

    Indeed, your post above embodies that. So desperate are you for an alternative to the (barmy) policy of Brexit that you'll desperately look for signs of hope and optimism in the one option you think is left to you.

    Sorry, it is just a different flavour of disaster. Expecting the man who said

    "The Single Market is a concept that requires membership of the EU... what we're looking for is tariff-free access."

    and who has opposed the EU for 40+ years, to deliver us from disaster is a false hope.

    It is in the nature of human beings to be systematically over-optimistic about the future. The evidence before us does not indicate that the current leadership of Labour will ever come to their collective senses over Brexit,

  2. If May remains PM until 2019, what will the Tory leadership contest look like if "we will leave the EU in 2019, but remain in the Single Market and customs union until both sides negotiate something else"?

    Presumably, they would still have to choose between either a hard or soft Brexit leader?

  3. I suspect that both Corbyn and Starmer are driven by the hope that the contradictions and hubris involved in the current conservative approach to brexit will lead to an election and a subsequent labour victory; starmer may hope, in turn, that will be associated with a public realisation that not only a transitional period of at least two years is the only alternative to 'no deal', but it will also dawn that such a transition involving the obligations, but not the influence, of full EU membership, brexit is not worth the candle, and thus be amenable to a second referendum. A possible case can be made he should leave his powder dry until the autumn, when a stock-stake on the'three tests' and hence the trajectory of the substantive negotiations within the remaining year left, can be made.

    Corbyn and mcdonnell, probably, would prefer to leave the EU regardless and pursue their own particular version of 'socialism in one country'.

    If labour remains shy of highlighting that it is the national interest for the focus of attention to shift on the need for and characteristics of transition period involving retention of the benefits of the single market and customs union, there is no reason not for it to develop a policy offer that would actually address the dissatisfactions that underlied the anti-brexit vote within their industrial constituencies: improved and focused vocational training, expanded supply of affordable housing and public services for local people, and improved transport infrastructure for the north and midlands linked to an industrial strategy. The time for that is now, not after brexit.

    Quite a lot of that agenda could be at least partially advanced in practice now with a bit of creative horse-trading with the minority may government. National interest, any one?

    The problem with triangulation is that securing political advantage is not the same a pursuing the national interest, or even the particular interests of your own party voting base. Labour should bear in mind that entering power during a period of economic turmoil will constrain its options and put itself at severe risk of quickly becoming itself a deeply unpopular and conflicted government that would then give the reins of power back to the conservatives for another generation at least.

  4. Nice post except the last question which does not make any sense. Labour is triangulating to stay in the game. When they get in government they will be able to play it according to the public mood of the time. For example a Norway type agreement with some slight concession on free movement from the EU side. This would be the optimal outcome unless the public understands what a disaster brexit is-very unlikely. This outcome might not win the following election though the end of austerity would help with that. The problem with this scenario is that EU might be tempted to humiliate UK further with no concession on free movement but this seems unlikely.

  5. Charming, but naive (funny to use that word around here).

    The central leadership of the Labour party - Corbyn and his coterie - want out of the EU, which they regard as a neoliberal conspiracy. They have always been - or at least until Corbyn had the responsibilities of party leader - clear about this. There is no triangulation going on. Corbyn wants out.

    As a result, I'm personally confidently expecting the Labour party's current unity to degenerate over the next year or so in high-profile internecine disputes. No idea what the larger political consequences of this will be, but the Labour party is currently on borrowed time.

    1. Nice prediction, this was.

  6. I suppose a hard brexit with Austerity is worse than a hard brexit without austerity. This seems the only political choice right now, the only hope being that the "will of the people" narrative might die when it's clear the people have changed their opinion.

    1. "The will of the people" may change but you won't hear much about it in the Conservative newspapers. "The will of the newspapers" favours the UK as a country of low-wages, low-taxes, low regulation and minimal public services. Will that also be the "will of the people"? An awful lot follow the line of the newspapers they read.

  7. Oddly you neglect to mention the fact that there is a strong tradition of labour conviction politics that repudiates the EU - and always has. The current Labour leadership come from that Bennite tradition. Brexit is therefore the default position for someone on the conviction left.

    When viewed through the constituency prism Brexit is popular in Labour seats and the handful of defecting "remain" seats (recently captured in London and the South) are no substitute for the sheer weight of the Brexit constituences in the Midlands and North.

    So a pro Brexit leadership and a pro Brexit electorate in the labour heartlands are now expected to defer to the agenda of a clutch of remain Labour MP's and fight tooth and nail against Brexit.

    There is a sense of overweening political entitlement shared amongst those who believe that the Labour party has a duty to fight their doomed campaign to remain in the EU. It doesn't and it won't - get over it.

    There is a remain party - the Lib Dems......

  8. I think Labour could be triangulating over Brexit because like the Tories it hasn't sunk in how big a deal it is, economically so they still hope it can be fudged.

    Or they may see austerity vs stimulus as being the top priority (even the limited stimulus of the manifesto) and they may simply not believe free trade is important. I can sympathise; although Brexit hard or soft could cause a recession, the party might reason that they will need to borrow anyway.

  9. Hi. I have always agreed with you on economic matters, but you are in danger of overstepping your expertise, much as AC Grayling has of late. There are three schools of thought,not two. The one you leave unmentioned is that Labours pitch is integrity, and to go against the democratic will of the nation is to lose all the ground they have gained so far. I have no desire to see us leave the EU, but that ship has sailed. The glittering prize of a truly socialist executive far outweighs the price.

  10. Labour under Corbyn cannot speak in favor of continued membership in an EU that has evolved into a neoliberal pro-war elites club because to remain would so restrict Labour's options as to make Corbynites most cherished ideas and ideals effectively unachievable, above all a better distribution of the economic pie and more peaceful world. A smaller pie perhaps, but if more equitably shared, Labour's ascendency will benefit the people who most need benefiting and hurt the people who most deserve hurting. And while getting on the wrong side of the US, staying out of its imperial wars in the Mideast and elsewhere that do nothing to benefit the British people and kill millions in those countries will eventually make Britain securer while restoring some of its (pre-Iraq, pre-Libya, pre-Syria, pre-anti-Russia war-mongering) soft power.

    1. Effective and sustainable redistribution requires a growing not a shrinking pie.

    2. Ending austerity and doing a stimulus is required for a growing pie, and opposing the referendum result could prevent Labour taking power.

    3. Yes, exiting single market and customs union with resulting adverse economic impacts will undermine any sustainable fiscal expansion;

  11. I'm not sure why so many Labour supporters cannot see the merit in Keir Starmer's brilliant Brexit strategy. Here are his 6 tests published at the end of March-

    It was not Labour that claimed we can achieve frictionless and tariff free trade with the EU outside the single market and the customs union- it was Tory Brexiteers- and most importantly the Tory Brexiteer chief- David Davis. Starmer is absolutely right to call their bluff- they made the claim- they must own the almost inevitable failure. When Davis has to come back to Parliament with his tail between his legs (probably before the end of the year), that's when Starmer can refer to his 6 tests and argue the economic and jobs case for remaining in the Single Market and the Customs Union.

    The strategy is simple:-

    1. The Tories have said they can have their cake and eat it.
    2. Let the Tories own that negotiation and the inevitable failure.
    3. Then, and only then, the whole country (and all Labour MP's and voters) will be ready to support a Labour case for remaining in the Single Market and the Customs Union. The key point is that moving before the Tories have to admit failure would be premature, counter-productive and divide the country and the Labour Party.

    In other words when your political opponents are shooting themselves in the foot, stay out of range and let them carry on shooting. The Tories will have a disastrous civil war and Labour will remain united and come to the country's rescue when the moment is right.

    I'm at a genuine loss to understand why so many Labour MP's, supporters and commentators cannot see the overwhelming logic of this strategy.

    A reminder:- Starmer’s six tests for the Brexit deal are:

    1. Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?

    2. Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?

    3. Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?

    4. Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?

    5. Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?

    6. Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?

    1. Useful and informative post that links with mine above. But with reference to Starmer tests 2 and 3, securing the 'exact same benefits' of existing CU and SM, is not possible on a sustainable -or even transitional - basis without accepting one of the pillars of the SM: free movement of labour.

      A transitional arrangement of at least two years - some talk in today's 22.7 Guardian of the May cabinet accepting that could extend to four years - in effect would require the subjugation of test 3 to 2, unless it is accepted that continuing free movement is fair, insofar that benefits exceed costs, or unless that some of the benefits of the SM are lost to accommodate the current cross-party coalition of mutual political convenience that free movement must end in accordance with the brexit vote, or, unless some progress is secured from the EU regarding the operation of free movement in the UK context within the transitional agreement, and even better, or, even better, longer-term.

      Starmer's approach is quite possibly clever party politics in the short term, but is not logically internally consistent or principle-based, without some clarification on the above.

      It is rather the approach of an alpha-QC presenting his brief competently: OK in the courts, but unlikely to be enough to navigate the brexit quagmire in the national interest.

  12. This one really hasn't aged well.

    Corbyn is pretty clearly not triangulating

    Electoral success has given him more leeway to say what he wants.


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