Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 12 February 2018

Labour, the polls and the Customs Union

If you think from the title that this post will argue that the poor showing of Labour in the polls means it must change course on Brexit I’m afraid I will disappoint you. Unfortunately I am not at all surprised that Labour’s lead in the polls that it achieved after the election has now all but disappeared. It is certainly true that for anyone who takes an active interest in politics the performance of this government has been as bad as you can get, but most people do not take an active interest. Instead their view is guided by a media environment which aims (actively or passively) to show a very different picture. This is increasingly true as the BBC becomes little more than a mouthpiece for the press.

I am sure Labour could do better at handling this naturally antagonistic environment, but to put this all at the door of Corbyn or Brexit misses the bigger picture. The lesson of the Labour surge during the 2017 election is that once the party gets direct access to voters they like what they see. Once the media filter goes back on, voters see a very different picture. This is the lesson of 2017 that hardly anyone in the media wants to admit.

Having said all that, it remains the case that the one issue in the news all the time is Brexit, and Labour are failing to capitalise on the current divisions within the Conservative party, and the consequent damage the government is creating. Watching the Labour leadership trying not to talk about Brexit is looking more and more like Labour under Miliband trying not to talk about austerity. In both cases we may be seeing triangulation (moving to the middle ground), as I set out in detail here and here. As I was always careful to say, we do not know for sure that this is what Labour are trying to do right now. They may instead by divided over policy. This uncertainty is important, because it means that Labour supporters who might be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt over Brexit are also uncertain whether they should

For that reason, as I have also emphasised, a party that triangulates has to be very careful to always appear to lean away from their opponents side in the direction of their supporters. In the case of Brexit, that means appearing significantly less pro-Brexit than the government. Polls suggest that was achieved during the 2017 election, but that was still in a period where the parties talked in generalities. Since then things have inevitably become more concrete, with the issue of the moment being the Customs Union. The position of the two parties after transition remains different: May is committed to leaving the Customs Union, whereas Labour say everything is on the table. However sometimes Labour’s position looks as much cake and eat it as their opponents.

Sometime this month Labour will discuss its strategy over Brexit. The danger of its current position is clear. Theresa May is going at some point be forced to admit that we will stay in some form of customs union with the EU because of the Irish border issue. The only alternative is to leave with no deal, or dump the DUP. Whichever occurs, Labour’s non-position on the Customs Union will look bad. If she goes for a deal Labour will be the wrong side of the government in terms of triangulation, which will be fatal to its support. If she goes for No Deal because of the Customs Union Labour will be immediately asked what it would do. Deciding to stay in the Customs Union just at the point when the issue becomes critical will look like the political opportunism that it is.

Given that, there is a clear advantage from coming off the fence sooner rather than later. The benefit of declaring to be in favour of staying in the customs union is that they will, once more, create clear distance between their own position and the government. The Conservatives will of course claim that in doing so Labour are no longer supporting the ‘will of the people’, but I doubt that will resonate. People did not vote Leave in the referendum in order to make separate trade deals with other countries. Any voters that do desert Labour on this issue will come back pretty quickly as May is forced to face reality. The government’s own analysis, which Labour should use, suggests deals with non-EU countries cannot make up for the impact of leaving the Customs Union. Above all else, it is very difficult to see why Labour would ever want to leave the Customs Union, given that doing so would do so much harm to its traditional electoral base.


  1. 'The lesson of the Labour surge during the 2017 election is that once the party gets direct access to voters they like what they see. Once the media filter goes back on, voters see a very different picture.'

    Apparently not. Latest polls put the 2 parties almost exactly where they were on polling day last June.

  2. 1. The history of the 2010-2015 Parliament indicates that your story of Labour (relative) unpopularity as being about media bias, with
    cut through during campaigns, is implausible

    2. You're obviously right about the CU. Which shows how deep antiEU sentiment runs in the Labour leadership.

  3. FWIW. On Friday 9th February a meeting of the Oxford and District Labour Party passed the following motion proposed by the Greater Marston branch:

    "This meeting believes that the Labour Party's policy on Brexit should be to remain in the Customs Union."

  4. If May says she will remain in a customs union without the possibility of doing separate trade deals outside the EU then the focus will not be on Labour but on a Tory Party that starts its leadership contest.

  5. It's also worth bearing in mind that for those inside the Brexit media bubble, Labour is die-hard Remain, and wants an Open Door Immigration Policy. It doesn't matter a hoot what Labour's actual policy on these things is, as Labour centrists previously found out in their completely futile (possibly even counterproductive) attempts to convince Daily Mail readers that they were not in favour of massive increases in spending on benefits.

  6. I agree that Labour needs to come off the fence on brexit but (and you can say sadly if you like) political parties' top priority is always gaining power. For Labour to win a majority they need to win in strongly brexit areas in the north Midlands and north west, areas in the that have historically been working class, they can't just rely on remain metropolitan areas and university towns. The reality is that Labour's "traditional base" that voted brexit did so motivated far more by a sense of place than the economics. Implicitly there was a protest for more help and action from Westminster rather than being 'abandoned' to EU grant aid.

  7. The business about the media filter being switched back on after the election was over crossed my mind yesterday. But there's also the problem that, once the elation of forcing a Hung Parliament passed, the rebels in Corbyn's own party, who could hardly keep undermining him in the aftermath of a result like that, have quietly started breaking ranks again. It's nowhere near as blatant as it was before, but the faked outrage about Momentum 'bullying' and wild exaggerations about 'anti-Semitism' show that they are trying to isolate him again.

  8., makes a very similar case.

    Certainly if the UK government does not present very soon a coherent picture of its desired brexit end-state, Barnier will simply begin to impose on the UK a EU settlement consistent with the legally-binding phase 1 agreement. Perhaps May is playing a crafty game angling for that precise outcome, rather than being inevitably haplessly buffeted by events inherent in the government's confused and contradictory approach!

    The Phase 1 agreement made it inevitable that the UK maintains a mutually agreed de facto CU with the EU during any transition period. Regulatory alignment and the avoidance of immigration checks along either the Eire/NI or between the NI and the rest of the UK, seems also to suggest an arrangement very close to continuing de facto SM membership.

    The current efforts of the Conservative, Anna Soubry, to marshal cross-party support for a EEA/EFTA + CU (Norway-plus) option, are consistent with that agreement. She highlights selling points directed at 'leaver-lites'. These include that it would still allow the UK to exit the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies, allow the Phase 1 agreement that the UK signed up to to be honoured, and that, in addition it would possibly allow some wriggle room to escape direct EJC jurisdiction - through the EFTA Court and treaty provisions, and to combine the SM FOM requirement with some measure of immigration control based on work permits, as well as to negotiate alternative trade deals as a EFTA member, although these latter claims are contestable, or, at least, doubtful in their actual potential relevance in practice.

    It remains unclear how many Conservative MP's would be prepared to sign up to support such a position, which, in effect, commits the government to the softest brexit. Perhaps the threat of revolt is being used to force May to formally align with the Phase 1 agreement that it signed only last december.

    What Soubry and colleagues have also not clarified is whether Norway-plus would just be a transition to another end state, or for long it would apply.

    If it operated as a two year transition, the UK would still face a cliff edge in 2021 when it ended, as it would not be possible for the UK to negotiate alternative trade deals withnin that period.

    Taking a counter-position, it is perhaps understandable that the Labour front bench continues to be cautious in taking the lead in trying to force the government to face up the inevitability of de facto staying in the CU and SM, for fear of providing political space to May to paint Labour as the referendum-reversing party: safer instead to act as to bystanders to a mess created and made worse by the conservatives, and wait for its consequences to unravel, without risking splits within its own ranks by imposing three line whip that some Labour brexiteers could defy.

    Although it is inevitable that the government's position will unravel, less clear is precisely when.

    On balance, the national interest and the particular economic interests of those of the 'left-behinds' located in brexit-voting constituencies, such as Sunderland, demand that Labour discharges its responsibility as the official opposition, and steps up, not only to hold the government to account for its backtracking from the Phase 1 agreement, but to require the government to adhere to it, but in such way that it can offer a electoally compelling post-brexit vision .

  9. You missed out the increasing public awareness of Momentum.


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